Author's Name: Emmett Bentley
Title: "Tim's Bench"It was an extraordinary spring day in St. Louis, Monday May 22, 2017. The sun was shining, 75 degrees and the sky was deep blue without a hint of a cloud. I had a thought that it would be a perfect day to go to the Nathan Bandstand in Forest Park and have a picnic lunch on one of the park benches that overlooked the pond and bandstand. The Nathan Bandstand has special significance for my wife and I because it was a place where we would rendezvous at lunch when we were in the process of becoming a couple almost 50 years ago. It has always had a special place in our heart and visiting there refreshes the memories of our past and our love. As young people we would rendezvous at the Nathan Bandstand and share our lunch hour with each other and feel the pull of developing love and intense passion that is so powerful to young couples in their twenties. Such powerful and sweet memories are always awakened when we visit "our spot". My wife smiled quickly agreed that it was a perfect day for a visit and all our other jobs and expectations melted away. We were going to revisit what I jokingly refer to as "the scene of the crime."
We picked up a couple of sandwiches and headed for the park. When we arrived the park was busy but we found a parking spot across the street from the bandstand and headed for a bench. As I sat down my wife, Charlene studied the plaque on the bench we had chosen and it read "In Memory of Lieutenant Timothy M. O Neill USMC Killed in Action 5-25-1969 Republic of Viet Nam." We looked at each other and could not believe the serendipity of choosing this bench. A bench that memorialized Tim O Neill. Tim had gone through grade school and high school with my wife and he was someone I had known and liked from our neighborhood. Tim and I had known each other as well when we were both students at Southwest Missouri State College in 1964.
Tim was a remarkable young man. Although short in stature he was incredibly athletic and set many track records in grammar school and high school. When he went to high school he was moved to the varsity football team in his freshman year and during his 4 years of high school lettered in each year in football, baseball and track. In his senior year he was one of the reasons the Southwest High School football team won the city championship beating St. Mary's High School in the Catholic School conference. Although he was a high school celebrity he was not at all pretentious and one would never feel judged or demeaned in any interaction with him and he was always warm, friendly and welcoming to everyone.
It hit us all, those who knew Tim, hard when we heard he had been killed in Vietnam. He had married shortly before shipping out. He had died doing his patriotic duty as it was thought of in 1969 defending the world from the spread of communism through Southeast Asia. Ambivalence about the war was gaining steam with young people at that time but recognition of the true nature of the Viet Nam war hadn't been sharpened by the lens of time and history. Most of us were still under the influence of the relative fresh experience of the the Second World War where patriotism and sacrifice for ones country was something to be revered although some saw through the fallacy in regard to Viet Nam. But no one who knew Tim would dream of trivializing his sacrifice.
I remember visiting the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, DC in 1995. I went to the book and found Tim's name and the date of his death. I traveled to the space dedicated to those who had died on that day and found his name and touched it felling great sorrow that he was killed and had missed the last 27 years of life. I wondered what life would have brought to Tim had he survived. Others like him with so many gifts have made tremendous contributions to society and have enjoyed incredible personal success and satisfaction. I could only sigh with a heavy heart when I thought of the waste for our country, his family and those who had the privilege to be his friend. As I looked left and right along the memorial wall the sense of grief I felt was suddenly magnified by the realization that if all those who had died in Viet Nam had just 10% of the gifts and potential that Tim had the country had missed the boat, missed the combined energy, experience, intelligence of thousands of victims of the war. And what of the other side? Those victims who came from Viet Nam both North and South had gifts and potential to add to their respective countries and families as well. Add to this the casualties on both side who were maimed and diminished by wounds and those saddled with the insidious burden of post traumatic stress syndrome and the cost of Viet Nam is incalculable. War is always a sad state of affairs but Viet Nam seems especially sad because it was promoted and pursued under the assumption of the domino effect which was a false assumption which never came to fruition. It was a flawed premise that cost our country and Viet Nam so much. As Robert McNamara, in his retrospective book the Fog of War concludes, we should never enter into a conflict in another country where we don't have the support of the government or the people. Somehow we just cant' seem to learn that lesson.
So as we left Tim's park bench at the Nathan's Bandstand I was saddened by the thought of what Tim had missed during the 48 years since his death. What a waste of human potential. What happened to his wife? How had those who loved him coped other than trying to keep his memory alive by putting a bench in the park? So sad, so very, very sad.
We need gifted leaders in our country. Smart people, educated people, people with the vision, foresight and empathy who will sidestep knee jerk reactions and short sited solutions who can solve with diplomacy problems that might lead to conflict or history will repeat itself. We need leaders who know history and see the traps that can lead us into dangerous and useless conflicts where innocent patriots are victims, chewed up and swallowed as the stew of history without realizing their potential and enjoying the gift of a long healthy life. We need leaders who are statesmen with the interest of the county foremost in their mind and not politicians more interested in furthering their own careers and agendas beholding to rich and powerful manipulators of public policy who buy their votes at the expense of the public good.
The only happy ending of this story is that my wife and I still had the moments of reliving our youthful romantic encounters and remembering the almost 50 years we have been a couple but neither of us escaped the sorrow of Tim's Bench and the realization that he missed the last 48 years of life.