1. Life & Culture

He saw his name on the Vietnam War wall and went on a quest

It led to a reflection on who lives and who dies.
A visitor at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington passes early in the morning in 2013. Roy Peter Clark discovered his own name on the wall during a visit.
A visitor at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington passes early in the morning in 2013. Roy Peter Clark discovered his own name on the wall during a visit. [ J. DAVID AKE | AP ]
Published Oct. 29, 2020

Pandemics lead us all to contemplation of life and death. Why you and not me? More than ever, life poses as a distorted lottery, one that if you “win” you lose. Like war.

Almost every day I see two men enjoying coffee and conversation at an open-air cafe in St. Pete. They wear their masks and their favorite hats. One hat says ARMY; the other VIETNAM VET. One day, I thanked them for their service. On two other occasions, I snapped a salute.

They remind me of a story I wrote 25 years ago — but never published. It is a story about who goes off to war, and who gets to stay home. A story about those willing to sacrifice in the national interest, and those who assert their freedom as a way to opt out. Back in 1969, the choices were not about wearing masks in a pandemic. They were about carrying a rifle and fighting in a jungle.

I am telling that story now.

Back in 1994, I got to know a woman named Mary Clark Bird, who lived in the woods in Hurricane, West Virginia, in a brick house with white siding, a place where fawns emerge to feed off the apple trees. In this beautiful, pastoral setting she raised her son Roy Bird, then a strapping 18-year-old named after his late uncle, Roy Edward Clark.

“They both loved sports,” said Mary in a phone conversation, “and they both have this slow way about them. When young Roy walks away, people say they see my brother.”

Roy Bird never got to know his uncle, who a half-century ago was killed in action in Vietnam. I found his name — which is also my name — among the war dead of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. There it is on black marble panel 47 W, line 93 from the top: Roy E. Clark.

The famous June 1969 Life magazine featured Roy E. Clark as one of 242 dead Americans in Vietnam in one week.
The famous June 1969 Life magazine featured Roy E. Clark as one of 242 dead Americans in Vietnam in one week. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark ]

He died in Vietnam in 1969 — the spring before my senior year in college — at the age of 23. The Vietnam Memorial directory lists him among the 184 Clarks to die in Vietnam. It says he was an Army corporal from Culloden, West Virginia. Finding his name back in 1994 made me contemplate why it was his name on that wall and not mine. How I won the lottery that he lost.

When the blessing becomes a curse

Let me bring you back to 1948, not because a woman named Shirley brought me into the world that year, but because another woman named Shirley — Shirley Jackson — birthed a significant literary event: the creation of one of America’s most celebrated and notorious short stories, The Lottery.

The story appeared in The New Yorker magazine in June of 1948 and created a blizzard of negative mail, the most in the history of the magazine. Many who wrote to protest the story thought it must be true or based on an actual fertility ritual. Others, who recognized it as fiction, complained about its gloomy vision of the world.

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I hope you remember the story, maybe from a high school literature class. It is set in a small rural town that each summer conducts a lottery. If the lottery goes well, a good crop will follow. The 200 or so families gather in the town square and draw pieces of paper out of an old black box. What Shirley Jackson leaves for the end of the story, with exquisite suspense, is the nature of the “prize” for the winner of the lottery – in this case a Mrs. Hutchinson.

Here is the ending:

“Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones. The pile of stones the boys had made earlier was ready…. Mrs. Delacroix selected a stone so large she had to pick it up with both hands and turned to Mrs. Dunbar, ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Hurry up.’…Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. ‘It isn’t fair,’ she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head….'It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,' Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.”

Spared by luck

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” I must have thought on the evening of December 1, 1969, the evening of the nation’s first lottery for the military draft since World War II.

I sat nervously in front of a black and white television set. My three roommates and I lived off campus that year, on the ground floor of a two-story house in Providence, Rhode Island. “Induction by Chance” read a New York Times headline. “Men Between 19 and 26 to Be Chosen or Spared by Luck of Their Birthday.”

The Times described the process: “On a table at the front of the room will sit a cylindrical glass bowl – looking something like a water-cooler – containing 366 capsules. In each capsule will be a piece of sticky paper with a date written on it.” This was the pre-digital age, remember. “As the capsules are drawn, the dates will be removed and posted on a board in the order in which they are picked next to a series of numbers ranging from 1 to 366. Potential draftees will be chosen, starting in January, in the order in which their birthdays were drawn.”

My roommates Fred and Bobby had their birthdates picked early. Tucker and I wound up with high numbers. We were unlikely to be drafted.

Bobby decided to enlist in the Army in an intelligence division that would have him based in Europe. But during basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, he contracted spinal meningitis and almost died.

Fred went to Vietnam as part of the team that would prepare for America’s final withdrawal from the long and agonizing conflict. He met his wife, Bich, there and would adopt a Vietnamese son. In the years after the war, he would become a kind of patriarch of a large Vietnamese-American family, as his wife managed to help her relatives find their way to the United States.

In a way, I was the luckiest. At #268, I gladly avoided military service, went to graduate school, married, and began raising a family that might not now exist if I had drawn a lower number. There I was on the North Shore of Long Island, studying heroic epics in graduate school as more than 50,000 of my fellow Americans fought and died. One of them had my name.

The boy from West Virginia

If his fate had been different, Roy E. Clark, born on March 22, 1946, would have drawn #265. He, too, could have avoided military service. But that would not have been in his nature.

The famous June 1969 Life magazine featured Roy E. Clark as one of 242 dead Americans in Vietnam in one week.
The famous June 1969 Life magazine featured Roy E. Clark as one of 242 dead Americans in Vietnam in one week. [ Courtesy of Roy Peter Clark and Life ]

Here’s what I learned about him from his military record:

He was a member of Company C, Fifth Battalion, 46th Infantry, 198 Light Infantry Brigade, part of the Americal Division.

He was Private First Class, promoted posthumously to the rank of corporal.

His ID# was 67001311.

He died on May 24, 1969.

Death occurred in Quang Ngai province (an area that contains the village of My Lai).

While on a “search and clear Mission, he came under hostile mortar attack and received wounds from which he died.”

He was 180 pounds, 72 inches in height, with brown hair and brown eyes.

U.S. Army General Kenneth C. Wickham sent this latter to his mother Mazy Ann Clark: “I have the honor to inform you that your son has been awarded posthumously the Bronze Star Medal for Heroism, the Purple Heart, and the Good Conduct Medal.”

Here’s what his sister Mary told me about him:

He always talked about going into the restaurant business with his mother.

He liked to play football and basketball, to hunt and fish.

His mother hated to see him go off to war, but he said it was his duty as an American, to fight for his country.

He wrote often from Vietnam, and at the top of every letter he numbered the days he had left in his tour of duty.

“He was a good Christian boy,” said Mary, “He was saved, and tried to win others to the Lord, too.”

His death hit everyone hard, especially his mother, who could never bring herself to talk about it.

“It still comes back some times,” said Mary over the phone, her voice breaking in tears. “It was real hard on her, you know, cause she was real close to him, and he just kind of looked out for her.”

On June 27, 1969, Roy E. Clark’s photo appeared in a famous issue of Life magazine, one of 242 names and photos of those who had died in a single week in Vietnam.

Their names were not drawn out of a black box. They were not losers. Roy E. Clark chose to be there. But life’s lottery, or God’s will, determined that his name, not mine, be carved on a black marble so shiny that when we reach out to touch it, we see our own image reflected.