Creative Nonfiction Sad High School

What For?

“I always like walking in the rain, so no one can see me cry.”

-Charlie Chaplin

1963. Freshman year in high school. Spanish class. I never met him, but I will remember him forever.

A foreign language seemed like a good idea. Besides that, my mother insisted on it. Spanish sounded easier than Latin, so I was dazzling my friends with “cómo estás” before day’s end.

It was the very first day. Señora Guzman said that all students would be known by the Spanish version of their name. It was easy to come up with the Spanish counterpart for John, Peter, Mary, Patricia and other traditional names. The one challenge was Duncan. The only known translation for Duncan was Duncan.

He stood out, primarily because he was a junior in a class dominated by freshman. Why was he there, a junior in a first year Spanish class? A friend of mine knew. Señora Guzman was a notoriously generous grader, and the class required minimum effort for the credit.

I’m an old man now so I have trouble remembering some things. And then there are those things I can’t forget. Duncan sat in the back of the room, barely engaged as could be expected of one there only for the purpose of grabbing an easy credit needed to stay on pace for graduation. If I were placed in that classroom today, I could pick out his desk. I can still picture him sitting there, leaning back slightly in his chair, with an expression that could only be described as amusing mixture of smiling, smirking, laughing and grinning all at the same time. The remarkable, memorable thing is that expression was always there. Always there.

What I can’t remember is the assigned Spanish name that Señora Guzman created for him. I’ve tried so hard, so often, but I just can’t remember. I don’t know why this bothers me, but it does. I know it was a funny name. Perhaps it was because he was a junior and seemed out of place. Or maybe it was Señora Guzman’s initial humorous translation of “Duncan” to “Duncan”. Most likely it was just that jovial, happy personality. The nickname would have been something like “smiley”, or “funny boy”, maybe even a “goofy” in there. He liked the name. We all liked the name. I just wish I could remember it. The whole class got a kick out of it whenever he was called on in another unsuccessful effort by Señora Guzman to elicit a meaningful contribution to that day’s assignment. His fractured attempts to say something, anything, in Spanish brought a nice dose of comic relief to the hour.

Duncan was such a good sport. He understood that everyone liked him so the good natured teasing never bothered him. In fact, he liked the attention, and I think he understood his special ability to put his smile on the faces of all those around him.

I remember being impressed with the fact he would stay up late enough to watch the Steve Allen show which started after my bedtime. I didn’t think high school kids stayed up that late, but I guess two years is a big difference in age at that stage of the game. It may also have been an indicator that he wasn’t totally locked into the world of academia.

I can only remember seeing Duncan smiling and laughing at that desk in the back of the room. I can’t remember ever seeing him enter or leave the classroom, in the school hallways, outside of school anywhere at anytime. He was and will always be the smiling, laughing kid at the back of Señora Guzman’s Spanish class.

November 1965, early morning announcements over the PA. I can still hear the words. They were burned in my brain forever. “We have sad news this morning. Former Central student Duncan Miller was killed in action in Vietnam. He was eighteen years old. Please all pause for a moment of silence to honor the memory of Duncan Miller.”

What? Oh my God. No. My brain locked up. Duncan? It can’t be. The funny kid from my Spanish class dead? In Vietnam, thousands of miles from home? Eighteen? I was stunned. It wasn’t possible. I immediately pictured him smiling and laughing at the back of that classroom. I felt so bad for him. It was so unfair.

I never met Duncan. I never spoke to him. But it consumed my thoughts the rest of the day. At fifteen, I had a tough time crossing that bridge to where it was real, a goofy kid in my Spanish class dead…in Vietnam. What for?

I was apolitical at the time and didn’t know much about the war. But I did know where Vietnam was, and it was hard to understand how a kid from my Spanish class could end up being killed thousands of miles from home. It seemed so wrong. My English class was reading “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the time. It was just plain wrong to kill a mockingbird, and even without knowing the motivations behind the war, I just knew in my heart that it was wrong to get eighteen year old Duncan Miller killed thousands of miles from home.

I had been to two funerals in my life- both of my grandfathers. Those were sad events, of course, but there was a certain order to it. I still don’t understand the why of it, but I felt I should go to Duncan’s wake. I guess I liked the guy. It would be hard not to like a guy who smiled all the time, and he definitely added something to that whole year of Spanish class.

My Dad once told me it’s important to attend a person’s funeral. He said death is the most important thing that happens in a person’s life, and it should be noted. Besides, it might add a small bit of comfort to those left behind.

My Dad drove me to the funeral home and waited in his car. I remember the stone cold silence. I thought my breathing was too loud. It was nothing like my grandfathers’ funerals. His poor parents, sitting on a sofa off to the side, his mother wiping away tears, his father without expression, just there. I stood at his casket. None of it seemed real. I was thankful that it was a closed casket. I hoped that was the family’s choice and not because of what happened to him so many miles from where I was standing. And I wouldn’t have wanted to see him without that smile.

I left the funeral home in a daze, struggling to understand how such a thing could happen. I lingered at the edge of the funeral home parking lot. I didn’t want my father to see me cry.

I took Spanish all four years, always in that same classroom. Many days I would look at that desk at the back of the room, Duncan’s desk. No smiling, laughing, character. I sometimes wondered if the person sitting there knew.

It affected me. Maybe it could have been any life cut so short, from war or whatever the cause. I didn’t really know him, but he was the first young person to die with whom I felt some sort of connection. It was the hard slap of the reality of death coupled with the unfairness that Duncan would miss out on life. I guess the fact it happened so far from home for such a questionable cause made it so much worse.

The same feeling that drew me to the wake drove me to want to know more about him. A friend of mine knew the family well, and he told me what he could. Duncan was a mischief maker in grade school, consistently marked down for behavior. It was perhaps a bit disruptive in a classroom, but never mean spirited or harmful. He was always goofing around, teasing, laughing, enjoying the moment even when there was nothing apparent to enjoy. The highlight of his elementary school career was releasing a mouse in Mrs. Schroeder’s 5th grade class. Despite the trauma of the moment, Mrs. Schroeder would laugh about it when retelling the harrowing adventure to future generations of students. It was hard not to like the kid with the jet black curly hair and a constant smile.

School work didn’t agree with him. Being funny and making kids laugh did. Was it for the attention or to add a little levity to the situation? What difference does it make? He was fun to have around. He was the handful that every teacher enjoyed having in class.

He was a noteworthy figure at the playground, a confident, personable kid who got along with everyone. Duncan was a good baseball player, usually at the keystone position of shortstop. It was only at pickup games at playground fields as he couldn’t cope with the structure of organized teams and leagues.

His Dad worked at one of the suburb’s foundry’s. It was hard work with long hours. He would come home every night covered in soot, and Duncan would worry about the stuff that made it to his Dad’s lungs. His Mom mostly stayed at home to raise Duncan and his two brothers and sister, but she occasionally worked as a substitute “lunch lady” at the kids’ school. Unlike some children who might have been embarrassed to have their Mom around fussing over them, Duncan never minded getting a hug from his Mom in front of his peers as he left the lunch room. They owned their home in a solid middle class neighborhood with lots of kids around and playgrounds within a mile in three different directions. It was good place to grow up.

Duncan got a paper route at the age of twelve. He knew that if he wanted a car, he would have to pay for it. He had a big route, seventy-five customers, worked hard and saved his money. He was a responsible kid, taking care to spare the paper from the elements in inclement weather. His customers appreciated him, and he got the best tips at Christmas. The only downside was many of the older kids smoked, so he picked up the habit at an early age.

Within three months of getting his license, he got that car, a 1958 Plymouth convertible, a little beat-up, the radio didn’t work and the roof leaked. With its big fins, he and his friends dubbed it the Batmobile. He loved that car and would “cruise the avenue” with the top down even when the weather argued against it.

He was a solid C- student, a bright kid who would only do the bare minimum to get by. The friend told me there was no doubt Duncan could have been a starter on the high school baseball team, maybe the same for basketball. But he wasn’t interested and chose to work.

He didn’t finish high school, and not a lot of career options were open to him. With his parents’ consent, he was able to enlist in the Army at the age of seventeen. He was still seventeen when he landed in Vietnam where somebody gave that seventeen year old kid a rifle and told him to go out and shoot people. Two months after his 18th birthday he was dead, killed in action in a place no one in our hometown had ever heard of.

Growing up in that industrial suburb, fielding grounders at sandlot baseball, being the class funnyman, getting hugs from his Mom, delivering thousands of newspapers, keeping that beast of a car washed and waxed, “cruising the ave”, it all went out all in a flash in a far away place when he was just eighteen. What for?

The more I learned about the war, the harder it was for me to understand, and the worse I felt. What the hell was Duncan doing in Vietnam? This wasn’t about the war, policy, communism, democracy, the draft, rice patties, helicopters, or napalm. This was about the smiling, laughing kid in my Spanish class. In just over a year, he had gone from entertaining a high school class to being ripped apart and dying alone, far from home. It was difficult to comprehend. It was so unfair. It was so wrong.

 I watched the news with its nightly scorecard of casualties. I guess we were supposed to cheer the lopsided score at the end of that day’s conflict. A hundred here, several hundred there. The numbers only mattered because every one of them was somebody’s Duncan.

For years the headline news was always about Vietnam and the number of U.S. servicemen killed that day, followed by a twisted version of, “But you should see what happened to the other guy.” No names, no description of how it happened beyond something like “an ambush”. No description of the suffering endured by the fallen as they lay dying or horribly wounded, or the pain that had just been inflicted on those left behind. It was easy to do the math on the cumulative totals. 4,307 minus one would be 4,306; 24,680 minus one would be 24,679 and finally 58,220 minus one would be 58,219. I would think of the number as one less than what it was, what it would have been without that smiling, laughing kid from my Spanish class added to the list.

It affected me. I thought of him often. It was a sense of sadness, but it also served as a reminder to appreciate life. I had one, Duncan didn’t. I had many more birthdays, Duncan didn’t. I married, Duncan didn’t. I had children, Duncan didn’t. It was so unfair, and what for?

One summer a high school classmate had a mini reunion at his parents home. I saw a guy I hadn’t seen for years, a defensive end on my football team. As I greeted him I reached out to shake his hand. He didn’t have one. He left it behind in Vietnam. Jesus Christ, what for?

 I lucked out in the draft lottery with a “good” birthday. Everyone in the fraternity house threw in a dollar, and the first guy picked got the money. It happened to be the most anti-war guy in the house. I thought of Duncan as the unfairness continued. I was safe. Duncan wasn’t.

I went to check out a Law School. I couldn’t get near the place because of the tear gas. Students were protesting after the slaughter at Kent State. It would all lead to the end of the war, but it wouldn’t restore arms, legs or eyesight, and it would do nothing for Duncan and 52,219 other poor souls.

Fifty-two years after I heard that terrible announcement over the PA, I was driving home from work one evening when I heard on the radio that the Vietnam Moving Wall was at a park just ten miles from my home. I immediately called my wife and told her I would be home late.

It was an impressive structure, stretching along an entire side of the park. I felt like more people should have been there. Information found inside a small tent directed me to the place where I would find his name. I stared at the name and then rubbed my fingers across the letters. I remembered him sitting at the back of that classroom, smiling and laughing, and wished I could have remembered his Spanish nickname. I could hear those words over the PA, “We have sad news this morning…” It was so sad, so wrong, and what for?

I walked to the edge of the parking lot and lingered there for awhile. I didn’t want anyone to see me cry.

September 19, 2022 18:21

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


23:18 Sep 28, 2022

Murray this was very nicely written. The totals from the news reminded of my childhood. It was a powerful thing to hear those numbers. Well done


Murray Burns
00:43 Sep 29, 2022

Thanks. Duncan (last name was changed) was a real kid in my Spanish class. Fifty years plus and it still bothers me- a nice kid lost life for no reason. Thanks.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
AnneMarie Miles
13:42 Sep 20, 2022

A powerful, sad, and moving story! I have goosebumps. You recalled so much detail here that I felt connected to the narrator and Duncan. I felt like I was remembering Duncan for you. There are so many great lines in here, it's hard to choose just one I love, but here it is: "This wasn’t about the war, policy, communism, democracy, the draft, rice patties, helicopters, or napalm. This was about the smiling, laughing kid in my Spanish class." You had quite a few lines in here that repeated this same idea, and it just added to the power of ...


Murray Burns
01:46 Sep 21, 2022

Thank you. Duncan (last name changed) was a real person in my high school Spanish class. He died in Vietnam just months after his 18th birthday. It affected me because I was young at the time, and it has stayed with me probably because it is the most unfair, unjust, and just plain wrong thing that I ever had a connection with in my long life. I sometimes wonder how I can still tear up when I think about that poor guy. And to think there were 52,219 others. I've asked a thousand times, What for? Thanks again


AnneMarie Miles
14:27 Sep 21, 2022

I can tell how important this story is to you. It is told so authentically and with so much emotion. This is a very important piece to share. A historically significant experience that everyone should hear. Thank you again for sharing.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.