( A version of this article originally appeared in Breitbart’s Big Peace, Memorial Day 2011.)
( Reprinted in honor of the fallen this Memorial Day)
Eternal Father, Strong to save
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep
Oh, hear us when we cry to thee
For those in peril on the sea.
Every Memorial Day, I search for Dennis in the faces of the worn and grizzled Vietnam veterans. I see thousands — actually, hundreds of thousands — of these faces. The veterans come to Washington, DC every year for the National Memorial Day Parade, and especially for Rolling Thunder, the convoy of bikers riding from the Pentagon to the Vietnam Memorial in honor of our fallen heroes and to raise awareness of all the remaining P.O.W.s and M.I.A.’s.
Whenever the bikes roll into town, ridden largely by bandana-coiffed, leather-vested men prominently displaying American flags, I remember my brief childhood experience with U.S. forces that fought in the Vietnam War. These may be senior citizens with paunches, but I see the young, extremely clean cut young men of 50 years ago and I search for Dennis.
I never find Dennis. I don’t really expect to. Dennis didn’t live long enough to become a veteran and ride a Harley in the National Memorial Day Parade. He went down with the ship, along with the other 98 crewmen of the USS Scorpion, a nuclear submarine that was lost on May 22, 1968. The Scorpion was one of only two nuclear submarines that have been lost. The other was the USS Thresher, which was lost April 10, 1963. There is still no definitive answer as to why the Scorpion sank, but its wreckage was found on the ocean floor at a depth of almost 10,000 feet.
The face I remember as Dennis was the face of a very young sailor who came to The Salvation Army Red Shield Club for Servicemen in New London, Connecticut. He didn’t seem young to me then, though, because I was only in fifth grade. He seemed grown up and handsome, always smiling, and joking at the expense of the Coast Guards with his fellow sailors. I was in awe of all the young servicemen that came to the club, of which my father, Major Walter Hooper, was the chaplain/director.
“Boys!” my mother would exclaim sadly as she viewed the crowded lounge room filled with guys watching a baseball game on television, “They’re just boys!” The sailors and coast guards who came regularly to the club played ping pong and shuffleboard with me as they might have done with their own little sisters back home. The Coast Guards taught me “their version” of the Coast Guard anthem. (I still remember it after all these years.) But it was Dennis that taught me how to play pool, much to the consternation of my Salvation Army father.
If I was like a little sister, Mom was definitely like a mother to the servicemen. She presided over the basement luncheonette counter and a dozen or so table and chair sets where the “boys” could get free coffee and tea, cold drinks, doughnuts, and what seemed to be their favorite – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – anytime the club was open.
On Saturday evenings and Sunday noon after Vespers, the Red Shield Club served a hot meal, such as tuna and noodle casserole (another favorite). I always thought it was odd that these big guys liked such simple food, but my wise mother understood that these meals reminded them of home. On Thanksgiving and Christmas there was a turkey dinner, accompanied by a small gift bag with aftershave, other toiletries, and a pocket-sized New Testament & Psalms.
Once a month, the club provided free phone calls home. Sometimes these calls came just before a young man was leaving for the war. I can remember my mother praying with many of these young men. Usually it was those who had presented the toughest veneer who crumbled first when my mom put her arms around them.
These big brothers were a fleeting presence in my life, there, and then gone. Few ever returned to the club once they had shipped out. And since I usually only knew their first names, I never knew what happened to them. But it was because of knowing them that I have had a lifelong love and appreciation for our troops.
I didn’t know much about anything then, particularly about the war, its pros and cons, or about Communism. It was only years later that I understood that many of those servicemen who visited the club may well have died in the war. And that Dennis definitely went down with the Scorpion.
Others, who had tried not to cry when my mother showed them tenderness, and who had watched television with me, sitting in cold, burgundy leather chairs on the top floor of the club, survived the war. But they were among those who were spat upon and called “Baby Killers” (by the forerunners of today’s loathesome Code Pink) when they returned home.
It took a few years for my intellect to catch up with my emotions, but even when I was totally uneducated in the ways of foreign policy and politics, I knew the anti-war crowd was wrong. Even before I had heard about the thousands of “boat people” fleeing from the grip of Hanoi or met Vietnamese Christians who told of their love and gratitude to the G.I.’s, I knew that the insults hurled at returning soldiers were diabolical lies by people who didn’t really care about Vietnamese babies (any more than Code Pink cares about Iraqi and Afghani babies). I wanted to say “sorry,” “please forgive us,” to every Vietnam veteran I met.
That’s what I think about every Memorial Day when I see Vietnam vets here for Rolling Thunder. I examine each face. I look for a trace of Roger, the Coast Guard who loved powdered sugar-covered jelly doughnuts. I try to find Paul, who wrote lots of letters back home, sitting in a leather arm chair. I search for a big Scandanavian-looking Ping Pong player with the unlikely name of Santa Klauss who always gave big bear-hugs to my mother. I will always look for them because, unlike Dennis, who taught me how to play pool and then left for the USS Scorpion, they may have come home from the war.
And although I know I’ll never find him, I will keep looking for Dennis in the worn and grizzled visages of veterans that once were young. I will look for him because he should have had the chance to be a worn and grizzled vet, with a paunch and bad knees, riding a Harley to Washington, DC. He should have had the opportunity to have grandchildren to whom he could tell endless stories about what it was like to be on board a nuclear submarine. He should be there so I can thank him, not just for teaching me how to play pool so many years ago, but for teaching me to appreciate and love our troops. I can’t thank him. So instead, I will remember Dennis when I remember the fallen this Memorial Day.