I grew up in a small community in central California. The two major industries (if you can call them that) were farming and the Navy. It might seem odd to people that there would be a Navy base far from the water, but the San Joaquin Valley provided the Navy with clear skies for the pilots to get lots of air time and practice. In my small neighborhood most of my friends had fathers who were Navy pilots.
As a young boy, I remember listening to a conversation between my father and a next door neighbor who had just returned from a tour in Vietnam. The neighbor described what was happening over there as “hell,” an image that was very vivid in my mind as a child growing up in the church. Even though the war in Vietnam was thousands of miles away, it was a very real part of my community, so much so that I had friends who had fathers who were POWs and MIAs. These men loved flying, but they also loved their country in a time when service to their country was not too popular.
I also remember talking to one of my friends about his father, who was a pilot, who had been awarded a medal for bombing a building. My friend said to me, “I guess my dad has killed people.” My friend seemed to have trouble with the dual images of father and soldier.
The life of a Navy family didn’t change much after Vietnam, because the fathers were often gone on long cruises around the world. These cruises could last as long as 6 months and were very difficult for my friends who were without a father during that time. It is an incredible sacrifice for a family to make and it is one that continues today.
One of the most memorable people that grew up on my block was another kid: Vincent “Otis” Tolbert was a few years older than me and his father was also a Navy pilot. Otis was a large kid and grew into an even larger man. When he was a senior in high school, I was a freshman. He was the star fullback on the football team, and tossed the discus for the track team. He eventually went to Fresno State on a football scholarship.
One day Otis dropped by my house to talk to my older sister, she wasn’t home. Otis saw that I had a Risk game out and asked if I wanted to play. We played for a few hours, they were memorable hours for me, because Otis was all of those things I longed to be: popular, athletic, and intelligent. For him to sit down and play a game with me, meant so much. It was as if a personal hero had dropped by my house just to spend time with me.
I followed his career at Fresno State until I moved away and lost touch with where he was and what he was doing.
I know now that Otis was serving his country in the Navy, like his father. He served in Desert Storm and then took a job serving his country at the Pentagon. On September 11th, Otis was at work when a high jacked airplane slammed into his office killing him.
I found out Otis had been killed when I read a list of 9/11 victims, at first it was hard to believe that someone as strong and athletic as Otis had died. He was one of those people I assumed would live on beyond me because of his vitality and strength, but he didn’t.
I am not a flag waving American, but I do believe in the ideals that the United States represents. Otis also believed in the ideals of our country, so much so that he was willing to serve his country as a soldier. His sacrifice is what Memorial Day is all about. It is about him and the thousands like him who have died in the line of duty. With Otis, Memorial Day has become more personal for me. I will think of him this weekend, I will think of his family, I will think of the other families I grew up with who had fathers serving in the Navy and I will thank them for what they have done for all of us who practice our freedoms daily. I will also hope for the day when people like Otis Tolbert will not have to give their lives for freedom. I will hope for world peace and I will hope for a day where we celebrate an end to all war.