Friday, June 19, 2009

Remembering All Mothers' Sons

(Congrats to Adam and Margaret! The first 16 are the hardest. Of course this time next year, there may be an adjustment to the number.)

It's odd that on the day, Wednesday, it traveled to Norwich from Montville (on Route 32 in New London County), the weather was the driest we'd had in a fortnight or more. Odd, I mean, in an ironic way, because the American Veterans Traveling Tribute to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial commemorates a conflict that has always been associated with torrential monsoon rains, lush forests, and endless acres of flooded fields cultivated as rice paddies.

The VFW post in the Norwich Business Park (yeah, you read that correctly; don't try to figure it out, just be grateful it's NOT there alongside the baseball stadium or the condominiums) collected all the funds and provided the organizational wherewithal to host the commemorative wall at Howard T. Brown Park in Norwich (right at the harbor) during the Semiseptcentennial through Sunday, Father's Day.

I've never gotten organized enough to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in our nation's capital though I know where I'd go when I did. Roy Christopher Olgyay was three weeks older than I when we met as freshmen at the Browning School for Boys tucked between Park and Madison Avenue on Manhattan's East Side. There were three of us who were odd men out, Roy, me and George. George was a wrestler who lived in Brooklyn, which, for Manhattan scions might as well have been the moon. I was the son of the lower school headmaster and it would have been suicidal to harass me.

That left Roy. As near as I could tell (and more accurately, remember now) Roy's family was Roy, a younger sister and his mom. There had been a dad and a successful and comfortable life in Europe, actually in Hungary, but Soviet tanks put an end to all of that in 1956 and Roy never mentioned his father no matter how often or hard Charlie H and Roger C (the former, terminally bored; the latter, terminally stupid) would tease him, from all the niggling dumb stuff that Neanderthals in packs inflict on loners, through the wholesale destruction of Roy's school blazer. His mom never had a week when she didn't need to repair a tear or a rip.

He endured it all stoically, writing each injury down in a small notebook with a date and the time. George and I watched and never intervened because all of us knew the rule: you today, me tomorrow. As it turned out, Roy knew more than the rules and tomorrow caught up with him soon enough. I left Browning in the summer before my senior year for elsewhere. Roy left everything he had ever known and joined the Army for the express purpose of stopping the Communists in Vietnam. While others scoffed and smirked, he sweated and served. He was a true believer in the rightness of the fight. Roy arrived in country about the time the rest of us had scattered to the winds after high school graduation, so full of ourselves, on our way to colleges and universities.

Roy received a different education. He learned how to eat dry C-rations, how to fix a bayonet (even when it wasn't broken, strange language, eh?) and when, and how to always have extra pairs of dry socks because with all the rain and all the paddies a grunt walked through, the skin on your feet would rot in the boot if you weren't careful. As if, by the fall of 1970, in South Vietnam it was possible to be careful. As it turned out, he wasn't careful enough, technically, to make it to the fall, dying as a result of small arms fire on the 19th of September-probably while I was still wandering the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers College, learning my way around. The dude found his dust.

The Traveling Wall is at the edge of the park, framed by the harbor behind it. A few paces away, a volunteer looks up the name of the fallen and locates the panel and line on the wall while another volunteer helps you make a rubbing, as grey as the sky overhead, on snow white paper you can hold in your hand the way you hold the memory in your heart. I spent a moment in the soft drizzle, not so much talking about the good old days, because Roy can't and he didn't have all that many, but to bear witness in my small way to the sacrifice he embraced knowingly and willingly for those who may have been so wrapped up in their own lives it took a hike halfway across a New England town in the middle of June to try to make amends and sense of it all. "If you have a farm in Vietnam/And a house in hell/Sell the farm And go home."
Welcome home, Roy.
-bill kenny

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