“A View from the Back Row” is an article written by Donna W. Goodwin the editor of “The Perimeter” newsletter of the Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans. It is used with permission and speaks for itself.
A View from the Back Row….
Donna W. Goodwin
My journey to understanding the Vietnam experience and its continued impact on those who served and those who stayed at home is ongoing. I am not alone. I recently attended a house concert where a song circle of local singer songwriters occurred. Because this was the Sunday before Veteran’s Day, songs relating to Vietnam and war in general were sung. The first, “Tommie Lee”, written and sung by Wayne Jennings, really got my attention. His lyrics really painted a vivid emotional picture. I felt like I was there in that cemetery. A month later, with the song still on my mind, I asked Wayne if I might share it, and he readily agreed. Regardless of what side of the Vietnam experience a person was on, it left a mark. Many of those marks are still being erased today. There is much healing to be done on both sides: civilian and military. As with most grieving experience, the anger phase is often misdirected. As a generation, we still search for ways to honor our fallen loved ones, to remember them and all the promise their young lives had with their plans and aspirations. Along with honoring and remembering them, we search for constructive means to deal with our sorrow. We often find ourselves locked in grief where guilt finds us as fair game.
I share this story of Wayne Jennings and his cousin Tommie Lee Symank, 3 months apart in age and brothers of choice. Tommie Lee was born in Coryell County Dec. 4, 1941 and died Mar. 14, 1968 in Vietnam. Because Wayne was born in Oct. his name wasn’t in the drawing for the draft but Tommie’s was because of his birth date. He was newly married and working at the State Reform School in Gatesville when he was drafted. They saw each other for the last time during Christmas of 1967 at a family gathering, and took their beers and walked outside and talked. Most of the song is based on that conversation and the funeral. Wayne says it is all true, with very little poetic license.
After Tommie Lee died, Wayne hated the military and all politicians, and literally could not stand to hear “Taps”. He would leave the room if it was played on TV or the radio. His survivor’s guilt really ate on him for years. Then in May a few years back, as he was driving from Kentucky to Texas for the Kerrville Folk Festival, the song he describes below came to life. He was listening to “The Ballad of Penny Evans” by Steve Goodman as he drove across the flats of Arkansas, when he started to think of Tommie and cry. Words came to him as he drove so he wrote them on a sandwich bag. He probably hasn’t changed a dozen words from that first copy. Writing the song caused a great attitude adjustment for Wayne. He had not been able to have friends in the military, nor could he understand the vital role that they played. He admits to still having trouble with politicians who send people into harm’s way while they sit at home and protect their families from serving.
Up until about 3 months ago Wayne had played the song only twice, once for his father and once for another cousin. His father didn’t get it, but his cousin did…and he cried with him when the song ended. It finally dawned on Wayne that by not playing it, he wasn’t honoring Tommie, so he has begun to play it now and again. It is still a very emo-tional experience for Wayne and he has to prepare myself to be able to sing it in public.
Wayne has always wanted to play it at Tommie’s grave but so far has only been able to read it. There is still hope to do that. Tommie is buried beside his parents in the Saint John’s Lutheran Cemetery in Coryell City, Texas and Wayne visits when he can.
APPARITION—I wrote this short story for my children so they would know me better and understand.
– Wayne Jennings
It had never come like this before. The first few years it had been there when the anger welled up at the sight of an Army Officer in uniform or the mention of West-moreland or McNamara. Later it was there when any reference to Vietnam would cause confused anger directed at the government in general and the military in particular. Most recently it was there during the playing of Taps and the emotion wasn’t anger any more, but guilt.
Now, driving toward Little Rock through the flat cotton growing area southwest of Memphis, a song had started a flood of emotion that was uncontrollable. It was something by Steve Goodman called “The Ballad of Penny Evans” about a Vietnam War widow who every month “got a check and every month she tore it up and sent the damn thing back.” It was sadness, deep and painful. Sadness beyond what he felt for himself and the woman in the song, but sadness for the whole world. And then the tears started, not sobbing, just tears, floods of tears, he could barely see. If there had been a rest area he would have pulled off the road, but there wasn’t so he drove on.
The apparition came as it had over the past twenty years, but did not calm him as it always had before. In fact it had never come while he was listening or playing music. That was the one place he had always been safe. He had used music to level himself for years. Music could bring him up or down to reach that level of self-control he needed to get through life.
He had never talked with the apparition, just felt its presence and been calmed by the knowledge that dead didn’t mean gone. But today there was no calming the desolation. There was more hope for life and joy in the Sahara than in his soul. His lips quivered and he struggled for breath. For the first time he spoke to the apparition.
Tommie Lee, Tommie Lee, why you instead of me? When I hear Taps I wonder why I’m alive and you had to die. Tommie Lee took form and shape. Tommie was there in the car with him just like that Christmas night at Uncle Herman’s. And with Tommie came all those memories that he refused to have.
Winter of 67, with a light snow on the ground –We went out to talk together, but neither made a sound. We watched the fire as it grew low, sipped upon our beer. You finally ask why do I have to go and why are you staying here. The question had begun to haunt him that night. He was sure that when he died it would still be haunting him. There wasn’t an answer then or now. Maybe God knew.
I said I don’t know cousin, your number just got drawn –It will only be for one short year, and then you will be home, Don’t try and be no hero, don’t try and gain no fame…But in a few short weeks on Easter morn, the terrible message came. He had been getting ready to go teach a Junior High Sunday School Class when his mom called. Tommie had been hit by a mortar shell that was lobbed into his compound. It wasn’t a full assault, just a random act of war, the only incoming that day. The funeral would be in 10 days.
The family all assembled and took you to your grave – The Color Guard was there, but the flag it did not wave. It was draped across your casket and folded for you wife –Colored cloth and thread was all they gave in place of your sweet life. He didn’t go to the funeral home. He waited at the little Lutheran Cemetery where his grandparents were buried. When the funeral procession got there he followed behind. The military sent pallbearers but thankfully no 21 gun salute. Taps was the saddest music he had ever heard.
I couldn’t face your mother, hell I couldn’t face my own – How could we let you go away and die so far from home? We knew that war was evil and no one ever wins, But we always thought that the ones who died were somebody else’s kin. He left without talking to any of the family. He hadn’t been back to that cemetery for 20 years. He just could not go there again. Too much anger, too much guilt, too much sad-ness. Too much, too much.
It’s more than 40 years now and I still don’t understand Why you had to go away and die in Vietnam?.Tommie Lee, Tommie Lee, why you instead of me? When I hear Taps I still wonder why I’m alive and you had to die.
How long had it been? The mile markers indicated he had covered 20 miles. He pulled off the road and went through the glove box. He found a pencil and an old paper bag. He put the song on paper in four minutes. He might never play it for anyone, but he promised that he would go back to that small Texas graveyard and Tommie would hear.
There’s a small Texas graveyard I visit when I can, And I stand beside a stone marked “Killed in Vietnam”. Tommie Lee, Tommie Lee, why you instead of me? When I hear Taps I still wonder why I’m alive and you had to die.
He finished what would be the chorus and hit Interstate 40 again, alone now. He knew that the song would set him free. He had grieved and now he could move on. The appari-tion would not come again. It had finally finished its task.