Rita is Back

My Soldier, Our Hero

Posted in Odd Stuff by ritaisback on December 1, 2010

Once again I go back in time and try to come full circle.  It all starts with fashion:  the great fashions of our day, most of which have gone out of style, were the mood ring, the Huck-a-Poo Shirts, the puzzle ring and the Bracelet.  Most of the girls I knew had the Bracelet and wore it daily.  It was made of silver and if you didn’t put clear nail polish on the inside weekly, it turned your arm black.  Fine silver it was not.

For those of you who haven’t figured it out yet, I am referring to the POW Bracelets that we wore with pride.  Being young and foolish, it was like adopting a Soldier.  Of course, my POW Bracelet came with a defect:  it had a hole in it.  I wanted to get another one, but my mom thought it was ridiculous to spend another $3.00 for such a minor glitch in my Bracelet.  Once again, I found myself having something different from my peers.  Their Bracelets were whole, not WITH a hole.

It took 2 weeks of wearing my Bracelet to discover that there was not a defect in it; the hole meant that “my soldier” was NOT a POW.  He was an MIA.  When my mom discovered this fact, she was now ready to pay for another bracelet.  She had been told that MIA’s were far less likely to come home than POW’s.  She didn’t want me to presume that my soldier had little chance of being found.  By then, however, I had adopted Major Paul.  He was my soldier and I swore, as only the young can, that I would wear that Bracelet forever in his memory.  Ten-year-olds had no concept of what “forever” even meant.  Major Paul was mine and would be for life.

We grew up watching “The Viet Nam Show” on our televisions.  It was a gruesome series, but not a day went by when an episode did not convey new information or show the daily coffins arriving for burial.  When the 6:00 News came on, we watched our serial drama, understanding little yet searing visual horrors in our minds.  After the 6:00 News, we ate dinner (no TV at the dinner table).  We were reminded to eat everything on our plates because there were children starving in Biafra.  I didn’t really know what a Biafra was, but I cleaned my plate to the last drop, lest a child die if I left a green bean still on my plate.  These were the first years when I was developing a social conscience.  As the months went by I began to ask questions and wouldn’t be satisfied until I had an answer that made sense.

As the war that was really a “conflict” started to come to a close, many of us had already removed our POW Bracelets.  I didn’t.  I had adopted a soldier and would tend to his memory forever – until the day that the Bracelet snapped in two.  Though not terribly superstitious, I knew that my Major Paul was forever gone.  He was never coming home.  I cried for days, believing that if I hadn’t broken the Bracelet, Major Paul still had a chance.  I had brought doom upon him.  Would I ever forgive myself?

It didn’t matter.  The conflict ended, our soldiers were coming home and many POW’s were being released.  It was a time for jubilation.  The (mostly) boys who went to fight had been brought home as much by the Suburban Moms as by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  As time went on, many soldiers were ridiculed, taken to task for unseemly conduct, addicted and horribly underappreciated.  The farther we got our minds away from these baby-killers and napalm throwers, the better off we were.  No more Viet Nam and no more Bracelets.  Still, I never forgot Major Paul.  As the years went on, I thought of him less and less, yet I had never fully let my adopted soldier’s name to escape my memory.

When my older daughter graduated from college in 2009, she was recruited by the NIH to work on a two-year study of schizophrenics.  After she settled into her D.C. apartment, I told her that I wanted to visit.  When we made our plans, I told her that we could do very little due to my health; I was going through a very rough patch and was  having trouble walking.  There was, however, one thing I wanted to do.  I wanted to visit the Viet Nam Memorial, which I had never seen.  After all these years, I wanted to find my Major Paul and say “thank you.”

Veronica set me up at the hotel closest to her hovel – the place eerily known as the “Hinckley Hilton” as that was where Ronald Regan, James Brady and others had been shot in the assassination plot.  As soon as my taxi pulled into the turn-around, I recognized it.  My trip was turning odder and odder as past melded with present.  We ate dinner and made plans to meet the next morning and go to the Viet Nam memorial.

As the day arrived, I made certain that I had a pencil and piece of paper in my bag so that I could take a rubbing of my Major Paul’s date of death.  We approached the Monument and my knees were buckling.  This was a beautiful tribute to death, with its sleek black stone and the highs and lows of years when we lost more or less soldiers.  Over 58,000 names were carved into this black behemoth.  I was awed.  I was speechless.  I was crying.  I was going to lay Major Paul to rest.

The weather was cold and rainy and there were few people at the Monument that day.  Veronica went to the book and looked for Major Paul.  As I unsteadily walked the length of the Wall, Veronica told me that my Major Paul wasn’t there.  Of course she had made an error – MIA’s didn’t come home.  “Look again,” I said.  I was ready to reach in to my bag to grab the pencil and paper once she returned and told me what panel he was on.  She came back and told me “Mom.  He’s not there.  Your soldier made it.”

I was in shock.  Major Paul survived the war?  I had mentally buried him over 35 years ago!  The rain was pounding and we got a cab back to the “Hinckley Hilton.”  My emotions were jumbled:  I was elated, I was confused.  So where was my soldier?  How could I find out if he was even still alive?  Veronica advanced a notion.  “Mom, why don’t you google him?”  Hundreds of thousands of soldiers had served in Viet Nam.  What was the chance that my Major would appear in a google search?

When I got back home, I booted the computer and immediately went to google.  My Major Paul immediately popped up.  He had been shot down and taken captive for 3 years.  He underwent torture that was unimaginable. Yet, as a Major, he was credited with keeping up the spirits of the men who suffered with him.  He was awarded so many medals.  And he was alive and  well.  Additionally, I was astounded by all of the sites that one could access to find their own soldiers.

It took me many months to write a letter to Major Paul.  I told him who I was and why I was looking for him.  I thanked him for his service to our country.  He was a career military man, not a draftee.  Though long retired, he was no longer a Major.  He had advanced in rank.  I wanted to keep the letter brief, but brevity of words is clearly not my long suit.  I gave him my contact information.  I mailed the letter and did not hear back from him.

Until last month.  The phone rang and I saw the name on my caller ID and almost fainted.  The voice on the other end was still strong, given his age.  He was kind and pleasant and wanted to know about MY life.  We talked for about 20 minutes, with Major Paul avoiding all talk of Viet Nam and the heroism he had displayed.  He didn’t see himself as a hero.  He had a job to do and he did it.  I was humbled by his attitude.  He wanted to hear about the little girl – and the grown woman – named Rita, who had never forgotten him.  When I asked if I could tell our story, he said “sure, but please don’t use my last name.”  I assumed that he wanted his privacy.  Instead, he told me that by just using his first name and Rank, that perhaps others would believe that he was THEIR Major Paul as well.  “I’m certain that most of your friends have forgotten the names on their Bracelets.  Please let me stand in for those brave soldiers and give thanks to your friends for keeping their hopes alive.”

THAT’S a hero.

Do you remember your soldier’s name?  Did you follow up on what became of him?  Do you still have your Bracelet?  I’d love to hear from anyone who still remembers that information.  Please tell me your stories in the “Comments” section.  What a wonderful tribute that would be for the war that never happened.


The Dentist, The Mugger, The Bank Robbery

Posted in Odd Stuff by ritaisback on January 7, 2010

I  have to thank Dave at www.bloggerdad.com for inspiring the telling of the odd experience I had recently.  I urge you to read his riotous post, “People are Animals.”

Over the long Thanksgiving break I cracked a tooth.  I was having too much fun with my family to even notice it at the time, yet after the long weekend I realized that I should phone my dentist to have the tooth fixed before it became a painful bother.  This was not an easy decision for one reason:  I loathe going to the dentist.  Years of childhood experiences with poor dentistry put a fear in me that has lasted for years.  Nonetheless, the Monday after the long weekend I called my dentist of over 20 years and made an appointment for the following Friday.

I was a nervous wreck all week.  Though I like my dentist personally, I assiduously try to avoid him at all costs.  As the day of the appointment finally arrived, I drove myself to the large office complex where the dentist is located, which happens to be in one of the worst parts of one of the most disgusting cities in all of America.  Good fortune must have smiled upon me, as I got a parking spot right next to the window of my dentist’s first-floor exam room.  As I was locking my car, another car stopped.  The car was filthy.  Inside the car were two very large, menacing lugs of young men.  My New York City mentality immediately kicked in:  extricate myself from what could be a potentially harmful experience as politely as I could without showing the terror which was now controlling my mind.

The driver of the car had his window rolled down.  He addressed me with “Hey lady, you got any cash?”  

“Um, ah, not very much”

I walked on.  The men in the car followed me.  “Hey lady.  I’m here with my friend who has to have some stuff done.  Your front bumper is hanging off and I’ll fix your bumper for $200 cash.  I have nothing to do but wait for the next hour.  Whaddya say?”  I knew that this was a $600 job, as I had already checked with my mechanic and ridiculously decided that I didn’t want to spend that amount on a bumper that was an eye-sore but could wait until I had an extra $600 to get it repaired.

I turned to the rather large and somewhat intimidating man. “Sorry.  I don’t have $200 in cash.  Thanks for the offer, but I have to get into the dentist.”  He persisted.  “How much cash do you have?”  It quickly became clear to me that I was going to be robbed.  Rather than risk bodily harm, I opened my wallet.  “Look, I have 4-$20 bills.  That’s it.”  “Well, there’s an ATM right over there so you can get the other $120 for me right now.”  Great.  Now I was being mugged by a guy with math skills.  “Sorry, I don’t have my ATM card with me.  Thanks for the offer but I have to get into the dentist’s.”  “No problem.  Give me $40 up-front.  Tell me your dentist’s name and when I’m done I’ll come in for the other 40 bucks.”  I breathed a sigh of relief.  This escalating situation was going to cost me $40 to be rid of these guys.  I handed him the two twenties, grateful that my wallet had not been demanded and that my life was going to be spared for 40 bucks.   Shaken, I walked into my dentist’s office, was immediately called in and took my seat in the chair of agony.

Of course, there is a back story.  How had my bumper gotten to be this way in the first place?  I admit that the only thing that I fear more than the dentist is the bank.  I know.  It sounds odd, but I am terrified to enter a bank.  I will use the drive-thru unless it is imperative that I have to do more sophisticated banking (which I try to leave for my husband to handle).  When I worked in Manhattan in the early ’80’s I was involved in a bank robbery where three men came out of nowhere, opened fire and shot the bank guard.  We were ordered to lie on the ground and not make a sound.  As I lay there, munching carpet while the robbers did their thing, constantly threatening us with death if we moved, all I could think of was “Please God.  DON’T let the cops show up.”  One might think that under the circumstances the average person would be praying for the police.  One would be wrong.  While trembling with a mouthful of fibers, one does NOT want to be taken hostage.  During an armed bank robbery the ONLY thing that one wants is for it to end:  fast and without more bloodshed. 

What did this have to do with my bumper?  I will try to connect the dots.  Last Spring I had to make a bank deposit.  I went to the drive-thru and miscalculated the room that my car had between the concrete pillars.  Instead of easing my car through the small opening I accidentally hit one of those concrete pillars with the front of my car.  The pillar emerged victorious, taking my front bumper with it.  I emerged furious with myself yet unharmed.  I re-adjusted my car, went to the drive-thru the proper way, made my deposit and took off, thoroughly embarrassed.  This led to months of people asking me the obvious:  “Did you know that your bumper is hanging off.”   Sarcasm aside, my answer would be a simple “yes” as opposed to “gee, no.  I’m a total idiot and had no idea.  Thanks for letting me know, you asshole.”

Back to the dentist’s and my altercation with the mugger.  As I sat in the dentist’s chair, telling him what had just happened, we both agreed that I was lucky to escape unscathed for $40.  My hands tightened on the arms of the chair, knuckles whitened, as the drill of agony started to whirr.  The Nitrous Oxide was doing its job.   “Marathon Man” was  firmly rooted in my subconscious, mixed with the little fishie mobile on the ceiling and the distraction of this nasty looking man outside the dentist’s window, now trying to steal my car. 

Tooth fixed, gas mask off, I stood up just as the menacing man entered the dentist’s office, hand in pocket.  Certain that we were all going to be shot, the mugger approached the reception area.  There stood the dentist, his receptionist and me, all a-tremble.   As this huge lug pulled his hand out of his pocket, the three of us were now in a pants-wetting situation.  Out came the hand.  Our eyes were agape as he pulled out his business card, complete with his name and the words “Licensed Auto Mechanic.”  He said “Forget about the other 40 bucks.  I don’t want you to have to walk around without any cash in your wallet.  Please tell your friends about me if they ever need a mechanic and have a great holiday and a Happy New Year.”

I had pre-judged.   Here I was, a teacher who had taught so many classes on ethics, prejudice, racism, bigotry and hatred, now standing with the back of the crow hanging out of my mouth.  Not all people behave like animals.  I was humbled and ashamed at myself by the experience.  The proverbial “Good Samaritan” did still exist. 

Please let me know if you need a good auto mechanic.  Rather, please let me know if you want the name of a gentleman. 

Does anybody have a “Good Samaritan” story that they’d like to share?  If so, I’d be delighted to hear about it.  (BONUS POINTS if you word-meisters can figure out the actual time of my dental appointment!)

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