The truth is, I didn’t much want to go. Especially in the last few years, I think we’ve both gotten more comfortable about doing things on our own rather than together. Sherod headed out to the Aerial Rocket Artillery Association annual meeting on Wednesday and I was swamped with work so time just flew by for me. My travel schedule is insane until the 11th of June— I will lay me down to rest in Atlanta, NYC, Birmingham, Decatur, Louisville, Columbus-Indiana, Detroit, Ft Lauderdale, and Washington DC between now and then. So the prospect of driving to Columbus, Georgia to attend the ARA banquet yesterday, and driving back today, was sort-of overwhelming to consider. We batted ideas back and forth by phone, considering what might work, though I basically assumed I’d just stay put.
On Friday at about 9 PM, Sherod announced he was coming home, would spend the night with me here, and we’d drive back to Columbus yesterday morning. It’s a two plus hour drive so I was relieved when he showed up all in one piece a little after 11 PM, even happier crawling into bed with him beside me. I’d been missing him and been too busy to notice. Our ride yesterday was filled with good conversation and we met Charlie, Sherod’s son, and his wife, Penny, for lunch. Sherod had invited them to come to this gathering as well.
The festivities were held at a place called the “Civil War Naval Museum”, along the Chattahoochee River. Mainly filled with the remnants and stories of the Confederate Navy, it was an interesting place to find myself in. But that hardly mattered compared to who I was with. Ever since we first met, the fact that Sherod flew helicopters (or helicopeters, as he calls them) in Vietnam has loomed large in our life. Along the way, I think I’ve posted pictures or shared them on Facebook—pictures of handsome, slim, flat bellied, smiling young men (babies, really), gathered around Huey helicopters and Cobras, looking nonchalant when life in Vietnam in 1968, around the Tet Offensive, and Khe San, was anything but.
Names I’ve heard for almost 30 years—Jerry, Jim, Allan, Mobley finally got put with real faces. Those faces and those bodies, though, have become stiffer, frailer, much older, more worn. The Aerial Rocket Artillery group was formed in 1965 with aviators from the 1st Cavalry Division and the 101st Airborne Division to provide helicopter artillery coverage for the ground troops fighting in Vietnam. There were about 80 men and their spouses in attendance this week. The jokes were bawdy, every now and then, I looked into aviator eyes that have a kind of sparkle to them that can go to deadly sharp and serious in less than a heartbeat. But there was more introspection, more sorrow, in the conversations about what Vietnam actually meant.
We finished a tour of the museum and were sitting for the dinner part of the program when the president of this association went to the podium to speak. After talking about this, and thanking for that, he launched into a story. One of the battles the ARA group played a very significant role in was the seige of Khe Sanh. I am no war historian so this is a hugely simplified version of events, but essentially, a Marine base up in a plateau in the northern part of South Vietnam, close to the border with Laos, was caught in a months long siege by the North Vietnamese. The siege began in early 1968 and by April, the situation for the Marines was pretty desperate. The story told last night was complicated and filled with more pieces than I could follow but basically, a lone Marine, far from any other troops, badly wounded and under fire, needed to be rescued. This was not the kind of mission that the ARA had been put together to carry out. But you don’t leave a brother out there when you can help. A helicopter went in under intense fire to pick him up. He was so badly wounded that he was not able to get to the aircraft so the door gunner got out of the helicopter and dragged the Marine into safety.
After describing the basics of the situation, Larry, the president of the ARA, explained that in the past year, the Marine had found and contacted him, trying to find the men who had saved his life in Khe Sanh. He’d spent 47 years trying to do that, to say thank you. Larry asked three guys to come up front—Jerry, Sherod, and Allan. Jerry and Sherod were the two CWO-aviators flying that helicopter; Allan was the door gunner. The three of them and the Marine, who introduced himself as Lucky, huddled for a few minutes up front. You could have heard a pin drop in the room; there were very few dry eyes.
Lucky, when he was given the chance to say a few words, used that time to talk about PTSD. Until then, as Sherod’s second wife, I had felt a bit like an interloper. His buddies are still married to the women who waited for them to come home from the war and I know I have no earthly idea what that was like. But when Lucky began to talk, describe his own rounds with PTSD, the guys pretty much looked down at their plates and it was the women who made eye contact and we all knew. All of us. This was pretty stark, raw, being present with each other.
I’ve been awfully annoyed this year by the Mother’s Day hoopla. It’s always close to the anniversary of my mother’s death; the utter helplessness I live these days, as my daughter’s mother, both make it awfully hard for me to countenance the cloying sweetness of this day. I’m glad I was at that banquet last night and this morning driving home was about reflecting on the stories I heard, the life of the man I am married to, the fact that we are all of us, always, called to help lift the one who has fallen, called to abide with each other not in commercialized sweetness but in the realities of life as it really is. With all its glory. With all its pain.