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The Story

The Story

By Todd Matson


            I had known Walker for several years at the time, journeyed with him through the tragic death of his nephew, through the heartbreaking loss of his wife, as well as through the many challenges of raising his granddaughter on his own. I thought I knew where most of the bodies were buried. What he told me on this day was something new about something old.

            Walker’s eyes began to fill with tears. “I need to tell you something I’ve never told anyone,” he whispered.  He was 76 years old when we spoke, but in his story, he was a 19-year-old deployed on an aircraft carrier at the height of the Vietnam War.

            As he shared the story with me, Walker paused several times, as if to gather the courage to continue. I began to sense that Walker was about to tell me something that impacted his life more deeply and profoundly than anything he had experienced at war. This is what he told me:

            “Put your head on a 360-degree swivel and never stick it where the sun doesn’t shine.  If you don’t stay frosty, you’ll have a life expectancy of about 3 minutes.” Those words from Walker’s commanding officer were the difference between life and death.

            Walker’s job was on the landing strip across the carrier, where planes touch down and are caught by cables that bring them to a stop to keep from crashing into the ocean. It struck him as fitting for his life, since he hadn’t gone down the best road when he was younger; didn’t have someone catching and stopping him from making a mess of his life. Military service changed that, with structure and discipline.

            On that aircraft carrier, he had some close calls with difficult landings. A few times he had to run for his life—literally. But he lived to tell it.

            At the end of his tour of duty in 1968, at the age of 21, he was sent home—landing at Camp Lejeune and looking forward to being back home with his wife. To get there even faster, he was told he could hitchhike to the nearest bus station, about 30 miles from the base. Eager to surprise his wife, that’s what he did.

            Gathering his bags, Walker went out on the road and put his thumb in the air. Before long, someone stopped to pick him up. He threw his bags in the car, and they set off.

            Immediately, Walker knew something was wrong. They were speeding down the road and, from the smell of alcohol and the erratic driving, he knew the driver had been drinking. Where were the cables to slow them down and stop them so Walker could get out? But this was a road in South Carolina—not an aircraft carrier.

            They were in the middle of nowhere, but Walker wasn’t going to stay in that car another minute. So, when the driver stopped at an intersection, he got out. The driver sped off, weaving all over the road.

            Walker was alone, with no idea where he was or how he was going to get to the bus station.

            In a heightened state of alert, with his head still on a 360-degree swivel, Walker tried to get his bearings. Suddenly, he saw a tall man standing behind him in a white shirt with blood all over it. Walker had no idea where he’d come from—he had just appeared.

            Walker knew that soldiers returning from Vietnam were often met with hostility. It was in 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement in the United States, the year that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by a white man—heightening racial tensions. Within the military and society at large, many Black Americans came to believe that the Vietnam War itself was a form of racism. It wasn’t hard for Walker to understand why: Young Black men were being disproportionately drafted and sent to the front lines. Young Black men were having to do a disproportionate amount of the dying. Black soldiers had to hear white soldiers spew racial slurs against the Vietnamese, all of which echoed the sound of the n-word. 

            The man in the blood-soaked shirt was Black. Staring at him, Walker felt frozen, too stunned to move or speak.

            “What are you doing here all alone?” the man in the bloody shirt asked him. “Where are you trying to go?’”

            Walker cleared his throat, as if to clear out the fear and hesitation. He told the man he was trying to make it to the bus station. As they spoke, a car approached them on the road. Inside, were three Black men.

            The man with the bloody shirt and the men in the car exchanged a few words. They motioned him over, and Walker got into the car. When he looked around, the man in the bloody shirt was gone. The car took off, with Walker in the back seat. He was taken to the bus station and dropped off.  

            Walker stopped his story and looked at me, as if trying to gauge whether I believed him. “I have carried this memory for over 50 years,” he told me. “I never told anyone. I don’t know why I’m telling you this now, or why this memory has come to mean so much to me.  All I know is that through the years, I see that scene with more clarity.”

            He looked at me as if he felt somehow forgiven, as if the negative stereotypes through which he had previously viewed people who didn’t look like him dropped like scales from his eyes. The shame and regret he felt for keeping this beautiful life-changing experience a secret for so long melted away into relief.

            “I don’t know what happened that day—maybe I was visited by an angel,” Walker told me. “All I know is that as the years have passed, the white of his clothing has become whiter, and the red of his blood has become redder.”

            It was as if Walker’s conscience finally had its way with him and, at 76 years of age, he was brand new.

The Story

Todd Matson is a North Carolina Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.  He has had several poems published in The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling. He has written lyrics for songs recorded by number of contemporary Christian music artists.

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