Saturday, May 23, 2009

Memorial Day on a trout stream

Fly fishing for trout is always a little different on Memorial Day weekend. The most popular creeks and rivers are as crowded as Styrofoam cups of worms wiggling elbow-to-elbow. Lakes are no better, perhaps worse, with high-powered boats piloted by merrymakers carving huge wakes through the water’s surface.
Not for me. .
I head for the hills, far up the mountain near the headwaters. The creek turns into a mere trickle up high, but the adventurous fly fisher can come up on the occasionally hefty trout hiding next to a little rock.
Though I try to escape, I keep coming back to the reason we even have such a holiday. It is, after all, more than just an excuse to burn burgers on the grill and toss cans into the trash.
Memorial Day is set aside to mourn those who died while fighting in our armed services.
And the weekend always sends me back to the summer of 1967. It had been a hot day on the beach, and we had all turned red as lobsters.
The cool air inside The Raven soothed the burn, as did the sweaty mugs of cold beer.
There were four of us, Johnny and his girlfriend and me with mine.
He had just left Parris Island triumphantly as the No. 1 recruit in his company while I was just a few days away from taking that bus trip to Marine boot camp.
Johnny had been on the high school wrestling team with me. I was the littlest competitor, the kid who always went on the mat first with every nerve jangling like chimes. Johnny was one of the biggest, often wrestling in the heavyweight class against larger guys.
He had a lot of heart, and that made up for any physical disadvantage.
Johnny also played football.
He was good enough to win a scholarship to the University of Tennessee in the days when college free rides were rare.
He went on the graduate, joined the Marines and eventually became an officer.
I wonder what he would have turned out like. You see, that night in The Raven was the last time I talked with Johnny.
He went to Vietnam and came home with a flag draped over his coffin.
Today, he’s a name etched in the slab of black marble that makes up the Vietnam Memorial.
When I saw the Moving Wall, the smaller version of the memorial in Washington, D.C., I had trouble finding Johnny’s name and at one point thought perhaps it had all been one huge, horrible mistake that night in Norfolk, Va., when Dad told me the news.
I had just come in from work at the shipyard, all dirty and sweaty. Dad was watching the TV news.
"Your buddy got killed in Vietnam," he said.
I could not think of a single thing to say.
Johnny’s death was like a drill instructor’s punch to the gut.
I felt empty.
About two years ago, the British military began driving the hearses carrying slain soldiers through the town of Wooten Bassett en route from the airport to the military morgue.
The first time this happened, an elderly man stopped what he was doing, stood silently alone and saluted as the hearse carrying the flag-draped coffin drove by.
a shopkeeper noticed. The next time a military hearse passed through, the elderly man was not alone.
Without saying a word or having any meeting to discuss the matter, the townspeople simply began to line the streets. Silence fell .
I thought that gesture good enough to steal … sort of.
This Memorial Day, while certainly fishing that red and gold dry fly, I’ll again take a silent moment to remember Johnny scaring me with boot camp horror stories that hot night in the cool tavern.
And salute as that memory passes.
Semper fi.

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