This short story was published by CJ Heck on May 23, 2013 on Goodreads.com. Ms. Heck is a published Poet, Writer, Freelance Editor, Author of 5 books, and a Vietnam War Widow. Her blog address is listed at the end of this article.
“There is a brokenness out of which comes the unbroken; a shatteredness out of which blooms the unshatterable; a sorrow beyond all grief which leads to joy; a fragility out of whose depths emerges strength, and a hollow space too vast for words through which we pass with each loss, out of whose darkness we are sanctioned into being” ~ Bri Maya Tiwari
The worst day of my life was September 13, 1969. Actually, there were more, but that’s the one day I can talk about, at least for now.
I was living at my childhood home in Ohio with my parents at the time. I had recently married my high school sweetheart, Doug Kempf, in January of 1969. Though in our hearts we were still newlyweds, Uncle Sam had other plans for Doug and in May, he was sent to Vietnam, where he would be an Army combat medic.
Doug and I shared a beautiful life from January to May. During those months before he went to Vietnam, we lived in a trailer on base at Ft. Bragg, Fayetteville, North Carolina. We were military-poor but we didn’t care. We were together and we were happy. There, we loved and laughed and planned our future for when he returned.
We dreamed of buying an old Victorian with lots of bedrooms, oak woodwork, a huge kitchen for entertaining family and friends, and a large front porch with a wooden swing. There we could cuddle and talk, read a book, or just swing and watch thunder storms together.
We wanted three children, two boys and then a girl. That would be perfect. Our sons would be tall and handsome with their daddy’s bowed legs, legs that loved to dance, and they would have his sense of humor and infectious laugh. They would grow up to be good men, looked up to for their strength of character. Like Doug, they would be smart, kind and gentle husbands, loving and playful with their children, as well as proud and fiercely patriotic.
Doug decided our little girl would be, (in his words), “Pretty like her mommy, with big blue eyes and just a hint of tomboy to defend herself from her big brothers.” In my heart, I knew she would always be her daddy’s little girl.
Sp-4 Douglas Doc Kempf
Saying goodbye at the Columbus Airport in May, was soul-crushing. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry, but it was a foolish promise and one I wasn’t able keep. One thing I can truthfully say is, it never once occurred to me that Doug wouldn’t return home safe.
Our letters were happy and full of love. The intimate moments we had shared and memorized were yearned for and always included in the letters between us. But what we wanted most and what we actually had, broke our hearts and we counted the days to our Hawaiian R&R, which was never to be.
On September 13, 1969, my world stopped. I was working as a secretary in the office of a manufacturing company a few blocks from my parents’ home. That afternoon, mother called me at work. “Honey, you’d better come home. There are some men here from the Army and they need to talk to you. It’s about Doug.”
I couldn’t say a word. I dropped the phone on my desk and with my heart in my throat, I ran out of the building. I didn’t stop running until four blocks later, in front of the house I grew up in, the home where I had always felt safe and loved.
I was filled with fear and dread. Parked in front of the house and looking out of place, was a large black car with something printed along the side. I gathered my courage and climbed the front steps and opened the front door.
Just inside the foyer stood two uniformed men locked to attention, their hands behind their backs, hat tucked under an arm. Their faces were somber. Daddy and mama stood nearby. Daddy had his arm around mama’s waist and she was crying softly.
No. No. No. Dear God, why are they here? No, wait, I don’t want to know. Go away! Please, just go away.
“Mrs. Kempf, we regret to inform you that your husband, Sp4 Douglas S. Kempf, was killed in action while performing his duty in Vietnam on September 5 …”
I didn’t hear the rest of what the man had to say. Daddy said I fainted where I stood, just inside the front door in the foyer.
When I came around, I was lying on the couch in my parents’ living room — and then I remembered. Oh God, I remembered, and I wanted to die, too. I was devoid of all feeling, except soul-numbing grief.
My whole world had turned upside down in one heartbeat. How could everything still look and sound so normal? The sun still shined through the front windows with Mama’s white curtains swaying in a light breeze. The birds still sang outside in the gnarled old apple tree I used to climb as a child. A neighbor somewhere was mowing his lawn, and I could hear children laughing and playing in their yard.
Only a few minutes ago, that had been real. Now it all clashed with my new reality and I suddenly felt I was losing my mind. Why? Why? Why?
Then I focused hard, until only the couch was real. I was on the couch where Doug and I first held hands and hugged; the couch where we had our first disagreement, then kissed and made up. The same couch where I often sat in front of him on the floor between his knees, leaning back against him while we watched TV and he ran his fingers gently through my hair. The same couch where he nervously asked me to be his wife and I accepted.
No, nothing would ever be the same again. My life was changed forever and I felt helpless and so completely alone, even though I was surrounded by people who cared and who also grieved. All I could do was cry, and I remember fighting a growing anger, as well. God! How could You do this? Why would You reach down inside me and rip out my heart? And always, the question, Why?
There was so much grief and hurt and I went through the following weeks and months and even years in a fog. There are some things about that time that I can’t remember at all, but there is one thing I will never forget. That was the first and only time I ever saw my father cry.
“Sharing can be a way of healing. Grief and loss can isolate, anger even alienate. Shared with others, emotions unite as we see we aren’t alone. We realize others weep with us.”
~Susan Wittig Albert
That day in 1969 was the worst day of my life. But, in the years since, that day has also carried me through some really bad times, too. There have been things that have happened since then, when I’ve said, “This hurts. Yeah, this really hurts — it hurts like bloody hell! But I will survive, because I can tell you what real hurt is.” For the rest of your life, that one day becomes your yardstick for measuring pain. You know with a final certainty that nothing else can, or ever will, hurt you quite that bad again.
When I look up into the night sky, I pray that it isn’t stars I see, but little openings in heaven’s floor where the love of my lost one pours through and shines down to let me know he is happy …
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Thank you CJ Heck for this heart-felt and inspiring article. We know it took a great deal of courage for you to express yourself here. Good luck with your other ventures and speaking engagements.
One of Ms. Heck’s three blogs where Vietnam Veterans post and share feedback: http://memoirsfromnam.blogspot.com
“We all have an inner voice, our personal whisper from the universe. All we have to do is listen, feel and sense it with an open heart. Sometimes it whispers of intuition or precognition. Other times, it whispers an awareness, a remembrance from another plane. Dare to listen. Dare to hear with your heart.”
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