Monday, May 28, 2007

My Cousin Billy

In my parents' house, in the den, there was a box of photographs unsorted.

Big families with cameras always have one.

I loved the smell of the old images. Now I know that the smell is actually a sign that the chemicals in the pictures are becoming unstable and breaking down.

Literally fading away.

One image that will never fade for me is of my cousin Billy.

He will always be a fresh-faced blond kid of 9 or 10 smiling back at the camera to me from the wallet-sized school photo in the box.

I was looking through the pictures one day with one of my older brothers when we came across the picture of cousin Billy. We were at the age of giggles, when everything was funny first and figured out later.

Younger than Billy was in the picture.

But his ears. What kid wouldn't have laughed? Heck, they were big.

Of course, in those days of crew cuts, which all boys had, all of our ears looked big. We just didn't know it.

So we laughed.

We were still laughing when we found our father to ask him who the kid with the big ears was.

I handed him the picture and he changed color. From white to gray to red.

"That's your cousin Billy. He died in Vietnam. Don't ever laugh at him again."

We knew what Vietnam was. All kids did.

It was war. And we wanted to go when we were old enough.

And here was our cousin Billy, a kid in a picture who looked an awful lot like us, gone to war alive like us and come back dead like something we couldn't comprehend yet.

We had no basis to judge death. This was our first taste.

And we had laughed.

There was no way to take it back. I remember hoping cousin Billy wasn't mad at us in heaven.

Surely he had seen.

The photo got tucked back in the box and the box put away in its spot and that was the end of looking through the photographs for that day.

But the image and incident were burned into my mind.

To me, my cousin Billy was and still is a hero. A bona fide war hero in my very own family.

And I had betrayed my unworthiness of his sacrifice with my quick laughter and the ease with which I had judged him by his appearance: "Look at the goofy kid."

It sounds silly, but I feel guilty for laughing to this day.

I was not alone, though.

In March of 1970, when Billy died, many Americans who should have known better were betraying their unworthiness here in the States while our men and women in uniform were dying far away in places like Thua Thien.

In the name of peace, anti-war activists assaulted returning GIs physically and verbally. Some, like Jane Fonda, became out and out Communist sympathizers and tools.

Most of those who served in Vietnam were drafted. They didn't run. They did what was right and what was honorable, which is to answer the country's call to service.

Like my cousin Billy.

And those who came home walking and those who came home as a memory deserved a hell of a lot more from America than they were ever given.

They still do.

When my boys were growing up, they learned about Billy. And my aunt Mary Lou, who served courageously as a nurse in Vietnam during the Tet offensive. And their grandpa Paul, a Marine who fought in the Korean conflict.

I told them about their great-uncle Bill, Billy's father, who brought the Alamed name into World War II with his answer to the call to duty. And their great-grandpas Ray and Thurber, also World War II veterans.

And my boys learned to respect those men and women of honor who choose to promise our safety and security.

My youngest son, Nathaniel, went to Washington, D.C. on a field trip in junior-high school.

It was important for him to go to the Wall, the Vietnam Memorial, to see Billy's name.

Row 102, Panel 13 West. William Robert Alamed, Jr.

When he came home, he had a difficult time talking about it.

We had seen the 'Moving Wall' exhibit in Springfield, Mass., which is a smaller re-creation of the permanent memorial. But this was different, he said.

Nathaniel joined the Navy midway through his senior year of high school. He shipped out a month after he graduated.

He didn't tell me he was going to sign up. He just did.

He had to.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I haven't looked at your blog in some time. Just today read about your cousin Billy. I was in Vietnam at the same time it seems (1970); I wonder if I ever met him or knew of his unit. Thanks.