Synopsis: It’s 1977 and President Carter has announced he is granting a full presidential pardon to all Vietnam draft dodgers. Jon struggles to deal with his feelings about it, and finds himself on a very special journey…..
California Highway Patrol Officer Jon Baker sat by the side of an overpass, enjoying the early morning sunshine as he kept an eye on the traffic below and waited for his partner, Frank Poncherello to arrive. He’d just pulled a rag out of his saddlebag to polish his windshield when the roar of a motor announced his partner was here.
“Morning partner! Sorry I’m late. “Ponch parked beside him and reached into his saddlebag for a Ding Dong.
Jon winced. “How can you eat those things at this hour?”
“What are you talking about? This is the breakfast of champions!”
“Yeah, whatever.” Jon grinned and shook his head. “Let’s go. We’ve got briefing.”
Ponch stuffed the rest of his Ding Dong into his mouth and got ready to follow him.
“What did you have for breakfast?” he asked.
“Nothing special,” Jon shrugged. “Cornflakes with a banana and some orange juice.”
“Baker, I’ve really gotta loosen you up, you know that?”
“Why? What’s wrong with cornflakes?”
“Nothing, if you’re an old man.” Ponch flashed his dazzling grin.
“Yeah, well the kid likes cornflakes okay?” Jon smiled at him and started his motor. “Let’s go.”
They were still teasing each other when they walked into briefing. Bonnie, Bear, Fritz, and Baricza were already there, gathered around Grossie, who had the morning paper in his hands.
“Hey guys, how’s it going?” Ponch said cheerfully.
“Hey Ponch, hey Jon. Did you hear what President Carter did?” Grossie asked, folding the paper.
“No, but I bet you’re gonna tell us.”
“He gave a full pardon to all the draft dodgers. You know, from Vietnam?” Grossie waved the paper at them, the headline screaming “CARTER GRANTS PARDON.”
Jon’s smile faded. “What?”
“I knew he said it when he was campaigning, but I didn’t think he’d actually do it.” Turner said.
“I don’t see what’s wrong with it. After all those people were just following their conscience.” Fritz added. “I know I sure wouldn’t want to be shipped off to war.”
Jon turned away from them and went to sit down.
“What’s wrong with him?” Grossie asked.
“I dunno.” Ponch looked at him. “He was fine earlier.”
Joe Getraer walked in, putting an end to the conversation. Ponch took his seat next to Jon and tried to talk to him.
“Hey partner, you okay?”
But Jon wasn’t fine. Inside, his emotions were raging. They ran away and now all is forgotten. I wish I could forget. Yeah, give us a pardon too, so we can wipe out the past. If only it was that easy.
Up at the podium, Joe couldn’t help but notice Jon was a million miles away. His usually twinkling blue eyes looked sad and troubled. He must have heard about the pardon, he thought, opening his notebook. I can only imagine how he must feel. He cleared his throat.
“Okay, listen up…”
After briefing, Jon followed Ponch out, still lost in his own thoughts. It seemed like every officer in the crowded corridor was discussing the news.
“Hell, I would have run to Canada too.” Someone was saying, “No way I‘d let them just ship me off to the jungle. We never should have been there in the first place.”
“I bet those guys up in Canada are celebrating right now. They’ll finally get to come home and see their families again.” Fritz added.
“Yeah, and what about the guys who did their duty and never came home again? Do they get a pardon too? When do they get to see their families?” Jon’s voice was harsh.
Silence fell over the group. “Relax Jon,” Grossie said finally, “We’re just talking about the news. You don’t have to take it so personally just because you don’t agree with what Carter did.”
“Yeah, well I do take it personally, Grossie, all right? I was there! I didn’t run away when my draft notice came! I did what my country asked of me! And you know what I got in return? A lot of dead friends and a lot of abuse when I got home. Now tell me, do I get a pardon for that?” Jon’s emotions spilled out. “So excuse me if I do take it personally!” he turned and walked away, leaving his stunned friends behind.
“Jon! Jon wait!” Joe took off after him.
“I…I didn’t know,” Fritz stammered.
“None of us did. “ Ponch said softly. “Man…”
“Can you blame him for being upset?” Bonnie asked. “It must feel like a real slap in the face.”
“Yeah, to say the least.” Turner replied glumly. ‘Man, I hope he’s all right. Jon’s good people…the best.”
“I hope we haven’t lost a friend.” Grossie said softly.
Jon was on his motor head bowed when Joe caught up to him,
The younger officer looked up, a mixture of anguish and embarrassment in his eyes.
“Sarge, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-“
“Jon, it’s okay. I understand. So do they. They didn’t know. “Joe put a hand on his shoulder. “C’mon back inside.”
Jon was silent.
“Hey, listen. those are your friends in there, regardless of their political views, okay?” Joe said gently, “It wasn’t a personal attack, Jon.”
“I know.” He took off his gloves and twisted them in his hands. “I know.”
Joe put an arm around his shoulder and led him inside. Everyone was sitting in the report room, waiting for him.
“Hey man, I’m sorry I-“Fritz began when Jon appeared in the doorway.
“I know Fritz. I’m sorry I lost my temper. You’re entitled to your opinions,” he replied softly, “You all are.”
“What branch of the military were you in, Jon?” Bonnie asked.
“Marine Corps.” A touch of pride crept into Jon’s voice. “Still am actually. Reserves.”
“So that’s why you disappear for a weekend every month.” Ponch said, surprised.
“Yeah, Ponch.” Jon tried to smile.
“How long were you, you know, over there?” Fritz asked carefully.
“18 months. Seemed like a lot longer though.”
“How come you never told us, man?” Ponch asked.
Jon took a seat with them. “It’s not exactly something that’s easy to talk about. When I-we-came home we weren’t exactly given a warm welcome. “
“I never understood that. I mean, fine, hate the politics, but why take it out on you guys?” Bear shook his head.
“I wish I knew, Bear.” Jon had a far away look in his eyes.
“Did you ever think of running to Canada?” Grossie blurted.
Jon didn’t hesitate. “No. The thought never occurred to me. My country called, so I answered.” he said simply.
“What was it like over there?” Turner asked quietly.
“Hell.” Jon suddenly looked uncomfortable. “Just…hell.”
A silence fell over the group for a moment, and then Grossie spoke.
“And still, you’d go fight again?”
Jon nodded. “The way I see it, Grossie, if I’m not willing to defend my own freedom, my own country, how can I expect anyone else to? Did I want to be there? Of course not. No one wants to be sent half a world away to fight a war.” He looked up, his blue eyes full of emotion. “Remember what J.F.K. used to say? ‘Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country’? Well I did for my country, and I would again.”
Later, while on patrol, Ponch looked over at Jon. They were parked near an overpass, keeping an eye on the traffic below. Jon was writing furiously in his notebook.
“You’re not writing another book, are you?” he asked.
Jon looked up and smiled briefly. “No. Just a letter to the paper.”
“Really? What about?”
“Just my thoughts about the pardon, that’s all. Decided it was better to get them on paper than to keep them inside.”
Ponch nodded. “Can I see?” he asked carefully.
“When they…if they publish it. I’ll even autograph it for ya, okay?”
“Deal.” Ponch grinned.
“You’ll just have to let me know if or when it shows up in the paper.”
“Me? You going somewhere?”
Jon looked up, the sunlight glinting off his sunglasses. “Yeah. I’m gonna take a few days off. Maybe clear my head a little and then visit my grandfather.”
“You grandfather?” Ponch leaned back on his motor. “You never mentioned him before. Where does he live?”
“Virginia.” Jon said softly, then looked away sharply. “Ponch, we got one, headed north.” He quickly put his helmet on.
“I see him. Let’s go partner!”
They sped off after the errant driver, the conversation forgotten.
Jon waited outside his hotel for the cab he’d called to arrive. He was holding two dozen white roses and a crumpled map in his hands. When the cab finally showed up it was a quick trip to where his grandfather was waiting.
“Five dollar.” the cabbie said, pulling up to the curb. Jon paid him and stepped out, taking
a deep breath of the frosty air. He’d almost forgotten was winter was like.
After pausing a minute to review the map he was holding, he started walking. When he arrived at his first destination, he froze at the sight of the rows and rows of white stones, standing at a attention like the soldiers whose names they held. The morning sunlight glistened off the light coating of frost that covered then. Damn, he thought. Damn. He began walking again and sought out the names he knew, saying a brief prayer and laying a single rose on each stone. When he was done he had ten roses left. He stood among the stones for one more minute, head bowed. Then, wiping the tears from his eyes he started walking again until he reached the Tombs of the Unknowns, where he said another prayer and left 6 of the roses. Looking at the map he realized he had a long walk to see his grandfather, but he was glad for the chance to just walk and think.
Ponch got to briefing early and slipped into his seat, opening the day’s paper to the Editorial section and scanning the Letters to the Editor section. Ever since Jon had gone on vacation 3 days earlier, he’d been checking everyday for the letter Jon had sent in. Today it was there. As the rest of the shift filled in he read it, then read it again. Tears glistened in his deep brown eyes as he absorbed the words his best friend had written. He sat there, lost in his own thoughts as briefing began. Getraer noticed and cleared his throat.
“Ah, Frank? You okay back there?”
Ponch looked up, quickly wiping his eyes. “Yeah Sarge.”
“What’s the matter? Another Dear Ponch letter?”
A low rumble of laughter filled the room.
“No Sarge. Jon wrote a letter to the paper. I was just reading it.”
Joe left the podium and walked over to him. “Mind if I do?”
Ponch handed him the paper. Joe began to read as he walked back up to the podium. Once there, he looked up, his blue eyes filled with emotion. “I think we all should hear this.” He began to read
Jon’s letter aloud.
“Didn’t I make you proud,
Go and lay my life down
when you called my name?
I thought I stood for something,
was doing the right thing when I went away.
Now being back should be so simple.
But I keep getting mixed signals from everyone.
Why do people sit and judge me
who I ain’t seen what I seen or did what I’ve done?
Didn’t I burn?
Didn’t I bleed enough for you?
I faced your fears,
Felt pain so you won’t have to.
Yeah didn’t I do my best?
And wasn’t home here when I left?
I’ve seen boys fall to pieces?
Grown men cry out for Jesus
Till there black and blue.
I thought God was on our side,
weren’t we suppose to be the good guys
that would never lose?
Cause I don’t see no ticker tape or five mile parades
sayin “Thank You son”.
Just folks that sit and judge me
who ain’t seen or did what I’ve done.
Didn’t I burn,
Didn’t I bleed enough for you?
I faced your fears
Felt the pain so you won’t have to.
Yeah didn’t I do my best?
And wasn’t home here
when I left?”
Proud Vietnam Veteran, USMC 1967-1970”
When Joe finished reading everyone was silent. Some had bowed their heads, others were wiping tears from their eyes. Finally, he cleared his throat..
“All right everyone. Let’s hit the bricks.”
When Jon arrived he searched for a few minutes until he found what he was looking for. The stone, white like the others, sat near the shade of a large cherry tree, its bare branches glistening with frost. Jon knelt down and ran his fingers across the inscription.
“Gregory Matthew Baker
2nd Battalion 5th Regiment
First World War
July 14, 1887-June 6,1918”
“Hi granddad,” he said softly, placing the rest of the roses on the stone. “I’ve been meaning to visit for a long time.Dad used to tell me about you all the time. I know he was only 9 when you died, but he had a great memory.” He smiled for a moment. “I almost felt like I knew you myself. I suppose you know me. I always figured you can see everything from up there.” He smiled again. “Well hopefully not everything.” The smile faded. “I got drafted by the Marines too. Dad gave me your dog tags before I left. I thought of them as my lucky charm, and I guess they worked. I came home again. “Tears blurred his vision. “I wish you were here. You’re the only one who’d understand how I feel right now.”
“He’d have been right mad about how you boys were treated, let me tell you.” A raspy voice said from behind him.
Startled, Jon stood up and turned around. An elderly man stood there, leaning heavily on a worn wooden cane, bundled up against the morning chill. His olive skin and brown eyes were strangely familiar.
“I’m sorry son. Didn’t mean to interrupt. Greg and I talk this time everyday. It’s nice to find he has another visitor. It’s usually just me. I’m sorry, I forgot my manners. I’m Anthony Torres. You’ve got to be a relation. You’re the spitting image of Greg.”
“Jon Baker.” He shook the older man’s outstretched hand. “Did you know my grandfather?”
“His grandson. My, this is a pleasure. Your grandfather and I served together in the war. We were best friends.
He sure kept my behind out of trouble.” He smiled and shook his head at the memory.
“You still in the service, son?”
Jon nodded. “Marine Reserves. Haven’t been on active duty since 1970 though.”
They walked over to a nearby bench and sat down. Anthony took out his wallet and showed Jon a well worn photo of two young Marines standing in front of a bunker. “That’s him. That’s Greg.”
“I guess I do look like him, don’t I?” Jon touched the photo.
“To a T. Your grandfather and I were inseparable till the day he died.” He looked up. “I suppose you know the story?”
Jon nodded. “Yes sir. He died during the Battle of Belleau.”
“Not without a fight. He took a lot of Germans with him. If it weren’t for him I’d be lyin there next to him. I took a
whole lotta shrapnel in my hip. They sent me home with him. You saw combat?”
“Yes sir. Nam. Tet Offensive.”
Anthony looked him up and down. “You don’t look a day over 25.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot. Actually I’ll be 30 in August.”
“So you were just a boy when they shipped you out.” He shook his head. “I guess we all were. Terrible thing, sending a boy to war.”
A brief silence fell over the pair.
“So you must be from Wyoming, yes? Greg loved it there. I was gonna visit his ranch after the war. He promised to teach me how to ride a horse.” He laughed. “I imagine you ride?”
Jon smiled. “Sure do. I live in California now though. You?”
“I’m from Chicago. I live here in Virginia now though, in the Veteran’s Home just a few miles from here. So what do you do with yourself in California?”
“I’m a California Highway Patrol Officer.”
“Greg would have been proud. Seems like you followed right in his footsteps.”
Jon felt a touch of pride. “I have his badge from the Wyoming State Police.”
Anthony nodded and adjusted his scarf. “I have a grandnephew out in California. He’s on your highway patrol too. Don’t hear much from him.”
“Really? What’s his name? I could look him up for you.”
“Francis. Francis Poncherello. He was my sister Anna’s grandson. Her daughter Maria is a real gem. She writes me all the time. Let’s me know what’s happening with the family.”
Jon got chills. “You’re kidding.”
“You know him?”
“Know him? He’s my partner! My best friend too.”
“Well I’ll be. I wonder why Maria never mentioned you. How about that? Greg’s gotta be smiling over that!”
“I’ll make sure he gets in touch with you. I promise.” Jon still couldn’t believe it. Who would have thought my grandfather and Ponch’s uncle were best friends? What were the odds that we’d end up best friends too? It sent a shiver down his spine.
“I appreciate that. So what brought you all the way out to see your grandfather?”
Jon looked down. “I dunno. Ever since I heard about the pardon I’ve been out of sorts. It brought back some memories I’d rather forget, you know?”
“I do. I know this country has a lot to be ashamed of as far as you boys go. You were just fighting for your country, same as us. No reason you should have gotten treated differently. But don’t let it eat away at you boy, it’ll kill you. You didn’t survive a war for that.”
“I know. It just…I dunno…hurts I guess.”
Anthony reached over and squeezed his hand. “That’s just God’s way of reminding you you’re alive. Greg always said that if people just took their anger and pain and put it into doing something positive, not only would they feel better, but who knows what amazing things could have been accomplished. Seems to me you follow the same path.”
“I don’t follow.” Jon said, confused.
“You’re a police officer, aren’t ya? You’re doing right by the world. You don’t like how it treated you, so you’re doing what you can to make it a better place. They say this country will learn a lesson over how it treated you boys from ‘Nam. Well it’s folks like you that are teaching it, understand?”
“I think I do. Thank you for the new perspective. Can I ask you something?”
“How do you feel about the draft dodgers?”
“Well now, that’s complicated. I’m a firm believer in answering your country when it calls, but I can understand how scared those boys had to be to have done what they did. There will never be any easy answers, not about the war, or how folks felt about it. I guess all we can do is thank the Lord above we live in a country where we are free to speak our minds and have our opinions.”
“Yeah, but if more of us had done what the dodgers did, during your war, or even back further, just how free would we be right now?”
“Well now, that’s a very good question. Thank God we don’t know the answer. Hopefully, God willing, we never will.”
Jon returned from his vacation feeling more at peace. Meeting Ponch’s uncle had touched him deeply. He had Anthony’s address and phone number as well as an envelope of pictures of his grandfather, and promised to stay in touch. He was waiting for Ponch to join him for the day’s patrol.
“Mornin Partner! Welcome back!” Ponch said as he arrived at their regular morning meeting spot.
“Thanks Ponch. Good to be back.”
“How’s your grandfather?”
“He’s fine. By the way, you should call your Uncle Anthony. He’d love to hear from you.”
“Uncle Anthony? How do you know about him?” Ponch looked surprised. “I haven’t seen him since I was a kid.”
Jon smiled. “It’s a long story. C’mon, I’ll tell you over breakfast.”
“Well that’s an offer I can’t refuse.” Ponch grinned. “By the way, they printed your letter. All I can say is, I have a new respect for you, partner. As a writer, and a man. “
Jon reddened. “Thanks Ponch. I appreciate that.”
Ponch touched his arm. “No, Jon…Thank you.”
Up and at ’em, bright and early
I’m all business in my suit
Yeah, I’m dressed up for success
From my head down to my boots
I don’t do it for the money
There’s bills that I can’t pay
I don’t do it for the glory
I just do it anyway
Providing for our future’s my responsibility
Yeah I’m real good under pressure
Being all that I can be
And I can’t call in sick on Mondays
when the weekends been too strong
I just work straight through the holidays
And sometimes all night long
You can bet that I stand ready when the wolf growls at the door
Hey, I’m solid, hey I’m steady, hey, I’m true down to the core
And I will always do my duty no matter what the price
I’ve counted up the cost, I know the sacrifice
Oh, and I don’t want to die for you
but if dyin’s asked of me
I’ll bear that cross with honor
’cause freedom don’t come free
I’m an American soldier, an American
beside my brothers and my sisters I will proudly take a stand
When Liberty’s in jeopardy, I will always do what’s right
I’m out here on the front line
Sleep in peace tonight
American soldier, I’m an American soldier
Yeah, an American soldier, an American
Beside my brothers and my sisters I will proudly take a stand
When Liberty’s in jeopardy I will always do what’s right
I’m out here on the front line
So Sleep in peace tonight
American soldier, I’m an American
An American, an American soldier.
Dedicated with loving gratitude to Larry Wilcox, my Uncles Joe and Bob, my friend Bob Tilley, and all Vietnam Veterans, living and dead. Thank you for your service, your sacrifice, and your courage. You have not been forgotten.
Song Credits: “Didn’t I?” Montgomery Gentry Copyright 2002
“American Soldier” Toby Keith Copyright 2003
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