I wrote an article that was published in the newspaper just before
Veterans’ Day having had some of the content in mind for some time.
Veterans’ Day Article
Leon Gay was my father. He volunteered for the army in December, 1942, from
Ringling, Oklahoma. He’s one of those the new Veterans’ Memorial here is to honor.
In my heart that Memorial has some other meanings, too. I want to tell you about four
people that share the honors, two who wore uniforms and two who didn’t, but
nevertheless, are veterans of American Wars.
In 1976 in Portland, Oregon, I worked at a community college in the Special Education
department. One of the people I worked with was a beautiful, robust, 24 year old
Vietnam veteran named Ara Markarian. An Armenian immigrant, he spoke 5
languages, and could “get along”in two more but was having a very difficult
time mastering the English language. I was assigned to tutor him in English.
Ara was an artist; I saw some of his paintings, sensitive. Ara was an athlete with an
athlete’s build, who carried himself with pride, who exuded “elan vital.”
He told me of how he loved running, free, in the wind. In Vietnam he’d been
shot in the head, the optic nerve almost severed, he was going blind. He
asked me, “What will I do when I can’t see to paint anymore? What will I do
when I can’t run across the grass anymore in this beautiful Oregon country?”
But Ara never regretted going to Vietnam because that was how he’d become an
American citizen and he was so proud to be an American.
Ara had not lived here long enough to learn our American sophistication of not letting
our feelings show and never hid his innocent understanding of “freedom” and
“equality” and dignity.”
That year of 1976 I saw something that forces me to write this 9 years later. I
watched as my boss and other native born Americans in that “Special Education
Office” mocked, laughed at, made fun of, and made jokes about “dumb Ara”
because he was so stupid he couldn’t even learn the English language! Those
native born Americans, born into “liberty,” who had never seen a battlefield,
mocked this beautiful young man who’d given his eyesight to earn his
The second person is closer to home, right here in Carter County, a man who spent l8
months on the front lines in the Korean hills where he earned a battlefield commission.
While he was taking his baths from melted snow in his helmet and living in a tank his
family sent him silk pajamas for Christmas. He’s never told his now grown children
about watching, as the head of a friend, severed from his body at his shoulders, rolled
across the ground, leaving a scarlet trail of blood in that virgin Korean snow.
For 32 years this man has kept well hidden a rotting knot of guilt for the lives of
some men lost under his command, from a decision he had to make as quick as a
heartbeat, a knot so far down inside him he’s never been able to get to it.
No one saw last winter when the snow was on the ground when he went to feed his
horses. He was spread-eagled on the ground before he realized what he saw sticking
up out of the snow was only a blade of grass, not a mine trip wire, 32 years
after he’d left that Korean snow behind.
The third person, who never wore a uniform, is my mother. She was 26 years old
when she was left alone with three very young children to raise. There aren’t
many people left now who remember my mother when she laughed so easily and sang so
loud while she was hanging out clothes in the sunshine.
The years took their toll. The lights went out in Mama’s eyes and she never sang
anymore, once in a while just hummed, “The Old Rugged Cross.” Now she lives
in a nursing home, a complete wreck physically while drugs and God are the only thing
that have kept her together mentally. She’s only 67 years old but she’s lived a thousand
years. She “embarrasses” her nieces and nephews who run the nursing home
when she gets in her wheelchair and rolls it backwards to town and back, still clinging
to some shred of independence.
Along with my father, my mother, the Aras, all you men in Carter County, along with
all those men who lie beneath the markers at Ft. Gibson National Cemetery marked
“UNKNOWN,”and I can’t believe how many there are, I include me.
I remember the first song I ever learned, “You Are My Sunshine.” I learned
it from my daddy. I felt like when he sang it he was singing it just for me. I was
his “sunshine.” I recall vividly the day my grandfather, John Gay, came to our
house and handed Mama that little yellow piece of paper. I was 5 years old.
I recall vividly that gray, drizzly day at Ft. Gibson National Cemetery after his body
had been shipped back from Belgium. The men playing taps were out of practice.
I thought, “The least they could do was play that right. This is my daddy we
are burying and he deserved more than that.” I was 8 years old.
This year, August, 1985, I was able to bury my father …at last.
Yes, we have a new Veterans’ Memorial. And yes, in some small ways and in
some bigger ways some of us will remember and honor them. But are they resting
in peace? This country they gave their lives for certainly isn’t.