Memorial Day is a time when we think about people who have fought and died in defense of their country. This year, Lake Effect essayist Jim Spangler is thinking about the life of a former soldier he learned about years ago.
It wasn’t just two guys hugging in the park that would have caught your attention. It would have been the contrast between them. One in a tattered leather jacket, scruffy beard and a long ponytail escaping from the back of a red bandana. The other man wore his corporate uniform, blue suit, white shirt and red tie. Who was the guy in the leather jacket? I have no idea. But the guy in the blue suit, well, that was me.
You see, it was 1987. We were standing before the Moving Wall, a replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C. that was making a stop in my then home of Wichita, Kansas. Ponytail was there to talk to his wartime “Bud”, one of the many who never made it home. And I was there to pay homage to someone I’d never met. The enormity of the wall with the names of 58,000 lost souls was overwhelming, so much so it bridged the gap between ponytail and me. We hugged, he cried, and I felt like it.
Now, back up one year to May 1986. “Memorial Day is coming up,” one of my editors said. “How about finding someone who died in Vietnam and do a feature story on him.”
Sammy Gardner was the first name that came up. A Wichita State University ROTC graduate, star athlete and an army helicopter pilot, killed in action in May of 1968.
I called his parents, Sam and Rachel Gardner, to ask them if they would agree to an interview for a story about Sammy, with the piece running right before Memorial Day. They said yes and a few days later found me sitting on a couch in their living room reviewing Sammy’s all too short life.
As we talked, Sammy ceased being an abstraction to become a real flesh and blood person, an only child, high school track letter man, working summers for the park department, majoring in math and education at Wichita State, enrolling in ROTC, earning his wings as a helicopter pilot, playing and excelling at golf and enjoying the company of a special girlfriend that Rachel was “crazy about”.
“His girlfriend came around a few times after Sammy died,” Rachel said, “then she kind of drifted away. I can’t blame her. She had her whole life ahead of her. I heard she married and had children. You know, Sammy loved kids, too.” And with that her eyes moistened and she turned away. Dreams of what might have been may be the most cruel dreams of all.
Then we talked about how Sammy died carrying troops into a hot battle zone. On his third trip his helicopter was hit by machine gunfire and it disintegrated in mid-air. For his bravery, he was posthumously awarded the silver star, the nation’s third highest medal. “The funeral was a blur,” said Sam, “but we got over 300 cards. Many of them contain memories of Sammy. We take them out and read some when we are feeling down.”
The interview finally concluded and I left for the newspaper office.
The story ran in the Wichita Eagle on the Sunday before Memorial Day 1986, complete with a large picture of Sammy in his uniform. A few days later I returned to the Gardner home with the picture and a half-dozen copies of the story.
Rachel greeted me and we talked more about Sammy. “Before you leave, be sure to go out to the garage and say hello to Sam. After Sammy died he took up woodworking and now he’s into bird houses. Makes them for the whole neighborhood.”
Sure enough, Sam was there, small paintbrush in hand putting the finishing touches on a red-roofed green-sided birdhouse. “It’s my Pizza Hut birdhouse,” he said with a sly smile (Wichita was then the corporate home of Pizza Hut). We talked a bit then I excused myself to go back to work.
Sam died in March of 1991; Rachel passed away in September of 2007.
Even though these memories are over 30 years old, they are as vivid to me today as the red paint Sam was applying to the roof of that birdhouse.
As this Memorial Day approaches, we are reminded of how often the story of Sam and Rachel and Sammy has been repeated throughout our history, as it continues today. Countless others have been down that sad road the Gardners were forced to take. So many that it can seem overwhelming just as ponytail and I were overwhelmed by 58,000 names on the Moving Wall.
Maybe that’s why I’ll concentrate my thoughts this Memorial Day on Sam and Rachel and Sammy as representatives of all the rest. For they are people, people I know, people who are real. And because a birdhouse is no substitute for a son.