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Remembering Johnny

Trout fishing and remembering Johnny on Memorial Day
Wednesday, May 28 2008, 10:32 pm
Hugh Koontz  Shelby News Article
I could just make out the outline of a fly fisherman shrouded by heavy fog in the middle of the river. He cast a ghostly figure, standing there knee-deep in the South Holston River fighting a big brown trout. I saw the fisherman calmly lift his rod as the fish hit his fly. The rod bent double. This was a big one.

But the fisherman was calm. Instead of whooping and hollering to his buddies upstream, he talked in a conversational tone, as if speaking to the fish.

When he netted it, he held it up for me to photograph, then gently slipped it back into the river. It made an eerie picture.

The year 1967 is just as shrouded in the mists of time. I recall that hot summer night in a Virginia Beach tavern guzzling beer out of frosted mugs like it was the only thing that could put out the fire we felt on our skins. We had spent most of the day in the sun, and the four of us radiated heat like red-hot woodstoves.

Johnny, my teammate on the Maury High wrestling team, was back from Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island, S.C. He had just finished as top recruit and was headed for officer training school at Quantico, Va., and I was getting ready to begin basic at the same dreaded little island.

He was leaving; I was going. Johnny did not surprise me. He had always been an overachiever. At 185 pounds, he was one of the lightest "heavyweights" in the Eastern District and if that were not remarkable enough, he also won a football scholarship to the University of Tennessee, where he graduated before joining the Corps.

He had a lot of fun, at my expense, that night regaling me with horror stories of sadistic drill instructors and swamp monsters that ate unwary Marines.

I never accomplished what Johnny did at Parris Island. I had it going pretty well for a couple of weeks, but then one morning the D.I. said "Colmrar" and I thought he said "Colmlah."

There I was, the top recruit in the company carrying the company flag, running across the field in the early morning darkness ... with nobody following.

I was all alone. The rest of the company had gone the other way. The D.I. was not pleased. I was no longer the leading recruit, I gathered, when he snatched that banner from my hands. He got my undivided attention in the darkness by squeezing the air out of my throat with his free hand.

Well, that's about what Johnny told me to expect. He'll get a big laugh the next time I see him.

Trouble was ... I never saw Johnny again.

He was killed in Vietnam.

What a waste.

Years later in Asheville I visited the Moving Wall, a memorial to all those boys who died over there at the Big Rifle Range. I asked a fellow dressed in camo, he was one of the visitors' guides, where on that long series of black slabs Johnny's name was located.

You could spend hours looking. I asked for help. The guide kept going through his little book, looking for the name. For a brief moment, I had this insane idea that it had all been a bad dream and that Johnny had not died over there and that somewhere he was still alive....

"Here it is," the fellow said, pointing me in the correct direction.


And now it's Memorial Day 2008, another long weekend for most of us and a fishing weekend for some of us who would rather not think too much about the holiday all.

It's a memory I wish I could lose in the fog.

But I will never forget.

Semper fi.
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