The Ballad of Ira Hayes

“Call him drunken Ira Hayes, he won’t answer any more, not the whiskey-drinking Indian or the Marine who went to war…”

Wars battle on until everyone touched by them is dead.

I remember watching the last American soldiers leave Saigon. On television, of course. And likely years after it occurred, on April 30th 1975. The footage replays in my head. My young mind couldn’t comprehend the images, but with the long-range empathy of the innocent, I could feel its import, sensing the troubled minds of the adults around me. What’s that, Mommy? Viet Nam.

Maybe it was the succession of Vietnam War movies I saw in the ’70s and ’80s, like The Boys in Company C, but it always felt like the war raged on forever, and always had been. When I read Vietnam: A History, by Stanley Karnow, I realized that I was correct. At least from the perspective of the Vietnamese, that war began centuries ago and continued long after those choppers tumbled into the sea.

And it is the same with World War 2. Europe is rebuilt, though monuments and wreckage in the forests and along the shores remain; but the scars of warfare run deep within those who fought, those who suffered, and their families.

Ira Hayes was one of the Marines who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, in the iconic photo. The government whisked those men home for photo ops, and many, including Hayes, suffered survivor’s guilt for leaving their buddies in the fighting. I didn’t think much of the filmĀ Flags of Our Fathers, but give it credit for dramatizing the reality behind the manufactured glory of World War 2. As the song states, Hayes died of alcohol poisoning and exposure. A tragic and lonely death for a war hero who served in the company of many forgotten heroes.

My great-uncles fought in the War, some in the Pacific, some in Europe, and one in both. Only two of them are still kicking. Jimmy- who I recently learned is actually my Uncle Vincenzo- and Dominic, who everyone has called Butch, since before I was born. My great-grandparents came over from southern Italy, the seaside city of Bari and the mountaintop village of Acri. (The priests and teachers wouldn’t accept Italian first names, so Dominic and Vincenzo became Butch and Jimmy.)

Like most soldiers, they don’t talk much about the War. Jimmy’s feet froze at the Battle of the Bulge. Patton’s tankers saved their behinds, he says. Butch proudly wears his medals, when a suit is required. Jimmy never has. Both of them are past 90, and are now widowers. They helped each other survive the Depression, and they visited my grandmother every Sunday morning for coffee, until she passed away six or more years ago. We were very close, and I try not to remember losing her. Now uncle Jimmy is deteriorating, and that same sadness wells inside me. So that’s why a depressing song about a war hero dying forgotten and alone is in my head this week. Uncle Jim is a generous, kind, hard-working man. Him & Butch worked as plumbers and roofers- just to keep busy- well into their eighties. He hunted until his eyesight faded, and gave me venison when his freezer overflowed with it. I’m planning to visit him this weekend, and I’m afraid it may be the last time I see my great-uncle, whose sly smile and pencil mustache, whose straight man humor and upright authority made him a giant to me.

The War will smolder on, in dying skirmishes and distant echoes of small arms fire, in my memories of my uncles Jimmy and Butch, and the stories of them that I will tell my own children. Like the unexploded ordnance buried in the woods, or land mines long forgotten, war touches us long after the last soldier is lain to rest.