Having slogged through every page of the expansive book “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young”, I was eager for the long-awaited release of the Mel Gibson film adaptation. A week before it hit theaters a few years ago, I found a way to pay my respects to the men who died in the fight for Landing Zone X-Ray. Well, one of them, anyway.
One night I pulled the dog-eared copy off a shelf of favorites and spent the better part of the evening pouring over it for names of fallen soldiers with North Carolina hometowns. The next morning, ensconced in my TV station cubicle, I hit the internet phone directories with unparalleled zeal.
Within an hour I hit pay-dirt, locating the elderly mother of a Greensboro youngster who perished on that awful day in the Ia Drang Valley. The old voice on the other end of the voice sounded reluctant at first, but after I convinced her my intentions were pure, she allowed me to come visit.
On the drive over, I drummed happy beats on the steering wheel, excited at the chance to memorialize a fallen hero from such a landmark Vietnam battle.
Outside the mother's modest Greensboro home, I sat in my news unit and tried to calm myself. However stoked I was at the great television possibilities awaiting me inside, I wasn't about to trample on an old lady's painful memories. Grabbing my worn copy of the book that started it all, I left my camera in the car and knocked on the door.
The sweet black lady that quietly welcomed me inside her modest home was a national treasure. A bit leery at first, she listened silently as I pointed out her son's name in the famous book she'd never even heard of. After a few minutes of my awkward babbling, she agreed to let me bring my TV equipment inside, though she forewarned me she really didn't want to talk about wars and battle.
Instead, she showed me her faded mementos from her only son, a proud young man who died at the ripe old age of nineteen, half a world away from his once bucolic Greensboro neighborhood. As I sat on her couch and sipped iced tea, she brought out an old box full of her son's childhood: high school awards, family photos - even the hand-drawn floor plans of a house he'd never live to build.
I have to admit I shed more than one tear in that silent living room. Something about the old lady's quiet dignity, dated furniture and painful laugh reminded me of my own dear grandmother. Hoping she wouldn't notice my wet eyes, I looked around the room and focused on the walls. That's when I noticed an old stopped clock on the wall, it's stiff electrical cord dangling in space. Glancing at my rolling time code, I asked her about the frozen clock face.
"Junior gave me that clock shortly before he went off to war," she said as she started into oblivion, "but the night I heard he died, I unplugged it. Just didn't want to hear it tick no more..."
As touched as I was at the woman's pain, I also knew I'd gotten what I came for. I popped off a few shots of the dusty clock hands, thanked the woman for allowing me inside her home, and left my tattered copy of the book with her as an insignificant token of our short visit. She seemed genuinely happy as I gathered up my tools, but never bothered to ask when my report might air. She didn't need a minute-thirty movie tie-in to remind her of the past. She lived it everyday.
When I got back to the station, I plopped down in front of the computer and watched the story write itself. A half hour later I was in the edit bay, slicing and dicing while thoughts of young men bleeding to death on jungle floors filled my mind. When I emerged from the darkened room, I held in my hands one of the most personally meaningful stories I've ever produced.
Others who saw it agreed. The old lady sitting on the old-fashioned couch in silent dignity, the close-ups of her wrinkled hand unfolding the musty dreams of her long-dead son, the slow zoom of a clock that would never tick again....it was powerful stuff. I even considered entering the piece in a contest or two, but since I've decried the chase for shiny mantle-ware all these years, I thought better of it. Instead I added it to my short list of all time favorite stories and dubbed off a copy for home viewing. Though I’ve yet to watch it again, I’ve kept in loose contact with the soldier’s mother, calling her up every six months or so for an awkward chat about anything but war.
I don’t know if the kind old lady who lost her son so long ago understands my interest in his case, but she entertains my queries whenever that inexplicable feeling of guilt forces me to dial her number. Maybe I’m trying to establish a connection to a war that ravaged the decade I was born in. Perhaps I’m channeling the love for my elderly Grandmother on a nearby surrogate, or maybe I’m just trying to make up for stalking the downtrodden during their moments of pain all these many years. Whatever the case, it feels awful nice to use my camera’s power for good and not evil.
If only the film had been better...