Remembering 1,105 Kentuckians who lost their lives in Vietnam
On a gray November day in 1995, the past landed unexpectedly in my lap. I was researching a story on the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which I’d visited briefly once before. Beautifully located, the massive work of art rests high on a hill outside Frankfort, overlooking the winding Kentucky River and the state Capitol, with its brightly colored floral clock.
Since 1988, this public yet private spot has offered solace to many grieving hearts and kept memories alive of those who perished in the Southeast Asian war that stretched from 1962 until May 7, 1975, for the United States, while honoring the 125,000 Kentuckians who served courageously and unselfishly.
Never before had I noticed beside the memorial a notebook under protective Plexiglas with the names of every fallen soldier in the conflict, arranged by county. Low, thick clouds were beginning to spit rain when I happened to see it, and I flipped its pages to Christian County, where I’d grown up in the county seat of Hopkinsville, once the dark-fired tobacco capital of the world.
Though a teenager in the 1960s, I didn’t expect to find a familiar name, assuming I’d have heard if anyone I knew died in that undeclared war. I slid my finger quickly down the page. Suddenly one line stopped me. “Means, John.” John Means? Really? I hadn’t thought of John in more years than I cared to count. He was my fourth-grade crush, who used to walk me home from Virginia Street School down Tardy Alley to the red brick cottage my grandfather built on the corner of Main and 17th. Nearly every afternoon for a short time.
I remembered John’s sandy-brown hair, curly on top, a bit unruly. Like he was. This slim boy with eyes of greenish-blue would go on to earn the moniker of juvenile delinquent in high school. A “j.d.” My mother would never have approved of this liaison, had she known, and had it lasted into our teens. But he only walked me to the Wallace sisters’ front walk, not all the way across 17th, and his interest lasted only a month or so before school ceased for the summer. The following fall my family moved from downtown to Country Club Lane, so my mother wouldn’t have to drive so far to play golf, and I transferred to Morningside School.
My clearest memory of John was a late April afternoon when he waited for me by the school yard’s wrought-iron fence. His smile when he saw me lit his 9-year-old eyes, and I remember returning one shyly. He took my books to carry, and as we crossed the street, he began telling me a story about a friend of his who’d stolen candy from Woolworth’s. John had only watched the incident. Perhaps juvenile delinquency in its formative years. At any rate, a sales clerk had seen the boy slide a Hershey Bar into his jacket pocket without paying and had run out of the store after him.
Defending his friend, John began, “That man was a real son of a…” but didn’t finish the expletive. He stopped walking and turned to look at me.
“What?” I asked. “What were you gonna say? Son of a what?”
He hesitated for a few seconds, then shook his head. “I can’t use that word in front of you. You’re a nice girl. My dad told me never to do that.”
“Oh, come on,” I pleaded, my curiosity piqued. “It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not. I respect you too much.” And just like my mother used to do, he changed the subject and wouldn’t talk about it again, much as I begged.
After he said good-bye that day in front of the Wallaces’ towering magnolia tree, I puzzled over what that word might have been. The only time I’d heard “son of a” had been in front of the word “gun,” so for the longest youthful time, I thought “gun” was a bad word.
Recalling the incident now, I have to shake my head at my naiveté. And even though I rejoined my grade school classmates in junior high, I don’t remember him much after that. Just that he ran with a fast crowd of boys, smoked, and often wore a black leather jacket and black boots with buckles. They all did. Definitely 1950s j.d. attire.
That day in Frankfort, I felt a heavy sadness. On one hand, at the loss of my own childhood, but on the other, more at the loss of that young man’s life while still in his prime. What would he have made of it had he lived? Would the war have grown him up? And what about all the other Kentucky young men memorialized here? So many lives lost. So many futures ended.
Redirecting my thoughts, I turned to the monument. What lay before me was an architectural marvel. Created by Navy veteran and Lexington resident Helm Roberts, the enormous stone sundial has a 24-foot-long, 5,000-pound steel gnomon, or pointer, towering above.
Names of the 1,105 Kentuckians who gave their lives in that conflict are etched in its 89-by-71-foot blue granite plaza and arranged so that the shadow of the gnomon passes over each veteran’s name on the anniversary of his death, honoring each soldier with a personal Memorial Day.
Ever comforting, this remarkable tribute opens its arms to visitors and mourners 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Engraved on its inner circle are words from the Book of Ecclesiastes that, according to its architect, provide seeds for thought and meditation, ending appropriately with “…a time for war and a time for peace.”
Turns out that for John, gun became a bad word. I only hope he has found his peace.
Read more about the Kentucky Vietnam Veterans Memorial.