It was February 20th, 2016. A reserve Unit Training Assembly (UTA) weekend was underway.
I head to Outback Steakhouse for some sustenance, and as always happens on a UTA weekend, if I want to eat I’m going to have to sit at the bar. I’m generally rolling solo so this isn’t a problem.
The bar’s not too terribly crowded, but the safest spot appears to be down near the end, next to the very nicely dressed older woman. (I would have thought late 60’s, early 70’s. I’d find out later I was off by a decade.)
The bartender walks up and says “What will it be tonight, Chris? Sweet tea or Mr. Pibb?” Announcing to all within earshot that the Most Boring Man in the World had just sat down.
As I’m looking over the menu (I’ve been recently been informed to stop ordering sirloin because I’m wasting my money) she speaks: “I came in here to order one of the specials, but they stopped making it this week.” Instead she was sitting there quietly, slowly nursing a drink that was almost gone. The other bartender approached and said the couple (about my age) wanted to buy her a drink, and she accepted. I ordered my food; they delivered her Cosmo.
“It’s awfully crowded tonight.”, she said. I explained to her that it was a reserve weekend, so Goldsboro has about 700 visitors, none of which have kitchens, so they all forage for grub at the local restaurants. She asked where I was from, and where I grew up…. and that is when the most amazing hour came into focus.
I was born in Alabama, and she had lived in Alabama… which led to a conversation about where SHE was from. “I’m from Connecticut originally. I met my first husband there.” Her eyes lit up when she mentioned him which, admit it, doesn’t usually accompany the words “first husband”. When she said “He was a West Point graduate (57)”, I figured out where this story was going.
I heard all about the kids, and the grand kids, and how every branch of service had been represented in her family, except the Coast Guard. I bragged on my family, my boys service, and my “old grad”, Whitney (USMA ’14).
Her husband had requested an appointment through Lyndon Johnson, but Johnson never granted any while he was in office. She still has that letter, as well as a condolence letter written by Johnson… which she said, nearly laughing, that she almost mailed back.
Later on she told of her first husband’s passing in Danang, 12 Aug 1966. He was working as a Ranger advisor to the Marine Corps. He was a Captain, eight days away from promotion to Major. One night, a mortar attack had landed between his units tents and some hardened concrete buildings, causing the shrapnel to deflect back into the encampment. His commander later told her that when the shelling started her husband stood up just in time for shrapnel to slice him across his midsection. She starred at me, blankly for a moment, and said “I know how he died… but that’s OK.”
I heard about the class reunions, which she still attends, and the support they’ve always given her. I was stunned to find out the Thayer Hotel used to have a dormitory wing, where girlfriends could stay (4 to a room, common area bathrooms) while visiting their cadets.
I finished my meal, and she never touched the Cosmo (I think she said yes to be nice), and we went on our way. It was an amazing experience that I’ll never forget.
Fast forward to yesterday. I had shamelessly let “The Wall That Heals” *almost* escape Lake Benson Park (Town of Garner) before paying a visit, but I managed to make it there with a few hours left, my youngest daughter in tow.
As I explained to my daughter the significance of the wall, one of the workers approached and asked if there was someone in particular we were searching for.
I’ve been fortunate that all of my Vietnam era friends and family arrived home alive, before I was born. As I was getting ready to tell him that we were there just to pay respects, those older neurons fired, and I thought about Barbara.
“Yes sir. I’m looking for Erman Newman.”
Out comes the smartphone, he pecks away with his thumbs, to no result.
“Erman”, I say. “Herman without the H.”
He laughs, “That did it. Panel 09E – Line 133.”
And we were off to see Erman, right where they said he’d be.
As for Barbara, she returned to West Point in June of 2018. But instead of being a girlfriend staying in the Thayer dormitory as she did in her youth, she is once again with her husband interred at the West Point Cemetery.
For more information on The Wall That Heals, visit the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Fund at https://www.vvmf.org/The-Wall-That-Heals/