Former Marine and Khe Sanh survivor, Michael O’Hara, muses on anniversaries.
I remember an anniversary day in early September of 1967. I would be nineteen soon. I was about to board a 707 (remember those?) and leave Indianapolis on an extended “holiday” to the far east. We walked across the tarmac back then and actually climbed stairs to board the aircraft. Dad had told me to not do anything stupid and get home safe. I sure didn’t want to disappoint him. It was the only time I ever saw my father cry. Mother was “sucking it up”. She was always so strong and she expected as much from her #2 also. These were her words of wisdom. When you get lonely, when you get homesick, just look to the heavens. There you will find the Big Dipper. Remember always I am just on the other side and I can see it too.” I knew better than to look back on my journey across the tarmac. I was a man now, whether I wanted to be or not.
Over the course of the next six months I would add many of those little “anniversary dates” to my journey through life. Most of those would not be good.
I was very fortunate though. All my fingers still wiggled despite some minor incidents while visiting with the Vietnamese. I got to spend the next six months in Hawaii and when I came home, things were good. I got a good job training young Marines and I enjoyed it very much. But my tour in the Marines came to an end and it was time to go home.
I did what most young men do upon leaving the service. I went to work and got married and had little babies. I was extremely overprotective of my family. I drank too much at first but soon realized I had to find something else to do with all this energy I seemed to have. My drug of choice became work. It was all I ever did. I was responsible for the well-being of my family, right? Those years brought good and bad anniversaries. My first three-day vacation was in 1987. I drove to the Wall in Washington, D.C. I had to get back to work you know.
Something else was going on and the only one who recognized it was Mother.
She was so smart. When we would gather during the holidays and we would all be eating at the table she would put her hand under the table on my bouncing leg to slow it down and she would smile and say to me, “Miiiiiiiiiiiiichael, come back.” I absolutely did not have a clue.
Then in December of 1987 another one of those damned anniversaries happened. Mother had a heart attack. She didn’t even know it. They scheduled her for open heart surgery. We were scared to death but she told everyone to suck it up, she would be home for Christmas, and she was. When she went in for her surgery I would not go home or leave her. My other five siblings cycled in and out but I just couldn’t leave her. I was actually told I needed counseling. Ha! Then it happened, in the canteen late one night. I think I was talking to my sister and a sister-in-law. My sister, who actually has an EDD in education asked me “what seemed to be the problem.” Did they actually think I was going to let God walk in here and just take her without having to deal with me first? That was never going to happen on my watch. I would never allow my mother to pass so far away from home and alone all by herself. I saw all that I ever wanted to see when I was overseas and I was having none of it here. Are you people stupid?
Time marched on and another one of those anniversaries that happen to all of us. I had to give up my two precious redheaded daughters at the same moment, no less. One was about to wed and the other was off to Japan for a two-year stint teaching.
It wasn’t many months before I entered the classroom (of life) and began to learn about “anniversaries”. It was 1993, nearly six years since Mother had her surgery. After she had gotten on her feet and learned of the incident in the canteen, she assured me I was wasting my time. When she left she was going out just like she came in, alone. She did just that on December 17th that year. She was always so smart. Turns out I didn’t need any counseling for this one at all. I was more than ready. Mother gave me a great gift during her lifetime, the ability to “let go.” It takes a while sometimes but it is like forgiveness. Once you figure out how to apply those things, life becomes so simple, so good.
I have a lot of anniversaries coming up this winter. I have a big one today, on the 17th. But I will remember them fondly. I have to wait until bedtime to see the Big Dipper. It’s December, you know.
Michael O’Hara served with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment, before and during the Siege of Khe Sanh.