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Al Clark Al Clark
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She had a friend.

On a blustery rainy day back in 1977, a bored 10 year old lad sat staring listlessly out his bedroom window.  What was supposed to be a weekend campout with friends turned into two long boring days of waiting for the weather to improve enough to go outside.  He turned his attention away from the raindrops running down the window pane, and picked up the George Lucas book he had been reading. Two pages later he tossed the book back down on the bed. Robots and something called “the force” didn’t seem to hold his attention that day. He thumbed through some of his older brother’s vinyl albums looking for some STYXX to play, when he heard heavy footsteps come up the stairs.


“Who said you could touch my records, ya twerp?”  His much bigger brother said, pushing the boy away from the stereo. “The Tigers got cancelled cause of the rain, so you can go watch your stupid cartoons now- Oh wait, they’re already over and all that’s on is news and golf! HA!”, the older boy sneered. “Now beat it before I beat you!”
“Hmm …Beat it before I beat you… WOW, your quite the eloquent Shakespearean, aren’t you?” The lad shot back, backing towards the door.  “I’ve seen dead rocks with better vocabulary that you!” With that said, the smaller boy dashed out the door and slammed it behind him, then quickly pulled the dirty clothes hamper right into the door way.  Knowing his older brother would come running after and make him pay for his insolence with a wedgie or noogies, he ran and hid in a small alcove off the hallway. The older boy tripped over the laundry basket and fell among a pile of dirty Tee shirt, cut off jeans, and striped tube socks.  Out of view of his antagonist, who was still cursing and trying to extradite himself from the laundry, the boy quietly opened up a small door that led to the attic. Grabbing an empty box, he quickly tossed it over the railing and down the stairs, where it rolled to the bottom landing. The young boy then slipped through the attic door, and peeked out to see his older brother chase the sound thinking it was him. Closing the small door completely, the boy sat in darkness for a few moments and listened to see if his ruse worked. He heard his brother burst through the door at the bottom of the stairs yelling threats, and then heard their mother shout about picking on little brothers, mixed in with some German sayings about being a “Dumfkoff”, and the trash needing to be taken out.


Knowing his would be attacker was going to be kept busy for some time with chores, the boy reached out into the darkness till he found the string to turn on the single incandescent bulb that was attached to a two by four nailed to the wall. Dust particles swirled in the light as he looked around him at the contents of the small attic. Boxes of Christmas ornaments, old clothes, a bunch of old shoes, hymnals, and other old household stuff lay neatly stacked around him. He had been through all this stuff before, so he crawled deeper into the dusty space. Way in the back was a small footlocker he had yet to explore. Jimmying the lock with his Barlow pocket knife, the boy was able to open it up, and peer inside. A handful of photo albums were stacked up alongside a black leather attaché case embossed with what looked like an Army symbol. Putting the case to the side, he reached in and pulled the first photo album out. The pictures were yellowed with age, and showed a rugged looking young soldier and a pretty girl with her hair in a beehive. Turning the pages, the photos then showed that soldier in a jungle, on a big helicopter, and next to a huge cannon. Other pictures showed several soldiers together holding machine guns and smoking cigarettes. Some showed people in black pajamas and cone shaped hats picking rice, and others showed soldiers holding small Asian kids. The last pages showed several pictures of the same soldier holding a puppy. The soldier looked familiar to the boy. He looked again at the first picture, a portrait of that soldier in his dress uniform. His handsome face was smiling, and his uniform was clean and formal looking. He compared the face with pictures taken in the jungle. Some were of soldiers smiling, some were more somber. The uniforms were a solid green, with a patch of an eagle on the shoulders.  The face was more haggard and thin, the eyes more distant..as if they were looking at something only he could see…something very far away. Putting the albums carefully back in the trunk, the boy then turned his attention to the leather case. Opening it up, he found several small thin green boxes. Inside one, he found a medal, in the shape of a five pointed start. Attached to the medal was a red and blue ribbon, with a small brass star in the middle. Another medal was in the shape of a cross, and had a blue and gold ribbon. He put the medals back in their boxes, and pulled a handful of official looking papers out of the case. Most were plain looking, with a bunch of odd acronyms, ranks, and other such arcane references. Others were on richer, embossed paper, with formal wording describing action in some place called “A schau Valley”, and were addressed to Sgt. Frank Nelson of the 101st Airborne division.  Upon reading the name, the boy quickly re opened the photo albums to look again at the portrait of the soldier..Sure enough, the pictures showed his oldest  brother Frank, only much younger.  Frank was now a successful veterinarian in Fort Worth Texas. Frank was the boys favorite brother, ‘cause he taught the boy how to shoot skeet, let him drink a beer once, and would cuss in TEXAN. The boy knew that Frank had been in the Army way back when before he was born, but never knew he was in a war.


Now enthused, the boy grabbed the albums and ran downstairs to show them to his  Mom.  He excitedly pointed to the pictures, saying, “ Look Mom, it’s Frank in his army uniform! He’s got a bunch of cool metals and stuff up in a box in the attic! Whats an AYE SHAW valley?” Rather than share in the boys enthusiasm, or at the very least listen patiently to the boy as she normally did, his Moms eyes grew cloudy, and for the briefest of moments, that same distant look the boy had seen in his older brothers later pictures crossed his mother’s eyes. Without answering any questions, his mom wiped her hands on her apron, and told the boy to go wash up for supper. Knowing that tone, the boy did as he was told.


Once the family was seated for dinner, the boy tried again to get more information about his brothers service, only with his father. “Hey Pop” he asked,” weren’t you in the army? What’s a bronze star?  How come Frank’s medals are locked up in the attic? Where’s A Shau valley? Is that where you fought?”
His Dad didn’t answer right away. A by now familiar look was in his Dads eye as he put his fork down and took a slow deep breath.
“No, boy”, Dad replied, “I was in WWII, I fought in Europe. Frank fought in Viet Nam. Now eat your peas” Not another word was said till dinner was over.


Later, while they were doing the dishes, his older brother punched him in the chest, saying, “JEEZ your such an idiot!  Mom and Dad want to FORGET about war, and your stupid crap just made them remember! Why don’t you ever THINK before you shoot your mouth off!” After the dishes were done, the boy returned the photo album to the footlocker, and closed it back up. He never could get what he had discovered out of his head though..it bugged and bugged him for years. He would go to the library and check out every book he could on Viet Nam. Del Vechio’s, THE 13TH VALLEY,  Hal Moores,  WE WERE SOLDIERS,  as well as FIELDS OF FIRE, and dozens of other fiction and non-fiction books and articles. By the time the boy was a freshman in high school, he knew more units involved, the hows why s and wherefores, politics, weapons, and tactics used than most adults. But the one thing that eluded him, that no one could or would explain, was that look…the thousand yard stare. He learned what it was called, knew WHY soldiers got it, but never truly understood it, or why his own mom had it. She had never seen combat…or so the boy thought.


Texas, 1991
It wasn’t till I returned from Desert Storm that Dad, Mom, Frank and I all sat and talked of our wartime experiences. I was a Marine Sergeant by then, and we sat beside Franks pool, talking of brothers lost, the burden of leadership, the cost of war. In my entire life they had never spoken of such things to me…until I returned from war myself. Even Mom spoke of when she was drafted at 16 into the German Luftwaffe during WWII. She has a small scar on her wrist that for years she said was from cutting herself on some broken glass. That day she admitted that it was caused by shrapnel from an allied bomb that destroyed her house in Munich, and killed many of her family.


Dad spoke of fighting through Europe, the battle of the bulge, liberating the concentration camps. Mom Met Dad in a Red Cross camp in Bavaria, they married in 46, and moved back stateside upon Dads end of enlistment. The Army wanted him back for Korea, but he was already two years into the seminary. By the time he graduated, the “forgotten” war was already over. Frank spoke of the heat of the jungle, the smells, and the way our nation turned it’s back on him when he came home; How the bottle almost did what the NVA could not, and how he loves our country deeply, but will never again trust our govt.
We talked of how different it was for parents whose children fought in Viet Nam compared to what it was like for them when I was in Iraq. Mom said the fear, sleepless nights, and trembling when the phone rang was still the same though. Having two children serve in Afghanistan, I understand all too well that fear now. I believe with all my hear that in many ways its harder to be a parent of a warrior fighting for his life overseas than to be over there again.


Thirty five years after hiding from my brother in the attic, I now sit here, listening to the wind howl outside. The sound brought me back to that rainy day, so long ago. My bully older brother is now a Marine vet as well, and one of my closest friends. I have long since left the military, but in many ways it never left me. I have reached a point of understanding so much that I questioned back then. I still see shadows of that old look, when I look at myself  in the mirror. I understand now what it really means…and I pray to God almighty that my Grandchildren never have that look themselves….but I know better


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