I live in North Carolina where I was a 2002 Blumenthal Writer and a 2006 Fellow at VCCA. My work has appeared in a variety of literary journalis including The MacGuffin, The Gihon River Review, Dos Passos Review and Epiphany, among others.
It’s a wonder most of us ever live see adulthood, with all the danger we get into, and I can say I owe mine in part to my brother’s friend, Jimmy Walker*. He was one of my brother’s friends who got invited to camp, race go-karts or to fish for crawdads and minnows at Half Island, a place under a railroad bridge near our home in Illinois.
Mike* and Jimmy were two years apart in school, but when you’re ten or twelve years old in a community of two hundred, you can’t let age gaps stand in the way. For at least three summers, the boys were inseparable, and I played my usual role as tag-along pest, bothersome as a hungry mosquito.
My most vivid memory of Jimmy was the time I “test drove” Mike’s go-cart which he had modified with a cardboard cab. After hounding them to let me drive, Mike finally gave in. “But you have to stay in the yard,” he said.
I had something else in mind. Before either of them could stop me, I raced the contraption into the road. Running blind corners at full-throttle was great fun for a six-year-old, my vision was almost nil inside that box. I laughed when I saw the boys chase after me, the engine noise drowning sounds of oncoming traffic. My joy ride sent me down the street, past the church, the post office and circling several blocks. But as I made another pass by both boys, I peered out the window, a hole just large enough to see Jimmy run up and choke the engine. We were right behind the First Christian Church. I remembered that spot well, especially after my Mom caught up with me. I couldn’t sit down for a long time afterward and I was angry at Jimmy for spoiling my fun, leaving me to the mercy of Mom’s switch.
For years she replayed the story, stewing over the possibility of what could have happened if I had run under the wheels of a heavy farm truck. After several tellings, the story wore thin. If it wasn’t for Jimmy, maybe I could have got away with my antics, or at least prolonged the punishment.
That next year we moved and even though the boys went on to attend the same school, they were in different classes. Years later, both boys had student deferments for college, but Jimmy, two years older, and was drafted in 1969. A year later, he was killed in Vietnam. Mom went to the funeral home to represent Mike, who was still away at college. She said she couldn’t believe it was Jimmy laying there in the casket, a young man gone way too soon.
Jimmy was the only one we really knew who died in a war that stretched from fourth grade to my junior year in college. Mike was called up, but he flunked his physical. And when I turned 18 in the summer of 1972, boys my age were the last to be assigned draft numbers, the last to be haunted by the possibility of fighting the Viet Cong in mosquito-infested jungles.
Many years later, I found myself with my own son touring Washington, D.C. and took the time to see the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was our first visit to the wall of black granite and I wanted to find Jimmy’s name. A volunteer, a middle-aged veteran with a ponytail, offered to make a rubbing, looking up the location of Jimmy’s name on the roster of the more than 58,000 casualties. Once I returned home, though, I wondered what to do with the rubbing. A colleague suggested that I send it to Jimmy’s family. The idea sounded good, but I hadn’t seen them in years. I assumed they still lived near our old home and after some research, I sent the paper memorial off to them with a letter.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Walker,
You remember me as Mike’s sister. I often look back on my early days there and feel fortunate to have spent my first seven in a close-knit community with folks like you. You or some of the family may have already visited Washington, so you may already have a copy of this, but in case you haven't, I thought you'd like to have it. A Vietnam veteran I know at work told me that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. is very moving to see. I knew exactly what he was talking about when I recently saw the black granite wall myself.
My son is nine and he had heard about the crawdads and hair snakes in Robinson Creek and about how Mike and Jimmy used to have go-karts a lot like the one he rides now. Last summer when we were back home, I talked Mike into walking us back to Half Island. He says it's shrunk, and I have to agree. It seemed like miles back then, but my eight-year-old son, being something of an "expert" on creek life and the out-of-doors, was very impressed. I showed him where we used to live and what's left of the school. It has been a long time, but I wanted you to know that I still remember Jimmy.
I told them how he had probably saved my life when I was six, a fact I didn’t fully appreciate until I had my own son. I wanted them to know that although Jimmy’s life was cut short, he may have made more of a difference to me than they ever knew. I was crying by the time I finished the letter, but I knew I’d done the right thing in sending it to Jimmy’s folks. As time passed, I never got an acknowledgement from them. I felt embarrassed that I might have scraped an old wound and made them sad all over again. Maybe I had invaded their privacy, gone too far in sharing a souvenir of my trip to Washington. Maybe I was showing off, taking a trip to a place they might never see.
Some time later my father died, and we all hurried back home to Illinois. The night of the receiving, I stood at Dad’s casket trying to recall faces that were so familiar years before. And then I saw a certain aging couple inching their way toward me. I didn’t recognize them at first, but then I realized they were Jimmy’s mom and dad. After offering condolences, they told me that they had received my letter.
“We really appreciated it, but we aren’t much for writing,” he said. “If you write us again, I promise we’ll respond.”
My colleague was right. Sending the rubbing had meant a lot to them.
I haven’t written to the Walkers since then, and I don’t suppose I will. What more can I say than what I put in that letter?
It has been more than thirty years since Jimmy died and more than forty since that day he shut the gas off of the go-kart. Sadly, Jimmy never had the privilege of enjoying a full, free life. But I have, thanks to him and all the other names on that wall.
*not his real name