War echoes through time, generations

Benjamin Boston’s note to his great-uncle at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Photo: Karen Weidert 

By Eric Mink

People leave behind, on purpose, all kinds of things after visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. They’ve left about 400,000 items there since the memorial was dedicated in 1982.

I find an abundance of things left at the Wall, as the memorial is almost universally known, on a recent visit: a teddy bear, candles, ball caps, single flowers, bouquets of flowers, edibles, potables, and a great many letters and notes.

One particular item – a large white index card – catches my eye. It’s lying face up in front of one of the Wall’s highly polished, black stone panels. The Wall is made of 70 such panels in each of two, 250-foot-long sections, 140 panels in all. 

Collectively, the panels bear the carved names of more than 58,000 American service members who died in combat zones – or went missing – from 1959 to 1975, the official period of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

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I lift the index card and lean it against the Wall. Centered in its lower half is a stylized American flag drawn in colored pencil: red stripes alternating with white ones, a mostly blue field with rows and columns of tiny circles like stars.

A message, also in pencil, occupies the upper half of the card. Swirls of pencil marks artfully fill the white spaces around the flag and the message.

It reads:

Dear Harry Boston,

I wish you were still alive. I wished you never had stepped on that land mine. I always wanted to see you. If God could ever make you come back, I would love that. I have seen your name on that wall a lot. I read the letter you sent to your brother. I love it. I really wish you could come back. I would do almost anything to make you come back. And just so you know, you are not stupid.

Love, your brother’s son (Geff) Benjamin Boston

The message, clearly printed in a youthful hand, is so honest, so longing and so loving it brings tears to my eyes.

And it leaves me with questions: Who are Harry, Benjamin and Geff? How did Benjamin learn about Harry? What did Harry say in the letter to his brother? Why does Benjamin reassure Harry that he is “not stupid”? 

Back home in St. Louis, I start seeking answers. 

The memorial’s extensive website tells me that U.S. Army SP4 Harry James Boston of Catawba County, North Carolina, died in Tay Ninh province, Vietnam, on Jan. 15, 1968. He was 24 years old. His name is carved in the 51st row from the top of the 34th panel from the left of the Wall’s eastern section.

A few days later, I’m on the phone with Ben Boston – 11 years old, a fifth-grader and devoted soccer player – and his parents, Geff and Amy. They live near Hickory, N.C., in Catawba County, about 60 miles from Charlotte.

Ben and his brother Harrison, 13, are actually Harry’s great-nephews. Geff is Harry’s nephew. Geff’s dad, Grady Boston, who lives close by, is Harry’s brother.

Geff and Amy tell me the family traveled to Washington a couple of summers ago but had some difficulty locating Harry’s name on the Wall. Harrison – he was not named for Harry, but the family is happy that it seems that way –  finally found it. Ben touched Harry’s name. 

“It was cold,” he says.

Ben’s letter to Harry came later, though, just a couple of weeks ago. 

“My class was going to Washington, D.C., and our teacher let us write notes to people on the Vietnam Wall,” Ben says. “I just didn’t have time to go. One of my friends was going, so I told the teacher to give my note to him so he could put it at the Wall.”

Some years ago, Geff explains, his father, Grady, created a display board arranged with pictures of Harry in the Army and a letter Harry sent from Vietnam describing some of his experiences.

“He talked about not having a shower for a month, and some things that were not even imaginable,” Geff says.  “You could really see it, and you don’t want to be there.”

Reading the letter aloud has since become part of a Memorial Day family tradition, which is how Ben learned about Harry. 

“About 10 other families come over and eat with us,” Geff says. Grady rolls out some of the 1950s and ’60s cars he’s collected. “Then there’s usually a prayer, and we read the letter.”

In this, Geff says, he and his family continue to draw strength from the example of his grandmother – Harry’s mother – Edith Mary Killian Boston, who died in 2011 at age 92. She had been a member of Huntington Hills Church of God in Hickory for most of her life and served its women’s ministry for years. Despite a great many family tragedies, Geff says, “she never lost her faith. She just believed.”

And the reference to “stupid” in Ben’s message? 

“Harry signed the letter, ‘Your little dumb brother,’ ” Geff explains. It was brotherly banter that started when Grady and Harry were teenagers working on hot rods together.

Ben says it didn’t really bother him, but his mom, Amy, suggests that might not be a complete answer. Ben concedes that he wanted Harry to know that he, Ben, didn’t think Harry was stupid.

Ben Boston never knew Harry, never saw him, never heard his voice, never shook his hand, never felt the comfort of being hugged in his arms. But he cherishes Harry nonetheless. Three of the 92 words in his letter are “love.”

In Vietnam, Harry was one of more than 58,000 U.S. military fatalities. 

In America, Ben is one of, what: hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of people connected to those 58,000? If each U.S. military death touched just 100 other people, it would total 5.8 million. The supercomputers can run the numbers.

The enduring truth is that the effects of any war – whether entered out of necessity or choice, fought for true reasons or false, supported widely or passionately opposed – persist long past their presumed expiration dates. They reach beyond families and generations and resonate unpredictably.

Apparently, we have to learn over and over that the effects of war simply defy the boundaries of time and space.