My husband and I had just finished watching Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War the week before I visited the Avila Valley Barn with my daughter and her college friends. I passed a man in a baseball cap that read: Vietnam Veteran as I entered the property.
I looked at him and said, “Nice cap,” and gave him a thumbs up. It was, I suppose, a rather awkward way of acknowledging his service, but he responded with an open smile.
After I shopped for fresh produce, sampled apple pie and selected pumpkins for my seasonal table, I felt compelled to join the veteran on the porch. I sat down in the rocking chair next to him and said hello. Mike and I began an easy conversation about the fine weather and pleasures of Avila Beach.
Then I began the conversation that I really wanted to have with him by asking if he’d seen the Burns’ documentary. He had not, but he readily shared his story with me. He had just entered high school when the war began, but he said he somehow knew that he would end up in Vietnam.
After graduation, he received a scholarship and attended The Boston Conservatory of Music. Mike was an opera singer for two years… until he was drafted. He was discharged a year later after he witnessed the death of two others standing very near to him. His injuries, both physical and emotional, remain with him. It seems the after effects of Agent Orange have been the most troublesome to his well-being.
“The folks at the VA keep telling me I’m not long for this world,” he told me. “But, I don’t put a lot of stock into what the government says.”
His distrust seems justified.
“My wife and I just settled into the home of our dreams,” he continued. “It’s a small house with a huge garden that my wife loves. And, I’ve finally found some peace.”
I asked what had become of his musical career and he answered that it was another “casualty of war.” After many years of struggling with life on a daily basis, Mike discovered that he had the patience and skill needed to work with disabled children.
“I’d have never known I could help so many kids if I hadn’t served,” he concluded.
I left the barn that day with tears spilling from beneath my sunglasses. My thoughts turned to Mike again this weekend as we celebrated Veteran’s Day. I certainly hope the VA doctors are wrong; I hope Mike has many years to enjoy life in his new home and garden.