We started early that Thursday morning and stopped at a fast food restaurant for breakfast. With my friend Ken’s typical luck, his order got lost. While he waited at the counter, I spread out the newspaper to catch up on the usual—a road rage murder trial, another school shooting. The local television station would not carry that day’s installment of Jerry Springer’s talk and fight show.
By the time we crossed the Alabama state line, I needed to stop at the welcome station to use the restroom. As we turned onto the exit ramp from the interstate, we saw a sign about a memorial for those from Alabama who died in the Vietnam War, and Ken reached for his camera. When I left the restroom, he had already found the name Jimmy R. Waldrep on the memorial.
Ken served four years in the Marine Corps and returned to civilian life. Then, answering a call from the Marines, he volunteered to serve in Vietnam. Although we disagree about America’s presence in Vietnam, Ken talks freely with me about Vietnam. I have gone with him three times to the Moving Wall, the traveling scale model of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. Each time, I have helped him find the name of Jimmy R. Waldrep, then stood back, leaving him alone in the crowd that gathers at the Wall, alone with fifty-eight thousand names. Pointing out how close Jimmy’s name is to the names of the other men killed in the same ambush, he sometimes says if he had not been shorter than they, his name might be on the Wall with theirs.
In the welcome station, we checked a listing of names and found that Jimmy was from Logan. Ken took several pictures of the memorial before we left. When the film was developed later, the image of Ken holding his camera floated over the names carved into the polished stone. As I steered his car back onto the interstate, he stared at the paper with Jimmy’s name and the name of his town. Ken remarked he had always wanted to get in touch with Jimmy’s parents, because he believes Jimmy saved his life. For a long time, neither of us said anything.
Finally, I suggested we stop at the next exit, get some lunch, and check the map to see how close to Logan we would come. Over sandwiches, we looked at the map. We were about fifty miles north of an exit from 65 at Cullman, some twenty miles from Logan. We decided to go to Logan and look for Jimmy’s parents. I drove, sometimes glancing at Ken’s hands, which shook as he clutched the paper with Jimmy’s name and the name of his town. I was thinking about the story Ken had told me several times.
On the fourteenth of September, 1966, Jimmy and the other young men in Ken’s squad had bought a large can of peanuts to celebrate Ken’s birthday. On the ship that night, Ken had sat up late with them, drinking Cokes and eating peanuts, talking about family, friends and girlfriends. The next morning, Ken’s twenty-fourth birthday, they left the ship. On the nineteenth, Jimmy and others lay dead or dying around him. Jimmy was still alive when Ken tried to lift him across his shoulders. Another shot passed through Jimmy’s body and into Ken’s back. Jimmy said “Mamma,” and died. If the shot had hit Ken directly, he believes he would have died.
We left 65 at the Cullman exit and stopped at a convenience store. Ken went into the store to ask directions to Logan, while I considered the possibilities. The Waldreps had moved or died. They were out of town for a few days. They did not want to see Ken. Or, we would meet them, and… I could not decide which would be the worst. Ken took the keys and drove until he came to the blinking caution light which the clerk in the convenience store had told him to look for. He turned left, and for several miles, we looked for Logan. We saw no town, just an occasional trailer or an abandoned store, but eventually we came to an old school with a sign, Logan Junior High.
Ken drove into the parking lot and stopped the car. As we walked into the building, curious young eyes followed us, a novelty so near the end of the school year. In the principal’s office, Ken explained why we were there. Neither the principal nor the secretary recognized Jimmy’s name, but the secretary looked through old school records, while the principal took Ken to meet a teacher who had served in Vietnam, a teacher who thought he remembered Jimmy but was not sure.
Ken and the principal returned to the office. Hanging up the telephone, the secretary told us she had just received a call about a shooting at a school in Oregon. After the principal invited him to use the telephone, Ken dialed the first of several Waldreps in the directory. A distant relative of Jimmy’s answered and told Ken that Jimmy’s father was named Carvin Waldrep.
Ken hung up the telephone and shared that information with the principal and his secretary, Mrs. Bradford, who said, “Mr. Carvin Waldrep? I know him. My husband Billy worked with him for years.” She explained that, yes, she just remembered Mr. Waldrep had a son who died in Vietnam, his only child. Ken said, however, that he remembered Jimmy talking about a sister, that Jimmy was an only son, not an only child.
Ken found the name in the telephone directory, the last name misspelled Waldrop. When he said, “I dread making this call,” the secretary said, “I know him. Would you like for me to call him?” Ken nodded, and she dialed the number. There was no answer. Then, the secretary called her husband, explained the situation, and handed the telephone to Ken.
After a brief conversation, Ken hung up and said her husband Billy would meet us at the school after he left work in about an hour and a half and would go with us to meet the Waldreps. We went back to the car and drove about a mile to a country store Mrs. Bradford had told us about. Ken bought us a couple of sodas, and I went outside to buy a local newspaper from a machine. Ken stayed in the store and talked with the women working there.
Across the road stood an abandoned two-story frame house with a new brick house beside it. When a Japanese pick-up truck stopped for gas, I heard rap music before the engine was switched off. Little birds swooped in widening circles to catch insects and bring them back to feed their babies in nests under the roof that extended over the gas pumps. Ken came out of the store and said the women had told him about the birds, barn swallows. They said they did not mind cleaning up the mess under the nests because the birds kept the mosquitoes away. He looked at his watch and said it was time for us to go back to the school to meet Billy Bradford.
After we returned to the school, we waited under an old tree where children’s feet had worn away the grass. Two girls came through the front door of the school and lowered the flag. The students were dismissed early and milled around the building while their parents’ cars and the school buses passed through the driveway for them. The teacher who had served in Vietnam walked over to talk to Ken, who said once again that the United States had been right to be in Vietnam. I looked at the diminishing group of students and wondered if any of them had guns in their lockers, if any of them might die in some future war.
Mrs. Bradford, the secretary, came out of the building and was talking with us when her husband arrived. He got out of his truck, shook hands with both of us, and said he had felt goose bumps ever since he had talked with Ken. Telling us to follow him, he got back into his truck. Ken drove, and as we turned from one dirt road to another, I wondered if we could ever find the way back to the highway.
As we reached yet another dirt road, a white station wagon passed us going in the other direction, the first car we had seen in several minutes. Billy turned his truck into the first driveway, and we followed him. A tractor pulled up to a shed at the back of the house just as we came in from the front. Billy got out of his truck and motioned to us to stay behind. Ken had described Jimmy as a tall, lanky fellow, like Jimmy Stewart, with thick glasses. The man on the tractor matched that description. He wore green work clothes, a cap, and a mask to keep the dust out of his lungs. Billy had told us Mr. Waldrep had been in poor health. We heard Billy ask, with a respectful informality typical of the South, “Mr. Carvin, are you okay?”
“Yes, I am,” the man on the tractor said, squinting at us.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, I am.” Anxiously, he looked over Billy’s shoulder at us, trying to recognize us or to figure out why we were there. “Well, Mr. Carvin, I’ve got a fellow here who was Jimmy’s squad leader, and.…” Mr. Waldrep sailed off the tractor faster than I would have imagined such a tall man could move. He took a step forward, paused, as if remembering something, and reached for a cane hanging on the tractor.
He and Ken shook hands, his big hand completely covering Ken’s. He explained he had visited Jimmy’s grave that morning, and his wife and daughter had just gone there. “In fact,” he explained later, “when I saw Billy and two strangers here, I was afraid they had been in a car wreck.”
Ken said he would like to visit Jimmy’s grave. Once again, we followed Billy’s truck, with Billy and Mr. Waldrep in it. A couple of miles from the house, we reached an immaculate country cemetery. The white station wagon was parked on the side of the road, and two women were standing by a grave so covered with flowers that I thought it must have been new.
Mr. Waldrep walked ahead of us and spoke briefly to the women. Then, we followed him. Mrs. Waldrep would not have reached husband’s shoulder, even if she had held her head up. She kept her hands together, almost prayerfully, the fingertips nervously brushing together. Delwyn, the sister Jimmy had told Ken about so many years ago, had a plastic bag around one foot.
We shook hands, and fragments of conversations passed among us. Ken stood by Jimmy’s grave, covered with flowers for the Memorial Day weekend. Mrs. Waldrep pointed out to me to her parents’ graves, then two graves nearby, the graves of her husband’s parents. His mother died when he was two, his father when he was nine. Delwyn asked me if I had been in Vietnam. When I said I had not, we stumbled over a few words, until she explained that she had a plastic bag on her foot because she had had some foot surgery the day before.
Ken asked permission to take some pictures of the grave but had only one exposure left on the roll of film. After a few minutes, it was suggested we go back to their house. Walking back to Ken’s car, I noticed many of the graves had the name Waldrep. We followed Billy’s truck, and the Waldreps followed us in Delwyn’s station wagon. Ken turned his car once again into the Waldrep’s driveway. While Ken drove, I put a new roll of film into his camera as we bumped along the dusty road. Back at the Waldreps’ house, we got out of the car and joined the others at the gate. An old dog barked a couple of times before returning to the shade as we passed into the house.
We sat in a sunny room with a fireplace and wood paneling. There was a television set at one end with several photographs of Jimmy on the wall above it. The other walls held about a dozen framed pieces of cross stitch. Mrs. Waldrep sat on a tiny chair by the fireplace, but she did not sit much. She was constantly jumping up, leaving the room to bring back more photo albums, scrap books, and medals.
As I watched her, I remembered a conversation I once had in another country, another language, with a woman whose son had been killed in another war. She asked me if in English we have a word, like widow, to refer to a woman who has lost not her husband but her child. When I said that we do not, she said perhaps that is just too much pain for one little word. Mr. Waldrep sat in a recliner at the opposite end of the room from the television set.
On the table by the chair was a piece of cross stitch, about half completed. Later, he told us he had done all the cross stitch pieces in the room. I looked at his big farmer’s hands and wondered how he could do cross stitch, how he had started such a hobby, even how a man as intense as he is could have a hobby. Ken, Billy, and I sat with Mr. and Mrs. Waldrep and Delwyn for… how long? Two hours, three hours? When Ken mentioned the can of peanuts, Delwyn wiped her hand across her face and said, yes, Jimmy had always liked peanuts, that they had sent him peanuts and Kool-Aid. Delwyn’s husband came in from work. Mrs. Waldrep went into the kitchen and returned with glasses of Sprite for everyone, left again and came back with a tin of cookies.
The tone of Ken’s voice changed, and he told them about that distant ambush, emphasizing that Jimmy had died at five-thirty in the afternoon. Rather than telling them Jimmy had said “Mamma,” Ken said “Mother.” I wondered why he had changed the word, wondered if it would have meant more to Mrs. Waldrep if he had used Jimmy’s word.
Mrs. Waldrep cut an obituary of Jimmy out of a scrapbook to give Ken and also gave him a photo of Jimmy that had belonged to her mother. She had a copy of the same photo of the big-boned country boy in his dress Marine uniform, squinting at the camera through glasses like those his father was wearing. She pointed out that the colors of the one she was giving Ken were faded because her mother had kept it in a frame near a window.
When the clock struck five-thirty, I expected something to happen, something, but nothing did. Ken always calls their son Jimmy, but they call him Ray. I felt like such an outsider, that this detail made an impression on me, was something that I could identify with. My father, Edward Leeon, is a retired Air Force master sergeant—Leeon to his family, Ed to the men he worked with in the Air Force. Sometimes the military demands that a recruit give up not only his hair but also his name, and always, of course, there is the possibility that he must give up his life as well.
The telephone rang, and Mr. Waldrep answered it. It was Billy’s wife. Ken said we needed to leave. Mr. Waldrep told us he had always wanted to meet someone who had been with their son at his death, that Ken could not imagine how many prayers he had answered that afternoon. After shaking hands with Mr. Waldrep and Delwyn’s husband and hugging Mrs. Waldrep and Delwyn, we walked out to the back yard, where we passed cameras back and forth, making sure that everyone had pictures. We had swapped addresses and telephone numbers and promised to stay in touch.
The Waldreps had mentioned that they still had Ray’s truck, thirty-two years after his death. As we walked across the back yard, Ken said that he would like to see it, that he remembered Jimmy talking about it. Mrs. Waldrep and Delwyn returned to the house, and we followed Mr. Waldrep to one of the sheds. He pulled back rolls of fence wire and pieces of plywood so that he could open the door of the yellow truck.
That is all I will record of the conversation that Ken and the Waldreps had. Even as I write this, I know that it is not my story, that I was just an observer. Out of respect for all of them, I originally changed their names, even the name of their town. At Ken’s request, however, I am restoring their names. Ken told the Waldreps, as he has told me many times, that the families of men at war suffer so much more than the men themselves. Perhaps this reminiscence can be a little wall bearing the names of some of these unknown victims of that war, long ago to me, recent to them, so that they, too, will be remembered for their sacrifices. To give you some idea of how many sacrifices were made: if someone set out to spend a similar afternoon with the family of everyone whose name is on The Wall, the project would take almost a hundred and sixty years.
We followed Billy’s truck along several dirt roads until he turned it into the parking lot of a restaurant next to the second or third paved road. As he got out of his truck, Ken got out of his car. Billy shook hands with Ken, and, through the window, with me, calling Ken Mike and me Ken, and thanking us for the experience. Ken thanked him for his assistance before Billy turned his truck in the opposite direction, to go home at last, and Ken and I headed for the interstate.
If I had not recently sold a business, then Ken and I would not have been traveling to visit relatives and friends, and if Ken had not suggested we come back home by a different road, then we would not have been in Alabama. If I had not needed to use the restroom, then we would not have seen the memorial. If Jimmy had been shorter, then the Waldreps might not have made more pictures of the grave of a fallen hero during thirty-three sad years than they had made of their son during twenty years, years which I hope were as happy as they remember.
If we had found a reasonably priced motel next to a decent restaurant that evening, then we probably would have had a good meal before sitting up late, to rehash the afternoon and to think of fifty-eight thousand possible afternoons. Instead, we ate greasy hamburgers and drove many miles, many hours across southern Alabama. We left the state after midnight, rushing past the dimly lit mansions of Eufala, which I had planned to show Ken in what I had guessed would have been early afternoon.
But, I had made that plan in the morning, and I could not believe how long ago the morning had been. We reached my parents’ house in Sylvester a couple of hours later. My mother showed Ken to the guest room. Since my niece was spending the night with them, I was given a pillow and a quilt and was told I would have to sleep in the living room. My mother added that she had stopped the grandfather clock so it would not keep me awake. Still, as I turned uncomfortably on the couch, so tired that I did not know if I was asleep or awake, the old clock did not relent as its hands kept on moving, seemed to keep on moving to five-thirty. You can visit The Wall in cyberspace to help to keep the memories alive.