Bob – Years after Vietnam
He stood gazing down the pier. His eyes although stoic swelled up producing a tear that grazed his cheek. It was a lifetime ago, but the memory was still as vivid as the day it happened. He stared at the ships lining the pier searching for a destroyer that looked like his ship. He remembered it as if it were yesterday. This was one memory he could never forget. He would never forget, never!
It was a familiar location and one he walked many times before. He was on the 32nd Street Naval pier in San Diego looking down toward the berthing of the military vessels that protected our country. Even though it was more than forty years ago, it seemed as if it was that first day – he was a “young one” who just enlisted in the Navy. Looking back was not easy and remembering what happened was even harder. Finally, he needed to talk to someone to tell them what happened before his life came to an end.
As he stood on the pier looking at his ship, he recalled all that happened. He thought to himself, I’ve never told anyone this before except Bubba. I was 18 years old and my first time away from home. These words came from a man in his 60’s. Time had passed but the memories were as fresh as if it happened today.
Looking back was painful, but facing the present was just as painful. He was about five feet eight inches tall, bald as an eagle and wore bib jeans. Robert spoke with a Southern accent and you couldn’t help but like him after spending just a few minutes with him. He had an infectious laugh that drew you into him as you waited with bated breath for his next story. Robert, or Bob to his friends, was one of many of the men who uttered the same words “I’ve never told anyone this before”. He knew because he served as a sailor aboard the USS Lawrence Mathers when he was eighteen years old. He was one of about three-hundred and fifty sailors to sail on the ship and he was so proud to do so.
In the late 1960s, the Vietnam Conflict was in full swing and the call to war was beckoning many young men. Bob chose the U.S. Navy as his way to serve the country even though he never was on a ship or a boat of any size. It was the adventure that called to him and he was excited. As an eighteen-year-old, he felt like the world was at his fingertips. He was hot stuff in his Navy uniform and his white Dixie hat tilted to one side to showcase his beautiful blonde head of hair.
He was so proud of his hair. It was thick, wavy and “his crown”. He particularly enjoyed the attention it drew from women. They seemed to gravitate to him just to run their fingers through his hair. And, he loved it! That was then.
Years later his life had changed. After he left the Navy, he decided to go back to his roots. He found a small piece of land with a farmhouse on it. It was ideal for him and not very expensive. Home to him was that small farmhouse, but now he shared it with his wife. Bob lived on a farm in the middle of the farming area in Virginia. His farmhouse consisted of one bedroom, a kitchen, a living room, and one bathroom. His wife was fighting for her life and battling multiple sclerosis. It was Bob’s job to look after her and make her comfortable. Social security didn’t go far, and he stretched every cent to make ends meet.
This life was much different than he experienced as a young sailor seeing the world. Gone were the different seaports of the world. He missed the excitement of seeing what other countries were like. On the brighter side, gone were the horrors of war. Or were they really?
One day as he stood in front of the mirror, his crown of glory started to disappear!
“What the heck?”
Stroke by stroke, Bob’s hair started to fall out as he ran the comb through it! Bob looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize what he was seeing – he couldn’t believe it! He looked in the sink and on the floor. Sure enough, there was his beautiful crown of glory! What the heck? This can’t be. This isn’t possible. Hair doesn’t fall out like this. He stared at his reflection in the mirror. He was completely bald. Who was this person in the mirror?
“I’m no one without my gorgeous hair.” Bob stumbled into the other room where his wife sat in a wheelchair. She looked at him and screamed, “Oh my God Bob, what have you done? Why did you shave your head and all those beautiful curls – gone!”
He was close to his wife, but he couldn’t tell her, he just couldn’t do it. For many years he silently suffered from exorbitant internal turmoil resulting in the inability to cope with simple day-to-day problems. This manifested itself in forms of abuse. He would have outbursts of temper striking out at anyone near him. The verbal and physical abuse were the worse symptoms of his illness. He was unable to deal with any close relationship. Getting close to another person meant sharing what he held deep down inside.
If anyone tried to get close, the shield went up helping protect him from revealing what was deep within.
Still, he couldn’t understand why he was so conflicted. When the thoughts of suicide came to him, he tried hard to push them out of his mind. He couldn’t leave now. Who would take care of his wife? No, suicide wasn’t the answer for him even though the pain was so great.
It’s so hard to deal with everything. Suicide would take the pain away forever. Why can’t I go through with it?
Bob thought through every detail that would be the result of his death. How would his wife take care of everything? What would happen to her? She can’t take care of herself at all. She needed him! Oh my God, she needs me! I need to take care of her. I must put her needs before my needs and endure this hell!
As he regurgitated his options, he knew one thing for sure, the secret needed to be protected at all costs! This would be the burden he would take to his grave, but not now. Now he had to put his wife first. He recollected the vows he took when he married her. In sickness and in health, the words rang out. They were both very young when they married. He was twenty-five and she was nineteen. The difference in age didn’t matter, after all, they were in love. Bob remembered how pretty she was then. She still was beautiful to him now, only she couldn’t walk. That didn’t matter because he would walk for her. The years had gone by quickly. Each year was better than the previous one. After the children came, each worked at being the best parent they could be. She would always ask Bob why he was so troubled and sad. Our lives have truly been blessed. We don’t have a lot of money but just look around. We are blessed – we have each other and our children. You have a job. Why aren’t you happy? Is it me? Have I failed you?
Oh my God, just look what I have put her through. He must keep to his vows and take care of his wife, while still protecting the secret.
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