The New Year can be both a time of hope and a time of regret. For some people, it cuts both ways. Some win, some lose. If you are an overly sensitive person, you probably shouldn’t read any further, because this story is a true, bona fide tear-jerker. But in the great scheme of things – who knows?
As a Navy chaplain on active duty for one-third of my life, I heard hundreds if not thousands of deeply personal “confessions,” and while I would never violate someone’s confidence by naming names (in fact, I happen to know that both principals involved in this story are deceased), some stories were so poignant that I remember them almost word for word after almost 50 years. It’s funny about old age: I seem to have an almost photographic memory about the long ago, but, today, I often don’t even know what day it is. In any event, having a “broken heart” and unrequited love almost seemed to be occupational hazards for many sailors and Marines, and although I listened to many similar tales, earnestly told over the years, this one resonated with me in a special way.
It was the proverbial “dark, rainy night,” and my ship, the USS Long Beach (CGN-9), the Navy’s first nuclear-powered cruiser, was in port, Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines, for the Christmas and New Year holidays. The only noise was the hum of the auxiliary generators, as we had recently dropped the load and lost shore power, and the lights were dim and flickering. It was the end of the monsoon season in that part of the world, and the days of near constant sideways rain had begun to get on everyone’s last nerve. I was sitting in my stateroom, watching the rain beat against the glass of my port hole window, and someone knocked on my door. I opened it and recognized an officer who had recently reported onboard to our Marine Detachment.
This ship carried Marines for extra security because it was nuclear-armed as well as being nuclear-powered. He asked if he could “talk” a while, and I said, “Sure,” as I had a sign on my door that said, “Open 24/7,” and I had spent the day in similar conversations. If you have a problem, and are thousands of miles away from home, it tends to rise to the top on holidays, and you feel an overwhelming need to talk. People tend to get “loose lips,” particularly when it’s a holiday, they are alone, and far, far away from home. This is such a story.
A true Marine, he got right to the point: the woman he loved had married someone else. With the stark facts on the table, I began to draw out the back story. It seems he met her in college. A former enlisted man selected to attend college in an officer commissioning program, he had literally fallen in love with the first young woman he met on campus. The relationship never really amounted to much, at least in her mind; but, for him, it was different. He said, “I had known more women than I cared to remember, but this was like opening the curtains to a dark room and bringing in the light.”
Unfortunately for him, she did not feel the same way, and nothing seemed to go right for him as far as changing her mind. For example, early on he remarked that he “hated” the music of Johnny Mathis, only to learn that he was her favorite. She came from a stable, loving family; he had no family; She invited him to go swimming, but he refused, afraid that she would see his tattoo, “Born to Raise Hell,” which he had gotten in boot camp, and think he was trashy. She looked forward to a quiet life in her hometown; he was headed to a career in the military, and as “Infantry,” it was going to be a fast, hard life. He knew he was in over his head, but he loved her.
She thought he was “nice,” but interpreted his shyness as reticence and his love as weakness, and refused his proposal of marriage. I asked him, “If you loved this woman so much, why didn’t you fight for her?” A pained expression came over his face. “What was I going to do, kidnap her? I humiliated myself as it was. I just didn’t fit into her circle of friends, and I knew it. She had her mind made up. I was toast. A couple years later, I did send her a picture of my ‘big day,’ when I graduated Quantico and received my commission, but I never heard from her. I had orders to Vietnam, and I fell off the face of the earth.” “You know,” he said, “it’s a shame we can’t freeze time. When I fell in love with her, she was just a sweet, country girl with big dreams. I had yet to completely understand that the world is often such a brutal and unforgiving place.”
As he continued his career in the military, moving from duty station to duty station, he kept her memory alive, reading and re-reading the few letters she had sent him until they literally fell apart in his hands. He carried her picture through two tours in Vietnam, in the rice paddies, in the rain and mud. “I would show it to you,” he said, apologetically, but I lost it swimming across a river. I wanted to go look for it, as it was my prize possession, but it was already downstream. I volunteered for some crazy stuff, just to make her proud of me, even though I knew she would never know.”
When he found out about her wedding from a college newsletter, a year or so after the fact, it was the “worst day of his life,” and not because he was lying in a sewer ditch a few clicks from the Cambodian border. He thought it was “ironic” she had told him one of his shortcomings was that he had no confidence in himself because, confidence, in his opinion, was his strongest attribute. He had never bothered to tell her that he was a Golden Gloves boxer in his teens, and he would have “climbed into the ring with Muhammed Ali if she had asked him to.” Ultimately, the only way he survived the reality of her wedding was by telling himself that he was somehow keeping her safe by being in Vietnam.
Listening to his story, some verses from the George Jones song, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” began running through my mind:
He said, “I’ll love you ‘till I die.” She told him: “You’ll forget in time.”
As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind.
He kept her picture on the wall, went half-crazy now and then,
He still loved her through it all, hoping she’d come back again.
Kept some letters by his bed, dated 1962,
He had underlined in red, every single “I love you.”
Dealing with my own loneliness, I couldn’t resist abandoning my usual non-judgmental, counselor approach and ask him if it hadn’t all been a gigantic waste of time? “Shouldn’t you just ‘man up’ and move on with your life? What’s the payback?” Giving me a tired smile, he replied, “Sure, I know it’s pathetic, but I’ve loved her too long to stop now. Anyway, she saved my life and gave me a second chance.” Intrigued, I asked, “How did she do that?” “Well,” he said, “after I found out she was married, I couldn’t stand to be in the States, so I volunteered to go back to Vietnam. I ended up in some violent, nasty places where life was cheap. When I came out of the bush, 12 months later, I weighed 135 pounds; I was dangerous, ‘non compos mentis,’ or not of sound mind; and strung out on the cocaine that I had managed to avoid the first times through. We were so far away from civilization that you couldn’t get a Coca Cola or a candy bar for 100 miles, but you could get all the coke or horse you ever wanted for a can of peaches.”
“On the bright side, if I had been shot, I wouldn’t have needed any pain killer. On the flight home from Da Nang, I decided to kill myself. I had seen so many friends die for nothing; I had killed people I didn’t even know; I had broken every one of the Ten Commandments several times; I was a drug addict; I couldn’t even remember what the ‘point’ was. I wasn’t fit to live. I didn’t want to go home, but they wouldn’t let me stay, saying I would be dead in three months if I did stay, but I didn’t care. I was so tired – just taking up space – useless; and although I knew it was highly unlikely, I didn’t want her to ever see me like that.
“When I got home, I hung around the house for a few days, trying to make up my mind; and then one night I got my gun and I went out, not intending to come back alive. I drove around for a while and ended up at her family church. Although she was far away, I knew I was intruding, unwelcome, so I sat just inside the door, on the back pew, in the dark for an hour or so, thinking about how I had screwed up my life, and the strangest thing happened.
“I’m not a spiritual person, Padre, but I knew she had spent much of her young life in that church, and I felt her presence. You may think I’m crazy, but a part of her came and sat down beside me on that back pew. She put her arm around me, and she told me she loved me. She told me everything would be alright and to hold on. I know most skeptics would laugh and say it was just another cocaine cowboy’s hallucination, and they may be right; but I can still feel her fingers in the hair on the back of my head when she hugged me. I went home, sobered up, and went on to my next duty station in Hawaii where they cut me some slack until I could get the monkey off my back, my head straight, and more or less healthy again. I’ve been clean ever since, and here I am tonight. She saved my life, and she gave me a second chance.”
I sat there in silence, not asking the question that came to my mind: is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? I decided it was a question only he could answer. In the coming months, I’d see him around the ship as he went about his duties; our eyes would meet; we would smile, and we both knew what we were thinking. He must have been an exceptional fellow for the Marine Corps to have taken the time and effort to have “dried him out” and kept him on active duty. Usually, they would have given someone hooked on drugs a “Big Chicken Dinner” (Bad Conduct Discharge) and been done with it. He gave much of the credit for his recovery to a civilian Roman Catholic priest assigned to the Catholic church on the hill overlooking the naval base at Pearl Harbor. This validated my own experience in Vietnam that Catholic chaplains always had the time to listen and help.
I know, for many people, his story will sound far-fetched; but I have seen stranger things. We are all but pilgrims, and most of us can only hope that, when our day comes - and it surely will – we, too, will get a second chance.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.