In honor of Memorial Day, I am going to post a celebrated letter from a young soldier. It is from “Letters to a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters“, edited by Andrew Carroll. This is a good book to read when you need some inspiration.
I just want to recognize some veterans whom I’ve met in the online PC community. There’s Chuck Maack, a mainstay of several support groups, general PC advocate and head of the Wichita Us Too group, who served in the navy for 30 years. Also Curtis Palmer, who held out a hand to me when I needed it, served in the navy in Vietnam. Monte Matheson, a new friend, sent me a picture of himself as a handsome soldier in Korea. Finally, I want to mention my dear, late friend, Hugh Kearnley of Glasgow, who was a career soldier in Her Majesty’s Army.
Background: Sandy Kempner, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Galveston, TX, was sent to Vietnam in July 1966 to serve with the Marines. He wrote this letter to his great-aunt:
“20 Oct 66
Dear Aunt Fannie,
This morning, my platoon and I were finishing a three-day patrol. Struggling over steep hills covered with hedgerows, trees, and generally impenetrable jungle, one of my men turned to me and pointed a hand, filled with cuts and scratches, at a rather distinguished-looking plant with soft red flowers waving in the downpour (which I said had been going on ever since the patrol began) and said:
“That is the first plant I have seen today which didn’t have thorns on it.
I immediately thought of you.
The plant and the hill upon which it grew, was also representative of Vietnam. It is a country of thorns and cuts, of guns and marauding, of little hope and of great failure. Yet in the midst of it all, a beautiful thought, gesture, and even person can arise among it, waving bravely at the death that pours down upon it. Some day this hill will be burned by napalm, and the red flower will crackle up and die among the thorns.
So what was the use of living and being a beauty among the beasts, if it must, in the end, die because of them, and with them? This is a question which is answered by Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose”. You are what you are, what you are. Whether you believe in God, fate, or the crumbling cookie, elements are so mixed in a being that make him what he is: his salvation from the thorns around him lies in the fact that he existed at all, in his very own personality.
There was once a time when the Jewish idea of heaven and hell was the thoughts people had of you after you died. But what if the plant was on an isolated hill and never was seen by anyone? That is like the question of whether a falling tree makes a sound in the forest primeval when no one is there to hear it. It makes a sound, and the plant was beautiful and the thought was kind, and the person was humane, and distinguished and brave, not merely because other people recognized it as such, but because it is and it is, and it is.
The flower will always live in the memory of a tired, wet Marine, and thus has achieved a sort of immortality. But even if we had never gone on that hill, it would still be a distinguished, soft, red, thornless flower growing among the cutting, scratching plants, and that in itself is its own reward.
*Four months later, on 11 November, Sandy Kempner was killed by shrapnel from a mine explosion near Tien Phu. He was 24 years old. I want to add, [from my book], a little more detail: Kempner was disarming a mine when one of his men accidentally tripped another mine. Though seriously injured by the explosion, Kempner ordered that the other wounded man be treated first. Kempner was finally placed in a medevac to be taken to the hospital, but he died on route.
Sandy (Marion Lee) Kempner has indeed achieved immortality. And not just in my heart. His words have been repeated and celebrated by many. For example: there was a play about Sandy called “One Red Flower” in ’04, which got very good reviews. Believe it or not, it was a musical. Also, there is an excellent documentary (“Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam“, 1987), which also got outstanding ratings. I happen to know that *this particular letter* is included in the movie.