by Ray Lenarcic
With apologies to William Butler Yeats, there is a terrible beauty about the month of May. On the one hand, it’s a time when the glories of nature abound in breathtaking colors-the pink and white of dogwood and apple blossoms, the reds of tulips and golds of daffodils, the rich green of fresh grass, and, of course, the faded purple and deep lavender of May’s most treasured gift-the lilac.
Juxtaposed against this incomparable beauty is a holiday that celebrates memories of death, often horrible, wanton, senseless death. The victims of our wars, once healthy, bright, and brave men who believed in the righteousness of their cause, are in many ways like May’s flowers-so special but doomed to so brief an existence. To conclude so glorious a time with so sad an occasion guarantees that May will always be the time of “the terrible beauty.”
This May’s beauty, like so many others over the past decade, has been rendered a little more terrible by the death of another of our special sons. Last year, it was Nick Stasilli. This year it’s Tom Mergenthaler. A two-tour of duty Vietnam combat veteran, Tom died after a long, painful illness that destroyed his body but not his soul. A compassionate, intelligent man who loved children and cooking and, for a time, made his life’s work helping the emotionally disturbed to cope, Mergie was the “God only knows what number” victim of Agent Orange. Orange-the government’s answer for dealing with the dense jungle cover which abetted the deadly sneak attacks by the Vietcong- Orange-a powerful herbicide which has the same effect on vegetation as acid rain does on a mountain lake. By now, almost everyone knows about the mist of death and dioxin and the cancers and stillbirths and deformed offspring. Few care.
Over a decade after the deaths of Orange martyrs Paul Reutershan and Ed Juteau, Jr., we remain a society callously indifferent to the unspeakable tragedies befalling thousands of dioxin-poisoned young men and their children. And we’re no closer now than we were ten years ago to guaranteeing compensation and/or adequate medical care for these victims, not to mention admitting the truth about the herbicide’s dangers to us all. Tom Mergenthaler is as much a victim of our indifference as he was of the war.
I recently read that some people were bemoaning that America has lost its respect for veterans, as witnessed by the decreasing numbers of people attending Memorial Day parades. They should be mindful that respect for veterans cannot be measured by parades and numbers of spectators but rather by the numbers of PTSD treatment centers, the number of jobs for the under-employed, the care available for homeless and drug-addicted vets, and the processing of honestly evaluated disability claims. Instead of complaining about superficial things, these critics should be demanding more nursing care facilities at VA hospitals. Tom Mergenthaler never asked for much in life-just, a chance to use his unique talents to care for and help others. That he never got the chance he should have was the fault of a system unprepared to help him deal with his war-related problems.
That old-time favorite, “April Showers,” tells us that they bring May flowers. And yet, May is really the month of showers-warm, gentle, soft showers that wash over the earth in a manner at once cleansing and revitalizing, like the tears of a grieving mother whose sadness reminds us of the price nations pay for their freedoms or their errors of judgment. The next time it rains in May, perhaps you’ll be reminded of the tears of mothers like Marie Juteau and Mary Mills ( from Mohawk whose son David was KIA in ‘Nam) and Blanche Mergenthaler, mothers whose sons paid the ultimate price-either dying in combat or from service-related illnesses. They died with dignity and courage and remain inspirations to those of us fortunate enough to have known them. Once reminded, maybe you’ll do something in their memories to improve the quality of life in your community, thereby helping to ensure that the words “liberty and justice for all” never ring hollow.
T.S. Eliot wrote in his classic poem, “The Wasteland,” that “April is the cruelest month of all.” He was mistaken. It’s May. Lilacs and daffodils and people quietly kneeling before small white crosses in cemeteries everywhere; soft, gentle rain and the sobs of mothers holding the hands of children whose fathers died long before their time in a country indifferent to their suffering. No, April isn’t the cruelest month. May, with its terrible beauty, is. Rest in peace, Tom Mergenthaler. Few men have deserved it more.
*Author’s note: While I wrote this 40 years ago, I could just as well have written it today. If you know a Vietnam combat vet, thank him for his service. And while he and his fellow heroic brothers-in-arms deserved so much more than they received, I’m sure he’ll appreciate your kind words. After all, as the lyrics in that old song say-“Little things mean a lot.” Thanks, Stash.