The long envelope was addressed to Mr. Robert K. Hess.
One corner was torn away.....and it lacked a return address.
I’d just received it that day, with a batch of others;
it was a light mail-day; some days the volume smothers.
I opened up the envelope, what was left of it, and read.....
“Dear Mr. Hess,
Sorry this comes so late. I know your son is dead.”
I caught my breath. I’d received a similar letter years ago,
but this one contained a photo also, which caused my tears to flow.
The photo, black and white, showed a father with his son.
Each was dressed in camouflage, and each carried.....a deer gun.
On the back was a name and address, the same as envelope.
And written in pencil it said “Me and Dad, hunting antelope.”
There was a date also written: November 12,1963.
Memories of my son now swept rapidly over me.
There were about ten pages, handwritten, staring at me now.
I could not make myself read it yet. My head did slowly bow.
The next day I took it up again, with very mixed feelings indeed.
But my mind and soul both seemed to feel, the letter I might need.
“My name is Hank” the letter said. “I knew your son in NAM.
This photo of you and your son, for years has helped keep me calm.”
I stared at the photo for a while. Did my son look like that long ago?
I scanned the letter and found no return address. The letter, I was about to throw.
But I couldn’t do it! I had to read it someday. Again I set it aside.
Ten years I’ve been without a son, but, for him, I’m still filled with pride.
It took a week before I read some more. I had plenty more to do.
I thought reading the long letter might help, the parent-child bond, renew.
“I’ve enclosed Tom’s dog tags. He gave them to me before he died.
I should have turned them in but I didn’t, and for two days, at night, I cried.
Tom was my buddy for six months; we shared more than you want to know.
It wasn’t ALL bad in The NAM. Once we saw a live comedy show.
He was a bit of a crazy kid, who at crazy times would sing a song.
He spoke highly of you, though he said you didn’t always get along.”
The letter went on and on. I was tempted several times to quit.
Sometimes, due to some torn off page corners, I missed a little bit.
Yes, there’d been corners torn off of pages, and of the envelope too.
Dog tags were missing; through the open envelope corner I suppose they flew.
Hank spoke of a visit to Saigon, and of the oppressive heat,
of villagers who’d had legs blown off, and meals they had to eat.
He did NOT mention drugs, nor the girls I imagine they'd sampled,
nor TOO much of fighting, nor of anything or anybody they may have trampled.
He mentioned seeing a cobra one day and he mentioned the sounds at night.
He said much of their time there was boring. Beer came by helicopter flight.
There were church services held in “the field”. They burned much of their shit.
The few times they had enemy contact, each soldier tried.....to not “get hit”.
“Part of the year has terrible rains. They call them a “wet” monsoon.
One of the few things like in the States, was the stars at night and the moon.
Some of us (just a few) wrote regularly to folks back home.
Some were concerned more with leech removal and having a good lice comb.
“I spent a second tour in The NAM after your son died. Was I nuts?
Partly, your son’s death was why I stayed. I wanted to kick some V.C. butts.
I got my chance in my seventeenth month there. I got two gooks, but they got ME.
I lost an arm and one eye, but my medical care is free.
“I’ve also had flashbacks of being hit, or those I killed, and of your son.
If I could rule the world now.....I’d get rid of every bomb, mortar, and gun.
One good thing, I guess, came out of that mess. I met my dear wife Susie.
She took care of me in Walter Reed. I’ve got a son, Tom; he is a doozy.
“I’ve debated telling you how your son died. Now I guess I will.
It was not drugs or suicide.....as happened to some. It happened on a hill.
I’ve heard Tom’s listed as “Missing In Action”, but I tell you he did die.
But I don’t know if I can say his death was needed. No, I will not lie.
“We were ordered to take a hill overlooking a “strategic valley”.
We were warned not to commit any “atrocities” like was done by Lt. Calley.
Maybe we did, and maybe we didn’t. It was not clear who the enemy was.
When we were ordered to take the hill, we did as a “good soldier” does.
“We were told there were NVA and VC and maybe Chinese on the hill.
We were told to advance cautiously, but to proceed at will.
We kept in touch with the home base until our radio operator was shot.
The radio was “killed” too, so we were a bit “in the dark”; ours was a sorry lot.
“Our platoon started with forty men, most as young as Tom and me.
By the time we’d gotten off the hill, I think we were down to twenty-three.
Halfway up Tom got hit in the chest, I think from machine gun fire,
but he could have been hit by a sniper bullet; treetop snipers could get much higher.
'I was ten feet away and I went and cradled his head.
He gave me his tags, which I’m sending to you, but in a few minutes he was dead.”
By now I was choking, and my tears were soaking the page; I stopped.
I wondered if my son died with a buddy, with his head up-propped.
The next day, after a sleepless night, I returned anxiously to the letter.
I thought a day’s rest would prepare me for letter’s end, but I did not do much better.
“I know, sir, some war movies show soldiers carrying their dead away,
but, I hope you’ll believe me, on THAT hill THAT day, there was......NO damn way.
You wouldn’t have gotten your son’s body back; I’d probably have lost mine.
I hope you’ll forgive me, sir. I hope, with my decision, you’ll be fine.”
Once again I hesitated, with page in hand, but I could not stop reading now.
I grabbed more tissues and drank some water, and to the end I did plow.
“Our forces took the hill at last.....after it was mostly destroyed.
To accomplish this, however, it was carpet bombed and napalm was employed.
I don’t really know if they looked for Tom. The hill was “held”......for a few months.
That’s the way things went sometimes......for us U.S. Army grunts.
“I haven’t given you my return address; it was hard enough, as is.....
to write to you at long last, and give you what, for Tom, once were his.
I know he cherished the photo; I took it from him when he died.
The dog tags have been a comfort for me many nights when I have cried.
But I’m on a new med now, from the VA doctor, to calm my nerves at night.
They seem to be working and I thought you should have what was Tom’s. It’s right!
“I hope this envelope reaches you safely. I hope you haven’t moved.
I hope you believe my story, and, that Tom had a NAM buddy, this proved.
With my sincere condolences on the loss of your son.
p.s. I’ll remember him each time my boy’s little hand, on mine, does yank.”
My eyes were red and tired by now, but all my tears had dried.
I’m sorry I failed to find a return address. My boss will know I tried.
My name is not Mr. Hess. My son’s name was Ron, not Tom.
Ron died, I’m told, in ’68, when his patrol was hit by …..an errant bomb.
I work in a Post Office Dead Letter Office where we get our share of mail.
I know many, hearing of my job, will think “Post Office? ”, and then think “snail”.
Each day I look at mail pieces marked “undeliverable, return to sender”.
Hank’s envelope came here to be opened, as no return address he did tender.
Sometimes we have good luck and the mail finds its way back home.
Today we’ll send, to the waste bin, this heartbreaking, belated ‘tome’.
[My name is Rose Cranston. Ron was 19 when he died. I miss him.]