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NOTE: This work won first place at the national level in the Short, Short Story category of the 2012 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.

by J. Allen Whitt


Death came unexpectedly, as death often does.

The news reached Riverview High School just before lunch. Over at the sawmill, as Johnny Kreuger was loosening a tie-down chain on a logging truck, the load of logs rolled off and crushed him.

 Johnny was 19, and had graduated only five months before. The school was small, and all students knew each other. With tears running down her cheeks, Julie Mitchell said, “Oh, it’s awful, just awful. And his wife just had a baby, too.” Carl Riley, her boyfriend, nodded solemnly in agreement.

Carl, the school’s basketball center, was tall and thin and seemed to tilt forward slightly as he walked. He put his arms around Julie and said, “Well…” and then nothing more. He generally didn’t say much, but this time he couldn’t think of anything to say.  She shivered and drew the collar of her jacket close around her neck. It was Carl’s athletic jacket; he had given it to her only the week before, and she was proud to wear the dark blue jacket with the big yellow R on the front.

That fall, Julie and Carl and their classmates struggled to accept the injustice of Johnny’s death, and to understand why death had snatched one from their own ranks.

As the snows of that winter closed in, Johnny was not there to help put up the town’s Christmas tree, or drape the strings of the red and green and blue lights on the wooden poles that supported the town’s lone traffic light. For Johnny’s friends, the winter was made even more cold and bleak by the realization that their days too were finite, and that someday their luck would run out.

Yet Johnny’s death, shocking and raw, was but a prelude to what followed. A few years later, many in the school came to know death far more intimately, as it shredded flesh and tormented minds in places they had not yet heard of—Chu Lai, Khe Sanh, Hamburger Hill.

Today, a wall of 494 feet of black Bangalore granite rises out of the ground in Washington, D. C. like a tombstone. The surface of the wall is meticulously inscribed with the names of 58, 264 men and 8 women, brothers and sisters in arms, now rendered indifferent to all weathers. Carl Riley turned down a college basketball scholarship to be among them.

They did what they were asked to do, and did it well. War in its hunger touched them with fire, and alien swamps and jungles swallowed them up. They became names without stories or faces. Behind the letters that spell out their names, visitors see their own faces in the mirror-like wall, faces that show grief, awe, reverence.

On an April day, the early sunlight filters through the trees and highlights the name of Carl Brendan Riley, Jr. A breeze carries the scent of cherry blossoms. On the black granite ledge beneath the name, almost hidden in the morning shadows, there is a frayed patch of dark blue fabric. On it, there is a large yellow R.


About the Author
J. Allen Whitt is a Vietnam veteran, and an author who has won national awards for both fiction and nonfiction. Following three combat deployments aboard USS Coral Sea (CVA-43) an aircraft carrier, he obtained a Ph.D from the University of California, and is now a retired Professor Emeritus. He lives with his wife Melinda in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he is a member of SouthWest Writers, participates in a writing group for veterans at the local VA Hospital, and does interviews for the Veterans History Project (Library of Congress).
Some of his early life, his Navy service, and his work with veterans, provided the basis for his recently published novel, Notes from the Other Side of the Mountain, published by BlueSkyWriter Publishing (


© 2013 High Priority Targeting, Inc.