Published in the Wisconsin State Journal on Thursday, September 15, 2011.
On that day I planned to continue work on one of the farm’s outbuildings. Television was not part of the picture. Still, over coffee I turned to Sunday Morning on CBS and heard some of the 2,977 names, read by two people at the rate of two seconds apiece. The entire list would have taken 99 minutes. I had work to do under the advantage of good weather.
Plain sawn rafters and joists of oak laid in place in 1920 with 16-penny commons have a habit of wanting to stay. They had to come down. I was prying a pair loose when I heard Pratt and Whitney radial engines and instinctively said, “When you’re out of Pratts you’re out of engines.” A few of you might smile at that and in a personal way, remember in the way minds united by radial Pratts veer inexorably to their sounds from the past. I put down the iron bar, looked up and a Beechcraft 18 flew over. To the Navy the 18 was the SNB. It was the first of their aircraft I flew in.
Up there while the Beech flew on, the Sunday Morning names were streaming down somewhere from a satellite. Ralph Byron (Barney) Pappas was not among those names.
In Sunday Morning time, Barney’s name, and the names of the 11,152 American service men and women who also died in Vietnam in 1967, can be read in 372 minutes. That’s four twin towers, Pentagons and Shanksvilles plus a lot more grief, minus the media coverage, the bagpipes and the songs that were pretty awful back when Kate Smith sang them.
In Sunday Morning time, reading the name of Marine Captain Ralph Byron (Barney) Pappas and the 39,360 Americans who also died in Vietnam during 1967, 1968 and 1969 takes 1,312 minutes. If you do the math that’s thirteen 9/11’s receiving little more than a line in their local papers.
Walk along the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and every two seconds read each of the 58,272 names etched there. You will be there for 32 hours and 22 minutes and perhaps you will also realize why I am unimpressed by a list of fewer than 3,000 who continue to receive the best media coverage in the world.
A week before the Beech flew over I was pulling layers of shingles from the roof of the same outbuilding when I heard the familiar sound of large, turboprop engines idled back. I looked to my right and a National Guard C-130 flew by at silo level, banked left to allow for our valley’s shift and disappeared.
We were in the shade of a C-130 in Iwakuni, Japan, discussing where we’d go drinking that night, on the day I last saw Barney Pappas. Summer of 1966. A few minutes before he’d climbed down from his A-4 after a flight from Guam, the same smiles and who-cares Barney I knew from flight training in Pensacola.
“I want to show you something,” he said and walked to the tail of the aircraft where he pointed to a crack in the exhaust cone. How did he know it was there I asked. “Because I saw it before we left Guam,” he said, “only it was smaller.” He was crazy, I told him. He just laughed and said, “We wanted to go drinking tonight, didn’t we?” That was Barney, daring and loyal the way Marines are.
The next morning I heard Barney’s squadron take off for Vietnam. I thought I’d see him again. I didn’t think I’d see him every day during my 40-second list, or when a Beech flies over, blue and gorgeous on an ordinary Sunday or a C-130 flies through the remains of a Friday afternoon.
If you served in Vietnam you have a list. Share it. You have your Barneys. Share them. Keep the important dates and names alive, like March 30, 1967, and Marine Captain Ralph Byron (Barney) Pappas, who died in Vietnam and rests at Arlington and is remembered.
Link to the essay in the Wisconsin State Journal. http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/opinion/column/guest/article_964f037a-df2b-11e0-92cc-001cc4c03286.html