"The Boys of Summer"
They say the war in Vietnam ended twenty-five years ago. Ended? For whom?
The 60's was a great time to be a teen. Beach parties, Pete's genuine soda fountain with cherry Cokes (the "real" thing) drizzled with syrup, singing on the stoops in summertime East Coast style, soft pretzels with mustard, and the one and only original cheese steaks from Pat's in South Philly. Hanging out on the corner with friends meant talking and having a good time, and a "drive-by" was just a car load of friends passing by. The biggest plans of the week included whether anyone would have a date by Friday, gathering together for pep rallies at rival high schools, or going down to the lakes for picnic lunches, and night time hugs. No pressures. No intense decision-making, other than deciding who you would go with to the senior prom. Vietnam? Where was that, other than a distant place on a world map? We never permitted it to touch even the fringe of our teenhood, never really knowing our country's involvement, and how it affected people we loved and cared about. All of that changed the moment we stepped over the threshold of graduation.
Just weeks after the pomp and circumstance that finalized our senior year, the first blow came. The death of a high school classmate, George Woodson, a great guy and good friend since junior high, shook us into reality. What in the world was going on? Recruiting ads were supposed to be positive influences ... join the Navy, see the world ... Uncle Sam wants YOU ... and everyone knows the Marine Corps builds men ... no one said anything about serving your country and being blown to bits in the process of it. If you were a male of eligible age, your number came up and you were drafted ... you were in, and proud to do so. What did we know, young and innocent as we were? Though protests were going on all around us, those of us in the close knit Navy town of South Philadelphia knew that while we never supported the war, we ALWAYS supported the warrior. Unfortunately, that feeling wasn't the norm around the country at that time. You left home, a boy ... and if you returned at all, your quick elevation into becoming a "man" came at no small price ... and I remember . . .
. . . one such young man, golden flecks of sunlight sprinkled throughout his hair, and a warm, affable grin with a personality that lit up a room like a thousand candles swaying softly on a midnight breeze. He loved to dance, and was always teaching everyone new steps. He loved to laugh, a joke always curling on the tip of his tongue ... he enjoyed a good chat, constantly sharing new ideas for the future ... and he loved being a U.S. Marine. You could see it in his stance, the determined set of his jaw, the way he walked, the way he dreamed ... and he always smelled faintly of English Leather, a popular men's cologne of that era, and a scent that girls deemed "dreamy". An only child, whose father left when he was just a boy, Lance Corporal Lewis Neal Welsh, just 21 years of age, was like most young men embarking on such an adventure. He surely had no idea what to expect during his days in boot camp, but with all the training he received, never, not once, did it prepare him, or any of them for the harsh realities of war.
Letters home were peppered with glimpses of every-day moments, general tidbits of life on the line, yet he was always careful not to say the wrong thing, because he didn't want his mother Margaret, who waited back home, to worry any more than she already did. That's the kind of guy he was ... caring of his family, friends, and most especially to those he served with ... a team of young men like himself, caught up in the middle of something he had nothing to do with, much less understood. Yet he never questioned his country's actions. His loyalty was steadfast. While some young men avoided the draft, he faced the music, but ended up paying the piper in the end, anyway. In one letter home he wrote, "We don't care if it's a bill, as long as it's an American postmark." He was so much fun, and so gracious, and when he wore his Marine uniform, he could give the poster boys a run for their money. He looked that good, but then, they all did, the boys ... the young boys of summer . . .
The year he was to come home the first time, he re-enlisted for a second tour, because he felt his country "needed him", and though many of us wish he had decided to do otherwise, we knew, too, that he had to do what he felt was right ... and time marched on. Months before his return, a big party was planned upon his discharge, a day we all looked forward to, because it meant so many things to so many people. He was this close to coming home, checking the days off the calendar with a big red pen, counting the moments until he touched down on American soil, home at last ... when he was killed by enemy fire in the Province of Thua Thien, South Vietnam. Sources say there was a grenade/land mine (booby trap) explosion. Distraught, we were told he was shot in the stomach, and lost his leg, but of course, we never really knew. At the viewing, his uniform-clad body, so fragile from his wounds, was encased in a clear glass opened-casket, so while we could see him, we couldn't even touch him one last time. The vision remains as if it were yesterday. The blessing is that he came home at all, when so many others went unaccounted for, yet even so ... there were no parades in his honor, no flags waving in the breeze to herald his homecoming, only a simple white casket draped with the American flag.
He never got to tell his buddies back home about his journey, yet some still talk to him over a silent grave. He never got to hug his mom again, nor plan for picnics in the park or promised strolls along the boardwalk of Atlantic City, happily devouring salt water taffy and holding hands ... He never got to see another sunrise, only this time from a porch instead of a view from the ground. He never finished his dreams or had a chance to begin new ones, nor held a newborn, nor bask in the warmth of one last kiss ... tucked in a heart waiting thousands of miles away for the reunion home that would never come ... yet, now and then, if I close my eyes, I catch the soft "dreamy" scent of English Leather, and find myself glancing around quickly, hoping upon hope ... and I remember . . .
~ In Loving Memory to our many Vietnam Veterans,
living and gone,
for you've all given the ultimate sacrifice,
in some way ~
By Grace Marchand Baskin
P. O. Box 4961, Ventura, CA 93007
Reprinted with permission from
The Ventura County Star