My two best buddies growing up were boys. These were the kids living closest to us along the Glenn Highway at Fire Lake, Alaska: Bill and Dennis. They were two and three years my senior, and, I am certain, often annoyed by my little girl presence, as we roamed the hills and forest surrounding our individual homes, fishing poles in hand, salmon eggs in our pockets, dogs underfoot in the enchanted landscape of our childhood, where the woods held no dangers, the lakes and streams were clear and cold, and two-legged monsters were not yet a worry to our parents. With no phones, no TV, no social rivalries to form our picture of the world around us, we all did fine, of course, until puberty and high school took us (by bus) into The City: Anchorage, (such as it was in the 1950s).
Both my buddies went on to pursue careers in the military: Bill dropped out of school his senior year and enlisted in the Marines after his high school sweetheart broke his heart. He wrote harrowing letters about standing sentry duty in the jungles of the Philippine Islands, watching for marauding guerrilla fighters, while bullets flew about his head. At barely 19 years of age, he had a hard time digesting the realization that someone he could not see in the deep jungle night, wanted to kill him! I sent him “care packages” of fudge and chocolate chip cookies to reinforce his spirit. That is what we did in those days for our “boys overseas.” What did we know?
Dennis wound up as a helicopter pilot during the war in Vietnam, choosing to do three tours of duty stationed on a naval carrier anchored off the coast of North Vietnam during the heart of that awful conflict. He spoke of always trying to end his workdays as a rescue and reconnaissance pilot with a brief overflight each evening to check on a small Vietnamese family farm hidden in the deep jungle beneath him, to make sure the five people he could individuate and their tiny holding were still safe and undamaged by the ferocity surrounding them. This ritual became essential to his own mental and moral well-being. He somehow felt responsible for their safety in their isolated home. The little family farm was still intact when he finished his final duty tour, and battered and beaten by the hurt he had seen on every side, he held that image in his mind with great affection. War changed him, as it does.
After the Philippines, Bill went into the world of espionage, and then spent several years as a quality inspector in West Coast weapons factories, which produced armored vehicles for the various military branches. He saw his job as providing safety and protection for the up-and-coming young men who would be sent into battle to defend our country’s interests in various parts of the world. “I am taking care of our boys as best I can” he stated, “by making sure they have the safest equipment we can manufacture.”
Meanwhile we listened to the nightly news on the radio, which reported “body counts” of deaths among “our” boys and “their” boys on a routine basis, as if these were scores in a basketball game. At some point this practice stopped — probably when the numbers just became too high. I found it hard to admire my country in that period — my heart broke for both sides of the conflict. I could not forget that “their boys” had fathers, mothers, wives, daughters, brothers and sisters too.
Our Memorial Day celebration is meant to honor those who have served and now serve, in the work of defending our country by being ready for, or waging, war. These men and woman, once “our boys” deserve certainly to be honored for their many sacrifices in dedicating their bodies and minds to our defense and protection, and I do, indeed, so honor them.
I only wish that their services were no longer needed. Body counts still bother me.
Carol Dee grew up in the Eagle River/ Chugiak area during the late 40s and 50s, and has happily lived in Homer for the past 15 years.