By Marsha M. Brown
The best place to start is always at the beginning. On Monday, February 20, 2012, I was privileged to stand before our Dare County Commissioners to request that a Dare County Veterans Advisory Board be implemented.
My father, a native of Dare County, retired from the U. S. Coast Guard in the late 1950’s. Having been stationed in Key West, St. Petersburg and Miami, Florida – Daddy occasionally ‘kept’ the light at St. Marks Lighthouse, the second oldest light station in Florida located on the Apalachee Bay.
Between duty stints when he’d come home, I’d run into his arms, hug his neck and bellow out a loud, off key version of “Oh My Papa…” He’d laugh and tell me I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket but I knew he liked it just the same, so I’d sing my little heart out. At seven years old, I didn’t know much about patriotism or sacrifice – I only knew my father was my protector, my hero and that I loved him very much.
At the point of his retirement, our parents told my sister and I we would be moving from Miami to his hometown in Manteo, N. C. As much as he enjoyed Florida living happy childhood memories beckoned him home. The neighborhood we would leave behind was nice. It was close to school, abundant with tropical flowers and fruit trees but unfortunately neighbors had begun installing decorative bars on their doors and windows. He knew Manteo was not only a good place to raise his daughters, it was the best place. Once our move was complete, Daddy no longer actively ‘served’, except in his heart. His patriotism and respect for the Coast Guard and our American Flag never faded though.
Fast forward to early 1968. During one of our Sunday school classes, our teacher asked us to pray for her son “Billy” who was serving in Vietnam. She expressed worry about his safety and the danger he faced every day. She said his letters home were few and far between further explaining that as Team Chief, Billy had little time to write. It went without saying that Billy’s letters home were precious written treasures. Even more than the look on her face; the tone in her voice resonated worry. Her voice inflection, gave our teenage Sunday school class the urgency to pray.
As young people nearing graduation in the quiet coastal town of Manteo where no one locked their doors at night…remember? We had little care in the world until we suddenly realized that one of our own was in danger every single day. One morning with tearful eyes, she asked us to sincerely pray that Billy would come home alive. That particular day, it not only sunk in but became very personal. War wasn’t just something you read about in history books, it was real, it was happening and our home town boys were in it.
Several months passed and in March 1968 a mother’s diligent prayers were answered when Billy arrived safely at their front door. He had kept his pending arrival home a secret not having told anyone – not a soul. He had traveled from Norfolk into Manteo by means of the old Virginia Dare Transportation Trailways bus. ‘Back in the day’, the bus station operated out of the west end of the Manteo Furniture Company building downtown. It was a chariot of honor. It was the means for Billy to step the soles of his
U. S. Army government issued shoes onto safe, sacred ground. He was home. He had made it.
As most of us know protestors of the Vietnam War made their personal views public, discrediting the service men and women who had simply done the job they were expected to do. Once back in the States, Billy witnessed fellow service personnel spit upon. Shouts of “baby killer” emerged from crowds of people at bus stations and airports. It made his travel home bittersweet. His arrival wasn’t boastful, celebrated with confetti, bands or a ride through town on the back of an open convertible. His arrival was quiet, unannounced and private. This man, who in high school had initially planned to join the U. S. Navy, had been drafted instead into the U. S. Army and into a nightmare world.
That unforgettable night, preceded by visions of working on his ‘57 Ford, his hydroplane project and fishing for soft crafts and flounder, he stepped off the bus and started to walk until he reached the front door of the former Manteo Baptist Church Parsonage where his (Pastor) father and mother lived. He was home and back in a world that was the polar opposite of where he had been serving our Country.
There were no bombs bursting in close proximity, no children were soliciting him for their mothers and the water was safe to drink. Because it was March, the air was crisp, clean and quiet. As if a stranger, he knocked on the front door and to his parent’s surprise, it wasn’t a parishioner, a friend or neighbor, it was Billy. Their son had come home.
As unbelievable as it would seem, Billy slept for almost three days straight. No breakfast, lunch or dinner, not even trips to the bathroom. He slept as if in a coma and I remember his mom saying she and his dad periodically checked him to make sure he was still breathing. Sheer exhaustion and an overwhelming peace no doubt allowed him to rest.
Once he finally woke up, his dad, asked him to give his testimony at Sunday morning worship service. As a Christian, Billy had talked to God a lot during all those months. Like many soldiers assigned to Vietnam during the T.E.T. Offensive, he had asked the Lord for the strength to endure it, to do his best to protect others and to eventually come home. Reluctant at first, Billy felt it only right to give thanks to God and to those who had prayed for his safe return, so he agreed. The following Sunday morning he donned his U. S. Army uniform and headed to Church. Warmly welcomed and eagerly embraced by the congregation, he attempted to offer his testimony, but with a lump in his throat the size of a golf ball, he broke down. He couldn’t do it. He excused himself from the pulpit and that was that. Remember…that was in March 1968.
To all of our surprise and shortly thereafter the good Lord brought Billy and I together and he proposed. Prior to our wedding and in anticipation of our new life together, we purchased a new mobile home and secured a rental site at Shady Rest Mobile Home Park. The mobile home was scheduled to be delivered, set up and ready to move into by mid June in preparation for our July 5th wedding day. It wasn’t. As it turned out our ‘home’ had been sold to someone else and ours had to be re-ordered. “What?” “Are you kidding?” That meant that upon return from our honeymoon, we’d have to stay somewhere else temporarily. “Oh no!” “Not at our parents!” Nobody wants to stay at their parents immediately following their honeymoon! But, having just expended considerable money for the down payment and move in expenses, we conceded. It seemed to make the most sense economically and the mobile home company assured us our ‘home’ would be delivered within two weeks.
We made the decision to stay at my parent’s house. The first night there while laying in bed the street light by the Dare County Library shown in the bedroom window. “I can’t believe this!” I said. “How could they have done this?” “What’s the matter with those people”? I asked. I went on and on. I was irritated. I wanted to be in our own home to begin our new life together. With no immediate reaction to what I had just said and thinking Billy had fallen asleep, I turned my head toward him and saw that his eyes were wide open. He was staring at the ceiling. The grayish light that found its way through the raised bedroom window blinds revealed a tear as it made its way down the side of his face.
His response to my griping and complaining was subtle, softly spoken and heavy duty. He said, “Marsha, if you only knew how it felt to be able to lay in a clean bed with a soft pillow under your head beside someone you love and not be afraid to shut your eyes, you wouldn’t complain.” With that, my stature wilted from 5’6” to about 2”. I felt ashamed, sorry and like a heel. I regretted ever complaining about anything. I put my arm across his chest, apologized and then I cried. I had taken so much for granted. I had acted immaturely and inconsiderately. As a 17 year old new bride who thought I was pretty sensitive to others, I found out in those few private minutes that I didn’t know squat.
That moment in time many moons ago changed my life and my perspective on things that really matter. Since then, we’ve been blessed with a wonderful marriage, two beautiful children and four grandchildren. I’m no longer 17 and we are no longer newlyweds but I love him more than I ever thought possible. When I was a little girl, Daddy, in his crisp white or denim blue bell bottom Coast Guard uniform, was my hero but Billy has been my hero now for 44 years.
I’ve learned so much from Billy over all these years. I’ve learned that everything is not always as it seems; that true heroism is true; that all Veterans share a unique and ever lasting respect for each other; that the special ‘brotherhood’ between them will endure like memories many of them wish to forget; that the pain and sadness, the pride of goals achieved together and the love for our nation that is deep within their eyes is even deeper within their souls.
This story is true, heartfelt and personal. It’s about only one of the many brave young men called to serve our Country; who left the safe confines of a small town; who witnessed first hand a different world very far away. In my morning prayers, I thank God every day that so many of our hometown brothers and sisters deployed thousands of miles away from everything familiar, comfortable and happy who endured daily challenges of survival remarkably came home again.
Veterans work, play and worship with us every day. They rarely brag and ask for nothing. Be it through enlistment or draft, they have served as ultimate protector of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They’ve protected the freedoms we often take for granted. Veterans? Incredible people! Lengthy separations from loved ones; missing deliveries of their first born; their babies fist steps; they’ve sacrificed much in the call of duty. Maybe when we realize who they are, we’ll be inspired to say “Thank You” to them more often.
A Dare County Veterans Advisory Board will be a first step toward an overdue, salute to our deserving men and women. It will symbolize the outreach of a hand to shake theirs, to pat them on the back and acknowledge them so that we, our children and grandchildren never forget to cherish, respect and honor those in uniform.
The Coastland Times has agreed to embrace “GIG LINE” – a tribute to our Dare County Veterans and their families. Stories, pictures and expressions of gratitude will be featured that relate directly to Veterans. The articles will encompass an array of topics related to legislature, sources of Veterans health care, family events, fund raisers, programs, seminars and workshops. It will offer material that we hope will impress and encourage our Veterans and make them as proud of us as we are of them.
We hope through “GIG LINE” and a Veterans Advisory Board, a renewed pride will swell up inside all of us for our United States Armed Forces. Our goal is to jump start the pride we felt growing up when we watched a marching band in uniform. Perhaps we’ll look upon the seasoned faces of our Veterans and be mindful of the things their eyes have seen. Maybe in turn, they will hold their chin a little higher, strut a little taller and know that no matter how late we may be…better late than never.
We thank all of you who have served our United States of America. If you are a Veteran, know, love or have lost a Veteran, you are invited to show your support through public comment at the Monday, March 19, 2012 – 9:00 AM meeting of the Dare County Board of Commissioners. For questions, suggestions or comments regarding future articles or stories for “GIG LINE” please write to Marsha @ email@example.com Stay tuned, there is much, much more to come!