By Tim Hayes
Tug had some free time one crisp autumn afternoon during a four-day sales conference in Washington, DC, and decided to take a walk around the National Mall.
Soon he happened upon the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the stark, striking, severe, yet unsettlingly peaceful granite “V” descending below ground level, carrying the engraved names of every American service man and woman who died in that dissonant conflict a half-century ago.
Tug – or, more formally, Thomas R. Denninger Jr. – had first-hand knowledge of the realities of Vietnam, having served in the U.S. Army infantry during the final months of fighting there in 1973. No one had to remind him of the savagery, the sleeplessness, the aimlessness, the fear, the courage, the shame and confusion and anger. Tug lost a fraction of his left foot there, along with two fellow infantrymen and the full sum of his innocence.
He had never to been to Washington before, and certainly never intended to come face-to-face with this overwhelming reminder of what he had been trying for decades to scrub from his mind’s eye. Tug, standing at the far edge of one end of the “V” still at ground level, debated with himself whether to venture down into the memorial. Deciding that he at least owed it to his two friends who died in that 3 a.m., rain-soaked ambush, Tug checked the directory, saw where their names had been engraved, closed his eyes, prayed for grace, and started walking down the ramp.
Along the descent, as intended, Tug noticed that the noise from the Mall began to fade away and he became aware only of the black granite and the thousands upon thousands of names – each one carrying his or her own story, each one some mother’s child, each one a classmate in elementary school, each one a unique human being, and each one killed in a war that had never formally been declared, and one that ended only after helping to tear the fabric of this nation in ways that have yet to heal.
It didn’t take long for Tug to find the names of his fellow grunts. He stopped and stood before each one, running his fingers along the engraving, and talked with each buddy for a moment, wiping his eyes a time or two. He had the presence of mind to pull a tablet and pen from his briefcase, and made impressions of both names to take back home to Oregon and have framed for his office.
Feeling oddly cleansed, after all the intervening years of doubt and regret, Tug started up the ramp once again, when another name pierced his peripheral vision.
THOMAS R. (TUG) DENNINGER SR.
Tug actually gasped out loud. It literally took his breath away for a second. Not that there could possibly another Thomas R. Denninger in the world, and in this particular war. But that there was another Thomas R. Denninger Senior – and with the nickname “Tug?” That stretched the limits of coincidence to breaking.
Tug’s father had passed away about five years ago, quietly and without suffering, in a hospice room with Tug and his mother at his bedside. Mom passed four years later, kneeling in her little tomato garden beside her house, issuing a quick inhalation, like she’d been surprised by a snake or something, and gently collapsing onto the fresh, dark-brown potting soil, dead from a heart attack.
Tug’s Dad had never mentioned serving in the armed forces. Certainly not in Vietnam. And he certainly didn’t die there. So who was this man, this Tug Denninger Sr. on the wall? Tug scribbled another impression on a piece of paper and left the Memorial, more upset than ever.
Home again in Paisley, near the edge of Oregon’s Fremont National Forest, one of the nicest little towns anywhere on God’s green earth – and a town where everybody truly knows your name, not like that TV bar in Boston – Tug continued to grapple with the mystery of the Memorial. He ran a solid little insurance office here, taking over from his Dad 20 years ago and growing it steadily. If there’s a person who gets to know everyone in town, it’s the insurance guy, and Tug did. Just like his Dad before him.
So it just had to be a freaky coincidence, right? Somehow, somewhere, some other guy named Thomas R. Denninger, who went by the nickname of Tug, got killed in Vietnam and had a son with the same name and nickname. Is that so hard to believe? Is that such an improbability? Happens all the time, right?
Tug stared out his office window onto the shining surface of Summer Lake. Hard as he tried to talk himself out of it, he couldn’t. This doesn’t add up. Something’s really off here. The Army made some kind of monstrous mistake, putting that name on that wall. It promised to drive Tug insane, if he didn’t get some straight answers, and soon.
He started in Salem, then the federal building in Seattle, then the VA, then his Congressman’s office, asking the same questions – How were the names selected and vetted to go onto that wall? Who was Thomas R. (Tug) Denninger Sr.? Did he serve in Vietnam? Where was he from? Does he have surviving relatives?
After months of phone calls, text messages, faxes, letters and telegrams, Tug remained frustrated and flummoxed. Maybe some questions never get answered, he began to think. They’re simply not meant to ever make sense or come into sharper focus. Some questions may not be revealed until we’re on the other side, perhaps.
Then, as sent in a message directly from the other side, the answers came.
After his Mom passed, Tug held onto the old house, so full of memories of a happy childhood and loving parents. It had been more than a year now, however, and as reluctant as he might have been, Tug thought the time had come to start cleaning the place out. Slowly.
During one such weekend, as Tug poked around the basement workshop, where his Dad had kept his tools and his Mom had incrementally taken it over with her gardening supplies after Dad died, he noticed inside a cubbyhole on the wall a creamy envelope that looked out of place amid all of this hardware.
On the front of the envelope, in Mom’s unmistakably lovely handwriting, it simply read: Dear Tug – To Be Opened After I’m Gone.
The same wave of shock and surprise Tug felt at the Vietnam Memorial months ago slammed him in exactly the same way now. What was this? Where did this come from? Why didn’t Mom let me know she’d left this for me? What if I’d never come down here again?
He considered calling his wife over to the house for moral support, but thought no, this is addressed to me. Mom wanted me to see this by myself, so that’s what I’ll do. But good lord, Mother!
Tug methodically pulled off his canvas work gloves, flipped on the fluorescent light over the workbench, pulled up a frayed old vinyl-seated kitchen chair, sat down, took a deep breath, closed his eyes, prayed for grace, and opened the envelope. This is what he read:
I don’t know how soon after my passing you will have discovered this letter, but I hope your memories of me haven’t faded too much by now. Please know that I am with you and your family always, in the glimmering of the water on Summer Lake, the call of the birds over in Fremont, the wave of love and gratitude that washes over you when you’re with your beloved Cathy, and the sparkle in little T.R.’s eyes. Love is everything, my darling. It’s the only thing. That’s why I believed it was so important to write this letter. It explains the love that always surrounded you, even when you didn’t realize it.
Let me start at the beginning. As you know, I attended the University of Chicago, which is where I met your Dad, Thomas R. Denninger. Thomas – or Tug, of course – had a wild streak to him. For a wallflowery, bookish girl from little old Paisley, Oregon, it felt like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel every time we were together. Shortly after graduation, Tug and I married and not long afterward, in December 1955, you came along. Your Dad loved you like the blazes, Kiddo. His little cowboy, he’d call you, tossing you up in the air and whooping it up. You would squeal with delight and it lit up your Dad’s face like nothing else. So much love.
Tug’s wild side got the better of him occasionally, though, and after being drafted into the Army he volunteered for a special assignment in Vietnam in 1956, before the U.S. really got heavily involved. We got the word three months later that Tug had been killed in action. So there we were, me and you, alone in the world in the middle of Chicago in a tiny apartment that I couldn’t begin to afford.
But here’s the part about the love surrounding you that you never realized, my darling. At the same time in college that I met your Dad, I also met his identical twin, Timothy R. Denninger. The two fellows were so much fun, inseparable and incorrigible. But so very different. Tug stole my heart. Tim stole my soul. Tug and I lived a brief, wonderful marriage that swirled with energy like kindling in a hurricane. But Tim and I had a long, sweet marriage – one that began before your second birthday, in a Justice of the Peace’s office in Chicago, so you never knew it – full of respect, tenderness, and again, so much love.
Since Tim and Thomas were identical twins, when Tim and I moved back to Paisley, no one knew the whole story. They never realized I had become a war widow. They never realized that the man everyone here called “Tug” was not your natural father. That’s why he went by the formal name of “T.R. Denninger,” not “Thomas,” but did adopt his brother’s nickname of Tug.
I can only imagine what you must be thinking of me now. But please consider, my darling, the gift we gave you all those years. A home where you were absolutely treasured by two fathers. A home where all of your parents, both versions, genuinely loved each other fully and gratefully. I’m sorry if it all rested on a deception, but please understand that our decision had been made solely and completely with your future happiness in mind, first and foremost.
The biggest thing that never could be seen as deceptive was, as I’ve mentioned earlier in this letter, the love that has surrounded you from so many sources, undiminished, unending, unbroken, for your entire life – even at this moment, whenever it may be.
Tug, I will leave it to you whether to share this secret with Cathy, or T.R., or anyone else in your life. It doesn’t matter to Thomas or Timothy or me any longer, obviously. You’ve always had a clear head, a big heart, and a gentle soul. Whatever you decide to do with this information will be the right decision.
In the meantime, look for me in the stardust. Listen for me in the morning music. Feel my love touching you in the autumn leaves as they fall. We’re all connected, my darling. Love is everything. And it will bring all of us together again someday.
Tug and his son, T.R., have made a pilgrimage every year to the black granite wall ever since.
Copyright 2016 Timothy P. Hayes