We called him Lightning, and because I only remembered his nickname I couldn't locate his real name on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.
As a newly promoted Marine sergeant in charge of a 15-man mortar section, I watched two of my men die defending a hill called Con Thien. So I was upset when I couldn't find Lightning's name. He and Capt. John Ryan were killed by the same artillery round, so I searched all the names near the captain's. Finally I found him. James Ellis Canidate. PFC. Montgomery, Alabama. 12 October, 1967. Column 27E, Line 93.
Years after my tour, I read about Con Thien, site of one of the heaviest North Vietnamese shellings of the war: Fish in a Barrel, the Meatgrinder, the Thousand Yard Stare, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Acceptable Losses. We never heard those phrases on the hill.
Although the enemy guns were dug in on the other side of the demilitarized zone far beyond the range of our mortars, we did our jobs as well as anybody. We all knew we would win the war. We were in it together. While Newark and Detroit burned in 1967 because of racial strife, we were a band of brothers, black and white. Growing up black in Montgomery in the '50s and '60s, Lightning knew about racial strife.
"The weather has been nice here the past couple days," I wrote to my folks on October 11, 1967. "It's quite a relief from the rain we were having."
While filling sandbags we described the great food we would eat when we got home, the girls we would date, the car we would own, the music we would listen to, the college we would attend, and the business we would start that would make us rich.
Left unsaid was our wish to enjoy a simple freedom everybody back home enjoyed - the freedom of not being on the alert for the enemy all the time. On Saturday nights we sang Sam Cooke's, "It's another Saturday night, and I ain't got nobody."
While the average age of servicemen in Vietnam was 19, the average age of Vietnam veterans is now 50. If we haven't set the world on fire by now, we have at least left our footprints in the sand. Most of us have children. Some of us are grandparents. Most of us have worked at least half our lives at one job or another. Some of us may have already retired.
At 50, we understand the real tragedy of that Wall of 58,214 names. Who knows what Lightning might have become? He was a teenager when he died. He never married, never raised children, never attended college, never voted, never held a job, never owned a home. I didn't pound my fists on the Wall and cry when I found his name that day, and I haven't visited the Vietnam Memorial since.
But I think about Lightning every so often, and about that Vietnamese hill Con Thien - that hill he and so many others died on - which means "Hill of Angels."
The name seems to fit.
* Tom Evans is a computer consultant from Shelton, Conn.