By T.W. Burger
When I was still new at being a newspaper reporter, I spent time every spring writing a Memorial Day column in tribute to my boyhood friend Herman Fields.
Herman and I were in the same Boy Scout troop a long time ago. He was a garrulous, silly, tow-headed farm boy with an endless supply of brothers and an infectious, horsey grin.
I remember one night at Camp Rainy Mountain, Herman set the whole troop laughing when, tossing in his upper bunk, he rolled out of bed and tumbled six feet to the ground.
Faking the voice of a little boy, he cried out: "I fall down go BOOM!"
Less than 10 years later, a couple of days into his second tour in Vietnam, Herman stepped on a landmine and came home, accompanied by the usual telegram and flag.
A substantial number of reliable sources say our current president has called those who enlist in the military, especially those who were captured or who fell, as “losers” and “suckers.”
The president’s tasteless remarks frosted me.
I did not serve very long in the military, and did not see any action, but I did volunteer and have an honorable discharge. It was not a noteworthy service, but I am proud of it.
I came back mostly unscathed, though not without damage.
Herman’s story did not go so well.
At the Vietnam Memorial in D.C., Herman's name is there, along with those of 58,318 other men and women who died for something they could not see, feel, or touch.
I did not support the war. I was one of those hippies who stood on the sidewalks and yelled obscenities at busloads of soldiers going to the war. I know now that I was yelling at the wrong people.
I do not know if Herman believed in the war. But he believed in the system, however flawed it was. I suppose, coming from a large family, he knew that something could be imperfect and full of dissent and still work.
Maybe that was stupid. Herman did not think so.
Now and then I get into D.C. and stand before the Black Rock. If you have never been there, the black granite from India is polished to a mirror finish. Into this surface is incised the names of the dead, in the order in which they died. It is that long fog of names stretching out in either direction that holds a kind of horror. The awful chronology of it helps chill one's heart, makes one's breath come hard.
I am told that there is no time of day or night that there is not somebody standing vigil at the wall, near some name that once went with a living person, some Herman that someone came to remember.
I once saw a grizzled old biker, his gray hair in a braid, his bare arms purple with tattoos, weeping unashamedly at the wall, his fingers resting on one name.
People often touch the names they know. It is that kind of place. In the polished surface, reflections stare back silently at the visitors, like ghosts.
War is the stuff of history, a convulsion against which the milder records of treaties and coronations serves only as a backdrop. It is the breast at which green historians nurse and the last tonic they imbibe in their dotage.
But it is not the historians who pay the price of the show, nor the policy-makers, who decree that such things should be, but Herman, multiplied by 58,318, by however many millions of farm boys and store clerks who fell forever silent into some forgotten mud.
“The tumult and the shouting dies," wrote Rudyard Kipling. "The captains and the kings depart.”
A wall full of names is too great a thing to contemplate. Who can envision that many deaths, individually, one by one hurling through the air like broken dolls? Not I.
I just think of Herman and try to hope that in some way his short final arc through the jungle air meant something grander than it seemed at the time. It is already far more significant than any utterance of the creature in the White House.
T.W. Burger was raised in Athens. He graduated from Athens High School in 1967. He worked as a driver of everything from fork trucks to garbage trucks and concrete mixers, has been an apprentice mortician and ambulance attendant.
He has been a newspaper reporter since 1985, mostly in Gettysburg, PA, with various stints at other publications. Semi-retired, he is still working as a freelance writer and lives on the banks of Marsh Creek just outside of Gettysburg.
He is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”