This piece was generated in response to Helen Rubinstein's January 2017 workshop. You can explore the workshop here.
Written to Jimmy Dale Still, of Bonaparte, Iowa
Killed in Action near Song Be, Viet Nam
31 December 1969
It’s been forty seven years now you’ve been gone. On New Year’s Eve, for Christ sake. You could have picked a better day. Explaining how you managed to die on that particular day must have been embarrassing for someone along the chain of command. But that “truce” we were observing was apparently no more genuine than the reasoning for the war. And no, I still haven’t figured out what that was either.
In any case, here it is again, another New Year’s Eve. I know you’d tell me to have a few drinks, but it just doesn’t work that way anymore. Drinking doesn’t help you forget; tried it, don’t work.
Now, on this New Year’s Eve, we are three wars farther down that potholed road, and if anything the justification is ever thinner. The people we elected this last cycle are a motley mix of oligarchs and “chair-borne” rangers, all of them eager to support Eisenhower’s military industrial complex. (For a small campaign contribution, of course.) Instead of communist hoards over-running the world, the justification for dropping smart bombs now is based on whoever’s deity has the shorter penis.
Your daughter was born in February. She has your eyes. Your wife named her Michelle. I’ve tried several times over the years to contact her, but she has a new dad and the misfortune of having never known you. I’m sure she would be conflicted, and just doesn’t want to face it. It is her loss, my friend.
I wish it had been me to take the squad out that night. Maybe I’d have taken a different path. I wish I’d had the guts to protest the setting of ambushes during a truce, even though we both know the truce was a joke. And what could happen on a New Year’s Eve?
Barrientos and the cherry have both recovered from their wounds. Barrientos came back to the company, Cherry went to Japan and then on to Walter Reed. He works there now, a janitor for the hospital. He’s coping.
I didn’t join the VFW like we planned. They didn’t exactly welcome us back, like you and I expected. The “big war” guys apparently thought of us as losers. Now most of them are dead, and the gulf war guys are trying to get accepted. Another war, different day. Doesn’t matter. You and I could have just picked up a six pack for the porch, and talked horses or fast cars. The things we talked about when we shared guard duty on the landing zones.
I’m reaching the point in life when I’ll soon be joining you. While I continue to hope to see you again on the high ground, this life has done little to bolster that belief. I’m not so sure I earned an afterlife; the credibility of those who got us into the war is suspect, and who’s to say the enemy, the young men who died at my hand, didn’t themselves have the backing of a higher power? I still see them in my sleep. I hope your rest has been spared that little detail.
Sleep well, Jim. The life you left so early has been far from what we dreamed about. None of us came home a hero. And you just didn’t come home. You may well have been the lucky one, my friend.