by Carla Hall D’Ambra
I remember him well. I was very young but I have vivid memories of my mom taking my little brother and me to the drugstore where we’d see him behind the counter at the fountain service and he’d make us ice cream cones. We’d sit on the orange leather, shiny silver, spinning counter stools and lick our cones with fervor before the ice cream had time to melt. He’d give us those white rough paper napkins so we could wipe the sticky drips from our faces and hands. Sometimes Mom would leave us there on the stools under his watch while she walked to the back of the store to pick up a prescription. Other times she’d sit a few feet away at a glass table and chat with the ladies who used the drugstore for midday social gatherings. Back then the women would smoke cigarettes and sip Coca-Cola from green-tinted classic fountain glasses. One of the women who’d socialize there was the counter boy’s mother, and she was my great-aunt. Her name was Jean and she was married to my granddad’s brother on my father’s side. Her husband, my great-uncle Norman, was the youngest child in his family so my aunt Jean was just a few years older than my mom. She was so beautiful, thin and primped like Audrey Hepburn, with red painted nails and lips to match, in her sleek sleeveless sheaths and classic black stiletto heels. The boy behind the counter that I so admired was my cousin. His name was Denny and though I was so young, I remember his warm and handsome presence. He was tall, and he stood on a platform behind the fountain service counter, and that made him even more impressive in my child opinion. Denny had the kindest eyes. I don’t remember the color so much as the shape of them. He was always smiling, and seeing Denny at the drugstore was part of the treat of the drugstore visit. My mom would say “Come on, kids, we’re going to see Denny.” I would happy dance because I had a “little girl crush” on Denny, and because I loved ice cream.
One day we went to the drugstore and Denny wasn’t there. A tall lady with a deep voice gave us our cones and walked away, leaving my brother and me alone on the stools without even a napkin. My mom told us Denny had gone away for a while but he’d be back soon. Going to the drugstore was no longer fun. I missed my tall blond dreamboat nineteen-year-old cousin who gave us cones with a smile. As time passed, other young people worked behind the counter, but no one and nothing compared to the service we got from our cousin Denny. My aunt Jean would still sit at the glass table in the drugstore with other ladies but she wasn’t as lively. Sometimes she and my mom would whisper when they chatted. Even at seven years old I found it strange and ominous because my mom and Aunt Jean were always so free with their laughter and conversation when they were together. Both women had very sunny personalities and now they each seemed partly cloudy when they spoke. I knew something was surely different.
And then, during a very grey and rainy, dismal autumn season in 1969, one afternoon I got off the bus, and ran into our house, hoping my mom had baked a cake or cookies, or had some special treat as she often had for us, but on this day the surprise was that I found her on our sofa couch, crying. She didn’t tell me why she was crying, and I knew better than to ask. She told me to go to my room. When my dad came home promptly at 4:15pm as he did every day, I listened to them talking, and I heard something about getting the body back, and then I heard my dad say, “Ah, heck.”
Then there was the silence. My parents didn’t say anything to my brother and me, and hardly anything to each other for the next couple of days. My dad went to work, came home, and watched the evening news. The black and white images of the Vietnam War flashed nightly from our TV screen and Walter Cronkite told us “that’s the way it was.” My mom prepared supper, cleaned the kitchen and stood at the sink with tears rolling down her face. Then one morning, instead of getting ready for work, my dad dressed in a black suit, and my mom put on a black dress. I specifically remember that rainy, dark morning with my parents dressed in those ominous clothes, and the thick heavy air in our house. Dad stood in silence waiting for my mom, leaning against our front door, looking out the narrow window that hit his eye level, and I bet he was crying but he would never let me see his tears. My brother and I got on the school bus that early morning, not knowing that mommy and daddy were going to someone’s funeral.
That afternoon when we got home from school, and my parents returned, we learned the God-awful truth. My beautiful dreamboat, just turned twenty-one, cousin named Denny who gave us smiles and ice cream and knew my favorite flavor was chocolate, had been killed in the scary, black and white TV place called South Vietnam. He had been there for his time and was planning on coming home soon when he was riding in a vehicle that hit a land mine. I remember my mom trying to tell me that he didn’t feel it, and it didn’t hurt him, and now Denny was with Jesus. I wanted Denny to be back in the drugstore scooping out ice cream from the big vats in the flip top freezer behind the counter. I wanted him to tell me I had chocolate on my nose, or call me cutie or just be there taking care of all the other customers. Forget this being with Jesus thing. What in the world, I asked, is the war? Why is there war and why did my beautiful cousin Denny have to go to this terrible place called war? My eight year- old mind could not comprehend then, and my now fifty-plus year old brain can still not understand. Denny was killed in South Vietnam by a land mine most likely planted by The Viet Cong. This should have been considered safe territory. This territory was the land my cousin was protecting.
Aunt Jean and Uncle Norman never recovered from the loss. Denny was their only child. My uncle passed away a couple of years ago and my aunt lives alone. The walls of Aunt Jean’s house are still covered with pictures of Denny. Those photos record a twenty-one year life. Denny would be 63 years old now. He had a fiancée then and after all these years, the fiancée is still in touch with my aunt even though that young woman had to find a new life for herself after losing her dreamboat love, my cousin, Denny. It’s more than sad about what could’ve been had it not been for the fucking land mine buried deep in the ground of the land that he, Dennis Gayle Hall, my beautiful cousin, was there to protect and save from communist takeover in the name of the United States of America.
Something really strange happened this past autumn. I came home from a long day of work, and my husband was having a business dinner out so I was alone in our home. For no apparent reason, I sat down at my laptop, and I don’t know why, but I went to Google, and I started typing “Casualties of the Vietnam War.” No particular reason, no prior thought that day of war, or of my cousin Denny. I hadn’t thought of him in a long while, and I haven’t seen my aunt in several years. I now thought about Denny as I searched, and I typed in his name. I would have been devastated if his name had not been listed, but there it was. I found him in the group under Kentucky casualties. I saw his name and a tremendous wave of emotion came over me. I scrolled down his information page and I saw that his details were all listed. His name, his social security number, date of birth 7/31/48, hometown, his rank, how he died and date of death were all listed there in front of me. The date of death was recorded as 10/20/69. I looked at the date on my computer. It read 10/20/10.