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A Cathartic Book Party for Vietnam Vets' Kin : Dear Soldier: We Still Ache for You

November 12, 1987|BETTY CUNIBERTI | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Dearest Eddie Lynn,

I'd give anything to have you shell just one more pecan for me on Grandma's porch.

All my love,

Your cousin, Anne

Eddie Lynn Lancaster of Sour Lake, Tex., died at age 19 when he stepped on a land mine on his third day in Vietnam.

The grieving note from his cousin, Anne Pearson, was left near his name on the chevron-shaped Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the reflecting granite wall that bears the names of the more than 58,000 people killed or missing in action in Vietnam.

The note also begins the book "Shrapnel in the Heart" by Laura Palmer, a collection of notes and poems left by some of the 20 million people who have visited and grieved at the memorial in its five years of existence.

In addition to the letters, the book contains interviews with dozens of the people who left the written material and explains why they had grieved in this particular way at this public place. As Palmer notes in her introduction, no one had anticipated that the monument would become not only the most visited memorial in Washington but also a communications center, a wailing wall and a place where veterans, family members and friends from across the country would meet and within moments, be talking, embracing, crying together--helping each other heal the long-festering wounds.

Invited Several People

On the eve of Veterans Day and the publication of the book, Palmer invited several of the people she interviewed to a party here Tuesday night.

Polly Dixon of Richmond, Va., walked up to strangers and introduced herself with a warm, enveloping hug.

"My baby child is on Page 142," she said proudly, wearing her Gold Star Mothers pin on her lapel. Like many of the slain soldiers, Roger A. Dixon is pictured in the book in his high school cap and gown. His mother's letter begins on the next page:

Dear Roger,

Though many years have gone by, and you are in another home, every day I miss you and long to see your young face. . . . There is never a day I do not think of you and why you had to die, but I know you are in a safe place way beyond the sky. Your Dad has just gone and things are not the same, but I try to carry on just the same. . . .

Dixon was a victim of "friendly fire," an accidental killing by his own troops. His baby was born three days after he died. He was 20.

"I would come to the wall more if I could, but my husband is dead," Polly Dixon said. "He was very bitter and very angry over losing him and did not want to see the wall. My other son served before Roger and he won't come, either. He hasn't dealt with it.

"I felt like the wall is a place where I could communicate with him. I know it sounds dumb. The book says what we've all felt for so long and yet we couldn't express how we felt because people didn't want to hear about Vietnam. When I look at that wall and see all those names, I think of all the mothers who are in as much pain as I am."

At the party, people signed each other's copies of the book like a high school yearbook. They hugged and told each other what page their stories were on.

'Everybody Knows How Bad'

On a sofa, Evelyn Barbour of Richmond, Va., slung one arm around Michael (Mad Mike) Sargent and held his hand with the other. With a string of medals pinned across his civilian suit, Sargent, who had come from Florida, described himself as "a definition" of post-traumatic stress disorder. He had left at the wall a poem he wrote, called "Hell Train," about his experience as a combatant.

Barbour, who lost her son, James C. Barbour, said: "You felt like after an amount of years it shouldn't be so bad. But with this group, everybody knows how bad it is. And it's wonderful. This is where they care."

Many of the guests were mothers. Palmer wrote in the book that in her hours of reading through hundreds of letters and poems, which are collected and preserved by the park service, she never encountered one written by a father to his son.

"She's the one who writes all the letters and stuff," said Russell Wimbish, indicating his wife, Eleanor. "I think it's great." The stepson he raised, his wife's son from an earlier marriage, was killed in 1969.

Part of Eleanor Wimbish's letter in the book to her son, William Stocks, says:

" . . . I'm the one who held him for the last time and watched him fly away to war. I'm the one who prayed each night, 'Dear God keep him safe.' I'm the goofy mom who sent him a Christmas tree in Vietnam. I'm the one whose heart broke when told my Billy had died in a helicopter crash. And now I'm the one who still cries at night because of all the memories I have that will never die."

Picture of a Christmas Tree

At the party, Eleanor Wimbish, who is from Glen Burnie, Md., showed a picture to Pattye Sampson Taylor, a Knoxville, Tenn., woman who lost her high school sweetheart in the war. The picture was of a decorated Christmas tree in front of the memorial.

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