Way in the back of a desk drawer at our house, in a long black leatherette case that snaps shut, is a stranger’s Purple Heart. How we got it is what I want to tell you, and then something about the mystery and awe I feel every time I come upon it while rooting around in the desk for rubber bands and pens.
His name was Fred. We never knew him. He died on June 11th, 1969. He was born in February of 1948 in my town of Flemington, and killed in Quang Ngai Province in Vietnam. In the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website, there are remembrances posted for him, written just today. People write to him of Heaven, and of never forgetting him. It breaks me, here in my flabby, safe life, where there are no bullets, no foxholes, no buddies forever grateful that I was brave.
I can’t tell you Fred’s name, and this has something to do with how we came to have his Purple Heart. You see, his people cannot bear to have it in the house. They don’t want to see it, they don’t want to stumble on it and relive the day the Army came to tell them he was dead. To us, Vietnam was a place we didn’t belong, where we had no business sending our young people to kill their young people. Vietnam was about marches in Washington and New York; we knew nothing of its sights, and sounds, and smells, and nothing of what it was to fight there or anywhere else. And we don’t know what it’s like to be Fred’s family.
Flemington doesn’t have an American Legion post anymore. It was torn down just a few months ago, with the veterans’ families who supported it dwindling in our area. A shiny new theme restaurant is going up there now, where for years we joined the vets who led our local Flemington Memorial Day Parade for a brief and often frank service, in which issues like veterans’ healthcare was discussed, and elder ladies in red, white and blue outfits served a nice repast.
The man I live with was born on a June 11th, Fred’s dying day, and he always took note to study Fred’s photo hung on Memorial Day at Flemington’s now-rubble Legion. We knew a member of his family, the wonderful Anna. She was a vet herself, a nurse in the Army, but she got to come home. And every year, we looked for her at our little town’s Memorial Day Parade, dressed up in American flag colors, a skirt suit she’d sewed herself.
Anna was one of the very best Democrats I have ever known; like most of my Party’s ordinary heroes, a woman. She was deeply patriotic, not in support of wars of adventure or regional dominance, and I doubt she ever had a nationalistic thought. She was optimistic about her country, and ever-willing to serve it, and she saw all of its people and expected justice, and for us to do right by each other. She’s gone now. And when I look for the Anna’s in my Party now, I find very few.
It’s a kin of Anna’s whose Purple Heart we have, back in a desk drawer. It was given to us because Joey always stared up at it on Memorial Day. And Fred’s people can’t bear the sight of it, because it means death and loss to them, and it isn’t what they want to think of when they think of Fred.
They are a Gold Star Family. I’m from a Blue Star Family. My father came home from World War II, as did both my uncles. Fred’s Purple Heart, nestled in fabric in a case that snaps shut, is what I think of on Memorial Day. I do not know what it is like to have my love, or my father, or my son on panel of the Vietnam Wall, and my taste of death on Memorial Day is distant. My cousin Billy died at Hürtgen Forest; his mother Ruth missed him her whole life, every day. Another cousin killed himself because he was going to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, where he could not bear the thought either of dying or of killing. They don’t put your name on the Vietnam Wall for that, but I mourn him.
I’m from a Blue Star Family. I don’t know, not really, what those of you missing those lost in battle are thinking about today, an ordinary day when the whole world is caught up in mattress sales, and red, white, and blue theme parties. But you have my solidarity.
Above, stock photo of the Purple Heart. I can’t show you Fred’s.