The worst day of my life was September 13, 1969. Actually, there was so much more than just that one day, but that’s the one day I can talk about, at least for right now.
I was living at my childhood home in Ohio with my parents at the time. I had married my high school sweetheart, Doug Kempf, in January, and though in our hearts we were still newlyweds, Uncle Sam had other plans and in May, he sent Doug to Vietnam. There, he wore a different hat. In Vietnam, he was a medic: SP4; RA; HHC, 4th BN, 12th INF, 199th LIB.
Doug and I shared a good life from January to May in 1969, during those months before he went to Vietnam. We were military-poor and living in a trailer on base at Ft. Bragg in Fayetteville, NC, but we didn’t care. We were together and we were happy. There we loved and planned our future for when he returned. We would have an old Victorian with lots of bedrooms, oak woodwork, a huge kitchen to entertain family and friends, and a large front porch with a wooden swing where we could watch thunder storms and cuddle and dream.
We had decided on three children to complete our family—two boys and a girl, God willing. The boys would be tall, handsome, and have their dad’s slightly bowed legs, legs that loved to dance, and his infectious laugh and sense of humor. They would grow up to be good men, and looked up to for their strength of character. Like their father, they would be smart, and kind, gentle husbands, loving and playful fathers, as well as proud and fiercely patriotic.
Our little girl would be (in Doug’s words) “Just like her mommy. Pretty with big blue eyes, with just a touch of tomboy to defend herself from her big brothers … but always daddy’s little girl.”
Saying goodbye at the Columbus Airport in May, was soul-crushing. I promised myself I wouldn’t cry, but it was a foolish promise, and one I wasn’t able keep. One thing I can say, though, it never occurred to me—not once—that Doug wouldn’t return home to me safe and sound. Our letters were happy and full of love. The intimate moments we’d shared and memorized were whispered about and yearned for and always in those long-distance letters sent between us. But what we wanted most dearly, and what we actually had, was breaking my heart and I counted the days to our Hawaiian R&R, which was never to be.
On September 13, 1969, my world stopped. I was working as a secretary in the office at Pretty Products, a manufacturing company a couple of streets from my parents’ home. My mother called me at work. “Honey, you’d better come home. There are some people here who need to talk to you. It’s about Doug.”
I didn’t say anything. I dropped the phone and, with my heart in my throat, I ran in my dress and high heels out of the building and up the street. I didn’t stop running until nearly four blocks later, when I got to the house I grew up in, the home where I had always felt so safe and loved.
Parked in front of the house and looking out of place, was a large black car. I raced up the front steps and in the door. Just inside stood two uniformed men locked to attention, their hands behind their backs, and hats tucked under their arms. Their faces were somber. Daddy and mama stood nearby. Daddy had his arm around mama’s waist and she was crying.
[No. No. No. Dear God, what do they want? No, wait, I don’t want to know. Go away, please, just go away]
“Mrs. Kempf, we regret to inform you that your husband, Sp4 Douglas S. Kempf, was killed while performing his duty in Vietnam on September 5 …”
I didn’t hear the rest of what he had to say. Daddy said I fainted where I stood, just inside the front door in the foyer. When I came around, I was on the couch in my parents’ living room, and then I remembered. Oh my God, I remembered and I wanted to die, too. I was devoid of all feeling, except grief.
Everything had changed. How could the world still seem so normal? The sun still shined through the windows, the birds still sang, and I could hear a neighbor somewhere mowing his lawn. Why? Why? Only a few minutes before, that had been real. This clashed with my new reality and I suddenly felt I was losing my grip—then I focused hard, until only the couch was real. I was on the couch where Doug and I first held hands and hugged, the couch where we had our first disagreement, then kissed and made up. The same couch where I often sat in front of him on the floor between his knees leaning back against him while we watched TV and he ran his fingers gently through my hair. The same couch where he asked me to be his wife. No, nothing would ever be normal again. My life was changed forever and I felt so completely alone, even though I was surrounded by people who cared and who also grieved like I grieved.
All I could do was cry, and I remember fighting a building anger, as well. God, how could you do this … why would you reach inside me and rip out my heart? There was so much grief and hurt and I went through the following weeks and months and ensuing years in a fog. There are even things about that time that I can’t remember at all, but oddly, there’s one thing I’ll never forget. That was the first and only time I ever saw my father cry.
That day in 1969 was the worst day of my life, but it’s carried me through some other really bad times, too. There have been things that have happened since then, when I’ve said, “Yeah, this really hurts. It hurts like bloody hell … but I will survive, because I can tell you something about what real hurt is …” See, for the rest of your life, something like this becomes your yardstick for measuring heartache. You know nothing else can, or will ever, hurt you quite that bad again.
When I look up into the night sky, I pray that it isn’t stars that I see, but actually little openings in Heaven’s floor where the love of my lost one pours through and shines down to let me know he is happy.
[CJ is a published poet, writer, blogger, and children’s author. Originally from Ohio, she lives in DuBois, PA., and is the mother of three daughters and nine grandchildren.]