I didn't know Gordon Walensky personally. He was a senior in my high school. I was a lowly, anonymous sophomore. In a school of 2,400 students, we were light years distant.
I'd see him walking the hallways like he owned the place, or eating lunch at a senior-only table with other popular kids. A few times I saw him from my seat on the school bus climbing into the driver's seat of his souped-up Oldsmobile 4-4-2 muscle car.
I heard plenty about him. My friend who lived in Walensky's neighborhood said he was one of the toughest kids around. Another concurred but assured me he was a friendly guy who didn't bully anyone, and if he liked you he had your back.
I prayed I'd be like him when I became a senior.
In the spring of 1967 word spread that Gordon Walensky was going to enlist in the Marine Corps after he graduated. A lot of us were stunned. In our neck of the woods — serene, suburban St. Louis Park — most boys went off to college in those days carrying a fat wallet and their 2-S student draft deferment. We had only a vague notion of some kind of conflict happening in a place called Vietnam.
Our 10th-grade social studies teachers tried to enlighten us about what was happening there, but most of us gave it little thought beyond the multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank quizzes. We were still two years away from turning 18 and having to register for the draft. For 16-year-olds focused on getting a driver's license, that was a long way off.
But in the spring of my junior year, our complacency and serenity vanished. That's when we learned that Gordon Walensky had been killed in action.
Gordon was the first person most of us knew in the flesh who'd died in a war. That same flawlessly cool kid we'd seen at Porky's drive-in with his arm around a girl, supremely confident and in control on Saturday night.
How impossible it seemed that Gordon had died, in a place called Quang Nam Province, South Vietnam.
I wanted to talk with Dad, which was rare for me. I knew he'd served in World War II. Had he been drafted? Dad was a mild-mannered guy, definitely not combative or hawkish. So I was floored when he responded, "I enlisted."
"Why?" I asked him.
"We all did."
Did he have schoolmates who "didn't come back"?
Then, to my surprise, he dug out his high school yearbook, which I never knew he still had, and showed me pictures of the ones who hadn't come home. They looked like Gordon, like all the rest of us — some cocky, some not so much. But all young.
When I browse through my own yearbooks, as many of us do when the mood strikes, I always turn to page 136 in the one from my sophomore year. There's the photograph of Gordon as a senior, leaning back at his classroom desk, casually resting his head in his hand, sporting a wry grin, little imagining that within a year he'd wind up fighting and dying in South Vietnam.
Recently, I came upon posts written on the Vietnam Veterans Foundation Memorial Virtual Wall about Lance Corporal Gordon Walensky:
"Gordy Walensky and I (former Sgt.) A.J. Ramirez, went through most of our pre-Vietnam training at Camp Pendleton in the fall of 1967 . … He had the natural charisma to lead … [and] was selected as squad leader in our training platoon at Camp Pendleton … .
"Now 36 years later I still miss and often wonder what Gordy would be like today … . I choose to remember and honor Gordy in the way I live my life, upbeat and with a friendly outlook … . Our two Grandsons Roger 17 and Jeremy 15, both know their 'Uncle Gordy' from my telling them of what a nice young man he was.
"Gordy: My brother, I know you know how much you're missed ... . Semper Fidelis, your 'mostest, bestest Pal', A.J. Ramirez."
And this one, posted by Gordon's squad leader about Gordon and fellow soldier Theodore Van Staveren:
"Walensky and Staveren went out with me on many a night ambush (which led to enemy contact on several occasions) and day patrols … and both clearly demonstrated their courage to everyone in the squad. I know I speak for the whole squad when I say we were and still are proud to have known and served with both of these fine young Marines."
With each passing year, I remember Gordon — as that supercool high school senior with the souped-up 4-4-2; and as Lance Corporal Walensky, who died for his country.
Dick Schwartz lives in Minneapolis.