Gig Line: A tribute and a remembrance

Published 8:49 am Tuesday, April 7, 2020

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This is one of my earliest Gig Line columns written in April of 2012 following our trip to Charlotte for the first Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans event at the Charlotte Racetrack. It is truly one of my favorite columns because it meant so much to my one and only true love Billy and a column he was especially proud of. This past weekend reminded us of the valor, sacrifice and exceptionalism of our Vietnam veterans. This is dedicated to all of you. God bless you.

The Vietnam Veterans Homecoming Celebration hosted at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord this past Saturday was a blessing.

When we first heard about the event I wasn’t sure we’d be able to go. It wasn’t just the long ride to Charlotte or terrible gas prices; it was more that my husband wasn’t sure he wanted to go. Like other Veterans we spoke with, he had mixed feelings. It was something to be grateful for no matter how long it had taken but as much as I wanted to see him honored, it would mean his facing the past. Having written Gig Line for these past weeks, I wanted to see it, hear it and feel it. I wanted to say “thank you” to others who would be there facing their past, too. But it was his decision.

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The tickets were offered free of charge and we had received ours weeks ago.  However, even until last Thursday night, we wondered. What would it be like with so many reminders of that time in their lives? What if there were protestors demonstrating against the very things they had fought for? What if members of that “church” group that protest at the funerals of our fallen heroes was there? Would there be a scene? Or an encounter? I hoped not for everyone’s sake. Would anything detract from the very essence of the celebration itself? The reality crossed my mind a few times but everybody wanted us to go – to see first hand what Vietnam veterans had deserved so many years before.

We left late afternoon on Friday. Five hours into the trip, it started to rain and it continued until we arrived at our hotel at 10 p.m. After dodging the downpour, unloading the luggage and settling in, it was midnight before we got into bed. At 3 a.m., I woke up and looked outside our fourth floor window to see the rain still pouring. I wondered if we had made that long trip just to have to turn around and go home exempt of new special memories.

To avoid waking Billy, I went into the bathroom, shut the door, sat down and prayed. I wanted so much for this trip to touch and enrich his life further. I wanted this trip to be a good one because he deserved it. They all deserved it. I wanted to come back home and share with all of you the events of that day. I asked the good Lord first to let His will be done in this for Billy and that if there was a blessing that awaited him to let nothing stand in the way. I lay back down and rested but I didn’t sleep.

Shortly after, Billy’s cell phone alarm sounded. He went to the window this time and it was still raining. He turned the TV on and one of the local news channels was broadcasting from the track. They were interviewing a Vietnam veteran who acknowledged his gratitude to the U.S.O. of North Carolina and the North Carolina Association of Broadcasters for sponsoring the event. Then, the anchors stated emphatically that the event would take place “rain or shine.” Hearing that, we showered, packed our things and went downstairs for breakfast. There we found ourselves surrounded by fellow veterans in all shapes, sizes and races. Some were older and some younger. But what struck me most was that no matter how they were different, they were exactly the same. They spoke the same language, they used the same terms, none seemed like strangers to each other and the look in their eye was unmistakable. It was pure and simple . . . brotherhood in action.

Several couples sat quietly to themselves and one fellow visited each table as if he was the official “greeter.” Billy was asked countless times “When did you serve?” “Where were you?” When they’d hear his response, they’d say, “You were hot!” Personally, I’ve always thought he was hot, but they meant he was in a “hot” zone known for intense combat and heartbreak. They began to share their medical conditions and how the war had affected their bodies; some had lost their vision, some lost their hearing, some had diabetes, a few talked about their ischemic heart disease – a recognized consequence of exposure to Agent Orange.

While I checked us out, Billy loaded the truck with our things and it was still raining. I knew God had heard my prayer and no doubt many people’s prayers that morning. In route to the track, we stopped for gas and suddenly a loud roar came from down the road. It was the massive line of two Vietnam veteran motorcycle groups: Rolling Thunder and Patriot Guard. People got out of their cars everywhere around us and one by one they took off their hats or put their hand over their heart as the Veterans rode by. I looked at my sweet Billy and he was smiling from ear to ear and the sun, not rain, was pressing into his face. That cool heavenly moisture had subsided replaced instead by a warm golden sun and I knew then it was going to be a beautiful day.

The track parking was organized; there were no protestors or trouble makers; it wasn’t chaotic in any way. Families poured out of their cars, people of all ages wore American flags tucked into their belts and even in their hair. As we made our way up the path toward the foot bridge to the track, it was obvious people were happy.

From that time and throughout the day, expressions of gratitude were shared over and over again. It was wonderful. With exception of only a few vendors, everything was displayed in the infield. Once we were settled in our seat our eyes fell upon hoards of people with strollers, wheelchairs and folks pushing and carrying walkers. Everybody was smiling, hugging, shaking hands and I could hear and even see the exchange of “welcome home” mouthed between one veteran to the other. Many reached out to shake Billy’s hand as he walked by them. Even to each other, they said “thank you.”

At one point, a group of four combat Veterans wearing matching leather   vests, shirts and hats stopped to chat. One of them leaned over and jokingly asked, “Do you think I could jump that fence onto the track?” I said, “I’d say y’all could do just about anything you wanted to do – you got back here from over there didn’t you?” He smiled. In that simple response, he was acknowledged as someone who had accomplished a great thing – just making it back home.

Many people donned clothing from all of the military branches; some had plastic bags rolled up under their arm with more of the same; men in particular stood beside the olive drab colored military choppers, (provided by the N. C. Vietnam Pilots Association), especially the Cobra, which Billy said was a “life saver” that they all “loved.” Entertainers sang, military bands performed and the day couldn’t have been nicer.

On our way out of the arena, Billy stopped by a vendor to get hat pins for a couple of veteran friends. While he was in line, I sat on a bench beside a family from Shady Spring, West Virginia and we became instant friends. The wife, Sherre, spoke proudly and humbly of her husband Donald’s return home. She told me that that day was the first time her husband had seen even a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial located in Washington, D.C.  As wives who love our husbands, we shared what this day had meant not only to our spouse but to each of us and our feelings were mutual. We invited each other to visit our homes and we exchanged addresses. Hopefully our new friendship will grow from here.

All 60,000 Vietnam Veterans and their families there in that great big place experienced what no one ever thought possible. They embraced, called each other “brother” and bonded once again.

The impressions of that day will remain special for as long as we live. We witnessed a treasure trove of respect, admiration and joy felt by all. To the sponsors of that event, we say “thank you” for ever and always. Until next time, stay tuned.