For many years Julie and I attended the “Candle Light Run” to Punchbowl Cemetery. This was started by the VNV M/C and is the Sunday before Memorial Day.
I’d been going since the first one, and have been friends with most of the VNV over the years. Hell, I helped start the charter in Hawaii. The VNV brothers here all wear a pocket tab that says, in Hawaiian, “The First to Stand”. Hawaii VNV members are the only ones to do so. That tab was the child of Bill “Fatchi” Fortini and me in 1985 or 1986.
The service in Punchbowl is always a little hard on me. I would think about all the friends I know buried there, and other Military cemeteries around the nation. Often it was the only time of the year I’d see “Point man”, Leo.
Leo was a high school friend of mine, who went into the USMC the year after I enlisted in the Air Force. The problem is Leo “never came home”
But he was always there to greet me and call Julie “Honey girl”. God bless her, she has never complained.
The major thing about the Sunday run is very few politicians show up. One year they asked a former Hawaii Congresswoman to be speaker of honor, and the majority of the crowd stood and turned their backs to her , this was done is a matter of her stand on the VN war and her condemnation of the warriors. Since then most politicians stay away.
There is also very little media coverage except to say “a bunch of hairy bearded guys with sleazy girlfriends, rode their really loud motorcycles in to Punchbowl. Now to the weather”.
So it’s a run for those of us that will not forget. It is the the “Missing man” fly over is especially hard on me.
I don’t recall exactly the year but there was a good crowd the year this happened. Probably the late 90’s.
Julie and I had ridden in by ourselves and talked with friends as they arrived. Everyone keeps their voices low there, it’s a respect thing. But even at a whisper 3-4 hundred people talking is loud. As usual there weren’t enough chairs, but a lot of the riders seemed to like to stand during the service. When you come in, or shortly after, ROTC cadets pass out candles (pushed through the bottom of wax paper cups to act as windshields) for the lighting ceremony after the speeches and before the fly over.
Julie and I had seats near the back rows, and next to us was a guy from “Indiana” who was on vacation and had come up to pay his respects. He was by himself that night. I say Indiana because he was wearing a “Viet Nam Veteran” baseball cap that had an Indiana patch sewn on the back.
At the end, everyone shares flame to light the candles, four helicopters would enter Punchbowl flying low, the helicopters would be in a “V” formation, and as all the people on the ground raise their candles one chopper pulls out and away as the formation passes overhead. The “Missing man” signifying those lost in battle.
I make no bones about my deep hatred for helicopters. I didn’t like ’em then, like ’em even less now. It’s mostly the damn sound that bothers me. A chopper over the house at night can set off nightmares. It is that much of a problem.
Normally, if I’m with Julie, the fly over is easier to handle. It’s not easy, just easier.
But this year was different. As the chopper pulled out, it was all I could do to keep it together. Then I looked at the guy from Indiana and recognized the stark terror and pain in his eyes. It was the same look I had. And the same tears.
Julie has a sixth sense about these things, or maybe she just reads me real good, because she was looking at him also.
Not really thinking, I took a step forward, put my arms around him, and I whispered, “You ain’t alone”. Julie stepped up and we all held each other tight. Tears fell but nobody cared. We just held on.
I never got his name, never saw him again; I don’t know what he did, where he had been, or what caused his pain.
All I do know is for that moment, he knew he was not alone, and neither was I. That’s enough.