Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Long-Overdue Trip to the Vietnam Memorial

Here’s a “feel-good” story in honor of our brave men and women serving in the military, particularly the families of those who have paid the ultimate price. Robert Beavers died in a helicopter crash in Vietnam on Aug. 28, 1971, a week shy of his 21st birthday. His mother, Dorothy McLain, had dreamed of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC since it opened in 1982, but something always seemed to get in the way. Last month, a bunch of her high school friends, members of Woodrow Wilson High School's Class of 1969 got together and arranged the trip. This story first appeared in the Dallas Morning News a couple of weeks ago.
Members of Woodrow Wilson High School's Class of 1969 get together at the Fox and Hound on Skillman Avenue on the last Thursday of every month. Bobby Beavers had graduated with the class and then enlisted in the Army. Robert Fernandez and Mickey Castro struck up a conversation at the June meeting.

"Do you know if Bobby's mother is still alive?" Fernandez asked. "I think so," Castro said. "Why?" Fernandez, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, had just participated in Run for the Wall, a motorcycle ride from California to Washington, DC. Geared toward veterans, the ride is built around Memorial Day in May.

"Well, I went to the Vietnam Memorial and got the etching of Bobby's name on a piece of paper. I thought Mrs. McLain might want to have it, but I don't know how she might feel about it," Fernandez said. "I wonder if she's ever gone there herself," Castro said. "If she hasn't, then we need to take her," Fernandez said.

Castro knew he needed to contact Elise Melton, a Woodrow classmate who had grown up across the street from Beavers on Belmont Avenue in East Dallas. They went through Sam Houston Elementary, J.L. Long Middle School and Woodrow together. Melton had stayed in touch with McLain over the years, and she accepted the assignment to call her and ask if she wanted to make the trip to DC. "She told me it was the one thing she wanted to do before she died," Melton said. "I had to do it. I like to get people together." And the trip was on.

The article then gives us some personal information on Mr Beavers:
Bobby Beavers was a freckle-faced boy with a quick smile and a sense of humor. He was a good student with a lot of friends... Bobby had bought a 1957 Chevy and he worked on it constantly. He put an eight-track tape deck in the dashboard and big speakers in the doors. He liked The Rolling Stones and learned to play rhythm guitar. He was even in a band for a few months. Castro remembers cruising East Dallas in Bobby's '57 Chevy – places such as Charco's drive-in, Keller's and Prince of Hamburgers. The car was fast and could burn rubber. "Mostly, we looked at girls," Castro said.

Bobby enlisted in the Army right out of high school. He loved to play Army as a child with a helmet on his head and a toy rifle slung over his shoulder. Later, as a teenager, he would enjoy hunting and fishing with his best friend, Greg Reno. Bobby became a helicopter mechanic in Vietnam. And it was ironic that he died in a helicopter crash, Reno said. "Of all the people to put into a helicopter, Bobby was not the one," he said. "He always had motion sickness when we would ride the rides at the State Fair."

Bobby's mother recalls when two men in Army uniforms came to her house on a hot summer day in late August 1971. She knew immediately that her son was dead. By the time the war ended in 1975, more than 58,000 Americans had died. Of course, McLain has never gotten over her son's death. "I've got his pictures," she said, "and his classmates and Army buddies still stay in touch."

The trip:
Early on the morning of July 17, the group met at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for the flight to Washington – McLain, Melton, Castro and Fernandez. They flew first class, courtesy of Castro, an American Airlines manager in the aircraft maintenance division. Reno wasn't able to make it, but he arranged for a limousine to carry the group around the nation's capital.

Their trip started at Arlington National Cemetery to witness the changing of the guard and to see the burial sites of the three Kennedy brothers. They toured the city and ended up at the Vietnam Memorial. Park rangers provided a ladder so McLain could climb up to touch her son's name. The memorial was crowded that day, but tourists cleared the way when they realized that the mother of a fallen hero was posing for a photograph. "I better put on my sunglasses," said a teary-eyed Castro.

Finally, McLain pulled out three photos to leave at the base of the Wall – Bobby with an Army helicopter, a photo of his '57 Chevy and a picture of a Sam Houston Elementary School memorial dedicated to his memory. McLain was happy and proud more than sorrowful. Still, tears were shed at the wall. "It was so touching," Melton recalled. "We did it for her," said Fernandez.

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