My Grandmother's home was just around the curve from the Clinton water tower. You saw the tower, you were practically standing on her old white-washed wooden porch. There was probably a chicken or two in the yard; they'd scatter whenever cars rolled into that big dirt driveway. The neighbor's dog, "Champ" would come off the porch, bark a moment as if to say, "what took you so long?" Then Grandmother herself in the apron of the day would greet us with a loud, "Hello there, I need some hugs!"
A big family gathering this time as cousin Paul was arriving home from Vietnam. Two tours of duty... a proud Marine... but something was so wrong. He wasn't the same. But I was fourteen, going to live forever, and glad to see my favorite cousin. He told me of the time I mailed him Wrigley's chewing gum and he had to do fifty push-ups to keep the gum. Next time I needed to mail it so the mail officer wouldn't know... "Lay all five pieces of gum flat, then tape them to the back of your letter." It worked!
Grandmother's home looked like one of those old southern, stately homes. (Think, "Gone With the Wind" - the movie.) My Grandfather had died before I was born. He and the Mrs. paid the large sum of $1800 for a two story, 35 acre home; with twelve children it came in handy. My favorite part was the porch that wrapped around three-fourths of the house; particularly the wooden swing on the side where the rose bushes grew. South Carolina sand was a natural for the plants. Aunt Pat would be playing hymns in the parlour, while I would absorb the aroma of the flowers. That piano was possibly a hundred years old, but she kept it tuned for her Mom. Gradually all the brother and sisters would become this all-gospel choir. I preferred rock, but listening while swinging, sure did make a body feel peaceful. Then again, maybe it was just the summer of 69.
Pretty soon "the choir" would stop and a massive movement of rocking chairs would start to fill the very front of the porch. Everyone looking outwards toward the road waving, "howdy" to every passing car. Younger cousins filled the yard chasing chickens or playing dodge ball. They would run until they dropped. Only cousin Paul remained in his room on the second floor.
My own family was there for two days. In that time I rarely saw Paul. He seemed to stay out of sight on purpose. My uncle who was still in the Marines and had been to Vietnam, asked everyone to give Paul time. "You cannot imagine," he said, "leaving the killing fields one day to arrive in perfect safety the next. The shock of death surrounds you and then you're home where people are singing hymns. Makes you wonder if God even knows there's a Vietnam."
Two weeks, maybe three passed. A busy fourteen year old was making beach plans. My parents had rented a tiny cottage for a week and I was so ready for fun and sun. In fact we were loading the car when the mail ran. My Mom called out, "Hey, Dixie, here's a letter from Paul for you." I was excited that he might continue writing me after getting home. But then I saw the return address... one of those long, multi-lined, multi-number addresses of the military. He signed on for a third tour. I read as hot tears welled up and fell on my cheeks. He felt that's where he belonged.
"I cannot relate to anyone. Maybe Uncle Tony because he's been here, but even he seems to be okay. He has Aunt Deb and the kids. At home I'm alone. Here I have my buddies; we are family. I cannot leave them. I cannot stay where there is no sound. For in that silence I hear their cries. I love you. Please write. Love, Paul"
When he requested his fifth tour of duty they refused him. Once home he stayed in a drunken blitz. In and out of trouble with the law, and no relationship ever lasted. He was so alone. I was 28 and we arranged to spend a day hanging out. We had so much fun and he didn't drink the entire time. We drove down all the back roads... making it to Grandmother's house finally. Since her death no one was there to care for it. He had a taken an apartment after his Mom threw him out. But on this day none of that mattered to him. He and an old friend were enjoying life. A year later he was dead... fatal car accident, though some suspect suicide. I don't know but I'm certainly not going to cast a stone. If anyone needed peace he did... and those who serve in the same capacity.
Thank you for reading.
I dedicate this video to Paul.