A Veteran’s Day Story
It was sixteen years ago today. I had been in the States only three months, having left Canada the first of August with Bert, who had asked me to marry him. That day, November 11, 1996, I were sitting in folding chairs in the front row of an historic gathering, the oldest Veteran’s Day celebration in the area, held in Geraldine, Alabama. The gymnasium seats would soon be full with the students, people from surrounding communities and the honored guests—the men and women who had fought in the wars this country had waged. My husband was one of the latter, as was our dear friend George Jackson who’d accompanied us. Bert and I were the keynote speakers for the event, and I was more nervous than I’d ever been before a speech.
You see, it all happened three weeks earlier when the principal of the Geraldine High School, Larry Lingerfeld, a friend of Bert’s, called and asked him to speak. Bert agreed but only on the condition that his wife would speak with him, as always spoke together. The principal said, “Oh, is she a veteran too?”
Bert said, “No, she was a war protestor, but what she has to say is more important than anything I will.” Bert told me later there was silence on the end of the line for a while. But Larry trusted Bert, and all was agreed to.
Bert came out of his office and walked over to my “office” in the corner of the living room. He was smiling and said casually, “We’re going to speak at the Veteran’s Day celebration at Geraldine.”
My smile quickly damped down and I said, “What?”
“Honey, it will be fine.”
“But Bert,” I stammered, “This is Alabama. They could lynch me here.” I was serious. DeKalb County still hosted a local and active branch of the Klu Klux Klan. I’d only been living in Mentone, Alabama for three months, and the South was still a place of fearsome racism and fundamentalism for me, the picture I’d been given by books I’d read and movies I’d seen. It felt scary and foreign.
Bert took my hand, looked into my eyes and said softly, “Trust me, darlin’, it will be okay.”
The Vietnam War was a watershed event in my life too and had cost me deeply. Not my life, but indeed my life as I’d known it. When I crossed the border into Canada, the only thing that felt right in my heart at that time, I left behind me, my family who had thrown me out, my budding career as a research scientist, and my country, the only thing I’d believed in up to that point, religion having gone by the wayside early on. I was so sick to heart that something I’d loved so deeply as I did this country could so fool me with motives and choices I’d never imagined lived within its purview. Such naiveté and idolatry was possible back in the ’60s.
The emotions washing through me as I sat there waiting for the ceremony to begin were daunting. The vets were filling up the seats, even a 100-year-old veteran from WW II was among them. I had spent the intervening three weeks putting into words what was true for me back then, but I wasn’t convinced it would be heard.
As Bert rose to speak, tears began to run down my face as I remembered how I too felt like these sweet kids that had just finished singing songs of praise for their land. So much water under the bridge for us all. Bert began and being a great speaker, he held the attention of those children that day, explaining how if we didn’t find a way to change how we operate in this world, they too would find themselves sitting in the chairs occupied by men that war had changed forever.
When he was finished, he introduced me most lovingly, the warmth in his eyes beckoning me to believe in him. He told the audience who I was – a war protestor – and my first fears were realized as several vets got up and left. One however, lingered at the rear, and it was he that I spoke to most of all.
My story wasn’t a rant, but rather the tale of a broken heart. I thought of Steve Mason, a young poet and lieutenant in that war and his poem, “Closure: A Much Needed War,” knowing, as he stated there, we are all veterans of the Vietnam War. Yet taking all that into account strangely, the voice that had belted out in protest, that had remained silent through the national anthem years back, that had pleaded for my parents’ ear, that had begged boys not to go, and had whispered down my draft dodger husband’s fears of cowardice, did want to speak again. It wanted to tell the kids that war isn’t a solution; it wanted to reassure the veterans that theirs had been a courageous act; and finally, it wanted to say to us all that in the end we did the best we could and that had to be enough.
And if, as Mason contends, “Our victory is won in the character of our sacrifice and the quality of our loss,” then let it be written for all to witness, we were victorious after all.