The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.
There are 58,245 names listed on the Vietnam Memorial. Let that thought sink in for a moment. The Wall isn’t just an artistic expression with names engraved in it for visual effect, these were men and women, mostly young, that had mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends. I mention this man, to give a glimpse into the flesh and blood, the spirit, and the quality of man he was.
Patrick Lynn Blair.
We met for the first time, on the playground of David Crockett Elementary school. Pat was bigger than me, which made us the two of the biggest kids in the schoolyard. Being the new kid he was quickly introduced to me by other schoolmates and he had been forewarned of my proclivity for losing my temper and going into a rage. In actuality, that only happened a few times and I was working on controlling my temper. When we met, surrounded by other kids, we exchanged pleasantries while checking each other out. I could tell from his eyes he didn’t want any part of me and I tried to disguise that I felt the same way.
Throughout our years, growing up in Marshall, Texas, we were always friends, yet for such a small town, we never did that much together and hung out with different people. Pat was even more of a country boy than I was and he was also more serious and worked when he wasn’t in school. We played on different baseball teams in Little League and Babe Ruth League. While Pat didn’t play football, which is generally expected of young men in East Texas, especially for a big guy like Pat, he truly loved baseball. One day I ran into his older brother, who was more outgoing than Pat, and I mentioned to his brother that Pat’s team and mine were playing that night. His brother’s eyes got big and he said “Ohhh, that explains why Pat was heat treating his new bat over the kitchen stove this morning.” Pat was competitive, in a gentlemanly way.
The last time I saw Pat was on the occasion of our “All Night Party” after our high school graduation, 1 Jun 68. Pat had actually graduated at mid-term our Senior year and enlisted in the U.S. Army shortly thereafter. He was one of several young men from Marshall that were serving and more would soon follow, as events in Vietnam would require more men.
It was good to see Pat that night and he was still the serious, looming presence he had always been, but he was different. His formerly boyish looks had now transformed into a lean, fit young man. He wore his Class A uniform with pride and he looked fantastic; an example for his still carefree classmates.
As we stood on the stone bridge over a creek, and having a cold beer, we talked. Not just about silly teenage things, but we talked as two men, thoughtfully, seriously and with emotion. We talked as we never had and I thought how little I actually knew about Pat and wished we had talked like this all the years we had known each other.
Pat informed me that he was on leave before shipping out to Vietnam, that he really wanted to be home to receive his diploma and see his old friends again. He had missed the simple life of a small town, his Momma’s doting love for him and her home cooking. I remember not knowing what to say about his deployment, I was young and still didn’t quite understand how deadly serious war was. I didn’t have the words, as I didn’t have the understanding.
It was at that time, that Pat looked at me and asked if I remembered the first day we met and I said that I did. He gulped on his beer, looked out over the creek and said, “I was really afraid of you, that you would beat me up.” I was shocked and in the spirit of the moment, I admitted that I had been afraid of him too. We looked at each other in stunned silence, then cracked up laughing. As we finished our beers and headed back inside to the dance, Pat turned his back to the creek, yelled ‘Geronimo’ and threw his beer bottle over his head, in a lazy arcing pattern. There was only one spot which wasn’t cement and was a mudpile, and his beer bottle hit there without breaking. We laughed so hard we had to hold each other. We went inside, never to visit again.
I called his house a few days later, to see if he wanted to go fishing with me,and his sweet Momma answered the phone. She informed me he had already gone back to his base and she didn’t try to conceal her concern for her baby boy. She did mention that he had told her about the great conversation we had.
Months went by and I was attending a local college and working at a local grocery store/deli, hanging out with my friends and girlfriend. Life was still simple, but the news from Vietnam was constant, like a dull headache. Then one day, I received a phone call from a friend, Pat had been killed in action. The information I got from others about how he died was conflicting and confusing, and I was informed it would be a closed casket funeral.
I couldn’t go to his funeral.
Oh, I could have rescheduled the dentist appointment and gotten off of work, but I didn’t try. I couldn’t go because I was afraid. Afraid of how I would feel, afraid to face my own mortality and the fragility of life, and I was afraid that the fond memory of our last meeting would be replaced with that of a funeral for a childhood friend. A good man, a good son and a good friend.
I have not, nor will I ever forget, Pat. He was my friend.
Not just a name on a wall.
*UPDATE*-Received an email from a friend of Pat, that served with him in Viet Nam. The following is from his email.
“Pat and I often shared the same bunker.In fact, we shared the same bunker on LZ White, the site of his death. I would be out on missions for 4-8 days at a time. When we returned to the rear these spartan bunkers were home. On March 20, we returned from a mission, and the company commander instructed me that it was time for me to have a break, and to return to the rear area with the supply chopper, and to get a shower, fresh cloths and to get drunk. I did so, and was awakened in the early morning hours and advised that LZ White had been hit by special sapper units.
Before catching the first chopper out, I knew that we had casualties, but had no names. Upon arrival, I learned that Pat was among the dead. He was killed in the bunker we usually occupied together. While he did not die rushing to the mortar pits, it does not detract from his courage. I learned that the enemy rocket fire was so intense, that few people were able to leave the safety of their bunkers.
The sappers who infiltrated the perimeter not only directed rocket fire into the perimeter with devastating effect, but also was comprised of individuals who ran from bunker to bunker hurling satchel charges inside. This is what happened to Pat. The satchel charge produced an intense concussion which claimed his life.”
I am glad to know, finally, what happened to my friend Pat, as painful as it is. A decent and good man.