For Ron Kovic, on the 4th of July

“I don’t like this,” my mother said as she set the dinner table. “It’s getting to be a bad habit.”

The rest of my family out-voted her. So my brother placed the portable black and white TV on a snack table in the corner of the kitchen.

It was fall, 1967, and I was a senior in high school. Between bites of dinner and sips of milk, my family watched the news unfolding from Vietnam. As a student who thought history was her best subject, I was interested in the logistics of it all, the politics. My ability to watch young men being ripped apart on a 16-inch screen and then say things like, “Please pass the potatoes,” evidently didn’t bother me.

Then Ron Kovic got shot.

Ron Kovic grew up one block over and two blocks up from our house. He and his friends were a staple of my childhood. For one summer I worshiped his broad-shouldered body as he played ball every day in the neighborhood. He was — as were many others — the older boy who never looked my way. For three hot and humid months that year, I made up a reason to walk past his house ten times a day. I hoped for a “hello.” I never got a nod.

I’d lost track of him when he graduated from Massapequa High School in 1964. I had no idea he’d become a Marine. His little sister was at our bus stop on Broadway, but by the rules that governed bus stop protocol, I couldn’t talk to her because she was younger.

And then one afternoon in January, 1968, I saw his sister sobbing on the bus ride home from school, hunched over in her seat. Her friends crowded around her, and I heard one of them say, “Her brother got shot in Vietnam.”

Starting that day, I had two images of Ron Kovic that I couldn’t reconcile. In the first, he wore his letter sweater with the blue and gold M. He had a crew cut and was tan and smiling. In the second — only a few years beyond that — he lay in St. Albans Naval Hospital, paralyzed from the chest down.

 

Ron

In 1976, when Ron wrote about his life in Born on the Fourth of July, he graced the front page of The New York Times Book Review. He was renewed, strong in his anti-war convictions, still handsome. My brother bought a copy of the book for me and walked around the corner to the Kovic’s house and asked him to sign it.

“He was very pleasant,” my brother told me. “We talked for a long time. I asked him, but he said he doesn’t remember you.”

 

IMG_1904

When you’re the cool kid on the block, you don’t recall the skinny 13-year-old in the shadows, even if she is adoring your every move. And that wasn’t the big role Ron Kovic was going to play in my life anyway.

January, 1968, my family stopped watching the Vietnam War unfold on the TV screen at dinner. I no longer needed Walter Cronkite to shepherd me through the Tet Offensive or the DMZ. Ron Kovic — that beautiful boy from Toronto Avenue who did perfect handstands — took over the job.

If I questioned what war was, or what it did, my answer was close by now. Two blocks away. At the bus stop. Every morning when I looked into his sister’s eyes.

 

47 thoughts on “For Ron Kovic, on the 4th of July

  1. I will never forget the horrible feeling when my friend Cindy Well, who was a year or so younger than us, called to say her boyfriend Frank Fierman (class of 1968) had gotten shot. He was in a hospital “somewhere in Japan” where my brother was stationed. There were so many frantic attempts to contact my brother to find Frank, and see if he was OK.

    In 1972, Frank came by the house in his new Cutlass 442 – complete with hand controls so he could drive, even though he was paralyzed. Frank and I had some great adventures, including some anti-war rallies, over the next few years.

    Frank met a young woman who he eventually married and we lost touch.

    I heard he became a right winger.

    Liked by 7 people

  2. Both of my next door neighbors fought in Nam, but came back physically uninjured.. This story was so powerful. I work with someone whose son fought in Afghanistan and has PTSD and a lot of problems. War is not something that happens to someone else. Its ripples touch all of us in some way. Thank you again for this powerful post.

    Liked by 7 people

  3. As a young Canadian woman growing up during this time in history. I met many young men who were living in Ontario. Often it was thought these young men were here in Canada to avoid the ‘dtaft’. However I remember Glen from a small town in Georgia who was so very proud to say he had served to tours in Vietnam. A difficult time for so many young people. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I met Mr. Kovic and marched with him, along with dozens of other Vietnam vets in protest against the Vietnam war at an anti-war rally in the San Fernando Valley in the late 60s. Even though Mr. Kovic was paralyzed, his impassioned speech about what was actually going on in Vietnam brought me to tears – even through I had been inoculated by the nightly news reports on television. If I protested the war, it was for the very reason that our democratic constitution stood for preventing crimes against humanity. Moreover, for what Mr. Kovic and so many others combat soldiers were speaking about the truth of how innocent civilians were necessary collateral damage. I was 19 years old, and my draft number was 47. I changed my status to Conscientious Objector and later was classified H-1. But even before this, in 1963/64, I was introduced to the Vietnam War by a middle school friend whose brother had just been sent over to Vietnam as a Green Beret/Marine. He was KIA a few months later. When I expressed my position against the Vietnam War (age 14) at our extended family’s traditional Sunday dinner; I was banished from ever being allowed to sit at the family table again; accused of being a communist sympathizer – mandated by my mother’s father. During WWII, Ho Chi Minh was supported closely but clandestinely by the United States Office of Strategic Services in supplying him with arms to combat Japanese infiltration of Vietnam during WWII. After Japan’s surrender, Ho Chi Minh “repeatedly petitioned American President Harry S. Truman for support for Vietnamese independence, citing the Atlantic Charter, but Truman never responded.” What followed was decades of senseless killing of innocent human beings. Footnote: When Kerry ran for president, a disabled Vietnam combat vet venomously told me that Kerry was the “devil”. I could never phantom a military brother condemning another with such vile and unsubstantiated hatred other than he was suffering so much pain himself. On this July 4th, from my heart I pray that God care for all of those who didn’t make it home, for all of those who served with honor under the military code, and that all of us find a way to heal and forgive. I thank you for this story of Mr. Kovic. He is a courageous man for all the right reasons, both in military combat and for democratic constitutional justice.

    Liked by 6 people

    1. Thanks to you both. Kovic was still protesting during the US supported civil war in El Salvador. He put his life on the line, trying to stop trains with nuclear weapons on them. He is a hero in every sense of the word.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Your writing captured my interest from the get go. Thank you for being so poignant in what captured your heart and soul. I honour all soldiers who fight for freedom of rights and democratic values.We in the free world are up against a war hungry enemy that only wants to destroy our values. As a Canadian I firmly believe that we in the free world must stand united against the coming tide of fanatical zealots. Freedom in all of its aspects is not gained without sacrifice.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. You reminded me of an incident that happened not long after I had joined the RAF. I was based at RAF Innsworth in Gloucester and I worked in the communications centre, we were responsible for all the preparation, sending and receiving of signals all over the world. My older brother was in the Army and serving in Bosnia at the time.
    I was on night shift when a compassionate signal came in, Innsworth was/is also home to the Joint Casualty Compassionate Cell (basically any injuries or deaths overseas or in the UK, JCCC deal with it, inform the families etc), in Bosnia a soldier from 6 RLC Reg (my brothers Regiment) had been shot. I was shaking as I read the signal come off of the printer, thankfully it wasn’t my brother but unfortunately I had recognised the name. I had met Chris so many times the first time at my brothers passing out parade, then again when my brother graduate from his trade training course and several times over the years he even came to my graduation parade at RAF Cosford. The worst line was the one that said there were more injured and a follow up signal would arrive to back up the phone call JCCC had already received.

    Now Chris and my brother were never far apart from the day they met at basic training, I rang the JCCC night office to inform them that a signal had come in so they would have to collect it. The duty officer was very understanding when I explained why it sounded like I was crying (I was) even though he wasn’t supposed to he confirmed my brother wasn’t on the list of injured and out of the 6 soldiers that were none were fatally injured thank god. My brother had however been placed under arrest for threatening the life of his Company Sergeant Major as he wasn’t allowed to escort Chris’ body home.

    I am still in the RAF now and I have a discussion with every new person posted in if they are fresh out of training, I ask them if they are ready for this for the potential of losing their own life or watching a friend die and if they are not, I tell them they are in the wrong job. I still believe deeply in what I do, and although I do not always agree with things I will still be here until the kick me out. Yet ironically I will campaign for peace when I leave the military, but I will never campaign against the need for a military, or against the military itself which is something a lot of peace protestors get wrong I feel.

    Sorry this went off track, your piece was beautiful thank you for sharing x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. At least you didn’t accuse us of not supporting the soldier. We are so often accused of this, yet the soldiers have been our biggest fans. I remember an African American soldier thanking us for protesting the war in El Salvador. He said “We don’t want to get our asses blown off over there.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sherrie despite serving in the RAF and there being a serviceman in every generation of my family for the past 200 years, I would be quite happy for peace to break out worldwide and make me jobless!
        Fighting and defending are necessary evils doesn’t mean I have to like them, so I will protest against their need, but I will never protest against the men and women that join up voluntarily to defend our nations!

        Liked by 2 people

  7. Reblogged this on John D Eccles and commented:
    Oliver Stones Born on the 4th of July Is one of my favourite films of all time, What’s more surprising it is probably Tom Cruises best performance by far. Ron was the voice of the forgotten generation of young men who deserved to be treated a great deal better than they were.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. War can be easy enough to view as a spectator sport, or to satisfy our fascination for the sway of human action — or, as you note, the logistics.

    It often takes an event, like the boy next door being shot, or our own homes being bombed, to bring the horror of it into context.

    You have exposed this transition of rational and practical to emotional and personal so very, very beautifully. The heart-wrench … that’s honesty speaking boldly.

    Lovely. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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