We met on plane somewhere over the Pacific. Or maybe it was the South China Sea. I don’t know for sure, given it was pitch dark outside and we had been on that plane headed out of LAX for God only knows how many hours already. Most of the people in the cabin were passed out.
Unable to sleep, I had slipped out of my aisle seat and was walking through the silent cabin when I happened upon a fellow reading a book. He was sitting in one of those exit rows where he could stretch out his legs. I recognized the First Cav patch on his hat. I must’ve said something, or maybe he did, I couldn’t tell you, but we began talking, whispering, really.
He was part of the 100 or so people in our unusual tour group – the sons and daughters of soldiers killed in action – as we traveled back to the lands where our fathers had died some 30 or more decades prior. Ned Devereaux III was one of the dozen or so surviving veterans of the American War in Vietnam who was accompanying us on this historic, and, yes, emotionally fraught trip.
During our midnight chat, I learned that Ned and his wife Doris lived in Portland and that his mother had worked at The Oregonian, a newspaper I often wrote columns for. It was that love of the written word that Ned inherited from his mother, and that I inherited from my Appalachian kin, that formed the basis for what would over the years become the swapping of hundreds of stories.
While In Country, Ned and I didn’t see much of each other. But when we returned to the Northwest, he invited my husband Tim and I to join him for a backyard barbecue, where he introduced me to another Gold Star daughter. A girl whose mother had her life threatened following her husband’s death in Vietnam. Anti-war protestors had targeted the family. It’s a horrible reality that for Gold Star families like ours, Americans failed to make the distinction between those who served and those who ordered them to serve. So soldiers were often targeted for the wrongs that government leaders were guilty of. Our mothers paid a heavy price for our fathers’ deaths.
Ned, like so many Vietnam veterans I have had the honor of befriending over the years, did his best always to honor our families. On numerous occasions over the years, I would be in my office on a day much like today working when Ned would just randomly call me. He would want to chat about some article he had just read, or some book he had just finished. He would tell me about one of his Vietnam compatriots – Tran, or Dick Schonberger or Tom Morgan. Sometimes he would tell stories about his Uncle Sam who died in World War II. Sometimes he would tease me – an OSU grad – about the latest defeat of the Beavers to the Ducks.
He would chat at me about various people he knew around Portland, the restaurants he and his lovely wife Doris, visited pre-Covid. Prior to his retirement, Ned’s work in the building inspection business took him throughout the Northwest. He knew everyone it seemed. He invited me to give a book talk at the Multnomah Athletic Club to a bunch of his friends there. We had a grand evening, sitting among his kin and friends, chatting about stories. Ned was a insatiable reader, always consuming the latest in history and thrillers and military books. On occasion, I would go to the mailbox to find a letter from Ned with an article he wanted to share with me. He had a brilliant mind.
As my book travels took me to various points around the nation, Doris and Ned would invite me to stay at the “Devereaux Hotel” prior to a flight or upon arriving from a late flight. Ned was like my very own personal Uber driver, dropping me off or picking me up from some flight.
Ned and Doris, a German native, traveled a great deal. Unlike so many people who grow more fearful with age, who never want to travel outside of the US, Doris and Ned lived fearlessly, embracing new foods, new cultures, new experiences and new friends. Ned took to heart the Vietnamese saying “Đi một ngày đàng học một sàng khôn” – a day of traveling can bring much wisdom. If there is such a thing as an Ambassador of Goodwill, Ned earned that position.
Just a week or so ago, a letter arrived in my mailbox. The envelop was from the Furama Resort in Danang. The very resort we had stayed at while on that trip to Vietnam. Our Sons & Daughters group had drank champagne, held a rose tribute to our fallen fathers on China beach. We swam in the warm waters, and sang along with Vietnamese performers singing American tunes. And we had laughed through our tears. I could not imagine who was writing to me from the Furama until I flipped over the envelop and saw Ned’s address on the back flap.
Ned finished his missive about his latest excursion to get his Covid shot with notes about his latest reading adventure: “With TV Down, book to finish a murder mystery, I stopped reading that genre before bedtime. So I switched to David McCullough’s The Pioneers, which has been on my to read list for a year. Our love from Portland. Ned & Doris.”
I had no idea that would be our last correspondence. I woke to the news this morning that Ned died last night. I don’t know if he got to finish McCullough’s book.
In my bedroom hangs a painting my mother had worked on but never finished. It’s a landscape of a mountain, not unlike the ones that I see everyday living here in the foothills of the Cascades. I have plenty of her finished paintings I could hang in my bedroom instead but I keep this one to remind me that we will all die while in the midst of living.
I only hope and pray that I live a life as abandoned to kindness as Ned, the Ambassador of Goodwill.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of After the Flag Has Been Folded (William Morrow).