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Twenty-five years after my father’s death in a 1965 CIA plane crash in Vietnam, I discovered over four-hundred letters he had written my mother over his U.S. Army and State Department career. First, as an attempt to learn about the father I never got a chance to know, I began corroborating what my father wrote about by conducting hands-on archival and field research across both the U.S. and Vietnam. I have since learned that the circumstances of my father’s death were covered up and remain classified. For over the last quarter-century, I have been on a quest searching for the father I never got a chance to know, to recreate certain events in his life, to discover the truth about his death, to attempt to find peace for him and my family, and to write about it.
It had been a typical warm, September day at Longino Elementary School, until two silhouetted figures appeared at the classroom door, and asked my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Webb, to step into the hallway. Perhaps I took the opportunity to talk to my friend, Gary, while Mrs. Webb was distracted. Maybe I stole a glance across the classroom at Susan or Debbie, two pretty girls I had a crush on.
Moments later, I was called out of the classroom and escorted to the front of the school. A neighbor was waiting for me in her car. Which one? I don’t know. I think my two older siblings were with her. Perhaps our neighbor had already picked them up at high school. When we got home, Mother was standing in the living room, weeping. She told us our father was dead.
What few memories I have of our father’s death are isolated and disjointed. I remember our kitchen and dining room tables overwhelmed with homemade dishes from friends and family. I remember government officials in their black suits and white shirts arriving and quietly talking with our mother. She told us afterward that they wouldn’t let her, or anyone else, view his remains. All of our relatives drove down from Ohio. I played touch football in our front yard with some friends and cousins, and when I happened to look up between plays, I saw two of my uncles conferring with each other and watching me. I knew I had become a different person to them: the nephew who now had no father.
The day of my father’s funeral, our Episcopal church was so full some people had to stand outside its doors. I looked out the back window of the black limousine and saw an endless procession of cars, all with their headlights on, slowly snaking their way in single file on Highway 41. At the Marietta National Cemetery just north of Atlanta, tens of thousands of white, polished, rectangular headstones stood in perfect and perpetual attention, honoring my father as they welcomed home another one of their own.
My grandfather, a WWI veteran who survived multiple gas and artillery attacks in the 1918–1919 Meuse-Argonne offensive, had his hand on my shoulder as he guided me to the funeral tent. Six soldiers standing right in front of us lifted the flag off of my father’s coffin and held it out-stretched while our family priest sprinkled a handful of earth on it. Seven other soldiers in the honor guard fired a three-volley salute. I recall how everyone, including myself, jumped, as the three rounds pierced the north Georgia air. As the six soldiers on the two sides of the coffin carefully folded the flag, a squadron of jets suddenly appeared out of the heavens. The noise they made was so loud I held my hands over my ears. When it was over, Linda and Leah, two of my teenaged cousins, ran up to me weeping and saying goodbye. Later that same night on the 11:00 pm news, I saw then Atlanta anchor Tom Brokaw give a moving television eulogy, interspersed with film clips of my family and me at my father’s graveside ceremony.
These are my only memories of that day, or for that matter, week, month, and year. I have no memories of the following year either. Looking back, it is as if when my father disappeared, he took years of my childhood with him.
I’ve learned trauma and depression can cause your memories to disappear. I suppose it’s a defense mechanism that protects your mind and body. A blessing disguised as loss, I guess. But I have always longed to understand that time in my life.
To resurrect the events of that lost period in my life, fifty years later, I reconnected with and interviewed four of my fourth-grade classmates. I needed to know what they could remember about the day of my father’s death. After traveling all day from my home in Lexington, Kentucky, to the town of College Park, Georgia, I reunited over dinner with Susan, Johnnie Marie, Mary Beth, and Rebecca. I lovingly refer to them now as the “Longino Girls.” They all told me, to my great surprise, that I never came back to Mrs. Webb’s class after that day. They told me how upset they were with never having had an opportunity to express their condolences and say goodbye. They remember how traumatic that event was to them, and how I seemed to disappear and die, just like my father did.
I can’t recall ever going back to Longino. After my father’s death, I went to a different school on the other side of Atlanta, but I’m not sure when that happened. To satisfy my curiosity, I requested my Longino transcripts. My assessments, test scores, and teacher comments from grades one to four are all there. Comments from the first grade to third grade include: “Jamie did very good work in the First Grade.” “He is a pleasure to have in the classroom.” “Jamie is a good student.” “Talks too much until he finds out you ‘mean business.’” “Is well-liked by others.”
The sole comment from my fourth-grade teacher is: “It has been a difficult year for Jamie. He can do excellent work when he concentrates.”
The truth is that my school records indicate I did come back to Longino, and I did finish the fourth grade there. The emotional truth is that after my father’s death, so much of me was missing, even my classmates couldn’t recognize me.
After years of research, travels, writing, discussions with family and friends, as well as counseling sessions with our church’s priest and pastoral care team, I think the Longino Girls were right. I not only lost my father that day in fourth grade, I lost part of myself. Part of me died with him.
And over the years, that vacuum in me was replaced by something else: an obsession with knowing my father, what happened to him, and why. After years of interviewing witnesses and examining declassified top-secret documents in archives in both the U.S. and in Vietnam, I now know there was a cover-up regarding the events of his death, and what the U.S. government told the media and our family is not true. The CIA turned down my Freedom of Information Request in October 2017, but as I expose more of the truth, it’s all beginning to make more sense.
I have been searching, trying to find both of us, to complete both our lives, for more than fifty years. Here I am, a former carpenter, soldier, correctional officer, architectural planner, and currently, a sixty-something-year-old university professor with a Ph.D. in Research, who is still trying to find himself, as he works on another graduate degree. Given what I have been able to uncover through my research and writing, perhaps one day I can say it has been worth it. I hope and pray that by the time I complete my quest for the truth, I will have found and resurrected both of us.
Thank you, Longino Girls.
Dr. James B. Wells is a Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice in the School of Justice Studies in the College of Justice & Safety at Eastern Kentucky University. He has an A.A., B.A., and M.S. in Criminal Justice, as well as a Ph.D. in Research, Measurement, and Statistics. In addition to having over forty peer-reviewed publications in areas related to adult corrections and juvenile justice, he has authored or co-authored multiple books and over 150 research reports for various local, state, and federal agencies. He is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at EKU’s Bluegrass Writing Studio. Recent essays from excerpts in his in-progress memoir appear or are forthcoming in Collateral Journal and Alternating Current. His work has also recently been nominated for the Charter Oak Award for Best Historical.