In my jewelry box lies a band of silver metal, its presence squeezing my heart. As soon as it was mine, I wanted to give it back. Returning it meant someone had returned home safely.
But it’s still mine.
A civilian kid living outside Shaw AFB, wearing a bracelet was my service during the Vietnam War. In awe of the boy chosen to sell them, my 12 year old heart swelled with patriotic pride. Snatching $2 of hard earned babysitting money from my hand he intoned, “It’s MIA. We’re out of POWs.” Unceremoniously dropping it in my trembling hand, he looked at the next consumer in line. The shiny bracelet made me responsible… for a stranger.
At home hung a poem entitled “The Box” which began:
Once upon a time in the land of hush-a-bye
About the wondrous days of yore.
They came across a sort of box
Bound up with chains and locked with locks
And labeled, “Kindly do not touch, it’s war.”
War, I’d been taught, was a terrible way to settle arguments. Passing that poem while wearing my bracelet for the first time, the hair on the back of my neck stood at attention. It was no longer just words. War had reduced a man to a two line summation stamped in metal. My wrist felt like it was on fire. Promoted to “MY Captain”, I swore I’d never take it off.
A month later, my wrist turned green.
My parents wanted it off. I couldn’t leave My Captain to face the unknown alone. A neighbor saved me, applying 3 coats of nail polish inside the bracelet. Green-wristed patriotism became the least of my worries.
I watched Garrick Utley on the nightly news, his calm voice soothing. I’d hold my bracelet when he appeared, as if the two were magically linked. I wanted explanations. Why did students wanting peace angrily scream? Sure, war brought out the worst in people, but it wasn’t suppose to happen at home.
Utley got pale, dark circles formed under his eyes, weariness crept into his voice, as if the job was wearing him out. Polite requests God watch over My Captain evolved into demands to bring him home NOW. At school, his daughter had the same hollow expression. I realized My Captain wasn’t a symbol, he was a daddy, like mine, except he didn’t come every night. Maybe he never would.
And he never did.
The bracelet came off at war’s end, laid to rest in my jewelry box coffin as a ghostly refrain of “Taps” played in my head. Devoid of wrist it looked so empty, like I felt inside. War effected soldiers…and reporters and total strangers. The name around my wrist wound around my heart and squeezed.
I believe our best lessons come from strangers. My Captain’s legacy lives on in people who serve humanity, doing the right thing rather than the easy thing. I believe it’s never too late to acknowledge what one human does to keep another safe.
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