The Mobile Riverine Force Museum visited Beltrami County Fair recently. 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of U.S. escalation in the Vietnam War, with the Tonkin Gulf incident on August 2, 1964.
Over the course of five days, while signing books and helping at the Museum, I listened to hundreds of stories as men and women reminisced about that era. I’ve come to realize that as we move into the autumn of our lives we want to make sense with our past.
I watched veterans reconnect. Perhaps the most poignant, two men studying the lists of killed in action (KIA) etched on the sides of the museum trailer. Studying the same column, they’d begin to visit, gesture animatedly, and hugged. They had served together—same unit, same time, and had friends listed on the Wall. I watched this drama unfold several times.
A man drove down from the Canadian border, walked through the museum, searched the names until he found his lost friends, then came over and introduced himself. He sat in the shade and began talking about his time on the riverboats in Vietnam. He didn’t stop for several hours; I was left with the distinct impression that this was the first time in more than four decades he had shared those memories.
A three-tour Native American brownwater sailor, confined to a wheel chair, spent the afternoon visiting and reminiscing. His body is ravaged by Agent Orange poisoning, yet his warrior spirit remains strong. His friend told me that the sailor used to ride motorcycle with the Legion Riders.
On Sunday afternoon, just as we were leaving, a man started talking to me. He had read my memoir, Muddy Jungle Rivers. “You know that concrete ramp you talk about in chapter nine? I built that three months before you got there.” My words had touched his life, reconnecting him with an event from his youth.
Another riverboat veteran traveled from Minneapolis and spent two days with us. After reading the sign on my book table that I donate $5 from each sale he handed me $100. “Life has been good to me,” he said. “Use this for your Food Shelf program.”
I think he personifies the best in all of us.