ROVIN’ AND RAVIN’ WITH MIKE

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Copyright © 1999, 2002 by Michael Segers, All rights reserved

A Memoir for Memorial Day

 

     We started early that Thursday morning and stopped at a fast food restaurant for breakfast. With my friend Ken’s typical luck, his order got lost. While he waited at the counter, I spread out the newspaper to catch up on the usual—a  road rage murder trial, another school shooting. The local television station would not carry that day’s installment of Jerry Springer’s talk and fight show.

     By  the time we crossed the Alabama state line, I needed  to stop  at the welcome station to use the restroom. As  we  turned onto  the  exit ramp from the interstate, we saw a  sign  about  a memorial for those from Alabama who died in the Vietnam War, and Ken reached for his camera. When I left the restroom, he had already found the name Jimmy R. Waldrep on the memorial.

     Ken served four years in the Marine Corps and returned to civilian  life. Then, answering a call from the  Marines,  he volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Although we disagree about America’s presence in Vietnam, Ken talks freely with me about Vietnam. I have  gone  with him three times to the Moving  Wall,  the  traveling scale model  of  the  Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. Each  time,  I  have helped  him find the name of Jimmy R. Waldrep, then stood  back, leaving  him alone in the crowd that gathers at the  Wall,  alone with fifty-eight thousand names. Pointing out how close Jimmy’s name is to the names of the other men killed in the same ambush,  he sometimes says if he had not been shorter than they, his name might be on the Wall with theirs.

     In the welcome station, we checked a listing of names and found that Jimmy was from Logan. Ken  took several pictures of the memorial before we left.  When the film  was  developed later, the image of Ken  holding  his camera floated over the names carved into the polished stone. As I steered his car back onto the interstate, he stared at the paper with Jimmy’s name and the name of his town. Ken remarked  he had always wanted to get in touch with Jimmy’s  parents, because he believes Jimmy saved his life. For a long  time, neither of us said anything.

     Finally,  I  suggested we stop at the next exit,  get  some lunch,  and check the map to see how close to  Logan  we  would come. Over sandwiches, we looked at the map.  We  were  about fifty miles north of an exit from 65 at Cullman, some twenty miles from  Logan.  We decided to go to Logan and  look  for  Jimmy’s parents. I drove, sometimes glancing at Ken’s hands, which shook as he clutched the paper with Jimmy’s name and the name of his town. I was thinking about the story Ken had  told me several times.

     On  the fourteenth of September, 1966, Jimmy and  the  other young men in Ken’s squad had bought a large can of  peanuts  to celebrate  Ken’s birthday. On the ship that night, Ken had sat up late with them,  drinking Cokes and eating peanuts, talking about  family, friends  and girlfriends. The next morning, Ken’s  twenty-fourth birthday,  they left the ship. On the nineteenth, Jimmy and others lay dead or dying around him. Jimmy  was still alive when Ken tried to lift  him across  his shoulders.  Another  shot passed through Jimmy’s body  and into Ken’s  back. Jimmy said "Mamma," and died. If the shot had hit Ken directly, he believes he would have died.

     We  left 65 at the Cullman exit and stopped at a convenience store. Ken went  into  the store to ask directions to Logan, while I  considered the possibilities. The Waldreps had moved or died.  They  were out of town for a few days. They did not want to see Ken. Or, we would meet them, and… I could not decide which would be the worst. Ken  took the keys and drove until he came to  the blinking caution light which the clerk in the convenience store had  told him to  look  for. He turned left, and for  several miles,  we looked for Logan. We saw no town, just an occasional trailer  or an abandoned store, but eventually we came to an old school  with a sign, Logan Junior High.

     Ken  drove  into the parking lot and stopped the  car.  As  we walked into the  building, curious young eyes  followed  us,  a novelty  so near the end of the school year. In the  principal’s office,  Ken explained why we were there. Neither the  principal nor  the  secretary recognized Jimmy’s name, but  the  secretary looked  through old school records, while the principal took  Ken to  meet  a  teacher who had served in Vietnam,  a teacher  who thought he remembered Jimmy but was not sure.

     Ken and the principal returned to the office. Hanging up the telephone, the secretary told us she had just received  a call  about  a  shooting at a school in  Oregon. After the  principal invited him to use the telephone, Ken dialed the first of several Waldreps  in the  directory. A distant relative of Jimmy’s answered and told  Ken  that Jimmy’s father was named Carvin Waldrep.

     Ken  hung up the telephone and shared that information  with the principal and his secretary, Mrs. Bradford, who said, "Mr. Carvin Waldrep? I know  him. My husband Billy worked with him  for  years."  She explained that, yes, she just remembered Mr. Waldrep had  a  son who died in Vietnam, his only child. Ken said, however, that he remembered  Jimmy talking about a sister, that Jimmy was an  only son, not an only child.

     Ken found the name in the telephone directory, the last name misspelled Waldrop. When he said, "I dread making  this  call," the  secretary said, "I know him. Would you like for me to  call him?"  Ken  nodded,  and she dialed the number.  There  was  no answer.  Then, the secretary called her husband,  explained  the situation, and handed the telephone to Ken.

     After  a brief conversation, Ken hung up and said her husband Billy would meet us at the school after he  left work  in  about  an hour and a half and would go with us  to  meet  the Waldreps.  We went back to the car and drove about a mile  to  a country  store Mrs. Bradford had told us about. Ken bought us  a couple  of  sodas, and I went outside to buy a local newspaper  from  a machine.  Ken  stayed  in the store and talked  with  the women working there.

     Across  the  road stood an abandoned two-story  frame  house with a new brick house beside it. When a Japanese pick-up truck stopped for gas, I heard rap music before the engine was switched off.  Little  birds swooped in widening circles to catch  insects and bring them back to feed their babies in nests under the  roof that extended over the gas pumps. Ken came out of the store  and said the women had told him about the birds, barn swallows. They said  they  did  not mind cleaning up the mess  under  the  nests because  the birds kept the mosquitoes away. He looked  at  his watch  and said it was time for us to go back to the  school  to meet Billy Bradford.

      After we returned to the school, we waited under an old tree where children’s feet had worn away the grass. Two  girls  came through  the front door of the school and lowered the  flag.  The students  were  dismissed early and milled around  the  building while their parents’ cars and the school buses passed through the driveway for them. The teacher who had served in Vietnam walked over  to talk to Ken, who said once again that the United  States had been  right to be in Vietnam. I looked at  the  diminishing group  of students and wondered if any of them had guns in  their lockers, if any of them might die in some future war.

     Mrs.  Bradford, the secretary, came out of the building  and was talking with us when her husband arrived. He got out of  his truck,  shook hands with both of us, and said he had  felt  goose bumps  ever since he had talked with Ken. Telling us  to  follow him,  he  got back into his truck. Ken drove, and as  we  turned from  one dirt road to another, I wondered if we could ever  find the way back to the highway.

     As  we reached yet another dirt road, a white station  wagon passed us going in the other direction, the first car we had seen in several minutes. Billy turned his truck into the first  driveway,  and we followed him. A tractor pulled up to a shed at  the back  of the house just as we came in from the front.  Billy  got out of his truck and motioned to us to stay behind. Ken had described Jimmy as a tall, lanky fellow, like  Jimmy Stewart, with thick glasses. The man on the tractor matched that description.  He wore green work clothes, a cap, and a  mask  to keep  the dust out of his lungs. Billy had told us  Mr.  Waldrep had  been in poor health. We heard Billy ask, with a  respectful informality typical of the South, "Mr. Carvin, are you okay?"

     "Yes, I am," the man on the tractor said, squinting at us.

     "Are you sure?"

     "Yes, I am." Anxiously, he looked over Billy’s shoulder at us,  trying to recognize us or to figure out why we were there.  "Well,  Mr. Carvin,  I’ve got a fellow here who  was  Jimmy’s squad leader, and.…" Mr. Waldrep sailed off the  tractor  faster than I would have imagined such a tall man could move. He took a step  forward, paused, as if remembering something,  and  reached for a cane hanging on the tractor.

     He  and  Ken shook hands, his big hand  completely  covering Ken’s. He explained he had visited Jimmy’s grave  that  morning, and  his  wife and daughter had just gone there. "In  fact,"  he explained later, "when I saw Billy and two strangers here, I  was afraid they had been in a car wreck."

     Ken said he would like to visit Jimmy’s grave. Once  again, we followed Billy’s truck, with Billy and Mr. Waldrep in  it.  A couple of miles from the house, we reached an immaculate  country cemetery. The white station wagon was parked on the side of  the road,  and  two women were standing by a grave  so  covered  with flowers that I thought it must have been new.

     Mr. Waldrep  walked ahead of us and spoke  briefly  to  the women. Then, we  followed him. Mrs. Waldrep  would  not  have reached husband’s shoulder, even if she had held her  head  up. She  kept her hands together, almost prayerfully, the  fingertips nervously brushing together. Delwyn, the sister Jimmy had  told Ken about so many years ago, had a plastic bag around one foot.

    We  shook hands, and fragments of conversations  passed  among us.  Ken stood by Jimmy’s grave, covered with flowers  for  the Memorial  Day weekend. Mrs. Waldrep pointed out to me  to  her parents’  graves, then two graves nearby, the graves of her husband’s parents. His mother died when he was two, his father when he  was nine. Delwyn asked me if I had been in Vietnam. When  I said  I  had not, we stumbled over a few words, until she explained that she had a plastic bag on her foot because she had had some foot surgery the day before.

     Ken asked permission to take some pictures of the grave  but had  only one exposure left on the roll of film.  After  a  few minutes,  it  was suggested we go back to their  house.  Walking  back to Ken’s car, I noticed many of the graves had  the name  Waldrep.  We  followed Billy’s truck, and  the  Waldreps followed  us in Delwyn’s station wagon. Ken turned his car once again into the Waldrep’s  driveway. While Ken drove, I put a new roll of film into his camera as we bumped along the dusty road. Back at the Waldreps’ house, we got out of the car and joined the others at the gate. An  old dog barked a couple of times before returning to the shade as we passed into the house.

     We  sat in a sunny room with a fireplace and wood  paneling. There was a television set at one end with several photographs of Jimmy on the wall above it. The other walls held about a dozen framed pieces of cross stitch. Mrs. Waldrep sat on a tiny  chair by  the fireplace, but she did not sit much. She was  constantly jumping  up,  leaving the room to bring back more photo  albums, scrap books, and medals.

     As I watched her, I remembered a conversation I once had  in another country,  another language, with a woman whose  son  had been killed in another war. She asked me if in English we have a word,  like widow, to refer to a woman who has lost not her  husband but her child. When I said that we do not, she said perhaps that is just too much pain for one little word.  Mr. Waldrep  sat in a recliner at the opposite end  of  the room  from the television set.

     On the table by the chair  was  a piece of cross stitch, about half completed. Later, he told  us he had done all the cross stitch pieces in the room. I looked at his big farmer’s hands and wondered how he could do cross stitch, how he had started such a hobby, even how a man as intense as he is could have a hobby. Ken,  Billy, and I sat with Mr. and Mrs. Waldrep and Delwyn for... how long? Two hours, three hours? When Ken mentioned  the can  of peanuts, Delwyn wiped her hand across her face and  said, yes, Jimmy  had  always liked peanuts, that they  had  sent  him peanuts and Kool-Aid. Delwyn’s husband came in from work.  Mrs. Waldrep went into the kitchen and returned with glasses of Sprite for  everyone,  left again and came back with a tin of  cookies.

     The  tone  of Ken’s voice changed, and he told  them  about  that distant ambush, emphasizing that Jimmy had died at five-thirty in the afternoon. Rather than telling them Jimmy had said  "Mamma," Ken  said  "Mother." I wondered why he had  changed  the  word, wondered  if it would have meant more to Mrs. Waldrep if  he  had used Jimmy’s word.

     Mrs. Waldrep cut an obituary of Jimmy out of a scrapbook  to give Ken and also gave him a photo of Jimmy that had belonged  to her  mother. She had a copy of the same photo of  the  big-boned country boy in his dress Marine uniform, squinting at the  camera through  glasses like those his father was wearing. She  pointed out  that  the colors of the one she was giving Ken were  faded because  her mother had kept it in a frame near a window.

     When the  clock  struck five-thirty, I expected something  to happen, something, but nothing did. Ken always calls their son Jimmy, but they call him Ray.  I felt  like such an outsider, that this detail made an  impression on  me,  was something that I could identify  with.  My  father, Edward  Leeon, is a retired Air Force master  sergeant—Leeon  to his family, Ed to the men he worked with in the Air Force. Sometimes  the military demands that a recruit give up  not only his hair but also his name, and always, of course, there is the possibility that he must give up his life as well.

     The  telephone  rang, and Mr. Waldrep answered it.  It  was Billy’s wife. Ken said we needed to leave. Mr. Waldrep told  us he had always wanted to meet someone who had been with their  son at his death, that Ken could not imagine how many prayers he  had answered  that afternoon. After shaking hands with  Mr.  Waldrep and  Delwyn’s  husband and hugging Mrs. Waldrep  and  Delwyn,  we walked  out  to the back yard, where we passed cameras  back  and forth,  making sure that everyone had pictures. We  had swapped  addresses and telephone numbers and promised to stay  in touch.

     The Waldreps had mentioned that they still had Ray’s  truck, thirty-two years after his death. As we walked across the  back yard,  Ken said that he would like to see it, that he  remembered Jimmy  talking about it. Mrs. Waldrep and Delwyn returned to  the house,  and  we  followed Mr. Waldrep to one of  the  sheds.  He pulled back rolls of fence wire and pieces of plywood so that  he could open the door of the yellow truck.

     That  is all I will record of the conversation that Ken  and the Waldreps had. Even as I write this, I know that it is not my story,  that I was just an observer. Out of respect for  all  of them,  I originally changed their names, even  the  name  of their  town.  At Ken’s request, however, I  am restoring their names. Ken told the Waldreps, as he has told me many times, that the families  of  men at war suffer so much more than the men themselves. Perhaps this reminiscence can be  a  little wall bearing the names of some of these unknown victims of that war, long ago  to me, recent to them, so that they, too, will be  remembered for their sacrifices. To give you some idea of how many sacrifices were made: if someone set out to spend a similar afternoon with the family of everyone whose name is on The Wall, the project would take almost a hundred and sixty years.

     We followed Billy’s truck along several dirt roads until  he turned it into the parking lot of a restaurant next to the second or third paved road. As he got out of his truck, Ken got out of his  car. Billy shook hands with Ken, and, through  the  window, with  me, calling Ken Mike and me Ken, and thanking us  for  the experience. Ken thanked him for his assistance before Billy turned his truck in the opposite direction, to go home at last, and  Ken and I headed for the interstate. 

     If I had not recently sold a business, then Ken and I  would not  have been traveling to visit relatives and friends,  and  if Ken had not suggested we come back home by a different road, then we would  not have been in Alabama. If I had not needed to use  the restroom, then we would not have seen the memorial. If Jimmy had been shorter, then the Waldreps might not have made more pictures of  the grave of a fallen hero during thirty-three sad years  than they  had  made of their son during twenty years, years  which  I hope were as happy as they remember.

     If we had found a reasonably priced motel next to a  decent restaurant that evening, then we probably would have had a  good meal before sitting up late, to rehash the afternoon and to think of  fifty-eight  thousand possible afternoons. Instead,  we  ate greasy hamburgers and drove many miles, many hours across  southern Alabama. We left the state after midnight, rushing past  the dimly lit mansions of Eufala, which I had planned to show Ken  in what  I had guessed would have been early afternoon.

      But, I  had made  that plan in the morning, and I could not believe how  long ago the morning had been.  We  reached my parents’ house in Sylvester a couple of hours  later. My mother showed Ken to the guest room. Since my niece was spending the night  with them, I was given a pillow and a quilt  and  was told  I would have to sleep in the living room. My mother  added that  she had stopped the grandfather clock so it would not  keep me  awake.  Still, as I turned uncomfortably on  the  couch,  so tired that I did not know if I was asleep or awake, the old clock did  not  relent as its hands kept on moving, seemed to keep  on moving to five-thirty. You can visit The Wall in cyberspace to help to keep the memories alive.

Note (2002):  Three years after I wrote this piece, the memories are very much alive.

Rovin' Through U.S. History 

Rovin' & Ravin' with Mike

 

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