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Better late than never – The New Hampshire Gazette

by WD Ehrhart

My memoirs Vietnam percasie ends in the spring of 1968, as I lie drunk and passed out in the shower at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina. It's a fitting end to the book because that was my state of mind when I came back from the war. And I remained very confused for a long time afterwards.

And for a long time I felt completely alienated from the community I grew up in or the people I grew up with. The perception wasn't entirely wrong either. The good people of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, had proudly sent me to war, but had no idea what to make of the man they got back a few years later. Even my peers, the children I grew up with – at least the few who were still around in 1968, 1969 and 1970 – seemed distant, alien and clueless.

And so I cut myself off almost completely from the life I had led and the people I had known before joining the Marines in 1966. With only very few exceptions, for many years, even decades, I had hardly any contact with the children I grew up with. It wasn't until my fifties and early sixties that I began to wish I hadn't turned my back on my past.

But by then it was really hard to reconnect. With a few exceptions, the few people I contacted seemed uninterested in renewing old friendships. And I stopped trying.

However, a few years ago, a childhood friend with whom I had once been very close died suddenly, and a classmate of ours called to tell me that Karen had passed away. I was very touched by his call because as a child we weren't particularly close friends and had very different interests, but he knew that I had been close to Karen.

During our conversation, he mentioned that a group of our classmates from the Pennridge High School class of 1966 met for breakfast on the first Tuesday of every month at a restaurant called Filling Station, and he invited me to join them. I live over an hour's drive from Perkasie now, but I thought I'd give it a try.

Like the man who had called me, none of these men had been particularly close friends, but I had known them all since elementary school. They seemed genuinely happy to see me, and what I've learned about them over the last year and a half has been enlightening and humbling.

Several of them had gone to college, although only one of them had been in the two so-called “academic” sections of our class, the ones the school system considered a major. Seven of the nine had been drafted; One of them had gone on to join the Navy, one had joined the ROTC in college and spent six years in the reserves, one had been sent to Germany, and four had served in Vietnam. One had married a Vietnamese woman, but the marriage had not lasted, and one had been seriously wounded in combat.

I had no idea that so many of my 1966 classmates had been drafted and fought in Vietnam, but that had all happened in the years I was in the Marines and I hadn't had contact with any of them in the years since . Clearly these men felt “at home” enough to remain in the community, although we did not explicitly discuss my own sense of alienation at our breakfast or how each of them felt when they returned.

In fact, politics is rarely discussed. Although none of them seem much more taken with their experiences in Vietnam than I am, I can't really say. Most of the time we talk about shared memories, teachers we liked and disliked, girls we thought were hot, sports then and now, what's going on with kids and grandkids, and the variety of health issues we all deal with in our mid-70s have .

And it turns out that the man who went into the Navy had read my memoirs and some of my other writings over the years, and several others mentioned reading my essays in the Philadelphia InvestigatorsThe Bucks County Courier-Timesand that Bucks County Herald. Regardless of my left-wing stance, no one called me an unpatriotic fellow student, and the Navy man said he agreed with much of what I wrote.

The title of the famous novel by Thomas Wolfe is You can't go home again, but the men I have breakfast with every month seem to be living proof that you can. As for me, I guess my monthly breakfast doesn't exactly mean “going home,” but I get to go back to where I grew up and enjoy the company of some of the kids I grew up with. And although it took me almost sixty years to find my way to the Filling Station restaurant on the first Tuesday of every month, as the saying goes: “Better late than never.”

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WD Ehrhart is a retired master teacher of history and English and author of a trilogy of memoirs about the Vietnam War published by McFarland.

Anna Harden

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