At the time of this posting, Memorial Day in the US was yesterday – Monday, 28 May, 2012. Honestly, I think it’s a Hallmark Holiday with good intentions. It’s not nearly as blatantly self-serving as, say, Sweetheart Day, Secretary’s Day or Buy Someone A Card Just Because Day for those few days that don’t have a card already attached to them, but given that the original idea of honoring those who have fallen in the line of duty for their country has been perverted to ‘pick the closest Monday so we can weasel a three day weekend out of it’ and ‘what the heck – break out the white shoes and summer frocks and call it the ‘official’ first day of summer’ even though Summer Solstice is actually closer to the end of June than the end of May. I fully recognize the part about honoring fallen heroes. The three day weekend bit? Not so much.
Still, it serves its purpose
This is the part, faithful reader, where every year at this time and in this spot, relatively speaking, I break out the litany of family members by blood and marital ties (which, come to think of it, still meets the ‘by blood criteria albeit in an entirely different form) have served or are serving in some branch of the armed services in some capacity. Take a deep breath and relax – I’m not doing that this year.
I want to focus instead on the one I missed, and personalize it, if I may.
My war, if you will, was Viet Nam. I missed it for a combination of reasons, the most important of which are my place and date of birth. I was born in north central New Jersey on New Year’s Day, one thousand, nine hundred fifty three anno domini, and therein do it lie, the birthday boy caveat emptor. Yes, I know that’s not the word I want, but my Latin is lacking, and you gotta admit if you’re not fluent in ‘Every Day Latin for the Common Man (AKA ‘Latin for Dummies’), you wouldn’t have been aware of the faux pas.
I was the second child granted admission to the newborn ward of Somerset Hospital Newborn Ward (the preceding comment brought to you by the Department of Redundancy Department - don't worry - read it a few times and you'll get it), much to the disappointment to my parents, not the least of which reason being that it totally scrapped their New Year’s Eve party plans. Worthy of a side bar is that the firstborn that day and place was given a full tuition, books, fees, and residents pass to the New Jersey Ivy League college of her (yes, the firstborn was a gurl (sic)) while all my parents got was “Congratulations Mr. & Mrs. Roth – it’s a boy!”
The door prize came five years later, when school started. This was, of course, during the Jurassic period (now called Study Hall) when school started with kindergarten at age five rather than the currently popular pre-pre-pre-pre-preschool which begins as soon as they apply enough Max Factor to the newborn’s bum to cover his/her/its first head on confrontation with corporeal punishment – the slap on the bottom to get you to cry – a reaction for which you will be told for most of the rest of your life, is unacceptable socially in good families.
Because of this, I started school a year later than my friends, and if you trace my timeline, something I had long before Facebook, you will note that the occasion of my eighteenth birthday was Winter Break (we still called it Christmas Break back then) my senior year of high school.
I went down the next day, my birthday being not only an international holiday, but the day of the big three parades and bowl games, and registered for the still popular Viet Nam Draft.
The number I pulled in the lottery was in the three hundreds. Mr. Nixon signed the papers ending the war days before my number would have come up (and it wasn’t even an election year – not to mention he was in his second term, so re-election wasn’t on his bucket list, and long story short (I know – too late) the Nam came and went without me.
Not so for many of my high school chums. Jeff, Ilene, Bill and Bobby enlisted into the Army. Bruce went Air Force. Others chose from the remaining three branches of the armed services, and some were ‘chosen’. As I said, I opted for the education deferment to let me finish high school, something two years prior had not appealed to me, and ended up missing everything but the Sylvester Stallone Rambo and Chuck Norris movies.
Jeff, Ilene, and Bill made it home. Bruce died, but not from the Nam.
Then there’s Bobby.
Bobby was my best friend. We were in the same Sunday School class at Northwest Baptist Church. We were in high school together. We walked the Everglades at night with Jimmy Booth, another church friend with whom we’d gone camping in the Glades but didn’t bring a tent. Even with 6-12 (90 weight motor oil masquerading as mosquito repellent) we had to keep moving to give the 12-foot wing span blood suckers they grow in the Florida Swamps a moving target to even up the survival odds). We were both in Campus Life, a Christian service club sponsored by Crusade for Christ, and Octagon, a secular service club sponsored by the Optimist Club, and were in the same Boy Scout Troop and Patrol. I was a guest at his parents’ table and hitched a ride to church with his family now and then if I missed the church bus. Bobby was in the Pep Club, and I was the school Mascot. We were grouped together everywhere except high school class. We were the same age, but Bobby was a year behind me in high school because he was held back a year somewhere along the road. We did all night birthday parties, went snorkeling and rode out tropical storms and hurricanes together.
And Bobby died in the Nam fighting to let me keep and enjoy the freedoms I still enjoy.
Oh, it didn’t get him right away. Agent Orange killed him. Friendly fire, you might say. It gave him the tumor in his brain that took twenty years to put him in the ground.
Bobby is why I observe Memorial Day. Bobby and others like him who fought and sometimes died because freedom isn’t free. It has never been free. It will never be free.
Bobby Pagano and others like him are the real heroes. Not the fake comic book heroes who wear a cape, the wannabe heroes who strut about half naked on a stage with a microphone or in front of a cinematic camera, or the spoiled rich kids who make more money in sixty minutes of playing a game than I’ll see in my lifetime.
Real heroes. Heroes who pull on a uniform, pin on a badge, buckle on a gun or a medical kit, and heroes who wear dog tags. Heroes who put themselves in harm’s way every day of their life in my place.
Bobby Pagano was that kind of Capital ‘H’ Hero. My friend.
On this day after Memorial day, I remember my friends and a real hero, and say Thank you, Bobby, and thank you to all the men and women who wear or have worn the uniform. And especially the heroes from ‘my’ war – the Nam. Thank you, God Bless you, and because we got it so terribly wrong thirty five years ago – WELCOME HOME!