by J. Allen Whitt
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
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,
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
Notes from the Other Side of
the Mountain, published by BlueSkyWriter