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    « The Labors of Social Ostracization | Main | Rick Rescorla »

    A Portrait of War

    There isn’t a day that goes by when the thundering echoes of war escape us. Today, we live in a world rife with radical extremists, defiantly justified to maim and kill in the name of their god. The following story is my hideous wake-up call. It came at a time when wars were fought over more mundane causes - patriotism, democracy, communism, bigotry and territorial rights. This was back when building a bigger and more powerful bomb was all the rage, and nations proudly strutted their massive hardware in a show of strength and unity in order to intimidate their neighbors and enemies. Today, our enemies just strap a bomb to their chest and blow themselves up.

    On a distant morning in 1967, one of my classmates was quietly asked to get up from his desk and follow the administrator out of the classroom. I remember that day and wondering why. Did he do something wrong? It didn’t take very long before the school principal announced on the P.A. system that his cousin, Van Dyke Manners, was killed in action in Vietnam. He was one of the first from Hunterdon County, New Jersey to die in the line of duty. I didn’t know him personally, but I remember it well because it was a solemn day. My friend had lost a loved one. Greg did not come back to class that week. To a 14-year-old, those echoes of war were a distant sound that lightly flickered in our young minds. We never thought of death then. We were invincible, but with each passing day, the reverberation grew louder and louder, and reality hit us fast and hard. The Vietnam War was in full boom.

    Back then, what was going on in our own back yards seemed more important than anything else, but the Vietnam war was lurking out there. Despite our youthful dreams and aspirations, the war never escaped us. We saw it on our black & white televisions. We heard it on our AM radios. It made headlines in the daily newspapers. Everywhere we went, the specter loomed large and it cut deeply into our subconscious minds.

    Early in 1968, a girl who lived up the street from me asked if I would be interested in creating a portrait of her boyfriend. Back in those days, a small town was just that. Windows were left open because air conditioning was a luxury. We weren’t afraid to leave our doors unlocked, and neighbors knew all the gossip. I was known as the left-handed artistic kid. Ask Dave. He knows how to draw.

    She was a little older than me, and her boyfriend had enlisted in the Army. She offered to pay me and I accepted. I asked her to round up whatever photographs she could so I had something to work with. I asked her if I could meet him. To an artist, it’s good to know something about a subject that photographs can’t tell you. Because of that request, I got to know Mike Baldwin. At 21, he was a man. At 15, I was not. He was old and mature. I was still a kid. He shaved, I didn’t. With a war going on, I was in no hurry to buy my first razor.

    His girlfriend asked me to draw the portrait as big as I could. When I went to the store to buy materials, my old “Be Prepared” Boy Scout lessons taught me to have a back-up plan, so I purchased two poster boards, just in case I messed up. I couldn’t just go to the store back then when I was too young to drive.  Well, I didn’t mess up, so I had a blank sheet and decided to draw another one, identical to the first. Buy one, get one free. I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but I’m glad I did. Maybe I thought if the relationship didn’t work out years later, at least he would have one to share with his family. That must have been the reason. Maybe the death of Van Dyke put apprehension in my heart. You know, one for his mother, just in case.

    When I finished the drawings, I made a date to deliver the artwork. My neighbor had invited Mike and his mother to “attend” the presentation. Everyone was very pleased with the job I had done, especially his mother, who was honored to have her son’s portrait captured by a local artist.

    Soon afterward, he left for Vietnam. He went because he believed in a cause. He believed in America and freedom. In school, we were taught about the Domino Effect. Red China didn’t exist on any of our maps and globes. It was just a grayed out mass of nonexistent land. Call it Peking ‘duck and cover.’ Back then, the Domino Effect was a theory that if one country falls under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow. North Vietnam was one of those countries. South Vietnam was not. Today, it is one country, but back then, 58,000 red-blooded Americans gave up their lives. Michael Baldwin was one of them.

    44 years ago today, he became a statistic. His body was zipped up in a bag and shipped home. That was the day I awoke to the tragedy of war. It was my first real experience with the horrors of conflict and someone I knew was dead because of it. 

    One of the things I learned, and it’s very important, was that Michael Baldwin put his country before his life. We lost so many and what did we gain? I know I gained a whole lot of respect for our fellow citizens who march off to war. He was a man and I was a boy back then, but I still look up to him and I am now 42 years older than he was on the day he died. To this very day, I wonder what would life be like had he lived. Would he have married my neighbor or someone else? Would he be bouncing his grandchildren on his knee today? Would he be happy? Or would he be mourning the loss of his children and grandchildren because of our present day wars? The more war changes, the more it remains the same. Death is still death and the loss of loved ones over religion and politics is still just as senseless as it was when Michael Baldwin died.

    Today, he would be 67-years-old, soon to be 68. I will remember him as a true American hero; a very proud young man. As for the identical pictures I drew, they are lost and gone but not forgotten. In my mind, the memory of them will forever remain a haunting portrait of war.



    Sgt. Michael Richard Baldwin (7/19/1947 - 9/12/1968) KIA - Binh Long Province, South Vietnam, ambushed while on reconnaissance 5 kilometers Northeast of Loc Ninh, along with:
    Ssgt. Phillip Kenneth Baker - Detroit, MI
    Pfc. Eugene Russell Boyce - Spartanburg, SC
    Sp4. Wayne Daniel Jenkins - Bryson City, NC
    Pfc. Kenneth Leroy Martin - Los Angeles, CA
    Pfc. Marion Luther Oxner - Leesville, SC
    Pfc. Dale Arden Palm - Toledo, OH
    Pfc. Kurt Francis Ponath - Cudahy, WI
    Sp4. J C Williams Jr. - Muncie, IN
    Pfc. William Wittman - Binghamton, NY

    September 12, 1968, was a long and sad day for Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 28th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division.

    Pfc. Van Dyke William Manners (11/10/1945 - 2/15/1967) KIA - Kontum Province, South Vietnam

    To all our brethren lost in wars, rest in peace. Your deaths will never be in vain.

    I first published a different version of this story in 2006. Michael Baldwin’s cousin searched his name on Google and found my blog about a year later. She wrote me and said, “I just found your website and read your article about Mike.  I just wanted to say thank you…  It touched me and helped me remember my cousin very fondly.  He was a good guy and the last of the Baldwin men in our family.  He is remembered fondly by many of my friends who still [live] in Flemington, as well as my family.

    “I also wanted to let you know that Aunt Peg didn’t handle Mike’s death very well.  She couldn’t even bring herself to go to the funeral.  I do remember that both she and my Uncle Alvin (Mike’s Dad) did attend the memorial at Ft. Dix after his death.  That was really all she could handle.  She always said she preferred to remember people while they were alive.  I can’t say that I blame her.  I didn’t understand it in 1968, but I get it now.

    “Mike left a large impact on me.  The memorial service was really something and I can still remember the 21 gun salute at his funeral in the cemetery in Flemington.”

    Mike’s mother passed away in 1993. His sister contacted me right after her cousin got in touch with her. Here is what she told me:

    “My cousin called me and told me about your blog.  She had seen Michael’s name in it and read the story.  I read it too and also your reply to her.  I am Mike’s youngest sister.  You made me cry—but it was a good cry.

    “My family and I are so pleased that we are not the only one’s who remember Mike.  Looking through your blog and your e-mail to Mary, I found it so interesting that there are so many things we are connected through.

    “I go to church at Kirkpatrick Memorial Presbyterian church in Ringoes. Van Dyke’s mother went there before she died a couple of years ago and there is a stained glass window dedicated to him.

    “My father worked for the Forans in the foundry they owned in Flemington.  My father was friends with Walt Foran. [My friend Frank’s father.]

    “When I read your blog, I could feel that you knew Mike well.  He was a great kid and we loved him.  You talk about my mother—you may not know it but I had a brother who was older than Mike—his name was Alvin—we called him Skip.  He died in a car accident on Sept. 13, 1958.  No, I didn’t confuse the dates, it was one day short of 10 years later that Mike was killed.  It was a blow that my parents never recovered from.

    “I am so glad that you wrote about Mike, it makes me feel that we are not the only ones who remember. Thank you again for keeping his memory alive.”

    Please see: NJ Vietnam War Memorial - Michael Baldwin

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    Reader Comments (10)

    I read your article for the first time last year, and it stands as a good article in rememberance of men and a war past that should all be remembered.

    These were the last of the men truly innocent in the ways of war. Until Vietnam tvs weren't in every home in the nation, in the world, so all they had were a few newsreels and what they were taught to go by. Vietnam was the first televised war. Television brought the war into the living rooms of the world. We sat and some of us saw our relatives in horrible situations. The US government refused to call it a war and that made it worse. Our relatives were going out there and losing their lives for what? That became the prevailing opinion of Vietnam, and it created negativity that was directed towards those innocents who were involuntarily sent over to fight.Sit ins didn't work, riots didn't work, nothing worked to change our governement's mind it seemed, so the hard feelings were taken out on the soldiers who returned. It wasn't fair. Back then if you showed up in court for a drug charge or something else that would give you minor jail time, you were given the option of going to jail or to Vietnam. It was like being given a life sentence for smoking a joint.

    You might not recognize that homeless man on the street, or the man next door who sits on his front porch staring, or one fighting the VA or Social Security for their disability, but they just might have been there and saw it all first hand. You'd never know, because they never talk about it. They went, they fought, they died, and what did the US give them in return? Less than any other soldier of war. They came home broken, maimed in heart, body and mind. Some never recovered, most marriages made on the way in to war never survived once they were home again.

    This is my aunt's first husband who passed away recently. He was 18 when his first experience of war was watching his best friend die while parachuting into his first combat.

    Jack White - Retired Army Sgt.1st. Class. Veteran of the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield. He was a recipient of the Bronze Star and a member of the Disabled American Veterans, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the 82nd. Airborne Division Association.

    Thank you one and all who fought

    [Excellent commentary, Connie. Thank you for honoring Jack White, too. I'm sure he's smiling at you today.]

    September 12, 2012 | Registered Commenterconniefl

    Dave, I lost a cousin in the Vietnam War. He was in the Navy and now my son is an officer in the Navy in San Diego. Scares me to death sometimes. Thanks so much for your article. I love reading them.

    [Vietnam was a true horror story. All wars are. I hope and pray your son stays out of harm's way, Cindy. Today, we could be standing right next to our enemy and not know it.

    Thank you for enjoying this article. Trust me, it will be here next year, on the same day, in honor of Mike and everyone else lost in battle.]

    September 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCindy Edenfield

    Dave: Yesterday, I began to anticipate this article. I remembered your promise to post something every year in memory of your friend. I knew you would not forget.

    That speaks volumnes about you, Mr. Knechel. You, too, are a hero.

    The following quote from your post is so totally true, but so terrifying.

    Today, our enemies just strap a bomb to their chest and blow themselves up.

    Sometimes they blow us up, too.

    As that little poem goes--'today is a gift.'

    Taking some time to remember the sacrifices of others--who gave their very lives for the freedoms we enjoy--is simply divine.

    Thank you.

    [I am a man of my word, nan11, and nothing will ever change that. As long as I'm alive, I will honor the fallen. They are the real heroes. Thank you for considering me one, too, but I assure you, I am just a humble guy doing a service to those who really served. I will always take time to do that. It's the least I can do.]

    September 12, 2012 | Registered Commenternan11

    Dear Dave, What a wonderful tribute to these men. So many young lives given up in the name of war. My heart goes out to all of the young men who leave their lives and families, not knowing if they will ever return. They are our best and bravest and I thank God every day for all of them. My neighbors grandson left two weeks ago for Afghanistan. He left with a very brave heart. Thank you Dave for helping us to honor them.

    [Thank you, Margaret. This is the least I could do for Mike and all of the other brave men and women who put their lives on the line every single day. I only wish I could do more to honor them.]

    September 12, 2012 | Registered Commentermargaret

    Dave. Thank you, thank you, thank you. In 1996, I visited Washington DC and saw the Viet Nam Memorial. Wall From the hill, I felt as though I was moving in slow motion -- not able to get to the wall fast enough, and not wanting to leave the entire view to get closer. When I reached the wall, I began to sob. A man came up to me and asked if I had lost a loved one in the war. I told him no, so he wanted to know why I was so overwhelmed.

    There are times we take things for granted and miss out on appreciating what others have done for our country; their sacrifices; the things that came their way just---because. I was born in 1951. If not but for the fact that I was born a girl rather than a boy, there was good chance that I would have been drafted, and my name could be on that wall.

    Thank you for introducing me to these young men who made the ultimate sacrifice.

    [What a touching story, Xena. When I honor Mike each year, I honor everyone who serves; past, present and future. Your experience at the Vietnam War Memorial wall says it all. As much as you thank me for this article, I thank you for your comment.]

    September 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterXena

    Dave. A truly touching story. Thank you for sharing.

    [Believe me, Joanna, it's an honor. I would hope the story would touch everyone enough that it would stop all wars, but that's not going to happen. Well, we can dream. Thank you, too.]

    September 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoanna

    Sorry off topic. Hi Dave, I went to WorldCon over Labor Day in Chicago. Spent a few minutes here and there over the 5 days with David Kyle and his daughter. He is still sharp as a tack, just a little slower getting from place to place. I have 3 photos that were taken that I can send to you, if you are interested. Nothing exceptional, just candids at parties and panels.

    Drop me a line at my e-mail address and I can forward the files to you, if you like.


    [Thank you, Susan, I will e-mail you. Absolutely! I am interested.]

    September 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSusan Cole

    As a Vietnam combat vet I thank you Dave
    For your wonderful words. Thanks again.

    [God bless you, Cliff. No need to thank me. This is in honor of you. I only wish I could do more. Thank YOU for all you have done for our nation.]

    September 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCliff

    I just responded to some of the earlier comments. Thank you, all. I'm sorry I'm late.

    September 16, 2012 | Registered CommenterDave Knechel

    Dave, as I read this, tears came to my eyes. My brother, who served two tours in Nam, was friends with Mike Baldwin, Dyke Manners and Fred Zyck. He was one of the lucky ones who came back home alive, but unfortunately, will never be able to erase what's in his mind ~~ the memories you wish you could forget. You put so much into your words, all I can say is thank you. You have been Blessed with such various talents - writing, artistically, and.... what else don't we know about?? I enjoy your writings.

    May 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn Housel Hart

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