There it was on the Wall.
Murray John Wyman.
Panel 16W, line 11.
Murray John Wyman.
It's amazing how as few as 15 letters from the alphabet, arranged in a particular way, and etched onto the black surface of the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, can trigger a flood of emotion. Of memories. Of tears you try to wipe away before the strangers around you notice -- as if they wouldn't understand. Many of them are crying, too.
Murray John Wyman.
He was the oldest brother of my best high school pal, Dana. Their mother and father, Cal and Francis, were like my second parents. In fact, having grown up without a father, Cal was the closest thing to a dad I ever knew.
And Murray was like my older brother. The kind of ridiculously handsome, smart, brave, responsible older brother that, in the mid-1960s, could rarely be found outside of television sitcoms or movies.
Honest. Murray really was like the best imaginable hybrid of Wally Cleaver and John Wayne. Ask anyone who knew him.
In 1967, Murray had just joined the Army when he married Sandy, the beautiful mother of two very young children. Seeing them together gave me my first up-close-and-personal introduction to honest, mature love -- where mutual respect and unconditional affection and total trust and endless personal sacrifices meet and weave themselves into something rare and unbreakable.
Unbreakable by anything but tragedy, anyway.
Less than one year after Murray and Sandy wed, he was sent to Vietnam to pilot helicopters. And only a few months after that, on Oct. 31, 1969 -- Halloween, of all damnable days -- Murray crash-landed while trying to rescue fellow soldiers and aeronautically dodge enemy fire. He was dead at 24.
As soon as the awful news arrived back home, the dozens of people torn apart by this loss gathered together. But because human beings have an extremely low threshold for full-throttle grief, there came a moment near the end of the day when the mood had to be broken by something else. Anything else.
Coping with pain
So we began to celebrate Murray's memory with a no-holds-barred, everything-in-the-fridge food fight. It started traditionally, with thrown pies, and graduated through mashed potatoes, ice cream, Jell-O, spaghetti, all the way to -- if memory serves -- leftover liver and onions.
This sight would have pleased and distressed Murray. It would have pleased him because he loved food fights or anything else that made people laugh. And it would have distressed him because this food fight took place in his brand-new, freshly carpeted house.
Two years later, Sandy found a deviled egg in her chandelier. But she had started the food fight, so it was OK. Murray would have forgiven her anything.
Murray's body was never found. Only ashes. If there had been a body, his death might have been easier to accept. Without it, none of us -- not one -- could help but think that a grotesque error had been made.
"Wally Cleaver and John Wayne ... dead? Impossible. They'll be clearing up this goof any day now. I'm sure of it."
Most of us held on to that thought for years.
Life after death
I still don't know how it happened. But somehow over the next few years, even though she was older than me, Sandy and I fell in love and remained together for the better part of a decade.
We talked regularly about marriage. There are many reasons why that never happened, but the two biggest, perhaps, were that I was too young to appreciate how special she was, and just barely smart enough to realize that I could never be Murray's equal -- to Sandy or her children.
Sandy, of course, wasn't looking for Murray's equal. But I had yet to figure that out.
Within a year after she and I parted, Sandy died on an operating table because of a dumb little mistake during a routine medical procedure. She was only 34. Her two children, by then in their early teens, were orphans.
I was devastated by her death. But there was surprising comfort in the thought that, maybe, the most perfect love affair I'd ever witnessed -- and failed to match -- was resuming somewhere else. A place where they could not be taken from each other again.
Tragedy turned to hope
All of this was wrenched from my heart as I stood before the Wall. But I walked away from Green Valley Park with something new and wonderful.
My memories will live only as long as I do. But the greatest and bravest and most unselfish sacrifices of Murray John Wyman -- and his wife, Sandra Jo Wyman -- will be remembered forever.
As long as there is a Vietnam War Memorial Wall.
Memories at the wall
"I had a brother who was in Vietnam. He saw a lot of his friends die, and then he came home and was killed at an Air Force base in South Dakota. He was 21. Even though he's not on the Wall, I feel he's on the Wall. He'd be 53 today (Friday)."
"I'm looking for the name of Steven J. White, my cousin. He was a Marine. In fact, I have a picture of him here ... That's us at our reunion party before he left. I was 12 or 13. He died just as he arrived at Vietnam on ship, and hadn't even put one foot on shore. He was killed instantly, he and his whole regiment. His body was never retrieved. There was nothing. Not even dog tags. The Wall really helps me, because I could never believe he was really gone. This finally closes it for me."
David and Paulette Williams
Paulette: "We're looking for guys I went to high school with. There are 13 from my home town, Fontana, Calif. They're all on this Wall. There are 29 from my husband's home town, La Puente, Calif."
David: "It's pretty chilling to see all those names here. I just think, if not for the grace of God, it could have been me."
"We're looking for John Owen, Sue Owen's son ... It feels like such a waste to see all these names. But it's neat to have John's name on the Wall, because he was part of Payson ... My husband was in WWII, and we've worked with military people for many years. We're not sure if one of these boys on the Wall didn't come through our home at some point."