Names on a Wall
Names On A Wall
© Copyright 2001 by Rin Steketee
I turned my collar up and hunched down to keep away the Western Washington spring chill. It seemed like there was just about always an overcast sky, and maybe a little drizzle in the air. Even so, the weather didn't keep many people away from the wall. I walked slowly along the adjacent narrow strip of concrete to see if I could find a name from the past; one of the 58,000 names etched into the black marble. I stopped, knelt down and ran my fingers over a name I had recognized. It brought back memories.
It was back in 1965, when the big aircraft carrier U.S.S. Coral Sea, on station in the South China Sea, sent out more than 50 sorties a day throughout the day and night; Carrier Air Wing 15 blasted the bridges, radar and missile sites located in the north in retaliation for guerrilla attacks on United States bases in South Vietnam. Over 7,500 sorties were flown during those four months in the spring of 1965, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by the officers and men of the Coral Sea. There were some casualties.
I and my helper Chuck had just finished packing a parachute. Chuck was safety-tying the last rip-cord pin, and I was signing off the packing data card when the door of the parachute loft opened and a young naval officer hobbled in. He was wearing an aviator's leather flight jacket and one of the new green flight suits, specially made for jungle warfare. The right leg of his flight suit was torn at the seam up to the knee exposing a large white plaster cast covered with graffiti. I noticed one piece of graffiti in particular, "Now's the time to kick ass! - Ollie."
With his right hand, the aviator braced himself with a wooden crutch, and in his left hand he carried a bottle of Chavez Regal. "I'm looking for . .ah . . Ste . .Ste .." he tried with great difficulty to pronounce the name. All he could do was spell it out, "S-T-E- . . ."
I stood up and waved my hand. "That's me, sir," I replied quickly to squelch the agony he was experiencing trying to read from a crumpled packing data card.
"Hi, I'm Ed Dickson, and you saved my life!" His short sandy hair was slightly ruffled, and he had a broad grin on his pumpkin shaped face.
"Wha . .What do you mean, sir?"
"My aircraft took a hit, I had to eject, and the chute worked perfectly. I pulled the packing data card out of its pocket, and your name was on it." Lt. Dickson, a very sincere look on his face, stuck his hand out and clutched my arm. "I'll never forget it."
Chuck broke in. "I'm his helper, sir"
"Thank you also," he replied. Then, pointing an interrogative finger at Chuck, asked, "Hey, don't I know you?"
"I'm attached to VA153 - the same as you, sir."
"You're not the one that packed my chute the last time, are you?" he asked with a menacing look.
"No, sir, not me," Chuck replied defensively.
Lt. Dickson handed me the bottle of whiskey. "Thanks again." He ambled out of the parachute loft and into the passageway. A few seconds later he stuck his head back inside. "Oh, yeah," he said, "Skipper's orders, 'No booze-drinking on the ship'." He winked and gave us another big grin.
That night Chuck and I, and four other parachute riggers finished off a bottle of Chavez Regal down in the parachute drying room.
"He's a good guy, isn't he?" I asked.
"Yeah, Mr. Dickson's a regular guy. Not like some of those chicken officers."
"What did he mean when he said, 'the last time'?"
"Oh, he had to bail out once before. It was really weird."
"He was just returning to China Lake on a training mission when he had a flame-out. He ejected over the mountains, and his chute didn't open right away; his automatic actuator was set for 10,000 feet, and he bailed out about 12,000 just before his plane crashed into the mountain. He fell for 500 feet and landed on top of the mountain in several feet of snow, and started sliding down the mountainside. He must have slid for over 1,000 feet, when suddenly the actuator fired and his chute came open, just before he slammed into a tree. He lay in the snow for a couple of hours before a copter spotted his red and white parachute flopping in the wind. That time he broke his left leg."
"Wow, that's some story," I said, shaking my head.
"Yeah, what else can happen to the guy? He just shakes it off and keeps flying."
Relentlessly, the bombing continued. Thousands of sorties were flown. Most of them returned. All the men could do to keep from cracking up between shifts was to play card games or sit around and tell sea stories. Some would play their guitars or listen to old recordings. Others just lay in their bunks staring at the overhead, waiting for the planes to return, and praying that they would all come back.
It was during one of those midnight poker games, I recalled, while the last of the aircraft were being recovered from a night bombing mission, when a young sailor came bursting into the parachute loft.
"Hey, you guys. Did you hear what happened to Mr. Dickson?"
Everyone stopped what they were doing. An uneasy silence fell throughout the loft.
I was afraid to ask, "No . . .what happened to him?"
"He was shot down!"
"Did he eject?"
"Yeah, but he didn't make it."
"Didn't his chute open?"
"Yes, but he was too close to the beach, and some VC shot him as he was coming down in his chute."
I continued on slowly to see if I recognized any other names. I came across a few: Dwight Frakes, Kenneth Humes, Peter Mongilardi . . . .all names with faces. I turned away and started walking back to my car. The rain began to fall harder masking the moisture that had formed in my eyes. I knew there would be other familiar names etched into the wall, each with painful memories, each one another sad story, but I didn't want to see any more.
As I turned the key in the ignition, I glanced back toward the wall. There were still many people there, some with umbrellas, some with their collars turned up hunched over searching for names of relatives, loved ones or friends. Some just standing, oblivious of the rain, wondering why. Some, I suppose, were only curious; they just came to see some names on a wall.
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