One Man’s Story

My posting cycle seems to miss all of the holidays this year, so my thoughts are running a week behind. This is not intentional I assure you.

Another Memorial Day has come and gone. My heart is heavy thinking about the loss all nations have suffered as their daughters and sons have gone out to serve their countries and have had their life flames snuffed out hundreds and thousands of miles from the land they called home – or – perhaps even in their own backyards.

I am grateful to the women and men of the United States of America for their sacrifices including the giving of their very souls for the rights and freedoms of not only our country but for those of other countries as well. However…

It’s not just those souls that trouble my heart. So many come back damaged mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. When do we remember, memorialize, them? Typically, when death finally catches up to them and then it’s a graveside gathering of family, friends and a bit of clergy, and sometimes not even that.

Today, I’d like to tell the story of one of those veterans that came home.

Born in the late winter of 1943, on the shore of Lake Michigan in a company owned lumber and mill town so small it doesn’t warrant a dot on most maps, this man, Michael, began life at a significant disadvantage. He was born several months premature at a time when neonatal care didn’t exist as it does today. Preemies as early as Michael rarely survived. Michael was less than half the size of a healthy, full term baby but was sent home with his family who were told that the odds of his survival were very low. Family legend has it that Michael was so small that he could fit in a cigar box and in fact spent the first few weeks of his life lying in one on top of his mother’s dresser in his parent’s bedroom. True or not I don’t know as those who could verify this legend have also passed.

Obviously, because I can tell Michael’s story, he survived.

Score: Michael 1 ; Death 0.

Starting from a very young age Michael showed himself to be stubborn, somewhat reckless, mischievous, given to outbursts of anger, and fearless. They referred to him as “a hand full.” These traits would bring him blessings and curses.

In the town of Michael’s childhood there was a large ice house. Each winter the townsfolk would venture out onto the ice of Lake Michigan, cut out large blocks of ice, and store them to meet the needs for ice during the warmer months. Everyone knew, and the children were all instructed, to stay away from the ice house as blocks of ice sometimes came crashing down and could easily injure, or kill, a person. These warnings did not deter Michael.

One summer day, when Michael was about five years old, he slipped into the ice house and scaled the large stack of ice. Upon reaching the top he stood on top of the ice. The top most chunk of ice collapsed into a cavity that had somehow grown inside the mountain of ice. Michael became entombed, trapped, and could not climb out. When he didn’t arrive home for dinner a search was initiated of the town, including the ice house and the surrounding woods. He was nowhere to be found. Then, while walking past the ice house on his way to search another part of town, one of the people looking for Michael heard yelling. The man stopped and listened and decided to search the ice house again and it was during this second search it was discovered Michael was stuck inside the ice stack and had been for most of the day. Men scaled the ice, lowered a rope to Michael and pulled him out. Nearly frozen, Michael was reunited with his family.

Score: Michael 2 ; Death 0.

Mill towns need logs; lots of them. The loggers would take down the trees in the surrounding forest and drag them out to Lake Michigan. Once in the lake the logs were floated to town and into what is called a holding pond. Men trained and skilled in walking out onto the floating logs would then feed them onto a conveyor that carried the logs to the mill for processing. Like the ice house, everyone knew, and the children were all instructed, to stay away from the holding pond and to ESPECIALLY stay off the logs. The danger was that the logs could float apart creating a space through which someone could fall and then the logs float back together trapping the person beneath them. The result: death by drowning.

Like the warnings about the ice house, the warnings about the holding pond were not a deterrent for Michael and at the age of about eight he ventured onto the enormous logs. As he climbed across the logs they indeed parted and Michael fell into the water. Then the logs floated back together trapping him beneath the surface and blocking his way to air. As fortune would have it, a mill worker happened to glance out of the mill’s entrance and saw Michael go into the water. The worker quickly gathered several other men and they ran out onto the logs, forced them apart, pulled Michael out and resuscitated him.

Score: Michael 3 ; Death 0.

As Michael grew, it became apparent he struggled with school. He barely passed each grade and often only due to his teachers’ kindness. Additionally, he often became involved in fist fights. He wasn’t a violent person but he often experienced bullying due to his small stature, which was attributed to his premature birth. There was one thing Michael excelled at – track. He was a very quick runner and won many races. In one contest, he won so many races that he was awarded the top prize – a pair of kangaroo skin running shoes. These were one of his most prized possessions as a boy. As for his stature, he only stood five feet four inches tall. A height that would later affect his life profoundly.

Moving now to the 1960’s, Michael’s family had moved to a larger town, he’d graduated high school and was working odd jobs. Michael’s learning disabilities showed themselves whenever he had to fill out a job application or other form because his reading and comprehension skills were low. Also, he’d made some bad decisions concerning money and jobs because his cognitive abilities were also impaired. As with his small stature, his intellectual challenges were attributed to his early birth.

Then one day, the Viet Nam War, in the form of a draft notice, came knocking on Michael’s door. An effort was made to keep him from going by presenting the Army with information concerning Michael’s impaired cognitive skills, but an Army doctor interviewed him and declared him fit for service. And so a new phase of Michael’s life began.

During his time in Viet Nam Michael was chosen to be a “Tunnel Rat.” Michael was told he was chosen due to his “small and nimble size.” Tunnel Rats were tasked with climbing into the tunnels constructed by the opposing Vietnamese and clearing them of the enemy by either capturing or killing them. The tunnels were dimly lit, if at all, and often had side tunnels and nooks where the enemy would hide to ambush the allied personnel. The fighting in the tunnels was primarily hand to hand using pistols and knives. The mortality rate for Tunnel Rats is estimated at more than 33% – nearly four in ten Tunnel Rats did not make it home (that is three times the overall mortality rate for Americans in Viet Nam). Michael served three stints as a Tunnel Rat and survived.

Score: Michael 6 ; Death 0.

Serving in Viet Nam changed Michael. Who can go through those kinds of experiences and not be affected? He was still the stubborn, somewhat reckless and fearless person he’d always been, but he was also calmer and less prone to angry outbursts. He didn’t really talk about his time in Viet Nam although he shared many of his experiences with his older brother. When others would ask about his time in Viet Nam Michael would share non-tunnel action and almost never tunnel experiences. He once said, “even God stayed out of the tunnels.”

Following his return home, he secured a job sailing on the freighters of the Great Lakes. He worked on the lakes for 38 years. It was a job he enjoyed except it kept him from home for nine or more months a year. This took a toll on his personal life but provided an excellent job with security, high pay, and great benefits.

In 1975 Michael was billeted to sail on the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald was legendary on the lakes; for many years it was the largest of the freighters. Sailing on the Edmund Fitzgerald was something all sailors of the lakes aspired to and Michael was no different. Unfortunately, or fortunately, Michael was unable to sail when the Fitzgerald was scheduled to resume its shipping that year because he’d broken his ankle and was still in a cast. Michael was replaced and re-billeted to another ship leaving a few weeks later. Sadly, on November 10, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald was caught in one of the worst storms in history on Lake Superior and sank killing all 29 crew members on board.

Score: Michael 7 ; Death 0.

This is not to say that life following Viet Nam was essentially quiet and settled; it was not.

Over the years Michael suffered from mysterious illnesses and physical issues. His visits to VA doctors and hospitals produced no diagnoses and so he suffered these bouts. Finally, when the federal government admitted that exposure to agent orange in Viet Nam did indeed cause many health issues, Michael was given the diagnosis he’d always suspected: that his time in Viet Nam had never ended and was still affecting his life.

Michael was married four times and fathered three children. He lost one wife to suicide which, oddly, led to Michael encountering legal problems. It was during the work to resolve these legal problems that Michael was finally assessed in terms of intelligence and cognitive ability (IQ). In these tests, a score of 55-69 indicates the individual has “mild mental disability.” Michael scored 63. I wonder, would the military now accept a person with Michael’s score? Would they draft him? Today, the military uses its own test, the ASVAB, to evaluate candidates so I cannot say for sure but my guess is Michael would not meet the criteria – and Michael would most likely have been rejected (I am not certain how the ASVAB differs from a standard IQ test). In many ways it’s a miracle Michael was able to navigate life as successfully as he did.

In Michael’s later years he suffered from dementia. He was moved to a facility that provided care around the clock. When staff or visitors entered his room, he would ask what they were doing on the boat and if the captain knew they were aboard. Or, he’d think he was back home on the shore of Lake Michigan and wonder what these strangers were doing in his home. Finally, in the early winter of 2019, Michael passed due to heart problems (in his 60’s he’d had open heart surgery). Michael was 74.

Score: For all Michael’s escapes from Death, in the end, Death is the victor.

I don’t know who, or how many, attended Michael’s funeral. I hope he was remembered for who he was as well as for his military service.

So who was Michael to me? My uncle, my father’s younger brother.

How do I remember him? He was my favorite uncle. He was kind to me and for reasons I now understand, we related well when I was growing up because in so many ways he was a boy in a man’s body. I recall him as a happy-go-lucky guy. Things just sort of happened around him and he lived through the outcomes. However, he also appeared to struggle with life. He was always seeking something better and complained of being the victim of others’ actions. I really think he lived in these two worlds not because he wanted to but because he couldn’t mentally reconcile that ‘happy-go-lucky’ and ‘victim’ are brothers; with one comes the other.

When I was in my 30’s and 40’s he would call me and we’d talk on the phone for an hour or more catching up on family and what he was up to on the boats. In one moving phone call, Uncle Michael shared with me that he’d been troubled by with a nightmare of an experience in a tunnel in Viet Nam. In the real experience, a live grenade was dropped into the tunnel where he was exploring. Upon realizing what had happened it was a mad rush of men, both allies and Vietnamese, to climb a ladder to escape the tunnel. Michael was first to the ladder and began climbing when a Vietnamese soldier grabbed him and began pulling him down. Michael pulled his revolver and shot the soldier just as the soldier was about to stab him. Michael reached the surface just as the grenade went off seriously wounding and killing both Tunnel Rats and Vietnamese soldiers. He told me that he was unable to forget the face of the soldier he’d shot; that it haunted him still. It was this face that filled his nightmare.

There was a time when the boat he was working on would dock in the town where I worked. We tried to get together each time but for reasons I cannot recall today it never happened. I regret that. After he retired, he moved to a small town in northern lower Michigan and he invited me to visit and again, I never did. I also regret that.

I liked Michael a lot and I’ll miss him. I think he was a kind man and cared about others. He was generous and easily manipulated and too many people took advantage of him, especially in money matters. Financially, if my father hadn’t stepped in and helped Michael organize his money behaviors into wise habits, Michael would have worked until he died and been penniless at that. Thankfully this is not the case and his widow is well cared for.

I close this story, this memorial, urging you to reach out to those who did come home but have been forgotten. Our involvement in the Middle East is returning living veterans, many of which are hurting mentally, emotionally and physically. Don’t wait until they pass to remember them; to memorialize them. Please don’t let debates over the right and wrong of our country’s involvement in any action deter you from acknowledging the people who have served (or are serving). They do so at great sacrifice and personal peril.

To those who died on the battlefield – thank you for giving your all; your last. To those who died later whether due to illness, accident, age, or too often, suicide – thank you for your service; your sacrifices. You are all in my heart.

~ jdoe.

To the readers:

I cannot even begin to relate to you what it was like being a Tunnel Rat. Their life was pure hell. If you’re interested in more, search the internet. There are articles written by those who lived it and came back.

What I’ve written is based on things told to me by my uncle, my father and my grandmother. Where the “cigar box legend” is concerned, I believe it to be true. My grandfather smoked cigars regularly and so cigar boxes were available, and my grandmother related the story to me while I was in college so it was her direct memory. I mentioned confirming the story simply because it’s really fantastical. Can you imagine bringing home your newborn infant and using a cigar box as its first bassinet?

To my wife, mother and sister:

Thank you for all of the research you did to help me get this pulled together.

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