Wearing Marc Snell on Holy Saturday
March 31, 2018
I’ve never worn a compulsory smile, so I thanked a Starbucks barista a few minutes ago for the perky expression she is no doubt required to sport. “I know looking happy must be tiring,” I said, “but it really matters. I appreciate it.”
You should have seen the young lady’s wide eyes and pearly whites. No kidding, she parted the clouds on this drizzly day before Easter.
I now have in front of me another dear face, one that I have not seen for fifty years and figured never to see again. I often wear a leather bracelet bearing his name:
SP4 MARC E. SNELL
USA 03 SEP 68 SVN
This soldier, who was killed in Vietnam soon after his nineteenth birthday and a month before I turned seven, accompanies my comings and goings—not as a dark cloud, but as a ray of truth.
The Snells lived two doors down from the Colemans for decades, and the memory of standing on our front porch when word came of Marc’s death still has ahold of me. Even at my young age, I felt all the houses across the street tilt to one side. The fair weather turned surreal, as if warmth and normalcy had no business on Wagner Avenue that day.
I ordered Marc’s bracelet a couple years back and wear him to remind me that a person can be doing nothing much, like consuming C Rations, when an explosion changes everything—fade to black.
That was the story I heard. Marc was eating lunch. I’ve always imagined him still sitting alone, leaning against a tree. His Casualty Data Report doesn’t help much:
Start Tour: Tuesday, 07/23/1968
Cas Date: Tuesday, 09/03/1968
Age at Loss: 19
Remains: Body Recovered
Location: Long An, South Vietnam
Type: Hostile, Died
Reason: Artillery, Rocket, Mortar – Ground Casualty
Strange, I can’t bring into focus a single image of the living Marc Snell. What I do recall is paying respects at Duscas Funeral Home with my family.
“Johnny,” Mr. Snell said. “Come up and see my boy.” He took my hand.
I was terrified. Marc died of a head wound—or so I believed. Would I have to look at something ghastly?
Of course, the casket was closed, and Marc’s military portrait—the very one I tracked down on the Internet—sat on top of it.
“Come up and see my boy.” Decades have passed, yet I never again expect to hear an invitation spoken so proudly. His voice was hoarse from unfiltered Pall Malls and devastation. Nineteen year olds have no business dying.
Only now, with Marc’s portrait in front of me, can I tell how much the son took after the father. In the many Septembers since the Snell’s heartbreak, I’ve held a morbid, though loving, question: “Did Mr. and Mrs. Snell have to look at their boy’s body?” The answer, either way, is too much to bear.
I shot hoops as a teenager in the Snell’s driveway and can name each member of the family: Fred (father), Lillian (mother), Marc, Alan, Mary, Earl and Jane.
Earl and I palled around some. We bought gold Stingray bikes with banana seats on the same day from Kmart. The shimmering memory of riding around the neighborhood together bumps into the wretchedness of a boy’s violent end after only forty-eight days in action. Did Marc have enough time to be afraid?
Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, when “alleluias” will ring out from Christian churches everywhere, including St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown. You can bet I’ll be wearing Marc’s bracelet. No celebration of mine will leave Marc out in the cold. Inspired by his father’s WWII service, Marc voluntarily enlisted.
Understand, I’m not gloomy. If you hear a person laughing like a buffoon in public, even-money it’s me, and I make friendly eye contact with strangers, at the risk of being called “creepy.”
The thing is, my joy doesn’t ignore artillery. In the here and now, tombs are overflowing. Marc Snell is in the ground. So, by the way, are his parents and mine.
If I forget Gethsemane and Golgotha, Easter’s “alleluia” is nothing but smoke.
So what have I got to smile about? I believe in wide eyes and pearly whites. I believe that every kid killed in Long An and every other province of Vietnam has been recovered, indeed, once and for all.
I believe that the clouds will part tomorrow morning.