Memorial Day


michael_joan_wall_2004

Those soldiers, sailors, and Marines who gave their lives for their country would want us to enjoy Memorial Day weekend: they fought for that right along with so many others.  But, Memorial Weekend is not just the “beginning of summer” as it has unfortunately become in the media and advertising.  This is no more clearly indicated than in the oxymoronic greeting, “Happy Memorial Day!” all over the media and even in local communities.  People wishing others a “Happy Memorial Day” do not mean to further wound people who have in fact lost their loved ones in war–but they do.  That greeting indicates unconsciousness about the history of Memorial Day and what it actually commemorates.

My beautiful Michael laid down his life defending his squad in Vietnam, August 28, 1969.  He loved people, who returned his love many fold.  He played the guitar, wrote poetry, and sketched.  He even sent a sketch home–a sailboat he was longing to sail again.  He was a philosophy major who wanted to come home to finish his degree and go on to graduate school, becoming a college teacher. Michael was a Marine, whose letters were filled with love for his family and longing to come home to Houston.  But his letters were also filled with admiration for the beauty of Vietnam and its people.  He had hoped  to be promoted to Sergeant, to be pulled from the front lines after his last mission, and to be trained as an interpreter, working with the Vietnamese people.

Instead, during a major operation near Chu Lai Province, several regiments came under fierce mortar attack.  As the squad leader, he motioned his men to protective positions, then ran across the battlefield to cover his  wounded Marines with his own body and return fire on the enemy as the helicopter came in to rescue them.  Even as he saved many of their lives, he gave his own when a mortar took him even as the last of his comrades was being lifted to safety.  Among his many medals, he was awarded the Bronze Star with Combat V for valor.  But, of course, I would much rather he had come home. His love for me–and losing him–changed my life forever, and I have never stopped loving him.

I maintain a web site for Michael at https://sites.google.com/site/yuponst/home so that what he meant to his family and friends and what the world has lost in this gentle, sweet man will not be forgotten.  Michael was honored at the 2000 Memorial Day Concert in Washington DC; an exhibit in a local library to honor veterans, and in two books featuring letters written from combat sites.  Though we lost him over 40 years ago, and he missed another of his birthdays in May, he is never forgotten, and he is teaching as he wanted to through remembrances of him.

So–please take a few minutes out of the holiday to think of us, bless the memories of those who gave their lives for their country, and say a prayer in their memories.  That is what would really make us happy on this day.

My First Visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall


Michael's Name on the Wall
Michael’s Name on the Wall, Panel 18W

My first visit to The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall was in the spring of 1984. At that time I was teaching high school English, raising my son, and struggling pretty much alone. My principal sent me to DC with a group of students on a Close-Up trip. These very well-organized sojourns allow the teachers some time to themselves: I knew my day would be spent at The Wall-–sans high school kids. I didn’t want to be with anyone that day.

I took the Metro down to the Mall and slowly, slowly wound my way toward that monolith, what one of my friends in a poem calls ‘wet, black wings.’ As its long, black V appeared and grew larger before me, my heart hammered; my feet dragged so I had to force them in front of one another; my soul cried out: everything in my body and being was cringing, pulling back.  Don’t go there.  But The Wall kept getting closer. When I  finally arrived, and it loomed before me, I didn’t know what to do: just stood there, not wanting to look at it, blindly turning to gaze anywhere else, eyes filled with tears.

At that time, the vigil was in effect year ’round, and a Vet walked up to me, asked if he could help. I was numb and brusque and unsure. Undaunted, he led me to the book of names, asked me who I wanted to find, showed me Michael’s name in the book, what the numbers meant, how to find him. Then he volunteered to go down into that waiting memorial with me. I refused–I wanted to be alone. Still undaunted, he said he’d just follow behind, make sure I could find the name if I needed him.

I moved down, down, down that walkway, the wings of the V pulling me in, the engraved names increasing, my reflection unnerving me, the tears now flowing. As I arrived at the apex and panel 18W, I again just stood there–in utter shock I realize now. The Vet appeared at my side again, gently guided my eyes up to the 2nd line and over to the right.

Michael A. McAninch.  My Poet. Guitarist. Sailor. Philosophy Major. Writer of Napkin Notes. Lover of people, sailing, movies, rock music, Hermann Park and the Zoo and Galveston and Houston.  The one who put Spanky and Our Gang’s “I’d Like to Get to Know You” on the Juke Box the day we met, then came back smiling the gorgeous smile that changed my life and I see to this day. The one who knows how to cool my blistering coffee in the Cougar Den at UofH and draws a bath for me when I am sunburned and then smooths the healing cream on my back, the one who cooks spaghetti dinners, shirtless with blue lovebeads and black shorts, who laughs with friends, pours wine, plays with dogs on our walks–and holds my hand.  The one who when I am afraid calls me Joanie, holds me and loves me.

Michael: The Marine who gave his life for his wounded men, running across the battlefield, covering them with his own body and M16, protecting them from the dreadful mortars and machine guns while the choppers dove and landed and took off until they were all rescued.  All but Michael who took the mortar meant for them.

He was here now–on the Wall. It was true. He wasn’t coming home. He had been memorialized and immortalized along with all these names around him. My husband, my beloved, my Michael. I collapsed. Just shot down to the ground. But my fall was broken by the Vet who had known I must not be alone. He caught me and held me while I sobbed my grief, wracked with pain, shaking uncontrollably in the arms of this kind stranger.

After I quieted a bit, he said, “See all these names around Michael’s? They are his brothers, and they are with him; he is not alone.” And he calmly stayed by my side, talking with me, listening to me, nodding, being quiet when he needed to be.

It was the first time anyone had ever talked with me about Michael and the War. Fifteen years, and someone finally cared. His name was Terry.

I have been to The Wall four times since that first painful trip. I like the statues and understand why they have been added to the site. But it is The Wall that I come for. I don’t see it as a black gash or a tombstone, though I understand those feelings as well. It is, of course, a chevron in memoriam–polished granite in which we see ourselves mirrored in the names of the Fallen.  It is ours, and it is theirs. We insisted on it; we paid for it in tribute and pain and blood; we experience it in our own ways, some of us choosing not to–and that is a response to it also.

For me, it is a memorial to our loved ones, a reminder of the cost, and a site for pilgrimage and gathering and sharing. And it is where a Vet named Terry gave a damn when almost everyone else had ignored our Vietnam Veterans and their families–refusing to let us talk; treating us and them as if the whole thing was an embarrassment–a disgrace.  So for all those years, I had been silent and isolated in my agony until that day when this veteran, Terry, volunteered to help a grieving lady through her first experience of the Wall–still serving his country and his brothers.

And I am no longer silent.

www.lettershome.net

For Michael

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