One of the coolest things that ever happened to me occurred in high school just after I moved to Atlanta in 1969. I haven’t spoke of it until now, even among friends, because it always seemed so self-aggrandizing… still, it is admittedly a pretty cool thing to befall someone:
This was after spending my formative years growing-up at the height of the Vietnam War on the island of Okinawa, an American-controlled tropical island. Okinawa is a necklace of islands strung-out between Japan and Taiwan.
That a war was ongoing was evident everywhere. Okinawa was a beehive of activity related to this effort: thousands of soldiers, huge hospital complexes and military vehicles of every description on the roads and in the sky. The air thumped throughout the day with Huey helicopters crisscrossing each other and landing nearby. As kids, we’d sit on a boonie-grass knoll and watch lines and lines of B-52s lumber down the tarmac and takeoff for bombing runs five hours away. These grey beasts looked like they would never possibly get airborne, so huge and obviously overburdened they were. Especially after watching squadrons of Phantoms rocketing on takeoff, these behemoth Stratofortress super weapons seemed to taxi down the runway, miraculously lifting off at the very end as if screamingly lucky; SR-71 spy planes would cruise in, still glowing from the friction heat their speed produced. Incredible.
After finishing the ninth-grade in a POW-type campus comprised of Quonset huts, sitting right on the turquoise colored South China Sea, a WATTS call from my father in Vietnam announced we would be moving to Atlanta where he would retire.
“Where is Atlanta?” my baby sister squealed; “who cares?” we all sang in unison, “we’re going HOME!”
After a military life with 7 siblings, on 2~3 year tours here / there / everywhere, picking-up, starting again only to leave again once best-friends were found, and repeating over and over… well, this was a joy beyond description. Finally, after a life as transients, Home.
Entering an established community of civilians in NE Atlanta was a strange experience, precisely because it was soo…..Americana. My brother and I joined the football team as nobodies, purchased a passable jalopy Corvair from money we earned working as deckhands on a Merchant Marine ship; we attempted to blend in.
That was a tall order: the cute girls were already spoken for, the in-groups already firmly established, we were outsiders in the truest sense: our hair and our clothes were all wrong, our lingo grating… we didn’t blend. To make matters worse, even when fighting for slots on the football team, the others were backed by their fathers on the sidelines who had all participated for years and years with practices, team events, summer sessions… well, we were worse than just nobodies: we were interlopers.
This all changed after school had been in session for a month or so.
An announcement crackled over the speakers throughout the school in mid-class one day… something almost unheard of…. instructing all the students into the huge gymnasium for “an assembly”. Everyone quickly, gleefully packed into the hallways for a class-by-class march to the gym.
Once inside, it was surprising that the entire floor was already decked-out in folding chairs, bleachers reaching into the floorspace from both sides. The entire school from 8th Grade to 12th would completely fill this void. In 10 minutes, the place was packed to the rafters, huge floor fans circulating the muggy air.
The stage was populated with the Administration seated at an angle off to the side. The Principal stood and watched, nodding every once in awhile into the audience, maybe to a teacher or some pet student; he alone occupied center stage as if basking in some new-found insight.
I followed my classmates to one of the side bleachers… to the right and closer to the stage than the baby Freshmen but miles away from the god-like Seniors who naturally, even now in this cavernous auditorium, threw their weight around with aplomb. Rank has its privileges; I already knew that.
The Principal cleared his throat into the mic and the din slowly subsided. Something was definitely up.
The Principal further calmed the room by beginning with: “I have an important announcement to explain the reason for this Assembly but first, some preliminary items of school-business…” and as if on cue, the beefy Vice Principal stood from his seated position and replaced the Principal. This fellow, in a too-forced stern voice, began with something about keeping the lockers clean, that the parking in the lot was reserved only for Seniors (and undeserving underclassmen were violating this), a word about the upcoming Pep Rally planned before Friday’s big game, and on-and-on, drone-drone-drone… the natives were getting visibly restless.
Finishing-up, the Principal leaped to the podium again, rising to his full height. I noticed for the first time that he was wearing a three-piece suit, bright blue tie. He begins: “Students, Administration, Staff – we’ve been called together today because I received a phone-call yesterday informing me that in our midst are two shining examples of heroism that need to be acknowledged.” The room fell suddenly quiet. Over the summer, there had been a terrible car wreck in which a favorite student was killed, so this resonated immediately. He paused for dramatic effect, looking around the audience.
Then from the back of the auditorium, the center double-doors sprung open with a noisy “clang!!”. A number of people in the crowd physically jumped in their seats as all heads turned in unison to see what was the intrusion. From the unseen foyer beyond the doors, a crisp shout echoed through the packed cavern… “Forward… MARCH!”
Into this fully packed auditorium marched a military procession, replete with flags on pointed, spear-like lances, two lines of six soldiers fully decked-out in military regalia, led by some guy who looked like General Patton.
I cannot even begin to describe the impact this had on the audience. Awe, fear… as if a group of aliens had suddenly appeared in our living room… “poof!” like that.
This group marched in practiced unison down the wide middle aisle, boots shining, rifles on the shoulders of the rear four, flags pointed at an angle to display the full colors. Clomp-clomp-clomp echoing and reverberating off the walls. A feeling of dread consumed me. I shot a glance at my brother sitting in the Senior’s section; his eyes were already riveted on me.
The color guard divided similar to liquid hitting a divider, splitting in front of the stage in military precision, one file to the stairs on either side, up the stage and poured, as if into a mold, as a backdrop behind the podium… without missing a single beat… totally in unison and in perfect cadence. This alone, the only sound as they made this procession, was mesmerizing and somehow mystical. The Principal watched with a grin beaming on his face. By now my stomach was in my throat and I had difficulty breathing. I held my brother’s gaze. Trepidation gripped the two of us.
The Principal introduced the medal-festooned officer, a four-star General with light literally ricocheting off a decorated chest. He stood ramrod straight in front of the mic until the Principal sat-down, dusted-off his pants leg self-importantly and straightened his tie. The General did not even bother to look… he just knew… and when he was ready, he started:
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, a tone conversational yet seeped in power and confidence, his first words echoed into a silence where… honestly, not even an echo or reverb… just awed silence: “Five months ago, there was a tragedy, a fire and an explosion, where several people were trapped inside a burning house. What makes this incident so remarkable is that this occurred not here in Atlanta but far away on the island of Okinawa, a place where the US military maintains a dominant presence.” He paused, looked left, right, and then down at the Seniors. I was praying this would be a “We Want You” speech for recruitment though I already knew better.
He continued, “This presence is not without problems…. soldiers get into trouble, there are riots for the return of the islands to Japan, the Vietnam War effort is largely centered on our presence in Okinawa. The relations between the Okinawan civilians and the United States are constantly under attack in the media and by elements against the war and against the United States occupation of Okinawa since the end of the Pacific War.”
As he continued, I nervously looked around, seeking a hole to escape into. I noticed all the eyes in the auditorium, those of my classmates, focused exclusively on the stage in front as this scene unfurled. I was invisible, as if secretly observing and no one noticing. I realized that that Thing I so desperately wanted, even after months of attempting to have someone notice me, to remember my name, to welcome me warmly into a gathered crowd after school as were many in a daily, predictable ritual… well, I wanted to just remain anonymous again. I knew this wasn’t to be and it was unfolding far too rapidly, too unstoppably.
After describing the explosion and the breaking into a flame-engulfed house, the first-aid, the deaths involved… and pregnantly refraining from mentioning any names, he finally concluded by saying, “… and in recognition of the heroic efforts of these two young men seated in this auditorium, the Commander-in-Chief of Pacific Forces has commissioned the following citation. I would like to read this citation but first, I would like to ask brothers Joe and Tim Langley to come up.”
As if it’d been holding it’s collective breath far too long, the entire auditorium exploded in applause and cheer! Had I not been better trained, I don’t know… terror just gripped me. I stood-up, surprising those seated around me, and manoeuvred self consciously through a suddenly constricted pathway made all the more narrow with outstretched hands and claps and remarks hurled from every direction.
My brother, closer to the stage, waited for me on the gym floor and, like a big brother, pushed me up the stairs first, in front of him. What a guy, I thought to myself as I checked quickly to see the General turning to accept us and then, with commitment, mounted the stairs to welcome, for me, the unknown.
I honestly don’t remember much about standing up there surrounded by a crisp color guard, their eyes steely glued forward, or of the General reading directly from the frame-enclosed citation, or the words spoken thereafter.
I do remember, however, the awe and the magnificence of standing there, identified and singled-out, surrounded by those whose mere acknowledgment I had craved, and feeling the anxiety of being an outsider magically melt away. My high school life was forever transformed after that… and for a new kid, that’s a pretty big deal.
To this day I don’t know how such an event was conceived or organized but I am so grateful that someone took the time and the interest in acknowledging something that anyone would have done in a similar circumstance. Honestly, it is just by a twist of fate that it was my brother and me who were placed in a unique situation and where, fortunately, some lives were saved.
This is the first time I have ever revealed this story or how it impacted me. Even pals in Okinawa never knew of this since it happened just weeks before we finagled work on an underhanded Merchant Marine ship in Naha Port and sailed away the next morning from that time in space…without even saying “goodbye”. Even now it feels like I am writing about someone else, so far and long ago that era seems now.
Anyway, standing there on that stage next to my brother, receiving an ovation from all these strangers in this very strange place we tumbled into… well, you can imagine: for me, I was forever touched by and still remain eternally grateful for that.