In the wee hours of the morning many years ago, I found a website that would change my life! Thanks to my new home computer, the world wide web took me places I’d never been.
Among many other things, I searched for records of my uncle, Jim, who was killed in Vietnam. I even left my name and email on an interactive site, asking any vet who served with Jim to contact me. Gutsy, I know, but I must have thought connecting with someone who knew Jim would bring closure.
Jim’s death in 1969 came days after my fifteenth birthday and left me devastated.
My uncle was just a few years older than me (as were his brothers, Jack & David, shown with me years later). They were all big brothers to me. But, in 1969, while my beloved uncle bravely fought for our country, others in our generation demonstrated against the war and rioted in Iowa and across our nation. The irony of it was absurd!
Decades later, Jim’s death still haunted me.
Fast forward nearly forty years. I was the office administrator of a church in McPherson, Kansas. Our receptionist transferred a call to me and a strange voice hesitatingly asked, “Is this Elaine McAllister?”
“You don’t know me, but…”
That conversation transported me back in time as I was reminded of my long-ago post on that website. Now a stranger named Frank called to tell me he served with my uncle, Jim, in Vietnam.
Paranoia surfaced, along with a hundred and one questions. Was this guy legit? Was this a really bad joke? What did he want? Was he down on his luck and hoping I had resources? And how did this guy find me? Cautiously, I carried on a conversation.
As he talked, I took notes, asked questions, and soaked in all he shared, yet I remained hesitant. Frank seemed to know about my uncle, but could he have researched Jim’s military records to get this information? I wasn’t sure. He claimed Jim died in his arms. Could this be true?
Frank had seen my post earlier, but couldn’t call. His past was evidently too painful to resurrect (let alone discuss) but for some reason, he kept my name and email. When he decided to contact me, that address was inactive. Knowing only my name and the town where I lived years earlier, he did his own online search. His persistence paid off, launching the friendship of two strangers connected only by war’s atrocities.
That phone call overwhelmed me, so after chatting for thirty minutes (though it could have been half that) I asked if we could talk again the next day. He agreed. I had his name and number, so I would call him. But what if it was a hoax? Would we ever talk again?
That evening, I did a little online stalking, too. I knew his last name (but won’t share it here to protect his privacy). I found a business in his area listing him as the owner. I found an obituary listing him as a son. He was a high school graduate about the same time as my uncle. Frank’s story checked out!
My youngest uncle, Jack, got a call from me that night, too. Jim and Jack were best buds and I knew he would want to know about Frank’s call. Jack immediately wanted to meet with Frank. Would he be willing to meet us?
When I called Frank the next day, I was less paranoid so our call was more relaxed, but I had even more questions. Frank and Jim weren’t best friends, he explained, but they knew each other and they served together. He seemed to know Jim’s personality (quiet, kind, loyal) and his character (hard-working, motivated). Frank said Jim was a well-respected soldier and well-liked by fellow soldiers. That was good news.
During that conversation, I heard things I’d rather not have heard – details from the war that I didn’t even share with Jim’s siblings – but Frank’s answers confirmed for me that he was, indeed, with Jim when he died. It was comforting to finally know Jim didn’t die alone.
When I asked Frank if he would consider meeting Jack and me, he declined. That was no problem; we totally understood.
The Vietnam War was such a tragic and costly war in terms of lives lost, but I believe the toll was even more tragic for some who survived. Knowing Jim as I did, I’ve wondered how his life would have changed if he had returned to the States. He was engaged to be married. He was bright and articulate. He would have, no doubt, done great things. But, would the atrocities of his combat days haunt him, as they do so many? Would he deal with PTSD and night terrors?
Perhaps the lucky ones, in a morbid sort of way, are those who didn’t come home. Perhaps the peace so many veterans of that era still seek came in a split second for those who died on the battlefield. I don’t know. Does anyone really know?
What I do know is my life was changed because of Frank’s phone call. I’m thankful for his willingness to discuss hard stuff with a total stranger just because it seemed like ‘the right thing’ to do (that’s what he said prompted his first call). What a generous gift he gave to our family. To me.
Frank is my hero!
Fast forward…September 2012. I quit my job at the church to care for my elderly mother, but first I headed to the Nebraska Junk Jaunt with a friend. (Google it – 400 miles of garage sales! What fun!)
My phone rang on my first day and the Caller ID showed “New Hope Evangelical Church.” Oh my, I thought, what did I forget to tell them? Do they need a password?
No! It was my friend Marge calling to say she’d just chatted with a nice guy named Frank who was looking for me. He worked for a specialty beverage company and was making a delivery to a McPherson coffee bar. He thought he’d drop by, but he came one day too late!
When I returned home, I left my name and number with the owners of the coffee bar so Frank could call me the next time he came. Months later he did! I dropped everything and drove to the coffee bar.
“Frank?” I asked, sheepishly, as I approached a white-haired guy who sat alone, facing the door.
He stood, as he replied, “Elaine?”
We hugged like ‘forever friends’ then I admitted to him it wasn’t like me to hug a stranger! I guess we were no longer strangers.
That day, I brought with me pictures of my aunts, uncles, and my mom (the oldest of Jim’s seven siblings). I wanted Frank to ‘meet’ Jim’s family. I shared yellowed newspaper articles which Frank read, learning more about the soldier he once knew.
Thankfully, I asked someone to capture our poignant meeting; hearts and lives connected through a shared history and shared tragedy. I thanked Frank for his service – especially during that late-night enemy attack on February 6, 1969.
Tears were shed on both sides of the table on that day.
Update: Frank’s daughter and I are now Facebook friends. We chat from time to time, online. Through her I learned of her dad’s most recent battle – his enemy is now cancer. I thank God for Frank and pray for him and his family often. I pray he knows he’s loved. I pray he finds peace!
Thank you for sharing this touching story. My brother is a Vietnam veteran. He returned, had three sons and is now a loving Papa to six adoring grandchildren. Yet, he mentioned that he still takes medicine for PTSD. I think memories of that war never really fade completely.