The last set ended a little before eleven at my favorite club, Blues Alley in Georgetown. Anxious to un-stick my butt from their vinyl bar stool, I wondered out into the sweltering summer night intending to drive straight home, but for some reason I felt compelled to swing around the national mall on my way. The monuments are so beautifully lit that a cruise by the mall at night is one of the special treats in Washington. I took 23rd St. out of Washington Circle, past the eerily lit Lincoln Memorial and easily found a parking spot on the north side of the mall. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial was a short walk away but what was I doing there at that time of night?
I generally shy away from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial because it is such an overwhelmingly sad place that I can’t handle it. The 58,195 names on the wall, all of the mourners and gawkers, the tattered old veterans plus all of the stuff that people leave at the wall: old photos, letters, flowers, military medals and so forth overpower me and I can’t help but feeling a strange mixture of sorrow and confusion; confusion because I really don’t understand why all of these young Americans had to die. Sure, I knew what we believed at the time but I’m totally confused as to what history is telling us now.
Darkness enhanced the aura that surrounds the wall. I didn’t want to get too close so I grabbed a spot in the shadows on the grass and just sat and stared at this, the holiest of holy places. Arlington National Cemetery claims to be the most sacred ground in America but if this place isn’t, it’s a close second. There was no one there but me. Isn’t it eerie how spooky places become even spookier when you’re all alone, downright scary in fact. I just sat there contemplating all of this when I heard, “Rocky … Rocky … Lance Corporal Rockwell is that you?”
Dumbstruck, I didn’t answer.
“Rocky, it’s been a long time,” the voice said. “Remember me, Barney … Bill Barnett from Alpha Battery in Twentynine Palms.”
“Barney, where the hell are you?” I asked, afraid of his answer.
“You can’t see me but I’m here. Good to see you old buddy. Semper Fi and all of that. What the hell have you been doin’?”
“Barney, I left Alpha Battery in the summer of ‘62 and I’m sure I haven’t seen you since.”
“That would be hard to do; since I went down in a Huey about 25 miles northwest of Chu Lai on December 8, 1965. See, my name’s over there on the wall, on the left, in panel 04E, line 38. There’s a lot of guys here that you probably know.”
“I know, I’ve always avoided looking anyone up in the directory because this place depresses me enough without knowing that a bunch of my Marine buddies are remembered here. I guess I knew you’d be here, I … I just didn’t want to confirm it.”
“How is the Corps doing these days? Are they still kicking ass and taking names?”
“They’ve got their hands full right now. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force is at war as we speak. They’re making a big sweep though Southern Afghanistan routing out terrorists and political extremists.”
“What’s an expeditionary force, and when did the Marines start using big words like expeditionary?”
His comment brought a smile and I answered, “I think the 1st MEF is the old 1st Marine Division from Camp Pendleton, that we know and love, augmented with some additional units.”
“How are they doing?”
“I can’t tell. The public has lost interest in what’s going on over there. We mourn when an American solider or Marine is killed but other than that no one seems to care. You bought-the-farm when we were still the good guys in Nam. You died a hero and not a baby-killer like Marines were called towards the end of the war. What are you doing here?”
“Where else should I hang out, Chu Lai, Da Nang, my cemetery plot in Scranton, PA? This is much better than any of those places.”
“Tell me how you got from Twentynine Palms in ‘63 to here. I know that our old unit, Alpha Battery, 1st LAAM Battalion was the first Marine unit into Nam in February, ‘65. Were you with them?”
“Yep, I re-upped just we were leaving 29 Stumps for Okinawa. We just got settled on the Rock when we got orders to get our sorry asses over to Da Nang and secure the airport for some big-ass air operation they had in the works. Alpha Battery and some Marine helicopters were the first Marine units into Nam in early ‘65. I had made buck sergeant by then and was invited by an air-wing buddy to be the door gunner on a Huey on what we thought would be a milk-run mission. I’d been in Nam for 10 months and all I’d seen was Da Nang so I jumped at the chance to go on this operation and see a bit of the country. Anyway, we were cruising along near Chu Lai when we took some small arms fire. When we swung around so I could get a shot at ‘em and all hell broke loose. We got hit hard and were on our way down when the lights went out.”
“That’s quite a story, Barney. Did they ever recover you and the crew?”
“Yeah, two days later another Huey came in hot and rounded up what was left of the four of us. They found my watch, my dog tags and the picture of my 2 year old daughter, Lisa that I always carried for good luck. They sent that stuff along with my gear back in Da Nang to my wife in Scranton.”
“Barney, the park ranger will be around soon and kick me outta here. This place closes at 11:30.”
“Before you go Rocky, could I ask a favor of you, a big favor?”
“Sure, what can I do for you?”
“My wife died in ‘94 and I haven’t heard anything about my daughter in years. Could you just check her out and let me know how she’s doing? I’d be truly grateful.”
“I can do that, what’s her name and where does she live?”
“My wife’s name was Barbara and our daughter is Lisa, Lisa Barnett. She was 2 ½ when I went down … that would make her … lets see … 44 today. Last I heard she was still in Scranton, PA.”
“Okay Barney, it was great shootin’ the shit with you after all of this time. I’ll see what I can dig up on Lisa and get back to you. Semper Fi, Marine.”
“Semper Fi to you too, you old, worn out Marine, I’ll be waiting for you.”
I walked over to the left side of the wall. Where did he say his name was? Panel 04E but I forgot the line number. There it was on the wall: • William T Barnett •
Had I just had a chat with long dead Barney or did the booze and the magic of the wall play tricks on me. In any case, I made a commitment to someone, a ghost, a spirit in the night, or maybe a voice from inside my head. Whatever it was, it was a Marine who asked me for a simple favor and I just agreed to track down someone that hasn’t been heard from in over 30 years.
Where to start? I thought that doing everything I could on the internet before I hit the streets would save a lot of shoe leather. After performing every search I could think of for a Barbara and a Lisa Barnett I was ready to toss in the towel. Barbara must have remarried and changed her last name and how in the hell do you find a woman with a new last name? Didn’t Barney say she died in ’94? I could probably find her obit and it might give me a clue to what Lisa’s name was back then.
After abusing my relationship with Google and Yahoo I set out to dig through the on-line edition of Scranton’s newspaper, the Scranton Times & Tribune. I didn’t have her last name or the date of her death, all I had was a first name and a year. How many Barbaras died in Scranton in 1994? I was about to find out. I started with January 1st and began working my way through the year, day by day.
Eight days later I found this in the June 14, 1994 edition:
Barbara C. Hanson passed away on June 11, 1994 after a three year battle with breast cancer. Barbara was born on April 12, 1944 in Glenburn, Pennsylvania. She graduated from Scranton East High School in 1962. On June 14 1962 she married William Barnett, a Marine who was killed in Vietnam in December 1965. Barbara later married Jim Hanson of Scranton on May 12, 1973. Barbara worked until her illness overcame her at the Mall at Steamtown in a dress shop. She is survived by her husband Jim Hanson and her daughter Lisa Mercer, both of Scranton. Services have been entrusted to the care of Rabinskis Funeral Home, 263 West 34th Street.
She had remarried this Hanson guy just as I thought and I got Lisa’s married name, Mercer. Was I a detective or what? I was sure I’d find her now that I had her married name. Information listed 14 Mercers in the city of Scranton proper. I planned to work the suburbs later.
On my 8th call to a R.W. Mercer I talked to a lady who claimed to be Lisa’s sister-in-law. She didn’t want to talk about Lisa so I laid on the charm, the little that I have. After a lot of hemming and hawing she finally admitted that Lisa was in prison for killing her abusive husband. She was serving 6 to 10 years for manslaughter at the State Correctional Institution in Muncy. I could’ve looked up the stories of Lisa’s arrest and conviction but I didn’t see the point, I’d learned everything I needed to know.
What the hell was I going to tell Barney? I couldn’t tell him that his little girl’s in prison for murder. Maybe I could make something up; what happens if you lie to a ghost? Will he haunt my house, walk my halls in rattling chains or scare my guests by moving their tea cups? Nah, that stuff only happens in the movies. There’s no way I was going to tell the truth to a buddy of mine, a buddy who died at 23 for something that turned out to be pointless. I’ll humor him with something.
Okay, I have a story for Barney. His daughter, Lisa, is happily married living in Scranton and teaching the 4th grade at the same elementary school she attended as a girl. She was voted Scranton’s outstanding elementary school teacher of 2001. What do you think, am I laying it on too heavy?
I rehearse and rehearse my story until it sounds realistic but I don’t know what Barney knows about his daughter. If I make her a teacher and he knows she never went to college he’ll know right off that I’m blowing smoke up his ass, to use an old Marine Corps expression. I’m ready, fingers crossed.
A little after nine I sit on the same spot of lawn that I had sat on on my last visit here. A lot of people are at the wall tonight. So, I just sit and people-watch and wait for Barney. Barney doesn’t show; if show is the right word for someone you can’t see. I sit and wait, going over and over my made-up story in my mind. No Barney. Finally at 11:30 the park ranger comes by and asks me to leave. I tell him I want to swing by the wall on my way out so he accompanies me with his big police flashlight.
We go over to Barney’s panel and I look for his name in the flashlight beam. Taped to the edge of Barney’s name is an old, partially burned photo of a young little girl. Lisa?
©2009 by Bob Rockwell