A Portrait of War
Added: Mon. Sep 20, 2010 1:02pm
Posted in: Other
There isn’t a day that goes by where the thundering echoes of war escape us. Today, we live in a world filled with radical extremists, defiantly justified to maim and kill in the name of their god. The following story is my hideous wake-up call. It came at a time when wars were fought over more mundane causes - patriotism, democracy, communism, bigotry and territorial rights. This was back when building a bigger, better bomb was all the rage and nations proudly strutted their hardware in order to intimidate their neighbors and enemies. Today, they just blow themselves up.
On a distant morning of 1967, one of my classmates was quietly asked to get up from his desk and follow the administrator out of the room. I remember that day and wondering why. Did he do something wrong? It didn’t take very long before the school principal came on the P.A. system to announce that his uncle, Van Dyke Manners, was killed in action in Vietnam. He was one of the first from Hunterdon County, New Jersey to die in the line of duty. I didn’t know him personally, but I remember it well because it was a solemn day. My friend had lost a loved one. Greg did not come back to class that week. To a 14-year-old, those echoes of war were a distant sound that lightly flickered in our young ears. We never thought of death then. We were invincible, but with each passing day, the rumble grew louder and louder, and reality hit us fast and hard. The Vietnam War was in full boom.
Back then, what was going on in our own back yards seemed more important than anything else, but the Vietnam war was lurking out there. Despite our youthful dreams and aspirations, the war never escaped us. We saw it on our black & white televisions. We heard it on our AM radios. It made headlines in the daily newspapers. Everywhere we went, the specter loomed large and it cut deeply into our national innocence.
Early in 1968, a girl who lived up the street from me asked if I would be interested in creating a portrait of her boyfriend. Back in those days, a small town was just that. Windows were left open because air conditioning was a luxury. Doors were left unlocked, and neighbors knew all the gossip. I was known as the left-handed artistic kid. Ask Dave. He knows how to draw.
She was a little older than me, and her boyfriend had enlisted in the Army. She offered to pay me and I accepted. I asked her to round up whatever photographs she could so I had something to work with. I asked her if I could meet him. To an artist, it’s good to know something about a subject that photographs can’t tell you. Because of that request, I got to know Mike Baldwin. At 21, he was a man. At 15, I was not. He was old and mature. I was still a kid. He shaved, I didn’t. With a war going on, I was in no hurry to buy my first razor.
His girlfriend asked me to draw the portrait as big as I could. When I went to the store to buy materials, my old “Be Prepared” Boy Scout lessons taught me to have a back-up plan, so I purchased two poster boards, just in case I messed up. I couldn’t just go to the store back then when I was too young to drive. Well, I didn’t mess up, so I had a blank sheet and decided to do another picture, identical to the first. Buy one, get one free. I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I’m glad I did. Maybe I thought if the relationship didn’t work out years later, at least he would have one to share with his family. That must have been the reason. Maybe the death of Van Dyke put apprehension in my heart. You know, one for his mother, just in case.
When I finished my work, I made a date to deliver the pictures. My neighbor had invited Mike and his mother to “attend” the presentation. Everyone was very pleased with my art, especially his mother, who was honored to have her son’s portrait captured by a local artist.
Soon afterward, he left for Vietnam. He went because he believed in a cause. He believed in America and freedom. In school, we were taught about the Domino Effect. Red China didn’t exist on any of our maps and globes. It was just a grayed out mass of nonexistent land. Call it Peking duck and cover. Today, Domino’s delivers. Back then, it was a theory that if any country fell under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow. North Vietnam was one of those countries. South Vietnam was not. Today, it is one country, but back then, 58,000 red-blooded Americans gave up their lives. Michael Baldwin was one of them.
42 years ago, he became a statistic. His body was zipped up in a bag and shipped home. That was the day I awoke to the tragedy of war. It was my first real experience with the horrors of conflict and someone I knew was dead because of it. My older brother enlisted that same September, but he came home alive.
One of the things I learned, and it’s very important, was that Michael Baldwin put his country before his life. We lost so many and what did we gain? I know I gained a whole lot of respect for our fellow citizens who march off to fight. He was a man and I was a boy back then, but I still look up to him and I am now 37 years older than he was on the day he died. To this day, I’ve wondered what if he had lived. Would he have married my neighbor or someone else? Would he be bouncing his grandchildren on his knee today? Would he be happy?
Perhaps, it’s time for me to stop wondering. Instead, he could be mourning the loss of his children and grandchildren in our present day wars. The more war changes, the more it remains the same. Death is still death and the loss of loved ones over religion and politics is still a senseless thing.
Michael Baldwin would be 63-years-old now. I will remember him as a true American hero; a very proud young man. As for the identical pictures I drew, they are more than likely lost and gone but not forgotten. In my mind, the memory of them will forever remain a haunting portrait of war.
Sgt. Michael Richard Baldwin (7/19/1947 - 9/12/1968) KIA - Binh Long Province, South Vietnam, ambushed while on reconnaissance 5 kilometers Northeast of Loc Ninh, along with:
Ssgt. Phillip Kenneth Baker - Detroit, MI
Pfc. Eugene Russell Boyce - Spartanburg, SC
Sp4. Wayne Daniel Jenkins - Bryson City, NC
Pfc. Kenneth Leroy Martin - Los Angeles, CA
Pfc. Marion Luther Oxner - Leesville, SC
Pfc. Dale Arden Palm - Toledo, OH
Pfc. Kurt Francis Ponath - Cudahy, WI
Sp4. J C Williams Jr. - Muncie, IN
Pfc. William Wittman - Binghamton, NY
September 12, 1968, was a long and sad day for Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division.
Pfc. Van Dyke William Manners (11/10/1945 - 2/15/1967) KIA - Kontum Province, South Vietnam
To all our brethren lost in wars, rest in peace. Your deaths will never be in vain.
I first published a different version of this story in 2006. Michael Baldwin’s cousin searched his name on Google and found my blog about a year later. She wrote me and said, “I just found your website and read your article about Mike. I just wanted to say thank you… It touched me and helped me remember my cousin very fondly. He was a good guy and the last of the Baldwin men in our family. He is remembered fondly by many of my friends who still [live] in Flemington, as well as my family.
“I also wanted to let you know that Aunt Peg didn’t handle Mike’s death very well. She couldn’t even bring herself to go to the funeral. I do remember that both she and my Uncle Alvin (Mike’s Dad) did attend the memorial at Ft. Dix after his death. That was really all she could handle. She always said she preferred to remember people while they were alive. I can’t say that I blame her. I didn’t understand it in 1968, but I get it now.
“Mike left a large impact on me. The memorial service was really something and I can still remember the 21 gun salute at his funeral in the cemetery in Flemington.”
Mike’s mother passed away in 1993. His sister contacted me right after her cousin got in touch with her. Here is what she told me:
“My cousin called me and told me about your blog. She had seen Michael’s name in it and read the story. I read it too and also your reply to her. I am Mike’s youngest sister. You made me cry—but it was a good cry.
“My family and I are so pleased that we are not the only one’s who remember Mike. Looking through your blog and your e-mail to Mary, I found it so interesting that there are so many things we are connected through.
“I go to church at Kirkpatrick Memorial Presbyterian church in Ringoes. Van Dyke’s mother went there before she died a couple of years ago and there is a stained glass window dedicated to him.
“My father worked for the Forans in the foundry they owned in Flemington. My father was friends with Walt Foran. [My friend Frank’s father.]
“When I read your blog, I could feel that you knew Mike well. He was a great kid and we loved him. You talk about my mother—you may not know it but I had a brother who was older than Mike—his name was Alvin—we called him Skip. He died in a car accident on Sept. 13, 1958. No, I didn’t confuse the dates, it was one day short of 10 years later that Mike was killed. It was a blow that my parents never recovered from.
“I am so glad that you wrote about Mike, it makes me feel that we are not the only ones who remember. Thank you again for keeping his memory alive.
Please see: NJ Vietnam War Memorial - Michael Baldwin
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