"…one more way for people to know that war costs lives…"
May 22, 2015
These days I keep finding myself in deep reflection. It sneaks up on me, truthfully, between helping my kids with homework, making dinner, or laughing at something funny I saw on Facebook. It's not just that it's Memorial Day coming up. It's that June 3 is right around the corner. As some of you know, that's the anniversary of the tragedy that took the lives of 74 Americans on the USS Frank E. Evans, the second single largest loss of life for the United States Navy in the Vietnam War and the subject of my book. I suppose, in researching and writing American Boys, I came to understand the senseless loss and the ongoing, neverending grief that comes with losing a loved one in war. The photo here is of Ernie Sage, days after learning that three of his sons had been killed. Doug Sage is the little guy, the surviving brother, age 6. This photo was taken by a LIFE Magazine photographer--Lynn Pelham's family gave me permission to use the photo in the book. It never ran in the issue because instead, LIFE went with the infamous "One Week's Toll" of photographs of Americans killed in a single week in Vietnam. (You can read about that in Chapter 30: The Toll.) I bought a copy of the LIFE issue on Ebay; it looked like a yearbook and is a sad, sad testament. Today, it seems that whenever I read the newspaper war is on some horizon, close or far away. It pains me as a mother and makes me very, very sad. This endless cycle. When will it stop?
A few moments ago I received an e-mail regarding a sale this weekend at a local store. It reminded me of an email I wrote this very same time, on the eve of Memorial Day weekend, in 2011 to a gentleman who nearly died in the Evans disaster. He was lucky, someone would say. But if you asked him, he didn't think so. I had been working on the book--no title, not yet-- for less than a year but I had already tracked down a lot of people involved, and had already traveled to interview people I couldn't interview over the phone because they were much, much older, or they couldn't hear, or just because they might not have thought I was serious about this book about a tragedy in their lives the world did not seem to remember whatsoever. And I was: very, very serious. I think it was when I met Mrs. Sage, the mother who lost three sons on the Evans. That did it for me (I write about that meeting in Chapter 40: The Mother). I thought it was time for their story.
This gentleman I e-mailed in 2011 did not want to talk to me, but returned my calls. And then, he said, he didn't see the point of it. I had these conversations before and I knew, right then, that this man did not want to go back to June 3, 1969. That was it. It's a tough conversation. I am grateful for the men who did talk to me about this. Otherwise we wouldn't have this book American Boys. But for some, I knew, it was too painful. I write about that in the book (Chapter 41: The Pieces).
In May 2011 I wrote this e-mail to that gentlman, which I share with you today because my feelings about this book haven't changed since:
I hope this letter finds you well. I know I said I would call you but after our last conversation I thought I ought to give you more time to think about things. I am still working on the book and probably will for a long time. During our last conversation you asked about what good my book would do and one of the answers I could come up with was that it would draw attention to the men who were lost on the Evans and that maybe it would stir interest in finally putting those boys' names on the Vietnam Wall. But I want to say that, after more research, interviews, and staring at photographs, that it is so much more than that. I wanted to become a journalist because I wanted to help draw attention to issues and things that affect people. I wanted to help turn heads and minds.
I can now say that I am writing this book so that these men are remembered. I have two boys myself and having met with two of the mothers who lost their sons on the Evans (Mrs. Sage, just before she passed away, and then Mrs. Frances Box) I know that when a mother loses their child that they want people to know that he lived. That he was more than just something that happened 40-some years ago. The mother-child bond is very strong and it's my empathy for these mothers that keeps me going on this book.
Today I got an e-mail from JCREW announcing a "long weekend sale." Before I started to working on this book I never really saw how people who've lost loved ones as war will mourn forever and everyday, think of their brother, father, or son. It never hit me, before sitting in a Denny's in Fresno, Calif. with Marcus Rodriguez, that people will think about their lost friends every day. I think if my book is just one more way for people to know that war costs lives and that those lives are never forgotten and that Memorial Day is not just an excuse to buy khakis at 30 percent off, then I will forever be content that I devoted my time and effort to telling a story that needs to be told.
So that's why I am writing this book. If the names never get on the wall then so be it. It's just a wall, like you said. I want to tell the story about these men who died serving their country. I can't do that without the help of everybody. I know you said your story is not important but I disagree. It is. You lived and worked alongside those men for months. I want to know more about them. You don't have to talk about June 3, 1969.