BOBBY BENNETT: A LESSON LEARNED ABOUT MEMORIAL DAY
There's nothing "happy" about Memorial Day.
I rarely prefer to write commentaries, so when I do, it's something which I feel strongly.
Let me say; I am in absolute appreciation for anyone who has served our country. Additionally, I am in awe of those who have served on the battlefield. However, I do have a special place in my heart for those who served our country bravely in a war where they had zero chance to win.
Vietnam Veterans are my heroes. They were drag racing's solid hold on the 18 to 24-year-old market when drag racing could be found in popular television shows as part of network television storylines, significant media and even cartoons.
Veteran drag racing journalist and Vietnam veteran Dave Wallace said it best when he pointed out Vietnam had more of a detrimental on the future of drag racing than anything. If I might be so bold to conclude; even more than this season's Conoronavirus.
Drag racing experts and historians believe that in 1962 - 1966 no other form of motorsports enjoyed a faster evolution of innovation, performance, and popularity than drag racing. By 1967, this growth slowed dramatically.
"That's where all the gearheads were," Wallace explained in a 2019 CompetitionPlus.com article. "They were mainly blue-collar, not headed to college. For every person in a combat zone, there were at least two support personnel members somewhere. You take over 2 Million people out of the blue-collar community, and that was most of your gearheads."
I was born in 1967, too young to understand what Vietnam was all about. I was only four-years-old when I would sit with my grandfather watching the news with Walter Cronkite. There were Army men on television which captured my attention, and there were often mentions of the place called Saigon.
Fast forward to my teenage years, I became more aware of just what those young men went through. I knew there would be a day when I could make a difference.
That day came in 2007 when I was blessed to work with the Vietnam Veterans tribute dragster driven by Melanie Troxel. I was the point man for the program and was able to work with the Vietnam Veterans of America to bring at least ten Vietnam and Vietnam-era veterans to each NHRA national event.
Our goal was not only to welcome them to the drag strip, a place many of them used to attend religiously before Vietnam. I did have multiple occasions where those events were the first time they returned to their first love.
I learned so much from those gentlemen, who were willing to speak of the hell they endured. The heartbreak of going off to fight battles they weren't allowed to win and returning to a country where wearing their uniforms was not a matter of pride.
It breaks my heart.
It's a Memorial Day tradition, former NHRA Pro Stock racer Morris Johnson Jr's story of life after the Vietnam War, and losing brothers in battle. He will never forget them, and neither will we. - https://t.co/vvwb3bOusi pic.twitter.com/68hxbdSSIY— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) May 25, 2020
I've tried to go out of my way when I see a Vietnam vet wearing a hat of their service to say to them, "thank you." I was only a baby in 1967, but if I was born in 1947, I would have been wearing the hat too."
And for at least one season in drag racing, the dragster which merely said: "Welcome Home" coupled with the POW/MIA logo I am convinced made the most profound statement.
I even got a chance to visit The Wall in Washington, DC., and couldn't help but notice the painstaking detail someone had put into a '55 Chevy gasser model, and placed at the bottom of a panel. That hit me almost as hard as reading the 58,220 casualties listed in the memorial. It illustrated what drag racing meant to at least one brave soul.
I met I figure as many as 400 Vietnam veterans that season which made a point to tell me about their friends who loved drag racing who never made it home; some of whom were still missing in action.
One of the more important meetings I had was in 2005 at the NHRA Summernationals in Topeka, Kan., just days before Memorial Day. I met with a former member of Special Forces whose scars and rough talk admittedly intimidated me. He spoke candidly and yet got to the point about his service in Vietnam. It didn't take him long to pick up on my nervousness.
I will do my best to paraphrase some of the conversation.
"I just want you to make sure what my friends and brothers did is never forgotten," he said. "We did what was asked of us, and sometimes it wasn't pretty. Have the memories stayed with us? Some things as hard as you try to block out, never leave. You just learn to deal with it."
I'm sure this could apply to any theatre of war, past or present. But with all due respect, the others received a welcome home. These guys had to wait almost thirty years after the fact.
"Life isn't fair," he added.
"Happy Memorial Day in advance," I nervously responded.
"There's nothing happy about Memorial Day," he countered.
"The only happiness you get is the pleasure of having known those guys you called brother. They were once in a lifetime friends."
Their presence represented the real glory days of drag racing, not when it was affordable to run without a sponsor.