Jamie Roberts is coming home today. His father called two days ago to ask if I could go up to the airport in Allentown to meet Jamie when he comes in. How could I say no? Jamie was like a brother to me. No...he was more than a brother.
Jamie and I became best friends about five minutes after we met on the playground of Benjamin Franklin Elementary on our first day of third grade. He had moved to Pottsgrove from Columbus, Ohio just five days before, so he was definitely the new kid in school. He was good-looking even back then with his wavy, blonde hair, cobalt blue eyes, and sparkling, perfect-teeth.
Although I was ignorant of the scientific fact, I learned that day that opposites do attract. Sporting crew-cut, black hair, cocoa eyes, and a mouth that resembled a neglected picket fence, I couldn't have been any further away on the spectrum of appearance. But somehow there seemed to be an instant chemistry between us when I approached Jamie with my standard introduction, "Hi, my name's Paul Sanders: you any good at kickball?"
Good? Jamie was a natural. His first time up, he kicked the ball clear over the four foot high, wrought iron fence that surrounded the playground. As he ran around the bases in that fluid stride that everyone would talk about years later when he was an all-conference halfback, I knew that he and I were going to be a team for life.
The first order of business that day was for all the students to seat themselves alphabetically. Since there was no one with a name like Rutherford or Sacks, I was placed in the desk behind Jamie. Whether by predestination or luck, that was the way we remained through the rest of our academic life.
We survived the third grade, although we had several close calls with Miss Reed, our teacher. She never actually caught us, but we always feared that she suspected us of being responsible for the strange noises which would mysteriously emanate when she turned her back to the class.
The summer following third grade was the best I had ever experienced in the eight years of my life. Jamie and I were inseparable. We rode our bikes together, played army together, we were even on the same Little League team. Jamie pitched and played shortstop while I was always in centerfield. Boy, what a team we had. Our team, the Rotary Indians, took first place losing just one game (the father of the pitcher from the other team was the umpire and he called me out on a close play at home that would have tied the game had I been safe). But the best times we had occurred when Jamie and I would sleep out in one or the other's back yard. We would lie under that vast, star-spangled sky and tell each other our secret dreams and ambitions. Jamie would start by saying, "Someday, when I'm grown up, I'm going to be a doctor and I'm going to be famous and rich and drive a big car."
I would follow with, "Well, someday I'm going to be a pro baseball player and be even richer and drive an even bigger car." Jamie would then try to top me. "Yeah, but I'm going to discover cures for everything so nobody will ever be sick again." In turn I would tell him how I was going to hit more home runs than Mickey Mantle. We sure did have a lot to accomplish in those somedays.
For the next eight years our lives remained virtually the same as that first year of our relationship. We passed from a period of tranquility with Ike, to an era of promise with JFK. We mourned our nation's loss, not truly understanding but knowing that a man we felt very comfortable with was gone. We grew, both physically and mentally, and as we matured our dreams and goals matured and became more realistic.
September 1966. As we commenced our senior year of high school, Jamie still talked about someday becoming a doctor, but with the realization that curing every disease was beyond his or anyone person's capabilities. His ambition was to have a stellar year oh the football gridiron and receive an athletic scholarship from a major university where he could major in pre-med and eventually become a surgeon.
And me? My goal was to study just enough to maintain my B+ average and then to have a better season on the baseball diamond than I'd had the past summer. While playing centerfield for the Pottsgrove American Legion Post 216 Ravens, I had hit a remarkable .438 average with 19 home runs. I continued to dream that someday I would play in the major leagues and the attention I received in the local press seemed to me to be the ticket I needed to attract the big league scouts.
How could Jamie and I have known what cruel turns life had in store for us that year? Someone might call it fate, others a tough break. I preferred to call my plight an unfair deal, or as the French say (pardon them) the shits!
November 12, 1966 was the date of our next to last football game of the year. Miller Falls, our opponent, had an adequate team that year, but Pottsgrove had Jamie Roberts. In eight games Jamie had run for more than 1,200 yards and 17 touchdowns -both school and league records. He had been visited by many college scouts and we all felt he'd be able to write his own ticket to whatever college he chose. All the hometown supporters would reassure themselves that someday Jamie Roberts would be an All-American.
While I was as fast as Jamie, my long strides, which were essential for baseball, relegated me to play split end in football. I had good hands and had caught 14 passes that season for 3 touch-downs. But a team with a Jamie Roberts didn't rely on the passing game, so I had to be content with being part of a very strong team, and I was.
The night of the Miller Falls game Jamie had given another outstanding performance. By the end of the third quarter he had 134 yards rushing and had scored two touchdowns, which gave us a lead of 20-7. Midway through the fourth quarter Jamie was taken out of the game while more than 4,000 fans saluted him with a standing ovation. I stood on the field feeling so proud for my best friend that I felt like crying. One minute and twenty-four seconds later I was.
The play was a simple down and in, designed to gain about ten yards. As I jumped to catch the slightly overthrown ball, a Miller Falls player buried his shoulder into my lower back. Knocked off balance, I landed on the ground with a twisting motion just as another player hit me. I remember hearing my knee crack loudly before the searing, blinding pain overwhelmed me. Coach Moyers and the game doctor were beside me within seconds urging me not to move, to try to lie still.
The doctor gingerly tried to straighten my leg and I screamed loud parents to hear it twelve rows up in the stands. The men from the ambulance brought a stretcher and somehow managed to get me onto it. As they carried me off the field I looked to my left through tear-filled eyes and saw Jamie right beside me. He was crying too but managed to smile as he told me, "Don't worry Paul, someday you'll be good as new."
I tried to smile back, couldn't, but grunted through clenchedteeth, "Nope, someday I'll be better than new." The medical facts were simple. After two operations to try to repair the damage to my knee my athletic career was over. Oh, the doctor assured me that with careful rehabilitation and a cumbersome brace I would be able to someday play recreational league softball and other less vigorous sports. I recall telling the doctor to stuff his softball, that I wanted to play major league baseball someday. He then explained that if I attempted that level of competition I would become a cripple for life. No matter how bad I wanted it, my knee would never be the same as it had been.
I watched our final game of the year against our arch rivals, Clark Valley High, from the sidelines, all bundled up in a wheelchair. Jamie told me before the game that he was going to personally win the game for me. Always true to his word, Jamie led Pottsgrove to a 28-13 victory. The coaches presented the game ball to Jamie for his outstanding performance that season. He thanked them, then turned and held out the ball to me. "How about keeping this for me. You know, someday I'll need the space for the rest of my trophies. Besides, maybe this will help you remember me someday."
I had a devil of a time eating Thanksgiving dinner laterthat day. Every time I looked at that ball I got a huge lump in my throat that wasn't caused by trying to swallow too much white meat.
with the prospect of a career in baseball suddenly snatched from me I had to determine a new course for my life. Purely by accident I found that journalism was almost as natural for me as was shagging fly balls.
As the basketball season approached, the advisor for the school newspaper, Mrs. Needham, asked me to write a column each week covering the team's progress. Because I had nothing else to do I agreed to try it. After my first two reports were printed people began to tell me how much they liked the sports news (I had also volunteered to cover the wrestling and rifle teams). Jamie, with his usual optimism, expressed his profound belief that someday I'd be the best sportswriter in the country. He said that no matter where he would be after he became a surgeon, he'd always buy a paper with my column in it.
I was just beginning to develop a sense of self-worth again when tragedy struck the Roberts' home. Nobody saw what happened to cause Jamie's dad to fall. He was a lineman for the Pottsgrove Municipal Electric Department. Apparently, after climbing a utility pole to replace an insulator that someone had broken with a rock he fell off the pole. He should have been killed, but he survived with a broken back.
Jamie was devastated when he was told by the principal about his dad. He came back to English class to get his books before he left for the hospital to be with his mother. I'll never forget the look on his face. It seemed as though he had been able to see the future and, in doing so, had seen his dreams go up in smoke. Jamie looked like a man being led to the gallows.
The prognosis for Jamie's father was better than first expected. He would be able to walk again someday, the doctors said, but not as well as he once did. His job future was uncertain. Against his parents' protests Jamie stated that he would stay home and work to help support the family until his dad was on his feet again. College would still be there when things got back to normal.
Graduation day was not the festive time we had envisioned it might be. Jamie had finished school while working nights as a stock boy at the local A&P. I had applied and been accepted to attend Temple University to major in journalism. Once out of school Jamie got a job working for a moving and storage company. Some job for a guy who wanted to be a surgeon, but it paid $4.25 aw hour.
That summer Jamie and I would get together on weekends for double dates or, occasionally, take the bus to Philadelphia to watch a Phillies game. On those trips we'd still talk about the things we wanted to be and do, although neither of us seemed to have quite the same enthusiasm as we had had in summers gone by. It was the longest summer of our lives.
Three days before I was to begin classes at Temple Jamie came by my house. He looked tired but nevertheless managed to smile as he handed me a letter that he'd been holding. "Looks like Uncle Sam needs 01' Jamie to carry the ball for his team," he quipped, as though he'd been invited to try out for football or something. I think I'll volunteer for the Marines: I'm used to playing with the best, you know."Shock. Anger. Confusion. All those feelings surged through me. This just couldn't be true. This was just..."Bullshit," I choked out through a fear constricted throat. "you can get out of this. They can't do this to you with your father the way he is. They just can't do this!"
"They can and they did," Jamie replied, almost too calmly. "I already called the draft board and explained the situation to them. They said they were sorry but there was nothing they could do because my dad isn't permanently totally disabled. I report for my pre-induction physical a week from Monday." "There has to be something we can do," I continued, my fear now giving way to despair.
"Well you could let me borrow your knee," Jamie said with laugh and quickly saw the hurt in my eyes. "Hey, I'm only kidding. Don't worry, it's going to be all right." He took the letter from my hand, walked to his car, got in and drove away without another word.
I cut my morning classes the day Jamie was inducted into the Marine Corps. I just had to see him off. Before he left he put his arm around me and told me to study hard and make him proud. When he said good-bye he added, "Don't worry about me, Paul. I'm going to be the best damn Marine ever." I didn't have any trouble believing him at all.
The first week of February Jamie came home for his first leave since he left in October. I could not believe my eyes when he appeared at my front door. Ramrod straight, taut, sun-burned 'face, and that damn infectious smile.
"Hello you hippie freak." My hair covered my ears and most of my shirt collar.
"Hello yourself you dumb jarhead," I fired back, knowing full well that Marines hated the term.
We threw our arms around each other and took turns picking each other off the floor. As we settled down Jamie began relating stirring tales about boot camp and advanced infantry training. He had a way of making it sound similar to the games of army we had played as kids.
After he enthralled me for more than an hour Jamie insisted that I tell him about my experiences at Temple. I explained how college courses demanded much more time and effort than high school classes did. I also told him about Darla, a girl I had met in freshman English. I showed Jamie her picture and he said I was lucky to have a girl that pretty, considering my ugly mug and all, but he laughed as he said it.
Then, just like that, his face seemed to change as though he had been wearing a mask. One minute smiling and happy, the next somber and reflective .
"Paul, I've got orders for Vietnam."
I had considered this possibility from the day Jamie left for boot camp and I thought I was prepared for such an announcement. I wasn't. My mouth hung open, refusing to work as I stared fixedly into Jamie's eyes.
He saw the shock on my face and immediately began to laugh. "Hell, 'don't start worrying about me again. You know, those Viet Cong can't be near as tough as that Miller Falls team was." I laughed then too. No matter how rough things got, Jamie could always make me laugh. I suppose that's why I loved him. We spent as much of the next twenty days of Jamie's leave together as my schedule allowed. I would have forgotten about going to school, but Jamie insisted that I was to keep my life on as normal a course as possible. He said he knew that in the long run it was the best thing I could do. God, he always thought about someone else first, never himself.
On his last day home, as we were saying our good-byes, Jamie looked deeply into my eyes and gave me the biggest smile I had ever seen. "I'm going to be back someday, sooner than you think, with a chest full of medals, and then you can write a story about
the hometown hero."
I clasped his hand in mine, not wanting to let him go, and said firmly, "That's one someday I'm holding you to. Take care of yourself, Jamie."
It's funny how bits and pieces of memories drift through a person's mind while sitting in an airport terminal, waiting for a plane to land.
As I look out the window I can see the United Airlines 707 touching down on the end of the runway, little puffs of smoke coming off each wheel as they make contact with the concrete. The plane continues its rollout and is now taxiing to the terminal.
Now passengers are disembarking, among them I can see a young Marine sergeant. But rather than entering the terminal, he is walking around the nose of the aircraft. He is standing at attention as a green shipping casket is being lowered from the cargo bay to a gray Cadillac hearse that has pulled alongside the large "freedom bird". The grim ceremony complete, the Marine does an about face and enters the terminal.
I approach him and introduce myself. "Hi, I'm Paul Sanders, ( 'you any good at kickball?' ) a close friend of Jamie's. His parents asked me to meet you and drive you to their home." "Sergeant Thomas Parkson, sir. I'm sorry we have to meet under these circumstances. Corporal Roberts spoke of you often." "How did Jamie die?" I ask while walking to my car.
"Corporal Roberts took several direct hits from small arms fire while attempting to wave in an evac helicopter to pick up two wounded men from our platoon. By the time the corpsman reached him, there was little anyone could have done." It sounds like he's reading from an official report. I can't accept Jamie dying in a goddamn official report.
"Did Jamie suffer before...before he died?" A tear is rolling down my cheek. Damn it, I promised myself I wouldn't let this happen.
"No, I don't think he was in much pain. Corp...er Jamie just laid there smiling like he always did, looking up at the sky. And he kept repeating the same thing over and over. I…uh..,think it was a message for you."
"What.. did…he say?" Can't stop the tears.
"He just kept saying, 'Tell Paul it never comes, someday never comes, it never comes.’”
Craig Schaffer, a former Rapid City fireman, was a Marine from 1970-1974, with vivid memories of the Marine Corps Air Facility at Futema, Okinawa, and Namphong, Thailand, experiencing aerial refueling missions over Vietnam in 1972. As an Airborne Radio Operator/Loadmaster on KC-130s with the Marine Aerial Refueling and Transport Squadron 152 based in Okinawa, he flew refueling and cargo/personnel transport missions all over the Pacific and Southeast Asia.