War Torn


By Tom Gordon

Did you watch The Vietnam War series on PBS? If you were around during the Vietnam era, it may have brought back memories, and some of those memories may be ones you’d rather not have.

For me, a lot of memories date from 1969 to 1970, my senior year at Alabama. Among other things, I remember the weekly silent vigils against the war at the old Union Building, getting a high draft lottery number that put me out of reach of a military call-up, seeing a huge postage stamp fashioned by a student to commemorate an infamous massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops, running into a friend who had just bought two Grateful Dead albums to celebrate flunking his draft physical.

And then there were the two phone calls I received in early 1970. 

The first came in mid-January. On the line was David Sanderson, a Tarrant High grad with whom I had roomed two of the three previous academic years. David told me that Tommy Hill, another Tarrant alum who had been in the same dorm with us freshman year, was in the Army and heading to Vietnam. Tommy had told David to tell me he was going to whip my ass when he returned.

Tommy Hill.

Tommy Hill.

I smiled as I remembered the lower-lip chewing, storytelling, football-loving, cowboy boot-wearing guy who had lived on the floor below us and went home many a weekend to see his high-school girlfriend Nancy. Tommy and Nancy were now married, and I can’t remember if David told me then that Nancy was pregnant.

The second phone call came about a month later. It was David again, but this time, his tone was so different that he had barely spoken two words before I interrupted him to say, “You’re calling to tell me that Tommy’s not gonna whip my ass.”

On Feb. 10, Tommy had been killed in action.

“Oh, it hurts,” David said.

By the time the war ended in the spring of 1975, hurt had hatcheted the lives of thousands like David, folks who knew or were kin to the more than 58,000 Americans, including more than 1,200 Alabamians, who had died in and around Vietnam. Most of those who died, like Army Cpl. Thomas Marvin Hill Jr., were killed in action. Some, like Tommy, left behind a child they never got to see.

In Tommy’s case, the child is now a man who goes by his middle name Matthew, but his first name is Thomas. Now 47 and living in Georgia, he has a young son of his own. He calls him Mason, but the boy’s first name also is Thomas.

On May 14, 2011, members of the Tarrant High School Class of ’66 held their 45th reunion. A hardcover book commemorating the gathering was published, and it bears a tribute to an absent class member.

“We, the girls and boys of the Class of ’66, also honor our classmate Tommy Hill,” the tribute states. “Tommy left us with wonderful memories, hours of stories, lots of laughter and smiles. We are especially grateful to our friend who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.”

The book also includes photos of my old roommate David Sanderson and other Tarrant boys dancing with the gathering’s tiara-wearing, wrist corsage-sporting guest of honor, Tommy’s mother, Clara.

Clara Hill.

Clara Hill.

Clara Hill, now 94, watched The Vietnam War series in her Gardendale home. Because she lost a son in combat, she is a Gold Star Mother, affiliated with The Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 416. Outside her home, a polyester American flag hangs from a pole and a small welcome banner near her front door depicts some soldiers heading into the sunset. Inside, a portrait of Tommy hangs in the living room, overlooking a framed horizontal display of his military medals and a framed, slightly out of focus photo of him in his khaki uniform, his black tie out of place. A physical therapist who came by for the first time in late September noticed these things, talked to Clara about Tommy, and thanked her for his service.

For Clara, watching The Vietnam War was tough, but she kept her tearful eyes on the screen, hoping to catch a glimpse of her son in some of the footage, or see his name when the cameras focused on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington.

She had no luck with that, but over the years, she has learned, from some guys who were with Tommy when he died, that he did not suffer, that they considered him a great brother-in-arms.

Each night, Clara prays that Tommy and his younger brother James Edmond will be waiting at the top of a golden stairway when her soul departs this world. James Edmond, who lived to be 53, lost a long war with an enemy called cancer. Tommy, who lived to be 21, was felled in an instant by an enemy he never saw, in a war in a far-away place twice the size of his home state and even bigger in its exotic unfamiliarity.

“We should never have had that war,” Clara says. These days, that is anything but an isolated opinion.

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