In Memory of

Jay L. Wright

Memorial Day 2002 at Bryant Pond, Maine

(If I might begin by telling a quick story: A number of years ago on Memorial Day, just before the ceremony started, a man walked up to the scout master of the troop my son was in and said that the person who was supposed to read the Gettysburg Address couldn't make it. Did he have a scout who would read it? He handed him a copy of the Gettysburg Address. The scout master turned to my son Joe, handed him the paper, and asked him to read it.

I have attended many Memorial Day ceremonies and have heard many readings of the Gettysburg Address and I have always honestly felt that my son did the best job of any of them. After today, I'm going to have to stop telling this story, because today's reading was the finest I have heard.

Those are powerful words and they need to be read well. I'm thankful that today I was here to hear them.)

Recently, through the miracle of the Internet, I have been finding and contacting childhood friends. One friend I was particularly interested in getting in touch with is a guy named Jay Wright. I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, but moved away at the end of the tenth grade, so I haven't seen Jay since then. I was excited at the prospect of finding Jay's phone number and calling up and saying, "Jay Wright?" and he would say, "Yes?" and I would say, "This is John Governale." and there would be this little pause while the gears of time ran backward, then he would say, "John Governale! How are you!?"

I didn't find Jay's phone number. I did, however, find his name -- inscribed on the Wall at the Vietnam Memorial.

Jay, at age 19, was killed in December of 1967. In email conversations with guys from his unit, I have learned what happened that day. Jay was an army medic serving with Charlie Company 4th of the 9th Infantry. Jay's best friend in the company was a 20 year old from Georgia named Billy Godfrey. Billy was either on point that day or was the second man back. The platoon came under attack and Billy and several other soldiers up front were hit. Under fire Jay Wright moved forward and was killed while trying to render aid.

(This morning my wife said she would be willing to listen if I felt I wanted to practice my remarks. I said, "No thanks, dear. If I manage to get through this once today, that will be enough for me.")

Knowing I had been asked to speak here this day, I have been at a loss to think what I might say. How can I adequately thank the many men and women who throughout our history have paid for our freedom.

Today as we stand here there are men and women in uniform who are in harm's way. And some of them are not going to make it back to this country alive. What am I going to say to them. What am I going to say to my friend Jay Wright who never got to vote because he was too young, but who, nonetheless, when his country called, stepped up and voted for freedom with the ballot of his life.

I have decided not to give a speech. With your permission and the kind permission of our honored dead, I would like today to simply read a poem. Although it's called The Unknown Soldier, it is dedicated to men and women of all branches of service.

Certainly with no intention of taking anything away from those who have died in the armed services, I would, if I may, like to also dedicate this poem to those Americans who, though they took no formal oath of allegiance, have found themselves enlisted by circumstances into the service of their country. I am particularly thinking of those aboard flight 93 who, when they heard over their cell phones that other planes had been high jacked and had been used like guided missiles to crash into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, said inside themselves, as surely as any soldier, sailor, marine, or airman would have, "Not this plane."

(For today's reading, I have changed a line that says "school band" to read "community band.")

The Unknown Soldier

If a miracle should happen
And these dry old bones
Should be filled with new marrow
And regain their strength
And my flesh, long since melted away
Should return,
And I should find myself, dressed in new clothes,
Standing beside this grave
And if I should be told that
Starting right now
I would be allowed to live the life
That I willingly, yet unwillingly, gave up,
What would I do?

I've had a long time to think about this.

I would, of course, leave this forgotten hillside
And return to the USA.

And when the boat docked
And I disembarked,
I would do what millions of other soldiers have done:
I would kneel down
And kiss the ground.

And I would say
"The next time my bones are laid to rest,
They are going to rest in this soil."

I would go back to my home town.

Even if there was no one left there
Who remembered me,
Even if the house I lived in was gone,
Even if the town had changed so much
That I didn't even recognize it,
It wouldn't matter.
I would go there and walk along the streets
And I would say,
"This is my town."

I would go to a restaurant
And order a meal.
And when the waitress said,
"Hello. How are you today?"
I would say, "Ma'am, I am doing just fine."
And when I finished my meal
And she asked would I like some desert
I would listen to her name all the different kinds of pie
And then, just so I could hear the names again,
And just so I could hear the sound of her voice,
I would make her say them all a second time.
Then I would pick apple.

There is a long list of things
I would do and see.
I've had a lot of time to think about this.

But there are three things in particular I'm sure I would do.
I would do something with my life
That would bless the lives of children.
This sounds funny
Because before, I didn't much like kids.
I thought they were a nuisance.
But I've been thinking about this for a long time
And I believe I would want to do something
That would help children feel safer and happier.

The second thing I would do is vote.
Even if the election was the very next day,
Even if I didn't know who was running,
Even if the issues were things I'd never heard of,
It wouldn't matter.
I would go vote.
I would go in the booth
And look at the ballot
And beside each office I would check off a name.
And I would say to the names,
"I'm sorry. I don't know who you are.
And I don't know what you stand for.
I picked you because
I liked the sound of your names
Or because you represent the party my daddy belonged to.

But I have given you my sacred vote.
And if you win, I'm going to be watching you.
If you don't do a good job
You and I are going to meet next election day in this same place
And then I won't like the sound of your names."

When I put my ballot
In the ballot box
The lady there would say to me,
"Sir, are you okay?"
And I would wipe the tears from my face
And I would say, "Yes, ma'am. I'm fine."

The third thing I would do is,
On Memorial day
If my home town has a ceremony of some kind
With maybe a school band playing patriotic songs
And people giving patriot speeches,
I would go to that.
I would put my hand over my heart
And I would think about my buddies.

Memorial Day.
If I were alive,
Every year I would be there.

If I were alive,
I would over-tip a waitress.

If I were alive,
I would go out of my way to be kind to children.

If I were alive,
No matter what, I would always vote.

On this Memorial Day as we gather here to thank the men and women who throughout our history have paid for our freedom with the hard currency of their lives, I would like to voice a special thank you to my friend Jay Wright and to Jay's best friend Billy Godfrey who he died trying to save. Thank you.

John Governale

Copyright 1995 - 2002 John Governale