On my eighteenth birthday, I made a visit to the Tuscaloosa draft board with three of my closest friends. Randy had turned eighteen a week earlier; Nick and Richard both on the 20th. At some point earlier in the year, as we waited for spring, and positive news from Vietnam, we had decided to go register for the draft together. Sort of as a joke on the Assistant Principal, who knew us, and knew we were friends.
On April Seventh of that year, two weeks and two days before I would become eligible for military service, we got the news about Yank. Allan Gaines was his real name but we knew him as Yank. He had an old Jeep without a roof or doors, and mounted a big chair in the very back. Whoever sat there looked like Granny Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies. He joined the Marines and was excited about going to war.
I remember bits of the funeral. Ronald, the baddest motherfucker in our inner circle, broke down like a little girl as we walked outside. The rest of us were in shock. During the viewing, it appeared that Yank’s face had been put together with clay, but that could be just me.
I also remember Taps. It was my first military funeral and hearing that song on a single horn was the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. To this day. And I was going to put my name on an availability list before the month was out.
I always think about Yank on Memorial Day, and some guy named Blackie. He was the only casualty my father ever talked about when discussing his time in World War II. I missed a lot of sleep while my brother was in Vietnam but he made it home alive. Different but alive.
I don’t remember Memorial Day 1968. Everyone I knew was desperately trying to get into the National Guard or the Army Reserves. No one wanted to be drafted and no one wanted to join the Marines. Anyone going to college could get a deferment but I had already decided to work and get married. I didn’t know anyone with rich parents, so the idea of a medical deferment was beyond my comprehension.
I do know that in those days every family was affected by that war because of the draft. Supporting the military is much easier today because such a small number of people enlist, and many are people that think their best chance at a good life is militarily. We tell strangers thanks for their service, but most of us don’t know many people actually serving.
1968 proved to be the deadliest year for American soldiers. Almost 17,000 soldiers were killed, more than in any other year before or after. I got my draft notice in May of 1969, about two days after my wife found out she was having our first son.
News reports suggested the war was winding down as the country was ripping apart. I called the local draft board and asked if becoming a father changed my status, not expecting much success. I was told it did, and to forget about reporting. I was too damn scared to dig any deeper.
Memorial Day is for remembering those close that died for us during wartime. Maybe one day, if we’re lucky, war itself will be a faint and distant memory.