Of all the many war memorials in Washington, none is more affecting than the Vietnam Wall. Instead of gazing upward, you advance downward, deeper and deeper, mirroring the American misadventure in Indochina. The black granite walls grow taller, the names of the fallen more numerous, name after name, line upon line.
The dead didn’t die in alphabetical order, so in order to find the name you’re looking for, you must first consult a nearby directory. Armed with the proper coordinates, you go lucking. First, you locate the panel, then scroll down the lines until—bingo! You find the one you’re looking for, and it’s like a dagger through the heart.
I hadn’t expected to be so moved. After all, Clive was just a classmate and a fellow member of Boy Scout troop 281. Our troop was sponsored by the Price Fifth Ward, Carbon Stake, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormons.
Clive was also a member of Our Gang, a group of clean-cut, righteous young men who were much admired by the mothers of young women in our ward. Because we were thought to be harmless, they trusted their daughters to our care and encouraged them to accept whenever one of us called to ask for a date. By the time we were sixteen, all of us had already been assigned a steady girlfriend.
All of us, that is, except Clive.
Clive was the runt of our litter, with a prepubescent physique and mouselike mannerisms. In those days he went by the name Garth Johnson. Behind his back, and sometimes to his face, we called him “Pip Squeak.” I don’t recall him dating in high school; in fact, I don’t recall ever seeing him in the company of a girl. On group dates, he tagged along on as a “third wheel.” If he couldn’t capture anyone’s heart, he’d try capturing our attention by eating raw hamburger and paper napkins.
He was also a fixture on church outings, including the annual “priesthood pilgrimage” into the High Uinta wilderness—a reward offered to those of us who had logged an 85 percent or better attendance record at church meetings. Weekday afternoons he could be found laboring at his stepfather’s tire recapping business on south Carbon Avenue—a position I inherited after he was called at the age of nineteen to serve a Mormon mission.
Garth was the first of our group to be called, and we all dutifully trekked to Salt Lake to see him off. Two years later he returned, older now but appearancewise, pretty much the same. Girls continued to ignore him, no matter that he now carried the coveted “returned missionary” credentials.
Soon he could be seen racing around town astride a Honda Superhawk motorcycle, never with a girlfriend on the pillion seat. So he bought himself a black 1957 Ford, complete with dual pipes and tucked and rolled naughahyde interior. Up and down Main Street he went, looking tiny and helpless and very much alone behind the steering wheel.
By now the Vietnam War was heating up. It was a war that would affect all of our lives in one way or another, and to varying degrees. If you wanted to stay out of it, you needed to secure a deferment from the draft board, which most Mormon boys did by serving two-year missions, then enrolling in college and getting married as soon as possible. To graduate from college without a spouse and preferably a child meant automatic reclassification as 1-A—which is exactly what happened to Garth.
I, meantime, had demonstrated to the satisfaction of an Army psychiatrist that I was mentally unfit for service. So it came to pass that I remained an underemployed civilian, and was mowing my parents’ lawn the day Garth pulled up in his black ’57 Ford. His arm hair was still soft and golden, but I noticed he had grown a faint moustache. On his fuzzy forearms was an elaborate aviator’s wristwatch. He informed me he had enlisted in the United States Air Force, where he had attained the rank of First Lieutenant. And he had changed his name to Clive Jeffs.
To my utter astonishment, I learned Pipsqueak had become a jet pilot. Somewhere in America’s arsenal there was an F-100D Super Sabre with his new name on it, and the two of them would soon be off to Vietnam for active duty. He even had a girlfriend—a fiancée, in fact!
Not long afterward, on March 12, 1971, First Lt. Jeffs punched out of his disabled jet over South Vietnam near the border of Khanh Hoa and Tuyen Duc Provinces and hasn’t been seen nor heard from since. At the time, I was honeymooning in sunny Acapulco with Annie. Our life together was just beginning, on the day my boyhood chum’s was coming to an abrupt and horrific end.
Today his name lives on in the form of a well-worn M.I.A. bracelet stashed in a drawer somewhere, and of course on the Vietnam Wall. Behind each name on the wall is a story of a life cut short, and we rightfully honor them for their bravery and sacrifice. But for the life of me, I can’t imagine what good has come from having sent so many perfectly healthy young people off to kill and die, for reasons that remain hazy to this day.