This weekend marks the 153rd Memorial Day remembrance in the US. With the end of many pandemic restrictions, we find ourselves more concerned with just plain celebration than remembering those individuals that have given their bodies, souls and even their lives in defense of freedom, often, the freedom of others. As we move through the holiday that is now known more as the official start of summer than for the purpose that it was originally intended, please be considerate of our veterans. Understand that some of these men and women still have difficulty with fireworks displays, crowds, noise and general commotion.
I had come to church to join the Sunday choir for rehearsal at my new church, but as is typical of my disorganized life, I had the day wrong. Instead, the men of the St. Vincent de Paul Society were holding their weekly meeting. In an act of kindness, they allowed me to sit with them in the multi-purpose room to keep me out of the cold November weather. These half-dozen men were all older than me, lifelong parishioners, some retired and one man who was disabled. I sat and listened to them as they went over reports of the people they had assisted that week and to consider the requests for assistance.
The St. Vincent de Paul Society collects money and goods to distribute among the poor in the parish neighborhood, paying rent and utilities for those who might be facing eviction, distributing food and clothing and even helping with car repairs and daycare costs. You don’t have to be Catholic to receive help and the stream of those who genuinely need help is endless.
During the meeting, one of the men played incessantly with a small plastic box. He tapped on it, slid it back and forth, spun it, picked it a fraction of an inch off of the table and dropped it. It was annoying. He never said a word during the meeting, simply nodding his assent when he agreed with something.
The box had seen some miles. It was scratched and it held something that looked like dirt and small pebbles. Its owner looked nearly as worn out as the box he worried, his greying hair and mustache untrimmed. His skin was pock marked with acne scars from long ago and he had a huge scar on his neck. The constant movement didn’t seem to bother anyone and as a guest I didn’t feel as if it was my place to say anything.
At meeting’s end, the group’s leader, Deacon Dave, asked me if I might consider becoming a member of their little group. It was awkward. I was a singer and surely God wanted me in the choir. I didn’t believe that I was suited for this type of service, but I felt obligated because of the kindness of these men. I hemmed and hawed until the Deacon said “God brought you here tonight for a reason.” No pressure there. I relented and said I would see him the following Tuesday.
Since I was now a part of the group, I decided to ask Dave about the guy and his little plastic box.
“Oh, that,” he said. “That is quite a tale. Do you have time to grab a cup of coffee?” I nodded yes. “Good,” he said. “It will help you to understand why we do what we do.” As we walked over to the rectory, he clapped me on the shoulder and said, “His name is Daniel.”
She knelt down at the foot of the bed and made the sign of the cross as she had every night since her son had gone away. She was slight, with small shoulders, a thin waist, nearly non-existent hips and petite, sure feet. Her brown skin was weathered from years of farming and the worry that came with raising a son. She wore a simple house dress, tan and lightly dusted with flour from making tortillas.
Her husband sat in the living room, watching the evening news on a TV set that barely got the signal from the TV station over the mountains and eight-five miles away. She understood that he was not an overly religious man and that God expected him to work hard and raise a family, so all things spiritual fell to her, much as the housework had for most of their marriage. They went to church with her on Sunday, but all of this extraneous prayer, he felt, was un-necessary.
She held in her hand the rosary that her grandmother had given her as a teenager. Some of the elongated, pale blue beads had split over the decades, falling off and leaving only bare copper wire where the beads had once been. Most of the paint had come off and the crucifix was tarnished with the oil from her hands. She held a thin, red leather-bound prayer book as companion to the rosary, a gift from her mother for her first communion nearly forty years ago.
It was fourteen hours ahead of her in Vietnam, the next day, where her son Daniel was stationed, a concept she had a difficult time understanding. How could anything be so far away as to be a day into the future? That meant that when she prayed her rosary for him just after supper, he was already awake and beginning his day. What if the harm she was praying to protect him from had already happened? “God is the author of time,” she reassured herself and the Blessed Mother would go to him with her concerns. She began her prayers, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Daniel had been drafted into the US Army at nineteen and found himself in Vietnam a scant six months later, just after basic training. He was tall and thin, his cropped brown hair, his scruff of a goatee and mustache beginning to grow back. His thin, muscular frame had been chiseled in basic training. Vietnam was someplace he had never heard of except in news broadcasts and he wasn’t even sure where on the planet he was. All he knew was that he was far away from where he had come from and that he hated everything about Vietnam.
He hated the heat and the oppressive humidity, the bugs and snakes, the vegetation and the food. He was nineteen and he should have been home trying to find a girlfriend. Instead, he was in the middle of a jungle with a bunch of guys he didn’t know trying to survive the year in country. Most of all, he hated the boredom. He had fashioned a makeshift basketball hoop out of a couple of the helmet headbands and tacked it up on the supply shack. A few months later, he requested and received a basketball and regulation hoop and secured it to a post with a backboard made from an olive drab supply crate, the lettering US ARMY stenciled onto the front.
If you weren’t sitting in the bunker getting high or trying to get out of the heat or the rain, you were walking post or on patrol. The patrols seemed endless. Rear area patrols to beef up security and look for Vietcong activity and to determine if there has been a change in the attitude of local villagers due to VC harassment. Pursuit patrols to push the enemy perimeter outward and night patrols to gather intel. Worst of all were the recon patrols.
These happened simply to provide a presence, make contact with the locals and look for changes on the trails that indicated increased VC activity and on these patrols you were almost always sure to run into VC. Sometimes it was just a lone harassing sniper and at other times it could be a squad or more. Either way, it was almost certain that someone was going to get hurt or die.
Daniel’s introduction to a recon patrol came his first week in country when he was paired with a “short timer,” a guy who had been in Vietnam for almost a year. As they walked point together, leading the patrol, the corporal put his arm out to halt Daniel’s progress, leaned in close and whispered “Do you want to see what it’s all about?” Daniel nodded, and with that, the corporal set his weapon to automatic and fired a burst into a tree 150 meters ahead of their position. A VC sniper fell out, wounded, but no so much that he wasn’t able to scurry away. From that day on, Daniel’s eyes were continually scanning the horizon.
Nobody liked going out on patrol. There were too many restrictions. Every step had to be taken with care to keep from making too much noise or stumbling across some booby trap or another. You couldn’t smoke before you went out on patrol because it deadened your sense of smell, important in the field. Ditto for shaving lotion, plus it could give away your position to a sharp nosed enemy. By patrol’s end, your whole body ached from the strain of walking silently, your head on a swivel and every muscle tensed.
Daniel had grown up in the small town of Dixon in northern New Mexico and had been to the state’s largest metropolis, Albuquerque, only once. He had played center for the Espanola Valley High Sun Devils basketball team during his senior year, the year they won the state championship in 1968. Other than this excursion to the south, Daniel had rarely ventured away from this town on the edge of the national forest.
Dixon was quiet and rugged like most men who had spent their lives there. Nights were cool in the summer and still in the winter. Family extended to all parts of the community with cousins, uncles and aunts all around. Neighborhood boys grew up as brothers and adults parented everyone’s children. Retribution for misbehaving was multiplied by every relative that had heard of a child’s ill behavior. Family was more than just whom you were related to everyone you knew. People had a saying for those that strayed away from their upbringing. “He acts as if he has no relatives.”
The community revolved around the Catholic Church and Daniel’s mother was deeply rooted in family and the Catholic faith. The Catholic Church was the only church in town. There were no Baptist, Presbyterian or Lutheran churches. Those churches were a half an hour away in Espanola. People here were from Mexico or Pueblo Indian converts to Catholicism.
As boys grew to men, they tended to stray from their faith as they went to work for the U.S. Forest service as firefighters or for the Laboratory at Los Alamos fifty miles away or just to sell firewood to people in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Some left to attend college. Most never returned, preferring to work in the world of money and noise and fast cars. Whenever someone left for school or work or as in Daniel’s case or war, the few businesses in town would shut down early so everyone could gather at the church for a farewell mass and a celebratory feast in the parish hall.
During Daniel’s mass, his mother hung a rosary made of crimson, glass beads with a silver crucifix around his neck and made Daniel promise never to take it off. He knew what the rosary meant to her. He understood his mother’s faith in the Mother of God and her ability to influence her son, Jesus and that she believed that the Blessed Mother would protect him if he kept the rosary in place. When Daniel got to Paris Island, he was berated for wearing the rosary, but because the Army manual allowed religious articles as long as they were neat, conservative and kept out of sight, he was allowed to keep it. During this time when young men could go from civilian life to the sufferings of war there really wasn’t much point in challenging their superstitions or faith.
Another day, another patrol. Daniel had volunteered to go because several members of the platoon had come down with dysentery. After nearly completing his twelve-month tour of duty, Daniel was now the short timer and as such, felt compelled to walk point.
He never heard the shot. All he could remember was blood, shouts of “Corpsman” and the sharp report of his platoon returning fire. He had felt the rosary slink off of his neck where the bullet struck him. He tugged at his fatigue shirt, feeling his chest for the rosary. It wasn’t there. He became frantic, searching the ground around him even as his platoon mate pressed a hand against his neck. He fell forward, feeling his life ebbing away. In his final moments of consciousness, he saw the rosary lying in the grass and dirt near his head. Before he passed out, he clutched the bloody mess in his hand.
On the other side of the world, Daniel’s mother continued her prayers. She had finished the first five mysteries of the rosary, the joyful mysteries detailing the annunciation of Jesus’ birth through the discovery of the child Jesus in the temple teaching the elders. She moved on to the sorrowful mysteries that chronicled the suffering of Jesus at the hands of the Romans and would finish with the Glorious mysteries which began with the resurrection and concluded with Mary being crowned as Queen of Heaven. She had promised herself that she would say the complete rosary every night until her son was returned to her.
Two days later, Daniel awoke in the field hospital. The dust-off crew of two pilots, medic and crew chief had flown in under fire and flown him out of harm’s way. Medevac dropped him at the 8th field hospital in Nha Trang where he underwent emergency surgery for the wound on his neck. The rest of his platoon had retreated to camp without additional casualties. He couldn’t speak and could scarcely move, but he was able to tap his wrist against the bed rail until he was able to get an orderly’s attention. The orderly in turn located a doctor who stood at the foot of his bed looking over his chart before he spoke.
“You’re at the 8th. You took a round to the neck. Lucky bastard, missed your jugular and voice box by millimeters. Still, it did a lot of damage. It’ll be a while before you’ll be able to talk. The good news is, it’s a million-dollar wound. We’ll be sending you home in a few weeks. Next stop is the hospital ship in Da Nang harbor and then home.”
Daniel tried to speak. “Ahh, ahh, ah,” the doctor warned, “not just yet.”
Daniel patted his neck furiously with an open hand indicating the lost rosary.
“Looking for this?”
The doctor pulled a small plastic box from his pocket. He opened the box and in it was the rosary, shattered and covered with dried blood and dirt.
“We had a hell of a time getting this out of your hand. You held on to it all the way from the firefight and didn’t let go until we had finished patching you up and even then it took two nurses to pry your hand open after you lost conciseness.”
The doctor closed the box and placed it into Daniel’s hand. Daniel brought the box to his chest, closed his eyes and fell to sleep.
Daniel was shipped to the VA hospital in Albuquerque after a month where he underwent a few more surgeries and speech therapy to help him regain his vocal abilities. His mother came to stay with him in the hospital, sleeping in the chair next to his bed every night until he was able to come home. Each night, before they came by to turn out the lights, she would hold her son’s hand and together they would pray the rosary, thanking the Blessed Mother for returning her son to her.