Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
The Aspen Times
Aspen Co, Colorado
An Aspen emigre, she found me entirely by accident, through my column on the Internet. I recognized her name immediately, and thoughts of the tomboyish, scrawny girl with freckles and strawberry blonde hair ran through my mind. We spent an entire fifth-grade afternoon building a snow fort together, and by the end of the day, I imagined I couldn’t live without her.
By the next year, however, her family had left town and I mostly forgot about her, except for that enchanted winter day, a memory that, it turns out, was cherished by both of us. Something like the secret handshake of an exclusive club, it established a warm rapport between us when we finally rendezvoused again, about a year ago.
It was clear she wanted to talk, and even though I warned her I wasn’t anything like my columns, at least not in person, she forged ahead, anyway. She’d fallen in love with a great guy, she said, one who was affectionate, intelligent and one with whom she couldn’t wait to roll the dice on the future. Two months after the wedding, he was shipped to Vietnam. As it does for so many soldier’s wives, it all ended with his death, all of it except the memories.
There was the olive-green sedan, the two uniformed messengers bringing the mind-shattering news of her husband’s death, and little more. Her breath came in short gasps for weeks on end, it seemed, and nothing could assuage the darkness. Eventually there were his personal effects, bound up in a cardboard box, such as her letters to him, his dog tags and family pictures. And the flag which covered his coffin at the military funeral. It was impossible to view his body, because it couldn’t be done, and she wondered for the longest time if maybe someone hadn’t made a mistake. And then, she’d remember the dog tags.
He was a number, a casualty of war, one of some 58,000 who gave their lives on foreign soil. But, he was also her husband, half of a couple that looked to the future with hope, anxious to raise a family, to build a life, to love each other as fully as they had before he left for war. And it is his death we can see, maybe because we’ve read war novels and watched movies of the same kind, children living vicariously through heroes on the big screen or in novel pages depicting heroic skirmishes.
We don’t see the abrupt end to her visions and aspirations for their life together. It is hard for her to reconcile the notion that her husband is not coming home, not ever again. A young girl, 22, she has a life to live, and somehow she needs to get over it, or so everyone seems to be saying. And she buries the personal effects of her husband literally and figuratively in the back of the closet, along with his letters to her, never looking again, not after that first painful experience. Saying goodbye is tough, and maybe it’s better to move on and let the past fade away. There is a future somewhere, marriages and bad relationships and enough depression to keep the sky black most of the time.
Booze and drugs kill the pain, but only for a while, and this insidious beast that rides inside her begs to be put to rest. She’s a combat victim, as well, a casualty of war, collateral damage in the military vernacular, and without knowing why, her life is precarious.
Her husband was killed in the ’60s, and there’s something sad, but also heartening to hear her talk of finally pulling the box out of the closet, of reading the letters over and over again, and for Christ’s sake, of crying her heart out, days at a time. And the healing has begun, but the war will never be over for her, not until she sees her soldier coming up the walk one last time.
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