Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Portrait of War

Hurrah! High school was finally out that fateful summer of 1968. There was a young woman who lived up the street from me in Ringoes, NJ. She was a year or two older and she remembered me as the artist from grade school and the neighbor who knew how to draw. Living in a small town, everyone kind of knew everyone. Small towns were like that. We were more concerned with what was going on in our own back yards than anything else, but even then, the Vietnam war was lurking in the backs of our minds. I was too young to be overly concerned about what was happening halfway around the world, but the news of it never escaped our thoughts. We saw it on TV and read about it in the daily newspapers. We talked about it at school, in the classrooms and the hallways. When I was in the 8th grade, a classmate was secreted out of the room. Hours later, the principal came on the P.A. system and announced that Van Dyke Manners was killed in action. He was the first person from Hunterdon County, NJ to die. I did not know him personally, but it hit close to home because my friend, Greg Manners, had lost his uncle.

My neighbor was dating a fellow who was about to enter the US Army. She asked me if I would draw a portrait of him. She would be happy to pay me. Wow, this would be my first commissioned job as an artist! I said, of course I will. How much? Oh, how about $15? OK, that's fine. I told her I'd like to meet him to get the feel of what kind of drawing I would do. If you have any photographs, let me see them, too. I met Mike Baldwin a couple of times and got to know him. At 18, he was a man. I was 15 going on 16, but this guy was old to me. He was handsome and just had that air of maturity and manliness we younger guys wished for but didn't have. He shaved. I didn't. With a war going on, I was in no hurry to buy my first razor.

I went to a store in the big town of Flemington to buy materials. I bought 2 poster boards instead of one in the event I messed up. I didn't yet drive and it wasn't every day I got to go shopping if I needed another one. She wanted the portrait as big as I could make it, probably to hang on her bedroom wall while he was gone. I only used one board and wondered what to do with the spare. I'll do a second portrait. Buy one, get one free. I don't know what compelled me to do it, but I did and I'm very glad. Maybe I thought if the relationship didn't work out years later, at least he would have one to share with his family. That must have been the reason. Maybe the death of Van Dyke put apprehension in my heart. You know, one for his mother, just in case.

Mike Baldwin went to Vietnam soon after that. He went because he believed in a cause. We learned of the Domino Effect in school. If one country falls to Communism, so do its neighbors. He was there a very short time before he came home zipped up in a body bag. That was my hideous wake-up call and first real experience with the horrors of war. Someone I knew was dead because of it. It was the senseless death of a man who sensed something more important than his own self. We lost so many and so much. What did we gain from that war? To this day, I still look up to him and I'm 35 years older than he was the day he died. I've gone through a lot of razors since then. Over the years, I've stood in front of the mirror and wondered what if he did come back alive? Would he and my neighbor have married? Perhaps, it's better it didn't happen that way. Maybe, Mike and his wife would be grieving for one of their own today instead. Still, I picture him as very proud, but it's a haunting portrait I now see.

Pfc. Van Dyke William Manners (11/10/1945 - 2/15/1967) KIA - Kontum Province, South Vietnam

Sgt. Michael Richard Baldwin (7/19/1947 - 9/12/1968) KIA - Binh Long Province, South Vietnam, ambushed while on reconnaissance 5 kilometers Northeast of Loc Ninh, along with:
Ssgt. Phillip Kenneth Baker - Detroit, MI
Pfc. Eugene Russell Boyce - Spartanburg, SC
Sp4. Wayne Daniel Jenkins - Bryson City, NC
Pfc. Kenneth Leroy Martin - Los Angeles, CA
Pfc. Marion Luther Oxner - Leesville, SC
Pfc. Dale Arden Palm - Toledo, OH
Pfc. Kurt Francis Ponath - Cudahy, WI
Sp4. J C Williams Jr. - Muncie, IN
Pfc. William Wittman - Binghamton, NY

September 12, 1968, was a long and sad day for Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division.

To all our brethren lost in wars, rest in peace.

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