In 1918, on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day in the eleventh month, the world rejoiced and celebrated. After four years of bitter war, an armistice was signed. The "war to end all wars" was over.
I was standing at the checkout stand today while the lady ahead of me struggled to fill out a check to pay for her purchase. After what seemed a lifetime, she handed the check to the cashier who reviewed it and then handed it back saying, "You need to change the date to the eleventh."
"Oh," said the lady as she looked back at me apologetically.
I smiled and said, "No problem, today is Veterans Day, you know, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. That's the way I remember it."
Both the lady and the cashier looked at me dumbfounded and the cashier asked, "What's that? I've never heard that before!"
I actually felt a tear well up in me. At that moment I heard the collective sigh of thousands of young souls. Young soldiers buried throughout the world, lost to the various wars (madness) that have come to almost every generation. Had their loss, their sacrifice, their blood, their bravery and gut-retching agonizing fear been lost from the collective memory of those they died for, the next generations?
I am a veteran. I do not say that often, nor do I often talk about my experience in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967. I am like thousands of others who went to war and did the not-so-glorious part of war called "support."
I did not participate in any battles, sieges, campaigns or actions. I was not physically wounded. I lived in a tent with 20 other guys and did a job 10- to 12-hours a day, six days a week for 355 days (I circled every one on a calendar).
As so aptly put in a scene from what I believe is a great antiwar movie, "Mister Roberts," I "sailed from boredom to tedium to apathy and back again." It was a backward, foreign country and a war zone, and I was never not scared and lonely, except when I was drinking too much beer, which was all the time that I was not working or sleeping.
There was a skinny young guy from Los Angeles in the tent next to mine. His parents would occasionally send him copies of the Los Angeles Times and he would share them with me, a taste of Southern California, of home.
I remember how great it was to read about familiar names and places. I cannot say we were close friends, but friends we were. We were comrades in the struggle to stay sane in a crazy world.
Coming from a small, mostly white and Hispanic Southern California town, Cleve became the first black American I had ever known, let alone befriended. And I felt privileged that he would let me in his small circle of friends.
Even in my training companies there had been few blacks, and everyone seemed to self-segregate themselves, black and white alike. Many of my racial prejudices based from ignorance were erased by Cleve and his friends.
About halfway through our tour of duty in the 'Nam, Cleve became quite ill. He would go on sick call and the medics would send him back with a handful of aspirin to try to reduce his fever, and orders for "bed rest," which meant that he got to lie in his bunk in 110-degree heat all day.
On the third day of being sent back from the hospital with aspirins and bed rest, Cleve collapsed in the middle of the company area while trying to walk to his tent. One of the few decent officers in our outfit saw Cleve, found out what was going on from us and immediately drove Cleve back to the hospital.
We were with him when he literally ordered the intake medics to admit Cleve or heads would roll. Two days later, while lying in one of the largest field hospitals in Vietnam, Cleve Jackson of Los Angeles, California, died of an infected bowel.
In 1985 I visited Washington, D.C., and one of the first things I did when I arrived was to visit the Wall (the Vietnam Veterans Memorial). I searched the list of names for Cleveland Jackson and found nothing.
I went to the information booth and asked for help. Why wasn't Cleve's name in the book? How could I find his name on the wall? The guy at the booth was a veteran himself and I think understood my sense of urgency.
He told me in a matter-of-fact but understanding way that because Cleve did not die of wounds received in hostile action or in combat, his name is not on the wall. I was dumbstruck, and still am.
So, to the blogging world, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, I offer in memory of a fallen soldier the name ... Cleveland Jackson.
Steven James lives in Bellingham.