“Remember Me?”

By

Tina Nelson

 

I THOUGHT IT WAS ALL OVER.

I THOUGHT THAT I COULD COME HOME…

I WAS WRONG.  DEAD WRONG.

Prologue.

Fall in Minnesota.  Summer was gone…finally.  I hate summer.  I always have.  Too much sun.  Too hot.  Too many bugs.  And now…unfortunately…too old to wear really  cute sun tops…sigh..

November on the other hand, is the perfect month.  The sun hardly ever shines and when it does, it’s weak and getting weaker…almost dying…I’m okay with that.

The wind is chilly but not piercing…not yet anyway.  November here is just like November in Winnipeg, Canada.  I love Canada.

I lived in Canada for many years…beginning in 1969…yes…that date is correct…and whatever you want to wonder about that…go right ahead.

It makes no difference to me.  I am way beyond that.  But here is something you don’t need to wonder about…because it is true.

The Vietnam war was a horrible and tragic  mistake.

And…more than 58,000 young boys and men lost their lives because of that mistake…and one of them was my very best forever friend,  Johnny Taylor.

I met Johnny at an outrageous Halloween party in 8th grade.

From that night on, he was my only true friend in so many ways and later became my forever friend and then…my ever so sweet and delightful lover.

Johnny didn’t die in Vietnam…oh, he was there all right.  He was definitely there…for 365 long, brutal, killing days and nights.  He was there for every single one of them.

And then…he came back home…to die of a heroin overdose…in my arms…in the back of a speeding ambulance with me screaming into his beautiful, unseeing brown eyes.

“YOU CAN’T DIE!!  YOU CAN’T LEAVE ME!!  YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD NEVER LEAVE ME AGAIN!  YOU PROMISED!!!”

It was 1967.  He was 19.  I was 18.

Fucking Amen…

 

 

Chapter 3

The party was a HUGE success!  There must have been 25-30 kids there…some even Karla didn’t know…but the word got out and kids…out “trick or treating”… just knocked politely on the door and sweet mom, Liz let them in with a welcoming smile…and sent them down the basement.

(Karla’s party was probably the first prototype of the fantastic open house parties to come as we got older.  Those parties dotted the streets of our sprawling suburb every Friday and Saturday night in the late fifties and early sixties.

All you needed then was a car and maybe an address…or sometimes you could just drive up and down the streets looking for lots of cars parked in front of a house…with the lights blazing…a dead giveaway.

You just waked in, smiled nicely to the parent…who was usually sitting in the kitchen looking a little shell-shocked…and went wherever her hand pointed…usually to the basement.

Karla’s party had only walk-ins…no cars yet…and we all drank the pop, ate the sloppy Joes, did the little “scavenger hunt” Karla’s mom had organized and then about 9:00 Karla put red bulbs in the light sockets…and a ‘DO NOT DISTURB–THIS MEANS YOU MOM’ sign on the basement door.  It was time to have a real party!!!

The plan was to start slow…this was, after all…the first time most of us had been at a party like this…but Karla and I had done a lot of reading…

Spin the Bottle was first and everyone got into a large circle and got very quiet.  There was a lot of nervous laughter…from everyone…including me.

Truth or Dare would be last.  I had played ‘Truth’ once before…at a slumber party last summer with a group of girls…four of the girls went home crying.  It was pretty intense.

Karla, as hostess and most fearless of us all, went first and the bottle stopped in front of Ronald Simmons…the most quiet and shyest boy in our school…and Karla’s next door neighbor.

Everyone gasped out loud!  Why was he here?  Who invited him?  He never even talked to anyone…I wasn’t sure he could talk…I had never heard him.

“Ronny!!  I didn’t know you were coming tonight.” said Karla in a very friendly, non-threatening voice.

“I was #7 on your mom’s Scavenger Hunt list.” he said as he  pointed to Brian Carlson, one of our gang…who was looking slightly embarrassed…making eye contact with no one.

“Very funny, Brian.” said Karla with a disapproving tone to her voice.

To Ronny she said, “Well, good to…see you, Ronny…”  And then she gave him a big smile…and went to re-spin the bottle…but wait…

No one let Karla get away with that move…she and Ronny had to go into the storage area for a kiss…rules were rules.

They came out 30 seconds later…both of them with blazing red cheeks!

Later, Karla told me he refused to kiss her so she just grabbed him by his shoulders and kissed him anyway.

“I think he kind of screamed, Riley, honest.” she said.

(Side Note:  Ronny Simmons became a many times decorated homicide detective for the Minneapolis Police Department…after working Vice for ten years…he never married.)

The game continued and very quickly most everyone had their turns at Spin the Bottle and were laughing and having a good time.  Everyone was anxious to move up to something more daring.  I know I was…I hadn’t gotten ‘chosen by the bottle’.

It was time for Seven Minutes in Heaven…where two people spent seven minutes in a darkened room doing whatever they wanted.

John Taylor, a really good-looking new boy who had just last week moved to Bloomington from St. Paul, Mn., had been smiling at me a lot and I had been smiling back.  We hadn’t yet talked…only said “hi”.

He looked older and “exciting”.  Maybe it was his all black Zorro costume…but what did I know…I was only 13.

It turned out John had missed a year of school because of an auto accident and had to repeat second grade…so he was older.  He was…14.

When it was his time to spin …he reached out and stopped the bottle before it could go past me and looked right at me with a devilish grin.

I never went into the other room with anyone else all night…John’s turn always stopped at me …and he encouraged the spinning bottle to pass by me when the other boys had their turn…pretty heady stuff for an 8th grade girl like me.

John Taylor had an agenda that Halloween night and I was at the top of it…me and my Hawaiian Dancing Girl costume.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4

I will definitely explain my authentic (read very skimpy) Hawaiian Dancing Girl costume…a tin of dark brown body powder included with the rental price…but first…

…my life in a nutshell before this party.

My mom and dad didn’t always read the set of instructions that came with living in this world…which…if you don’t have children is workable…but they had me…

I was the first girl to wear lipstick, albeit pale, pale pink lipstick in 6th grade.  My dad brought it home because he thought I would like it.  I did.

This was scandalous in 1958.  But mom and dad thought it was cool.  And so did I.

I later wore it to my Wednesday confirmation class at some really strict (no-name) evangelical church (let’s not say cult, here).

A friend of a friend of my dad’s had recommended this church to him…one dark and story night in a neighborhood bar.

Someone had to have been very drunk at the time for this to have ever been thought to be a good idea.  Again.  Let’s not use the word cult.

I got banned and sent home on my red Schwinn bike because I was wearing lipstick.

I was allowed back to class after a very curt call from my mother who had just shelled out a ton of money for my expensive white confirmation dress with matching shoes.  She had also just prepaid for a confirmation group photo in an oak frame.  My mom was fierce when she was upset…

So…I was allowed to return to the fold…whatever…

But then I brought a nice Catholic boy to a confirmation class hay ride three weeks later and was then permanently banned from class…we were, however, allowed to finish the hayride.

However, the group picture had already been taken and paid for so it looked like I had actually been confirmed even though I had not.

“Screw it,” my dad said.  “We got the picture!”  And it hung ever so proudly in their living room for years.

My mom said she thought she was Jewish anyway…and so that was the end of my formal religious education.

I started using black eye liner in 7th grade but no one cared…

Now…about that costume…a friend of my dad’s…

Chapter 14

After Johnny died, I registered for Fall classes at the University of Minnesota because I knew I should.

I moved back home…partly to save on expenses…but mostly to absorb the healing magic that only parents can give you when you’re hurting…I needed a lot of magic right now.

I had packed up all of Johnny’s clothes and had given them all to the Salvation Army because I knew Johnny would like that…except for one blue plaid flannel shirt that I think I wore more than he did…it was ‘our shirt’…it still smelled of Old Spice…Johnny’s favorite after-shave cologne.

I had called Johnny’s mom and asked her if she wanted any of Johnny’s clothes or if she thought Alec would want anything.

“No, Riley.  The Salvation Army is a good place for them.  Alec is having a really hard time dealing with John’s death…he blames his father.”

“He says when he has to register for the draft in two years, he’s going to Canada instead…”

I didn’t know what to say…I wasn’t sure if Johnny had told anyone of my idea for us to go to Canada.  But then she continued…

“John told Alec that he wanted to go to Canada with you…and would have…if it hadn’t been for their father being so against it.”

“I wish he had gone, Riley.  I wish the two of you had just packed up and gone to Canada.”

More tears than I thought possible were falling down my cheeks and stopped me from saying anything more than a choked good bye.

 

Chapter 15

I hadn’t gone to Johnny’s funeral.  His father had planned a huge memorial for his first-born son…full of praise for the bravery John had shown in proudly fighting for his country.

If I had gone to Johnny’s funeral, this is what I would have said to his father.

“He OD’d on heroin, Mr. Taylor.”

“Maybe you’d like to read all the letters Johnny sent me.  They rip my heart to shreds every time I read them.”

“I don’t want to read them…but it’s all I have of him now.”

“He was so full of pain and horror at having…even accidentally…killed innocent women and children…he couldn’t sleep…not without drugs…and sometimes not even with drugs.”

“His heart was broken after watching so many of his friends blown to pieces right before his eyes or bleed to death in his arms…crying like little kids…so scared…because they didn’t want to die but knew they were going to.”

“He was haunted by the blood that poured from the bodies of all the Vietcong soldiers he had killed…some who looked younger than Alec.”

“He wasn’t a brave hero, Mr. Taylor…he was just trying to survive…just like all the other boys around him.”

“They were all just trying to survive and come home…just come home.”

That’s what I would have said to his father if I had been at Johnny’s funeral.

And…that’s why I stayed away.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 16

A few days after Johnny’s funeral, I marched with about 5,000 other protesters down Summit Avenue from Macalester College to the St. Paul capitol.  There were a lot of speakers that day on the capitol steps and they were all very angry.

President Johnson had just announced a new troop deployment to Viet Nam.

He had earlier ‘leaked’ to the media of a withdrawal of troops, something he often did to appease the war protesters…but the ‘withdrawal’ was just another wretched lie that would send more heart broken families and friends to grave sites over the next days, weeks, months and even years.

As frustration with the war increased, protesters were becoming more militant.  But they were passionately against the war…and that was all that mattered to me.

I was hurting and I needed to do something.

I needed to do more to help end this horror…to stop more young men from coming home in black body bags.

Johnny was gone…he would never hold me in his arms again…never!  I could not get past my sadness…I missed him so much.

I wanted everyone to know the anguish and pain that this stupid war was bringing to thousands of people like me.

I wanted everyone to know and to care and to do something…

I wanted the pain to go away…

I wanted Johnny back.

Chapter 17

One year had gone by…but I was still angry and frustrated.  The war in Viet Nam was escalating and more and more young men were coming home dead…or like Johnny…drug addicts.

It was just after the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August, 1968 that I met Tommy Clark.

He was currently working toward a law degree on scholarship at the University of Minnesota.

As a student at Berkeley in California, he had been quite active in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), organizing many anti-war rallies.

He had just returned from Chicago and still had bruises from his clash with the police at the convention.

He didn’t try to hide them.  He seemed to be proud of them as he was wearing only a raggedy, sleeveless tee shirt on a chilly Minnesota night.

He and a couple of other students were speaking to a very large group of anti-war protesters who had gathered in front of Coffman Union on the University of Minnesota campus.

Protests and rallies and marches were getting larger and becoming more organized…but still in America…in was pretty much business as usual.

President Johnson was still spewing lies to try to keep protesters happy…what did he care?  He wasn’t even seeking a second term.

Civil disobedience was becoming the new catch phrase at protest rallies.

Tommy was calling out for ideas that might grab the attention of the press…noting that there was NO press at this rally.

I was at the front of the group and I called out a suggestion to have protesters chain themselves to the water tower on Snelling Avenue and Ford Parkway…a heavily trafficked area of St. Paul.

Everyone cheered and I looked up at Tommy Clark who was also cheering and clapping.

“And a hunger strike!” I shouted out.

“This country may have become numb to seeing young boys bleeding to death ‘in living color’ on their TV screens…but no one wants to see young college kids starving to death on Snelling Avenue in Minnesota.”

More cheering…