Memorial Day 2020
Tom Nawrocki, USMC Veteran
This feeling comes around every Memorial Day. It’s akin to having a lump in the throat. I’m thinking of my second cousin, Bobby Nawrocki—the only Nawrocki among the 58,276 names on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington D.C. We grew up around each other on the southwest side of Chicago, and we became Marines—me in 1965 and Bobby in 1966. But, before our enlistments, I’m recalling us together at a family party just after the 4th of July at my Aunt Wanda’s house. There is a black and white photograph of all the cousins on the front sidewalk. Because I’m wearing my Little League uniform with “Dodgers” scrolled across the chest, I know that I was twelve years old and Bobby standing next to me is eleven. (It’s 1959.) There are 10 of us cousins there and someone told all of us to bunch together and wave at the camera. I distinctly remember that moment because I put my upraised arm directly in front Bobby’s face as a joke and my elbow brushed his nose. The moment after the camera clicked, Bobby hit me in the ribs and yelled “jerk” in my ear. Then we were both laughing and wrestling. One of the Moms said, “Boys will be boys.” That was 1959.
The last time I saw Bob was the autumn of 1967. As luck would have it, we both happened to be home on leave. Bob was going into advanced Marine Infantry Training as a radioman and expecting orders to Vietnam after that. I had been stationed at New River Marine Corps Air Facility adjacent to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and hoping for orders to Vietnam. I had already volunteered to go twice, but nothing happened. We were hanging out in the basement of my father’s house, and I had smuggled a six pack of Budweiser to share. Neither of us were 21. Bob was ragging me because he was going to get to Vietnam before me. Nothing I could do about that, but Bob was enjoying his getting ahead of me. Anyway, by the end of the visit we agreed that we would meet somewhere in Vietnam when my orders finally came through, and I would buy the beer. As he was walking to his car, the last thing I said to him was, “Don’t be a jerk and cut corners over there--and don’t volunteer. Got it?” He was laughing as he strolled away, lifted his arm and gave me the finger.
Vietnam, Quang Tri Province, January 24, 1968. Bob has been in country exactly one month. It’s the beginning of what would become the Tet Offensive. At dawn a resupply convoy of trucks is gearing up to bring ammunition to a firebase that was nearly overrun the night before. This an extremely dangerous mission because the Viet Cong (most certainly) will be setting up ambushes and mining the road. The company commander needs a radioman for the lead truck. He volunteers. Several hours later the word comes back that the lead truck hit a land mine, rolled over and exploded. In all likelihood, Bob never knew what hit him.
Mt. Greenwood neighborhood, Chicago, Illinois. January 26. It’s mid-morning on a bitterly cold day. This moment is frozen in my mind like a photograph, because Bob’s father (Fuzzy: it’s a family nickname for Felix) told it to me after some years of not wanting to talk about it. But this is not a moment anyone would ever photograph. The doorbell has rung, which is unusual for this time of day. Fuzzy begins to open the front door. The storm door glass is frosted over because of the below zero temperatures. Through the icy, frosted glaze, he can see the Marine Corps dress blues. Slightly behind and to the left is someone dressed in black with a black fedora hat and earmuffs. It’s the parish priest and that can only mean one thing. Bob’s not wounded; he’s gone. Bob’s mother, Stella, in the kitchen is calling out, “Who is it?” as the storm door begins to open with a surge of frozen air. In the next moment, she will be crying “No.”
Many years later I’m visiting Fuzzy for what will be the last time. He’s 94 and confined to sitting up in bed, but he’s comfortable and in good spirits. We’ve been talking about the family and he’s been telling a few of his old stories. Bob’s name has come up a few times with fun stories. But then there’s a moment when he can see I’m remembering the story he once told me about that particular frozen morning in 1968. There’s a pause between us. “Tom,” he says, “Even after all these years, that was the worst moment of my life.”
So that’s what Memorial Day feels like to me and my family. However, there’s also another emotion I feel. It’s more akin to something in the pit of my stomach. It’s a prideful feeling of having served as a United States Marine. Bob felt that too: I have a color photograph of him in his Marine Corps dress blue uniform standing close to the front door of his parents’ house. It’s also what I feel whenever I visit Robert Nawrocki, Panel 35 East, Line 25 on the Wall. But with that pride is also a staunch determination that those who choose war, should truly understand and acknowledge the price that families like mine will pay at our front doors.