By T.W. Burger
One steamy August day in 1969 my boyhood friend Herman Fields stepped on a landmine, in a place far away from Athens called Binh Thuan Province in South Vietnam and “died outright,” as the records say.
For years on or about Memorial Day I would write about Herman pinwheeling off into eternity. The first time – I forget the year, but sometime in the mid-1980s – I had just visited the black gash of the Vietnam War Memorial and looked up Herman’s name.
More than 58,000 names are engraved on that wall, listed in the order in which they died, not by rank, as is more traditional.
I could not, still cannot, visualize that many dead men and women individually. Except for a few, like Herman, I did not know them, did not know their voices, the sounds of their laughter.
So, Herman became their spokesman, their representative, in a manner of speaking, their ambassador.
Who was Herman? He was a member of the same Boy Scout troop I belonged to. He was always joking and laughing, a fact belied by the official U.S. Army mug shot that ran with his obituary. The apparent rule is that when you get those photos taken, you are supposed to wear your killer face. Herman looked fierce, cold, dangerous. I suppose that after a whole tour in “Nam, he might have actually become that.
Herman was a real jokester.
One summer night at Rainy Mountain Boy Scout Camp, while clowning around in the upper bunk of the open-faced shelter he shared with a handful of other boys, Herman toppled from his bunk and landed with a clatter on the floor.
Everything got really quiet for a moment, all of us fearing the worst.
And then, faking the voice of a little boy, Herman piped up:
“I fall down, go BOOM!” he called, exultantly.
The entire troop cracked up.
Less than 10 years later, two days into his second tour in Vietnam, Herman came home, accompanied by the usual telegram and flag.
If he had survived the war, Herman, who was four months older than I, would be in his early 70s now. It strikes me that in that long stretch of time, the United States of America has rarely ever been at peace. This country has been at war for 228 of its 245 years of existence as a nation.
That means we have had 17 years of peace.
Whether one accepts war as a patriotic necessity at one end of the spectrum or as a grand evil scheme to grow profits for warmongers and to keep unemployment numbers down, those are absurd figures, and a whole lot of Hermans spinning into oblivion like so many broken dolls.
It is not the historians nor the policy-makers who pay the price of these convulsions, but Herman, multiplied by however many million 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."
I hated the war that killed Herman. I still do.
I don't know if Herman believed in it. 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 didn't think so.
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.
President of Marsh Creek Media, 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.
[pHe is the author of "The Year of the Moon Goose" is currently writing “Never Met a Stranger.”