COLUMN: Thinking of Leon on Memorial Day

Editor’s note: Guest columnist Evans “Buddy” King grew up in Christiansburg and graduated from CHS in 1971. He lives in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where he practices law with the firm of Steptoe and Johnson PLLC.

Panel 48W, Line 9.

If you go to “The Wall”—the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.—there you will find the name of Leon Willard.

Born in Christiansburg on April 13, 1948, he died on August 13, 1968, in Long An Province in South Vietnam.

You can find the details online at In country only 24 days, he died from multiple shrapnel wounds.

If Leon and I were to meet someday in heaven, I doubt he would remember me. He was CHS Class of 1966, five years ahead of me. I remember him primarily because he was a very good baseball player. Back in those days we played ball on vacant lots all summer long if we weren’t at Kiwanis Park for organized games. Leon and his best friend Tink came to our neighborhood game occasionally because they were close friends with my neighbor, Carl King. They all loved baseball like I did – we played from sun up to sundown, ages 7-16 or so with no coaches, no umpires.

I remember my dad taking me to Wytheville for a district championship game when Carl pitched a great game for CHS and we lost a close one to Hillsville High. I think Leon was on that team but frankly I am not sure. In my memory he was.

I remember Leon always wearing a Cincinnati Reds ball cap—the one with a red bill and a white top, the one they wore when the Reds won the pennant in 1961. His best friend Tink always wore an L.A. Dodgers cap. I also recall that each summer (or maybe it was only one) they took the train from the depot in Christiansburg (the Norfolk and Western) to Cincinnati, where Leon’s aunt lived, and they went to the late great Crosley Field to see the Reds play the Dodgers. Again, that is my memory.

I did not know Leon’s family. I don’t remember if he had siblings. I don’t know how they dealt with the news they received in 1968 that Leon had died in some rice paddy or jungle in a country they probably had never heard of five years before.

I was about to enter my sophomore year of high school and I wish I remembered how I felt. I am sure it was tragic and shocking news. At that time, Christiansburg was a town of 5,000, more or less, and everybody knew everybody to some degree. The war and the evening news body counts were just starting to grab our national psyche and squeeze it by the neck.

Was Leon’s death in vain? Every death in every war can be questioned. Why? What was the war for? Was anything accomplished? Why Leon?

I have no answers. I know that this war affected my generation in ways that are still being measured. I was lucky enough to be just (barely) young enough to have avoided it. I have family and friends who still suffer from it, if they are lucky enough to still be around.

I refuse to believe that it was a waste, simply because I don’t want to think that Leon and the other brave men and women like him fought and died for no reason at all. I want to think somehow that Vietnam was part of the process that led to the fall of the Soviet Union many years later. But I don’t know. I am not sure how much it matters now. I do know that Leon did what his country asked him to do and that he paid the ultimate price.

At age 20.

I read the “Bedford Boys” a few years ago – a great book about the many young men from that small town who died on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. The most poignant of all the storylines to me was how the wives and girlfriends of these soldiers lived the remainder of their lives with the images of their 20-something lovers and sweethearts never growing old. They were forever young to them, as they themselves grew old.

My memory of Leon will always be of him wearing his Cincinnati Reds cap and masterfully knowing how to field a groundball.

In recent years it seems that people have tried to expand the meaning of Memorial Day beyond its intended purpose – to recognize those who are no longer with us – family, friends, etc. While this is understandable in some respects, there are other times and other ways to remember loved ones and dear friends who have passed away. On this holiday we should stop and remember those who gave their lives in the service of their country in the military. So when you see a flag or make a toast at a backyard barbecue on this weekend please do so in remembrance of Leon and all of the other brave men and women who served their country well and did not come back.

RIP Leon. You served your country well.