A cool autumn breeze. Maple leaves dancing along the curb. I sat on the stairs of the rented Victorian anticipating the homecoming of my idol. Dennis was a few years older, a high school track star, popular with the girls, admired by boys, and respected by adults. It was a time of change and a transition of culture; conscientious objectors, burners of draft cards, deserters, protesters. The family accepted the fact that many of the boys were of draft age. Patriotic and not unfamiliar with his family’s service to country, Dennis was eager to stand up and be counted. He volunteered. Uncle John and Aunt Eleanor pulled up in their 1964 Ford Galaxie Country Squire. Uncle J kept it immaculate; off the show room floor, clean. He needed the 9 passenger for his “tribe,” as Uncle J fondly called them, of four girls and two boys. I ran up the stairs and yelled through the foyer, “They’re here! Dennis is here!” I flew back down to the sidewalk as Uncle J was opening the driver’s side, Galaxie’s door. The rest of the “tribe” sat there; heads turning, talking, until Aunt Eleanor shifted around to look in the back and give instructions.
Uncle J opened the back door of his prized ride and fumbled with the wheel chair until he finally opened, secured, and rolled the chair back and forth to test its maneuverability. Although we all knew our cousin had lost both legs due to a trip wire explosion on patrol in Viet Nam, it wasn’t any easier anticipating his arrival and our reaction to him (“will I say something wrong, will he get angry with me if he thinks I feel sorry for him,” and on and on).
The sound and sight of the chair was ominous as it slowly rolled toward the back passenger door. Uncle J opened the door, bent down, picked Dennis up and swung him out and into the chair. He adjusted his seating by firmly grabbing the arms of the chair and raising himself up with buffed arms. He turned and said, “Let’s do this Dad.”
A few months went by and the family had shared the account of how Dennis had just rescued several members of his squad right before the trip wire changed his life forever. Time went on. He had a girlfriend and began playing musical instruments. I had spent time listening to his stories of Nam; some funny, some horrifying, all interesting but something else was going on. It was evident that Dennis was using drugs, heroin to be exact. He didn’t seek help and didn’t want it. During that time prosthetics were not as advanced as today. I can’t imagine being in my cousin’s mind and recalling events of war. Dennis never really came home. He continued pushing down the horror, the memories; the pain. Dennis is finally home now. If you ever visit the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C. say “hello” by touching his name: Dennis H.