Stories From California Boomer: Henry
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Henry was a smallish man, a little stooped over, slight of build, gray hair balding hair, and blue eyes. His voice was thick, low, and halting. Henry's world was one half block long. That's how far he could walk in a day. It was on a few of these walks with Henry that he shared with me his ideas on life, love, war and his deep brooding soul. We were many years apart in age. I was an eager kid willing to listen. It was 1969. The war in Viet Nam was in progress and the news on television was grim; the body count high. Americans by the hundreds of thousands protested the war in Viet Nam on the street, in Congress and on the university campuses. We were also a nation divided by racial rebellion on our streets, and politically motivated murders.

“Bury me where the soldiers of retreat are buried, underneath the faded star”


“I was in France,” he started, “They gassed us, mustard gas,” he points to his head. “Could not get the damn mask on in time. It got me bad. I spent almost a year and a half in the hospital. It ruined my life. They gave me a goddamn medal! Twelve friends were killed the day we got gassed.” He looks at his feet. I feel the memories along with him. “I still have that goddamn medal. We were stupid kids, thought we'd be on a lark and all. War! What did we know?”

“I never married, always felt alone. What woman would want a broken down soldier anyway? Never liked 'em after the war anyway. Something just happened to me.” He sighs.

“After the war I became an accountant, I could be alone most of the time, no one bothering me, just do those numbers, no person getting on my nerves, no goddamn person!” By this time I'm feeling somewhat honored Henry even speaks to me. He is deeply bitter, dark, hurt, but has a need to talk. There are moments of combat fatigue that makes its way through the years. His feelings are real. For Henry these are memories from just moments ago in his experience, moments of 1918. He mumbles something about “Kids!” ”What kids?” I ask. “The goddamn kids, they want to kill off every new group of goddamn kids!” To Henry “they” is the government. “Now” Henry continues, “have we forgot to fight any group of people on this goddamn earth?” Henry remarks with bitter sarcasm. “Viet Nam!?” Henry snaps. “Now there's a piece of work! How goddamn foolish can we get, fighting for a bunch of assholes in Asia! We should go someplace closer to home, like Mexico or Las Vegas. If we'd go to Vegas it would be easy to bomb, closer to home. People in Vegas could run faster from that napalm.” (Napalm: anti-personnel jellied firebomb). Henry pauses, “Don, I think about those kids every day. They're never coming home whole, ya know? I know the feeling, I do! It's just not right.” Calm comes to his face, Henry's eyes well up with tears. “I love every one of 'em, I fought with 'em years ago. They're still the same boys. Don, don't ever go in yourself, never!”

“I let life pass me by, never let that happen to you. Enjoy life,” Henry strains for the words and the breath. We walked back to his court apartment and Henry invites me in. He slowly walked over to a side table next to a worn burgundy couch, picked up a cardboard box and pulled a picture from it. “Here Don, here's a picture of me before I went in the army.” There looking at me through all the years is a fresh, clear eyed boy, deeply handsome, confidant. The picture looks like so many people I know. I’m disturbed by it.

The picture is deaf and mute. Henry pulls the picture from my hands, “Don't forget him Don, don't ever forget him!” “I,... I won't,” I respond, trying to hold in my tears. I let go of the picture. He sat down on the sofa, looking at his picture, “you better go now,” he said softly. I touched his arm and then left. He didn’t look up he just kept looking at that picture.

An ambulance came one Saturday morning in early December. I heard it but never went to see who was in trouble. They took Henry away. Henry never returned to the neat little court apartment. Henry's one block universe became infinite.

To this day I can still see the picture of that boy in my mind; a fresh, clear eyed boy, deeply handsome and confident. I'll keep Henry's trust. I'll never forget.