Near the center of my hometown, opposite the block wide brick post office, abutting a municipal parking lot, adjacent to four lanes of non stop traffic, sits the distinctly out of place spit of land known as Riley Plaza. Named for a past century Medal of Honor winner, it is a forbidding circle of stone and steel. Nothing grows here; even sparrows in search of crumbs, fly past.
Dedicated in 1959, renovated thirty-four years later to deal with heavier traffic, the plaza’s encircled flagpoles, surrounded by a low granite berm, act as a fluttering beacon to the traffic signal and cross walk. It is a forlorn, desolate, unwelcoming place, perfectly suited to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, known by its victors as the War Against the Americans.
On the morning of 29 March 2016, I had thought of not attending the barely announced event. It would be cold and raining day and night. I emailed the town vets agent, a close friend. “Rain or shine, it’s on!” he wrote back. That settled it.
Despite the wintry rain, there was a fine turn out, though mostly vets from the towns VFW post. I counted twenty men, most sporting Vietnam veteran ball caps, related patches, store bought gewgaws. I had seen my share of combat, but neglected to wear my First Cavalry pin. Attempting to join the gathering vets, only a few would talk to the plainly dressed stranger. As WWII vet Kurt Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.” About fifteen civilians showed up; nearly all in attendance were old and gray.
Five men from the fire department in dress blue uniforms acted as color guard: while two firemen firmly held ceremonial axes at the ready, the others stood with heels locked and backs straight. My vets agent pal, a handsome ex-Special Forces Sergeant Major, who had lost friends in Beirut’s 1983 terror bombing of Marines, as master of ceremonies, gave a short purposeful speech.
Given the wind and rain and evening rush hour, the mayor, and two state politicians, kept their pro patria mori speeches thankfully short. Next, came the raising of the sopping wet flag. A large bearded man did the hoisting, the rest of us gathering round. As the onlookers snapped photographs, the shivering vets stood grimly still.
In fact, as the seconds ticked past, for an ahistorical instant I imagined jut jawed George Washington and his brave men crossing the frigid Delaware in that ill composed painting which hangs in understaffed libraries and overcrowded schools all across this land.
Finally, after the halyard was secured, after a few more photos were snapped, the good Sergeant Major, with one hand sweeping water from his ball cap visor, concluded the event by thanking everyone for turning out. “Dismissed!” he exclaimed. At that moment, the sun broke through the evening clouds.
As the small crowd dispersed, the vets milled about and talked amongst themselves. I engaged a man wearing a First Cav pin, but the liquor on his breath made me cut him short. Quite suddenly, a local council woman walked over to where we stood. She looked on the verge of tears. “Thank you,” she said, then briskly walked away.
I decided to visit Steve’s Market, and bought a tub of Hood’s Cottage Cheese with Pineapple, and a two dollar scratch off ticket. Returning to the vets, I sought out one last brotherly exchange, found none, and headed home.
During the half mile trek I wondered about the evenings odd location, the ceremonies late hour, the unwillingness to reschedule the event, largely attended by men in their sixties. I realized that for all the guilt over Vietnam veterans, their soured homecoming, the decades of being mocked or shunned, on these occasions, these belated recipients of much pro patria glory are rarely asked to speak of war and what it does to its survivors.
In my experience, most civilians have no inkling of combat, of war and its aftermath. When reading war poetry aloud, they ruin it brutally. And to my mind, most but not all poetry by Vietnam vets is cathartic or angry or cloaked in sentiment. I prefer the exquisite verse of Nam vets Bruce Weigl, Michael Casey, Yusef Kumanyakaa, Richard Levine, Bill Ehrhart and Doug Anderson. And of course Boston’s own, the great Dave Connolly.
In the absence of great poets, thirty minutes of sing-song iambic is better than one minute of insufferable rhetoric, which has nothing to do with reality. And that’s what is missing, America, when lofty civil words displace the ofttimes sad or strangely beautiful or profoundly unutterable reality of your veteran sons and daughters, who, despite what they have seen and done in war, still love you.