Years ago, I happened upon a website that listed Viet Nam casualties by state and hometown. Curious, I began scanning the list, and was stunned to see names I knew, but had no idea they had been killed. I left my hometown of Pocatello, Idaho, in the late 60s, so I missed out on the news as it must have spread through town. I did know about a classmate’s older brother, killed in our sophomore year. There was a small ceremony at the high school, as I recall. And of the three names I recognized, I had known one. It was more than half a century ago, and my recollection might not be precisely accurate. But I do know what I thought as soon as I saw the names.
They are Gary Frazier, Mike Green, and Steve Merrell. Gary and Mike died in 1968, and Steve died in 1970. Gary and Steve were twenty, and Mike was twenty-one. We knew of each other, but weren’t close. We shared growing up, sometimes at the same school, sometime playing sports together.
With Gary, I was working with a couple of his friends years later, and they were talking about the day they got the news, as a moment in their lives. Gary might have been a year behind me, but I have a fourth grade picture of him as simply one of the nice kids. His family had an egg farm out on Mink Creek, and when we drove there, as our family sometimes did, I would see the Frazier sign on the long, low hen houses—and connect it to somebody I knew.
Steve Merrell was one of the little leaguers, but not on my team. I sensed, at that age, how he was just a little too awkward and unsure to be good—but he was there, not giving up, and acting like he belonged in spite of it all.
I remember Mike Green best, for his feat in sixth grade of shattering a window at school—absolutely legitimately—while playing softball. Our school was one of those 1920s or 30s era three-story, dark brick buildings. Third graders in the daylight basement, first and second graders on the main floor, fourth, fifth, and sixth graders on the top floor. Each classroom had large, multi-pane windows that took up almost the entire outer wall.
We had a backstop and a baseball diamond laid out on the asphalt playground, with the school building down the left field line. It wasn’t all that deep, but try as we might none of us could reach the tempting array of glass. Except one day Mike did. He was a stout, strong kid. If anyone could do it, he could. The sound of breaking glass was wonderful—a great day in the world of sixth grade boys.
I can say I’m from the Viet Nam generation. For most of us, the war hovered obnoxiously over our lives, on the evening news, or provoked generational conflict at the dinner table. It forced me to prolong a disastrous college career to maintain my student deferment until, as I flunked out, I pulled a lucky number in the draft lottery. I was young, oblivious and going on with my life.
Now, as a parent and grandparent, I cannot fathom the unfairness and pain of having a child taken away because the family did not have the money to send them to college, or simply because academics wasn’t their thing.
In reality, I know nothing about Viet Nam. I opposed the war and, rightfully I think, am still disgusted by those who had the power to change what we were doing, but for whatever reason lacked the strength, or courage, or just plain human empathy to do so.
I cannot to this day tell you one thing about our country which is better because of that war. But the choice to be in the war was never forced upon me. I don’t know what I would have done—and I would never second-guess those who made that choice, or pretend to know what it was like for them, and what it is like now.
But I do know what it means to see your own child at twenty or twenty-one with the whole world laid out before them. And I know Gary, Mike, and Steve never got to do that, never saw the children, grandchildren, loves and friendships that life has to offer.
The fifty years I had that they didn’t gave me experience, thoughtfulness, but not acceptance. What happened to them should never be accepted. Somehow, though, the years have made protest, or anger over something that cannot be changed, seem small. Sometimes remembering just has to be enough.
Erich Obermayr is a columnist for the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his work here.