During my high school and early college years in Wichita, there were three of us who ran together: me, Steve King (no, not the famous writer) and Tom Whitehead. None of us seriously applied ourselves to our college studies in those days, too much beer, pizza, cards, girls, pool and fun in general, which soon brought us to the attention of our local Selective Service Board.
Tom was the first to go. He signed up for the Army and they gave him a couple months at home before he had to show up for Basic Training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri, or as many trainees later came to know it, Fort Lost in the Woods, Misery. In the meantime, since he was part native American, the local Ponca and Osage held a pow-wow for him in the local armory one Saturday night in November of '65 in order to give Tom a good sendoff. He was on the train to Kansas City soon after, followed by a long bus ride down to the Missouri Ozarks.
Steve and I got our congratulation letters from Uncle Sam that following January and hopped a train to the induction center in K.C. for our physicals. The next day, they were kind enough to tell us we passed. They sent us home, saying that we'd probably be called up in about sixty days. Before any call up could occur, Steve visited with a sweet talking Army recruiter. Next thing I knew, I'd been talked into enlisting under the three year plan for something called the Buddy System, where you got to go to Basic Training with your buddy. Of course when you're dealing with the government, it helps to pay close attention to details.
After Basic, Steve and I went different directions. He got to Nam in January of '67 and I made the trip across the pond that July. While forted up in the Central Highlands, I got letters from Steve who was down south in Cu Chi with the 25th Infantry. Seems he had run into Tom Whitehead, also with the 25th, but stationed outside Cu Chi at a fire base. Tom was working as an armorer, keeping weapons in shape for his unit, and had made the rank of Specialist Fourth Class. Then, I didn't hear anything more until I came back to the World.
Shortly after I stepped off the plane wearing Army greens in Wichita during the summer of '68, some friends of the family who happened to be at the local Pizza Hut for lunch that day, told me Tom didn't make it. He was crossing his fire base when the VC dropped a mortar down the tube. It caught Tom out in the open with no place to go. Nobody wanted to tell me about it while I was still over there. On my way down to Texas later that July to visit my folks, I stopped off in an Oklahoma cemetery to say a few words at Tom's grave.
|Bagpiper at the Moving Wall|
Then, about four years ago, I got an e-mail from a stranger. He had read my memorial to Tom and had a few questions, if I would be kind enough to help him. Seems he was a doctor in Albuquerque and his father was dying. His father had recently told him a story about marriage, divorce and re-marriage. In the end, it turned out that Albuquerque doctor had a half-brother (Tom Whitehead) he'd known nothing about. The father had lost touch with his old family, but now wanted any info he could get about his estranged son who had died in Nam.
I'd always known Tom's father was missing from his family, but they never talked about the situation, so none of us inquired. Now, I dug into past letters and old memories for anything about Tom. Even mentioned the situation to Steve, who then e-mail attached old photos he'd converted over to his computer. Everything I had or ended up with then got e-mailed to the doctor who knew almost nothing about his older half-brother. The doc then shared that information with his dying father in a veteran's hospital down in Houston.
There was a quick flurry of e-mails back and forth. Dad was pleased to know his oldest son had been an enlisted man like he himself had been in World War Two. Doc sent his gratitude for the info. Then the lines went silent. The old man was gone and we had nothing further to talk about. But there, for a brief slice of time, someone had been touched by something I'd written about a man I'd known a long time ago. Someone was touched who I didn't even know was out there. Someone touched to the quick, who then sought me out.
As Eve Fisher quotes from Philo in her e-mails: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." And to that I respond, you never know who you'll reach out and touch.
Ride easy 'til we meet again.