I just turned fifty. I got a birthday card from a friend. She'd written, "Welcome to the other side of the hill." I laughed when I read those words, but they got me to thinking. I read somewhere that these days, in the United States, a person turns fifty every seven and a half seconds. Ten thousand people a day make it to the "other side of the hill."

I realize how lucky I've been. How lucky I am. When I was twenty-three I had my first heart-pounding, I-think-I'm-going-to-die anxiety attack. I thought I'd never see twenty-five. Well, I made it... twice. And so I got to thinking about yesterdays...

I'm fifteen. I find myself in the middle of a Christmas card scene. A light snow is falling, the flakes settling gently on my cheeks, instantly forming tiny droplets. The snow makes everything sparkle. A cardinal sits low in a tree, his scarlet plumage striking against the snow-covered branches and the bright, white sky.... There is "Peace on Earth." And it's cold. So cold that the snow squeaks loudly beneath my feet. The tips of my ears and nose hurt. My gloves are wet making my fingers numb. But it's so beautiful... a Christmas card scene.

My friend, Johnie Blount, is supposed to be with me but he's at home, warm and toastie, nursing a broken ankle. A month before, while scoring the first touchdown in our Homecoming game, he was hit high and low, causing the break. They brought the stretcher out, put him on it and carried him to the sidelines. He grimaced and smiled at the same time — and our kicker made the score 7-0. Everyone in the stands was shouting, "We want Blount! We want Blount!" He tried to get up and go back into the game, but he had a broken leg for God's sake!

So, I'm gallumping through the woods and the just-deep-enough-to-trip-you snow, alone. I'm breathing hard and making my way to the spring that feeds the stream. I love these woods. They are my playground. I know them well. I know where the cave is and where the best swing-like-Tarzan grapevines are. I'm headed to the spring now because there is something mysterious and mystifying about it. There's something wonderful about peering into its dark brown waters, looking for signs of life even in the dead of winter.

I look into the calm spring-pool and am reminded of another friend, Drew Fiedler. He's captain of the swim team. He's tall, tanned and has eyes that crinkle when he smiles. And boy can he swim. We call him "Fish." He swims the butterfly and is hard to beat. But, win or lose, the smile is always there. I remember one time, during a really important swim meet, Drew needed to win his event to insure a victory for our team. As the starter's gun went off, Drew slipped on the starting block and got the worst start of his career. He was almost a full body length behind the leader at the first turn. Three laps later he barely touched out the Hillhouse swimmer and had won he race. The coach commented on his "great start" and Drew just shrugged and smiled.

A severe blast of winter wind hits me now and brings me back to the present. I think, "Drew's probably at the pool. Or he's just finished his workout and is taking a nice, hot shower."

I notice a flash of color as the cardinal returns and lands in a tree downstream. I notice something else. Something out of place, weird. Here in this untouched place — my woods — a large, frozen burlap sack is caught in a low-lying branch. I can see bulges here and there making it seem as if there are potatoes pressing hard against the inside of the bag trying to escape. I have to get home soon. My friend, Dick Desillier, and I are double-dating tonight. We're going to the movies. But still, I have to see what's in that sack. My curiosity gets to me and as I cross the stream to get to the bag, I slip on an icy rock and my foot plunges into the knee-high water. But I'm not angry. In fact, I'm grateful that I haven't fallen in face first. In any event, my shoe and sock will be frozen in minutes and my foot not long thereafter.

If Dick could see me now, he'd be laughing his head off. He's got a laugh that just won't quit. I've known him since we were fourth-graders playing sandlot football. When we were eleven he got a part in an industrial film that was shooting in our hometown. I had auditioned for the part and had been a little jealous of him. But he didn't get a big head or anything. He just considered himself lucky. My cold foot brings me back to the present and I think, "Dick's probably sitting next to a fire, watching TV in his living room right now." But I wouldn't change places with him. At last I reach the burlap bag and struggle to get it open. I peer in to discover three or four tiny, blond, cocker spaniel puppies huddled together, frozen. Their curly hair, hard as steel; their eyes lifeless, lusterless and gray. They had come unwanted into this world and had left unnoticed, except by me. Who could have done such a thing? I leave them where I found them. Then I limp and cry my way home.

Johnie Lee Blount, Jr. was two years older than I. I remember him coming back to Fitch High, after graduating, showing off his new uniform to his old friends and teachers — a proud Marine in a Navy town. Smiling, he said, "I'm going to Vietnam."

"Where's that?" we asked.

He thought for a second, "I'm not sure."

He went to Vietnam and was shot. They sent him to Hawaii for R&R. Then they sent him back to Vietnam. He was shot again and they sent him to Japan to recover. Then they sent him back to Vietnam. The third bullet killed him on the Fourth of July, 1966. They sent his body, in his uniform, back to Connecticut. He was twenty-one.

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The last time I saw Drew Fiedler he signed my yearbook. "Best of luck in the future. I hope you will go out for the swim team again, Drew." He was killed on the twelfth of October, 1968 in the dark jungles of Vietnam. He was twenty-three.

I found out in a letter from my Mom that Dick had been killed. As I opened it, a newspaper clipping fell out and fluttered to the floor. I caught a glimpse of Dick's picture and I thought to myself, "Desillier's getting married." Then I read the letter. Dick was the first kid from Southern New England killed in Cambodia. He was twenty-two.
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Right after my fiftieth birthday I visited with my friends again. Johnie is on Panel 8 East, Line 129 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Drew is on Panel 41 West, Line 52. Dick is on Panel 10 West, Line32. There are 58,199 other names on that wall... together, forever in honor, comradeship and an ironic immortality that had come too soon.

In 1964, when Johnie, Drew and Dick still had their dreams, I got to meet President Lyndon B. Johnson. He had come to Groton to lay the keel for a new submarine being built at the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics. EB employed thousands of our parents and brothers and sisters. It was the largest submarine plant in the world and we were proud to be the "Submarine Capital of the World." We were proud of our contribution to the defense of the free world. And it had made me proud to shake the President's hand.

But not very long afterward, the pride turned to scorn. I joined tens of thousands of people in the streets, shouting, "Hey, Hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?" We wanted our friends to come home. So many had crossed over, too soon, to the other side of a different hill. So many had been discarded... like puppies in the snow.

They had died believing in their country and themselves. They had slogged through the swamps and the rice paddies and the suffocating jungle for us. And they had dreamed of... "Peace on Earth."

© G. A. Poe

Click here for pictures of Gary's trip to The Wall May 2001

Name Rubbings used in graphics courtesy The Virtual Wall
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