Somewhere in a box, there is a snapshot of me in my last year of college. I am standing by the trunk of a deciduous tree in the height of Midwestern fall color. I am looking sullen, though I was going for intensity. I had recently returned from the Berkshires where I had spent a summer as an acting apprentice at a renowned summer theater. During a rehearsal we watched the one small step for man on the moon in our Tartuffe costumes. I was home in Kansas for my senior year, facing the prospects of either going to New York City after graduation or, possibly, being drafted into the Army. My mother, a prominent Democrat and civic official said, “I’ll send you to Canada before I let you go to Vietnam.” This from a woman whose late husband, my father, had served as a Navy pilot in World War II. If he hadn’t been “late” he may well have had a different opinion. Oh, well. You die, you lose. My mother had no intention of my…losing.
Earlier, in the spring of my junior year, I wasn’t thinking about Vietnam or New York. I had been selected to work at the amazing theater in Massachusetts. I would soon drive to the East Coast, I would see the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, go to a Broadway play, and then off to be a real actor in a professional theater, at least for the summer.
A couple of days before I left, my bags standing packed, I got a call from my friend Steve’s father. Steve had been one of my best friends in high school, but we didn’t stay as close in college. I knew from the local news, he had been killed in Vietnam. He was smart as a whip. We had been on the debating team together in high school and he always got the top scores. All you needed to postpone the threat of the draft was to maintain passing grades in college. By graduation, we had all hoped the war in Vietnam would be finished. Inexplicably, Steve dropped out of school and enlisted in the Army. During the holiday season of ‘68, I saw him at a local pub sitting at a booth wearing his Army uniform. I joined him and we had a beer or two. I don’t remember whether or not I asked him why he joined up. If I did I don’t recall his answer. Conversation was taciturn.
The body had been flown home to Topeka. That was in the news, too. On the phone, his dad’s voice was tenuous. “I am trying to get some of his friends together to be pall bearers,” he said. I had met Steve’s dad a few times over the years, he was a slight, unassuming fellow. Steve was of the same build, though lithe and agile. The only contest where I can recall besting him was when we were freshman in high school. There was an assembly and we had to do silly things at the request of the seniors. On our knees, hands behind our back, Steve and I had to push a pencil with our noses across the common room floor, about twenty yards. It was hard. I won. There was a picture of us doing this in the annual that year. He and I had peroxided a streak of our hair blond…in the black and white photo we looked a bit like skunks.
I lied to his father, saying I had to leave the next day because I had a contract. There was no contract and I didn’t have to leave until a couple of days after the funeral. After we hung up, I thought of him having to look through the yearbook again, turn past the page with the pencil race to find more photos of his son in “Oklahoma”, say, or with the rest of the debate squad, pick out a name from a caption, check the Topeka phone book, and make another call.
Steve was dead and would have no idea I was holding a handle of his coffin. In high school, I had gone to my father’s funeral. I went to a lot of funerals. Six had died in different car accidents. I went to four funerals in one day. Another guy fell asleep driving home from his graveyard shift at a factory a year after we left high school. A girl, 15, was hit by a train when her car stalled on the tracks. Her casket being the only one that wasn’t open.
Years later, while acting a play in Washington, DC. I went to the Vietnam Memorial and found Steve’s name etched into the black marble. The font is small and you have to get up close to read them. I recalled his father on the phone. In the silence after I told him no and he hung up, I wondered, what kind of man I would live to be. That spring day in DC I was still figuring that out.