Daddy’s last instruction to me was to stop crying because it upset Mama. I tried as best I could to do as Daddy had asked. But what he didn’t know then is that Vietnam would upset a lot of people. I learned at an early age to handle the burning things of life with mitts of silence. So for many years I didn’t talk about losing Daddy, about death, or Vietnam. I especially didn’t talk about such things with Mama. Yet, neither one of us could escape Vietnam’s far-reaching shadow. It was featured prominently in the nightly newscasts and in the daily papers. Political debates reached a feverish pitch once Fort Benning was selected as the site of the court-martial of Lieutenant William “Rusty” Calley Jr. for his role in the My Lai massacre.
Whenever Mama watched the newscasts or read the newspaper reports about the Calley trial, she’d gnaw on that worry gristle inside her cheek, over and over again. It was as if she had a mouthful of words she was chewing on but couldn’t quite spit out. I could tell she was troubled by what she was hearing and reading, but she wasn’t one to divulge her worries.
November 1970 was a month chock full of news. A lot of it was election stuff. Jimmy Carter, a plainspoken peanut farmer, who promised to be a working governor, handily earned Georgia’s top spot. It was the biggest Democratic victory Georgians had ever seen.
But not everybody in the city or state was rejoicing. Family members of the sixty-seven Georgia servicemen listed as missing in action or prisoners of war gathered in Atlanta and drafted a letter to the Viet Cong delegation at the Paris Peace Talks. They also urged their fellow Georgians to join in a “Write Hanoi” campaign, asking the Communists to release names of those being held captive, and they pleaded for the release of any prisoners who were sick or wounded. At Columbus High School several of my classmates wore engraved bracelets bearing the names of those men. I didn’t need a bracelet to remind me that our family was held hostage by what had already happened in Southeast Asia.
Some of the jury selections proceedings in the Calley trial occurred on my fourteenth birthday – November 12 – the day after Veterans Day. Calley, then twenty-seven, was charged with murdering 102 Vietnamese civilians in the village of My Lai on March 16, 1968, in Quang Ngai Province of South Vietnam. Several other soldiers were also facing murder charges because the troops, under Calley’s command, reportedly killed as many as five hundred unarmed civilians during that same rout.
The highly-publicized trial was never discussed in my classes at Columbus High. Most of the kids there were the children of civilians, yet many had fathers or grandfathers who’d once served in the military. Columbus has always been very patriotic and deeply loyal to the military community at Fort Benning. Churches and civic organizations make it a point to “adopt” young servicemen and to give them a family away from home. Sometimes literally. But soldiers are warned not to marry local girls. A fellow fishing off the banks of the Chattahoochee once told me, “They taught us at Fort Benning ‘Don’t marry a Columbus girl unless you intend to stay here because Columbus girls don’t leave home for long.’”
Lieutenant Calley, a Florida native, was one of the many soldiers who married a local girl and made Columbus his home. He married Mrs. Tilly Vick’s daughter. The Vicks were a prominent Columbus family. Well loved and highly regarded, they own the popular V.V. Vick Jewelers at Cross Country Plaza. Calley still runs the family business.
Teachers weren’t given any edict about avoiding discussions of the trial; it was just part of the constrained society in which we all lived. It was considered uncouth to discuss unpleasant topics. The trial that made daily headlines nationwide was largely ignored at dinner tables and in civics classes. But occasionally I would overhear discussions among the students as we waited between classes for the bell to ring:
“Do you really think he killed all those people?”
“Yeah, I do. He’s a murderer. A trained killer, like all those other soldiers over there.”
Frank said the teachers at Lyman Ward Military Academy weren’t making Calley’s trial a point of current events there, either. He said the general feeling among the teaching staff was that Calley was being made a scapegoat. “This was a military community,” Frank explained. “Everyone in the military community knows a lieutenant doesn’t have that much rank. The only teachers I heard talk about Calley felt that he was just doing what he was ordered to do.”
That wasn’t the case among Frank’s peers, though. The talk in the locker rooms and dorms painted Calley as a bloodthirsty maniac. Frank listened in silence as his classmates debated the issues among themselves. He never once chimed in. And he certainly made it a point to not divulge that his own father was a casualty of Vietnam. “There was no point in saying anything,” Frank noted. “The attitude of the day was that all American soldiers were just like Calley. I was made to feel ashamed over Dad’s participation in Vietnam.”
The worst part of it all was that there was no place for kids like Frank and me to escape from the daily deluge of stories about the trial. We had no one we could talk to about it, not even each other. And so it was, month after month after month. Calley’s trial was one of the longest-running military trials in history. A verdict by a six-officer jury was returned on March 29, 1971. Calley was convicted of premeditated murder of twenty-two civilians, including women and infants. He also was convicted of assault with intent to murder a child, believed to be about two-years old. Throughout the trial, Calley maintained that he was acting upon the orders of Captain Ernest Medina, his superior, to kill everyone in My Lai. The jury didn’t buy it. Calley was sentenced to life in prison. On November 9, 1974 a few days before my eighteenth birthday, he was released on bond after a federal judge overturned his conviction. I was a freshman in college. He had served three-and-half years, most of that under house arrest at Fort Benning.