Steve Cartwright, Tenants Harbor
A couple of years after the Vietnam War ended, I landed a job as editor of The Lincoln County News in Damariscotta. I was barely out of college. Ron, who worked in the newspaper’s print shop, didn’t go to college. He went to war. And came back, like so many others, changed. Ron and I became good friends, and eventually he moved into the old farmhouse I was house-sitting with another guy. On the happy side, Ron loved nature, wildlife, driving his Land Cruiser on back roads, hunting and fishing with his dog.
He met Martha, who I had once interviewed about her Alewives Fabrics business, and they became an item. A year or two later I attended their wedding party with my own wife to be. By then I had moved to Orono to edit a Native American newspaper. We kept in touch over the years, having a great dinner once in awhile. Ron loved to cook.
On the not-so-happy side, Ron sometimes talked about being a Green Beret. Special Forces. Prostitutes. Killing the enemy. He didn’t boast. He was troubled. He thought he did the right thing, but many of his peers, including me, had marched against the war and thought it was an atrocity, and we considered those who waged it, war criminals. I still think so, but I don’t disparage those who served. Especially since I did not. I was a privileged college student with deferments. I feel some guilt about that. But not about my opposition to what was an immoral and unjustified war that could have been avoided. Ron and all those sent to Vietnam were not fighting for our freedom. Our freedom, our nation, wasn’t under threat. Those old bromides about serving and dying for our country seem hollow when you consider napalm, when you think of us bombing people we saw as expendable and inferior to us, when you think of war profiteers, of who was drafted to fight. And for what?
Ron coped for awhile. He became a skilled carpenter. Then one day he fell off some scaffolding and shattered his heels. He was in a wheelchair, and when able to walk again, he was in pain. He drank more, he smoked more. He worked less. He lost interest in things he loved, like walking his dog in the woods, growing fruit and vegetables, harvesting rose hips to make jam. In one brighter moment, he received — years late — a high school diploma. That made him proud. Ron knew more and had more wisdom than many a college graduate. He read a lot of books, he had a keen interest in the world around him but I think the war haunted him. He couldn’t shake it.
Helplessly, I watched my friend fade away. I saw him on Memorial Day, in uniform. He looked pallid. He didn’t say much. I heard about a drunk driving charge. Martha told me didn’t do much of anything. There was a fishing trip to Alaska. It was good, but not enough. Ron continued to sink, to smoke and drink and not do very much. One day, a couple of years ago, I saw his truck at an odd angle on a lawn a few miles from my farmhouse, the one where he built a strong staircase and cabinets for me. I wondered why his truck was there but shut it out of my mind. Until I heard that’s where Ron died, his last run to buy cigarettes. Widowed, Martha seemed OK for awhile, but then developed cancer that spread rapidly and ended her life. She was just coming up for air after living through hell, because the United States had put her husband through hell.
As a teenager, my daughter volunteered at an orphanage in Vietnam, and found the country and its people beautiful and welcoming. Only one man she met was bitter about what Vietnamese people call unsurprisingly, the American War. America has had a hard time getting over this tragic war.
Ron never got over it.