Better Late Than Never

by W.D. Ehrhart

My memoir Vietnam-Perkasie ends in the spring of 1968 with me drunk and passed out in the shower at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry Point, North Carolina.  It is a fitting way to end the book because that was my mental state by the time I got back from the war.  And I stayed pretty well messed up for a long, long time thereafter.

And for a long time, I felt completely alienated from the community I grew up in or the people I grew up with.  The perception was not entirely false, either.  The good folks of Perkasie, Pennsylvania, had proudly sent me off to war, but had no idea what to make of the man they got back a few years later.  Even my age peers, the kids I’d grown up with—at least the few who were still around in 1968 and 1969 and 1970—seemed distant and strange and without a clue.

And so I cut myself off almost entirely from the life I had lived and the people I had known before I joined the Marines in 1966.  With only a very few exceptions, I had very little contact for many years, decades even, with the kids with whom I’d grown up.  Only in my 50s and early 60s did I begin to wish I had not turned my back on my past.

But by then, it was really hard to reconnect.  Again with a couple of exceptions, the few people I reached out to did not seem interested in renewing old friendships.  And I stopped trying.

A couple of years ago, however, a childhood friend of mine with whom I’d once been very close died suddenly, and a classmate of ours called to let me know that Karen had passed away.  I was very touched by his call because we had not been especially close friends growing up, having very different interests, but he knew I’d been close to Karen.

In the process of our conversation, he mentioned that a group of our classmates from the Pennridge High School Class of 1966 had been getting together for breakfast the first Tuesday of every month at a diner called the Filling Station, and he invited me to join them.  I now live more than an hour’s drive from Perkasie, but I thought I would go ahead and give it a try.

Like the man who’d called me, none of these men had been especially close social friends, but I’d known them all from elementary school on up.  They seemed genuinely happy to see me, and what I’ve learned about them over the past year and a half has been revelatory and humbling.

Several of them had gone to college, though only one of them had been in the two so-called “academic” sections of our class, the ones who had been deemed by the school system to be college material.  Seven of the nine had been drafted; of these, one had subsequently joined the navy, one had gotten into ROTC in college and did six years in the reserves, one had been sent to Germany, and four had served in Vietnam.  One had married a Vietnamese woman, though the marriage had not lasted, and one had been severely wounded in combat.

I’d had no idea that so many of my classmates of 1966 had gotten drafted and fought in Vietnam, but that had all happened in the years I’d been in the Marines, and I’d had no contact with any of them in the years since.  Obviously, these men felt “at home” enough to remain in the community, though we have not talked at our breakfasts explicitly about my own sense of alienation or how each of them felt when they came back.

Indeed, politics hardly comes up at all.  Though none of them seems to have been much more enamored of their experiences in Vietnam than I was, I can’t really say.  Mostly we talk about shared memories, teachers we liked and didn’t like, girls we thought were hot, sports then and now, what’s up with children and grandchildren, and the multiple health issues we’re all dealing with in our mid-seventies.

And it turns out that the man who’d joined the navy had read my memoirs and some of my other writing over the years, and several others mentioned reading essays of mine in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Bucks County Courier-Times, and the Bucks County Herald.  My leftist point-of-view notwithstanding, nobody has called me an unpatriotic commie creep, and the navy guy has said that he agrees with much of what I’ve written.

The title of Thomas Wolfe’s famous novel is You Can’t Go Home Again, but the men I have breakfast with each month seem to be living proof that you can.  As for me, well, I guess my monthly breakfasts don’t exactly amount to “going home,” but I can go back to where I grew up, and enjoy the company of some of the kids I grew up with.  And although it’s taken me nearly sixty years to find my way to the Filling Station diner on the first Tuesday of every month, like the saying goes: “Better late than never.”

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W. D. Ehrhart is a retired Master Teacher of History & English, and author of a Vietnam War memoir trilogy published by McFarland.

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