TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Memorializing The Living And The Dead

My eyes fluttered awake to the early-morning coos of mourning doves and a halo of light from the window. “Oh, it’s Memorial Day,” I remembered from somewhere in my cavernous REM slumber.

I creaked to the cold kitchen in a season in which it’s too warm to run the furnace and too cold for my bones. I was desperate for coffee, but first, the cat must be served or there will be no peace on this day of peace. Anyone with a cat is unacquainted with freedom. It turns out Squirrel’s complaints were not without cause, though. His bowl was empty.

As I meditated over my first cup of coffee, I remembered a younger time when my chiropractor wasn’t on speed dial, but in many ways, it was a darker time, a time during my teens when an unnoticed gray haze was in the air.

I remembered when John came home from Vietnam; I’d see him in the Ponderosa Bar. Frederick. S.D., was a small town, so the bar is where we all went, teens and adults. There are rules and then there are small-town realities. We had nowhere else to go.

John was stocky, barrel-chested, muscular from carrying something none of us could see. As the night moved on, his smile got heavy until it became a grimace, and eventually he might be standing nose-to-nose with some cowboy, a victim-in-waiting, who John had mistaken for his demons. I’d step between them because I knew John liked me, and that would break the trance. Sometimes he’d sob.

I thought about Donnie Davidson who was mayor when I moved to Hettinger. N.D., three decades ago, and I remembered the harrowing tales he reluctantly told of Vietnam during an interview, how he walked point his first day in the field. That was the lot of North Dakota farm kids. They were more aware but just as scared and just as expendable.

I remembered watching the draft lottery as a teenager, remembered watching the war in bloody black and white in our living room, thinking that I might be next.

So Memorial Day began with me thinking about the living, the scarred and scared, the resolute, the happy and the hollow-eyed. I remembered, too, the scoreboard in the Frederick Auditorium, a place so claustrophobic that when players took the ball out of bounds, they were against the wall and their feet crossed the line.

“In Memory of Donald Layton,” read a carefully lettered sign below the scoreboard. Black paint on a white board. I never knew PFC Donald Dean Layton, but I knew I could have been him. Dead at 21 at a place called Quang Tin, Aug. 4, 1970, awarded a Bronze Star posthumously for valor.

That gray haze was everywhere. It was in the library in LIFE magazine, where, ironically in 1969, LIFE published individual photographs of 217 soldiers killed one week in June.

I was 11. Life seemed implausibly brief then, and I’d begun to wonder if the war made any sense at all. Millions of teenaged boys were psychological victims before they were ever drafted. Life and death decided by lottery ping-pong balls. Life During Wartime.

Later, when enveloped by that gray haze to which I was oblivious because it’s just the way things were, I realized that the human species is suicidal. Often brave, noble, ingenious, enlightened and transformational but desperately suicidal. Beautiful, tragic idiot savants. We choke ourselves with our toxic air, pollute the water we drink, steal from the weak, build bombs to kill us all and wade into fights that no one wins.

Nixon ended the draft in June 1973. Saigon fell in April 1975, and now we wear T-shirts from Vietnam. I graduated in 1976, America’s flag-waving bicentennial year. By then, we’d fought in nine major wars. We’ve had three more since.

Later, I stopped at the cemetery to see the bouquets and flags, the records of abbreviated lifespans chiseled into the granite. Others lived long lives, days free of haze, when a bad memory is a good thing, with children, grandchildren and time well spent on this good earth.

I saw mourners. I heard silence. Then the rifle volleys from the American Legion Hall a mile north.

The Frederick Auditorium is just a concrete shell of echoes now, the roof and floors have collapsed and the scoreboard is long gone. Turns out, no one won. I’ve seen a picture of Donald Layton in uniform. If it’s possible to look young and harrowingly old at the same time, he did. It’s like he knew. He would have been 72 on April 26, 2021. If you’re keeping score.

© Tony Bender, 2021

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