I discovered this evening that entire magazines are part of Google’s massive digital library and I began looking for a particular issue of LIFE magazine. I wasn’t sure of the specific issue, only that it was from the summer of 1969 or 1970 and I knew that only because I knew that I had first looked at the magazine- in a crummy motel somewhere in western Pennsylvania or upper New York state where I had been involved in installing golf course irrigation systems during my sophomore and junior summers while in college.
So I found the magazine I wanted to find/was afraid I would find. It’s the June 27, 1969 issue of LIFE and in it were pictures of all the Americans killed in Vietnam during the week of May 28- June 3. The article was called “The Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam- One Week’s Toll.”
The article had made the news previous to its publication. Some government officials at the time had asked that it not be published, but there was an overwhelming response from the families of the dead soldiers that it should be published. In the history of the Vietnam War, the LIFE article is one of the factors credited with redirecting much of the remaining popular support of the war.
I carried it with me all day, having bought the magazine at a grocery store near the restaurant we ate lunch in each day. Washington, Pennsylvania: once I ‘found’ the magazine again today, I remembered exactly where I was at the time. On a $10 per diem, I was able to stay at a motel and eat out two meals a day. There were other workers at the motel, too, but I- fortunately, that day- was in a room by myself. We finished work at about 6 p.m., stopped for the obligatory (at the time) six pack of Rolling Rock (sweet green-glassed golden brew of the Susquahanna Valley), cleaned up and- usually- went somewhere together to eat. I opted this day to stay, drink beer, and look at the LIFE.
The article consists mainly of pictures of mostly very young men- 242 of them (two hundred and forty-two.) There is a name, a branch of service and rank, and the age and hometown of each man listed. One week’s toll: 11 pages, 20 names per page. I looked at the first row of pictures today and had exactly the same reaction I had almost 42 years ago and that I am having right now as I write and look at the pictures once more.
Here, by the way, is the link: http://books.google.com/books?id=pE8EAAAAMBAJ&printsec=frontcover&rview=1&source=gbs_atb#v=onepage&q&f=false
I know now why I used to drink too much: I see and feel everything (EVERYTHING) through an exaggerated sense of recognition and understanding. Beauty or ugliness- doesn’t matter: my empathy is permanently switched on high and I will see every brush stroke of a beautiful painting and feel every tear of someone else’s hurt. Alcohol makes beauty and/or pain bearable. Odd? Yes, but there are plenty of others who know those feelings exactly. Hopefully, they’ve gotten some help. If not, call me. Really.
The beer, that evening, didn’t help very much. Row after row, page after page. As I looked at them today for the first time in so many years, I realized I could still remember well some of those faces. They had etched themselves in my deepest mind. They were synaptically sealed in my 19 year old brain.
Yeah, 19 years old. That’s how old I was and that’s how old soldier after soldier was that had been killed during that week in 1969. Row after row, page after page. Here’s page 26, row 3: Patrick Hagerty, 19, Army, Youngstown, Ohio; Albert Carledge III, 23, Marines, Dallas, Texas; James Drew, 20, Army, Kansas City, Missouri; Peter Borsay, 24, Army, Salt Lake City, Utah; Robert Yates, 18, Army, Hondo, Texas.
Johnny Cash’s ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ was playing on the radio as I looked at the pages of pictures. It would become the commemorative soundtrack to the event of my mind exploding. Because that is what was happening. For whatever cognitive reasonings were coming together in my young mind, I’ve recognized that evening many times since as one of the pivotal ones of my life. That was the night I stopped (forever) believing my government knew best, was best, or acted best about anything they purported to know, be, or act upon. It was the first time I asked myself the question I had heard posed many times by others but had never fully asked on my own: “What the hell did these guys die for?” And I still don’t have an answer.
Later that Summer, there would be Woodstock. A month before Woodstock, Neil Armstrong stepped out onto the moon. Two days before that, Larry- a guy I’d grown up with at school, in Sunday School, and on various football teams, himself became a picture of a dead soldier: Larry Esterly, 20, Marines, Lisbon, Ohio.
Years later, I learned in counseling how to stop looking quite so deeply at everything, so that beauty, ugliness, or any of a hundred various sensory stimuli, would be unable to tattoo themselves quite so painfully on my emotions. I stopped drinking alcohol, too, 17 years ago. But those positive efforts were too late for the trauma that the images of those 224 sons, brothers, friends, boyfriends, uncles, cousins even young fathers had battered on my mind, and my soul.
I didn’t expect to ever see those pictures again, because years ago I had decided never to look too hard for them. But it was easy today, and I am glad to have seen them all again. I told Patrick, Albert, James, Peter, Robert, and..Larry, in conscious thought that transcends time and the universe, that each of them had helped, for awhile, to shape a nation into one that vehemently disagreed with its very wrong leaders. I thanked them for their idealism, their enthusiasm, and their courage- a courage in which I had never been called upon to breathe, or live, or act. I apologized to them for minutes, days, even years that I’d wasted on the mundane, selfish, or idiotic- time that none of them had ever had a chance to experience.
And I thanked them for allowing me to remember them today, and maybe even honor them this way in a small way.
I hope others might take a look, too. And talk to them.