Our contest “High Heeled Sneakers closed on January first, and this is the last story to be posted. We asked each writer to speak of an article of clothing that had special significance to them, and for Fred Rivera, that would be the leather bracelet that I am sure he is wearing, even as I write this post. Fred was a combat vet in Vietnam, and his memoir of the experience won the Isabelle Allende best New Fiction Award for 2015, for the book Raw Man, which the reader soon discovers is just Nam War spelled backwards.
Fred’s entry here is written from the point of view of his son Nathan, who, like is father, is an incredible professional musician.
Pleased to say I am one of the many who love Fred Rivera, am grateful for what he endured, and that it was he and not me dodging bullets and RPGs in the jungle so many years ago. Also grateful that he lived to tell the tale.
by Fred Rivera
As I grew up, my dad’s bracelet was just a part of his body to me. He wore no rings, not even his wedding ring. There were no watches or jewelry, just that funky black bracelet. He never took it off. It was just a part of him. It was made out of the most intricate braid of bootlaces. I swear, one would be astonished at the hard work that went in making it. It was a dull, ragged tightly woven puzzle.
The grit buried in the lace is like mortar between bricks giving notion of the solidity and permanence to the bracelet. The tie that held it together frayed at the ends. It had a musky smell but nothing more.
I knew it was from the war and it meant a lot to him. He had a small carved wooden box that he kept his war stuff in. It was “Dad’s secret box” and my brother and I were forbidden and afraid to look into it. He kept it in the top right drawer at his desk. My older brother Andrew peeped inside once and slammed the box shut, looked at me and said, “There’s a cross with a knife in it.” We ran.
We never spoke of it again. When I was in Jr. High School, my dad developed adult onset osteoarthritis. The VA doctor asked him if he had been in a bad auto accident in his youth.
“Does getting blown out of a tank qualify?”
It apparently did as they soon had him scheduled for surgery. When I visited him in his room afterward, I noticed that he had the bracelet still covered with gauze and tape.
“Didn’t they make you take it off?”
“They wanted to,” he said. “The nurse damn near took a scalpel to it. I called out to Dr. Ellis before they could put me under and told him that it stays.” I looked at Dad’s face and I saw the pain he was in. He looked out of teary eyes at me like he’s never seen me before.
“You know what it is?”
He took a deep breath as if smoking a cigarette and said, “I’ve been wearing it since way before you were born, Nate. Before I met your mom I wore it. It’s from the war. When I told the doc why I have it, he understood and let me wear it. My best friend died in my arms in Nam and the guys stripped his boots and made that for me. It’s Herman Johnson.”
Three years ago, dad wrote a book about his experiences in the war. An MP in Georgia was so moved that he went to The Wall to get pencil etching. The name wasn’t there. They searched and finally found him alive in Michigan. Dad and Herman finally had their reunion at The Wall last year.
“Fred, I woke up with a toe tag. I did die but the Good Lord sent me back.”
Each soldier thought the other had died. Writing Raw Man precipitated a chain of events that got them back together after 47 years! (visit www.rawmanthebook.com for details of their incredible story)
Here’s for you, Fred!