You see them in long-range photos on the evening news and old black-and white pictures in books about Vietnam. They are iconic; the woman in a black dress, her heels sinking into the dirt that always seems softer around anew grave. The man in front of her is wearing a uniform so starched and polished you feel you could cut your fingers on the crease of his trousers, or be blinded by the sun off his brass. He is handing her an American flag, tightly folded so that only the blue star-spangled field shows. The other details vary: there may be a trumpeter, or a rifle volley. There may be four planes overhead, one arching away, lost in the sky. There may be motorcycle-riding angels and protestors. But there is always, always the uniformed man. And the woman. And the flag.
Mine is on an old chest of drawers in my bedroom.
My mother is the woman who accepted it. A college student in Plattsburgh, NY, she had met a dashing Air Force Lieutenant at a “tea dance”—an O club mixer presumably designed to introduce young officers of the 380th Bombardment Wing to suitable—and eligible—girls. In their case, it worked. They courted in a cold town during a cold war and married the summer between her junior and senior year. She was pregnant within a month of returning from her honeymoon, and in the straight-laced mores of the early 1960s, she was asked to leave the University to avoid exciting the imagination of the other co-eds. Her husband had a closed-door talk with the Dean of Women; after it was over, the subject of leaving was quietly dropped. She graduated with her class and gave birth six days later, her Lieutenant arriving straight from the pilots’ bullpen wearing a rumpled flight suit and carrying a dozen pink roses to welcome what they must have thought of as the first of their children.
A little more than six months later, in the early evening of January 15th, he kissed his wife and daughter goodbye for a routine training mission, co-piloting a B47E on a low-level bombing run on Waterville, NY. The bomber, with its four-man crew, sent a radio signal at 2am the next morning. They were never heard from again.
The morning of January 16th, my mother opened her door to a notification officer and the base chaplain. They called her next-door neighbor, another pilot’s wife, to sit with her. Her parents and teenaged brother drove north from Argyle, NY, as soon as they heard the news.
The headlines throughout northern New York went to 6-point type for the developing story. Hundreds of reports came in: of plane sightings, of explosions, of debris fields and survivors. Nothing panned out. The plane was lost somewhere in the northern Adirondack Park, a harsh wilderness bigger than the state of Massachusetts. Its High Peaks region can be inhospitable at the height of summer; in mid-January 50-mph winds whipped snow into 20-foot drifts and the overnight temperatures plummeted to 29 below zero. The ground search was joined by Air Force and Army personnel, police and mountain rescue teams, game wardens and civilian volunteers, but impassible stretches of mountainous terrain and killing weather made their progress excruciatingly slow. My mothers’ brothers-in-law, themselves Air Force veterans, joined the search party, as did her 16-year-old brother, who would go on to have a 30-year career in the Navy and Reserves.
She says she knew they had found him the moment she saw the chaplain walking up to her door for the second time. She was an Air Force widow with a six-month-old baby. She was twenty-two years old. She and her child and the remains of her Lieutenant returned to his hometown of Tuscaloosa. There was a salute, and a rifle volley, and the missing man formation. She stood on the cold, dead grass and accepted the folded flag.
Which sits on an old chest of drawers in my bedroom.
I grew up with that flag, and a heroic story, and a deep sense of pride in my country and in her armed forces. But I didn’t grow up with my father. I don’t think I knew how deep a loss that was until this war in Iraq and Afghanistan; the first war I witnessed as an adult, reading papers and watching the news. Every time I’d hear a casualty report, I found myself thinking of the family the dead soldier or Marine or airman or sailor. Over 4,600 men and women have lost their lives in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. How many fathers and mothers does that make? How many children who will only know their faces through photographs? How many sons who will have to have an uncle step up to coach their Little League team? How many daughters who will need a family friend to take them shopping for the prom? It’s not just the men and women in uniform who pay the ultimate price. We who are left behind continue to pay, day by day and year by year.
Do not weep, babe, for war is kind,
Because your father tumbled in the yellow trenches,
Raged at the breast, gulped and died.
Do not weep,
War is kind.