I never knew Marine Capt. Edwin J. Fickler personally, but his spirit has touched me in countless ways over the past half century.
We became acquainted in the 1970s, when I acquired a commemorative bracelet that honored men and women killed, taken prisoner or missing in action during the Vietnam War. Capt. Edwin J. Fickler was the name on my bracelet.
It was 1973 and America’s involvement in Vietnam was winding down. Henry Kissinger had signed the Paris Peace Treaty, and American POWs were returning home to their families after extended stays in the Hanoi Hilton.
I was in the fifth grade and a Vietnam War news junkie. I watched war news on TV, read about it in newspapers and dreamed of being a war correspondent one day.
It would be wonderful to say I had a noble calling, a compassion for the soldiers that led me to acquire my memorial bracelet. But my fascination was more with the war itself than those who fought it.
Oh, I saw the human side. A young man from our small South Georgia community, a friend my mama knew very well, died in Vietnam, and people grieved over the loss. In my own family, we worried that my brother-in-law might be drafted and breathed a sigh of relief when his lottery number late in the war made that possibility unlikely. But I acquired my bracelet because everyone else was doing it and it just seemed the thing to do. To me, Capt. Edwin J. Fickler was just a name on a bracelet, some guy from Wisconsin who had gone missing in action in South Vietnam on Jan. 17, 1969.
Except for a vague notion and maybe hope that he would return home one day, I never gave Capt. Fickler much thought until my freshman year of high school, when I read the book Born on the Fourth of July.
The book told the story of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic and put a human face on the Vietnam War for me. It breathed life into that name on my bracelet and made me wonder just who Edwin J. Fickler had been and what had become of him.
In 1983, I went to Washington, D.C., for the first time and visited the then-new Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
At the time, the wounds of that war were still raw. I walked among those name-lined, black granite walls and saw men with tears streaming down their faces and people leaving flowers, boots and dog tags in memory of loved ones.
Silly as it sounds now, the realization finally hit me then that Capt. Fickler would not be coming home and lay dead somewhere in a faraway land that once was South Vietnam. For the first time since I had acquired the bracelet, I understood the sacrifice it represented.
Eventually, I put away the bracelet in a box of keepsakes. I would think about Capt. Fickler from time to time, until several years ago when I rediscovered the battered bracelet in that old cigar box. The discovery reignited my interest in Capt. Fickler and sent me searching the Internet for information about the name on my bracelet.
Quickly, bits and pieces emerged. Edwin Fickler, a native of Kewaskum, Wis., had been a 25-year-old pilot whose bomber crashed while supporting a combat mission near the A Shau Valley. Because of heavy enemy presence in the area, the Marines could not send in troops to search for his plane, and no signs of the wreckage were ever found.
Capt. Fickler drove a red Corvette, knew his way around a kitchen and once lived in Pensacola, Fla., where I started my career with Southern Company.
On various websites, I found heartfelt remembrances of the man from former girlfriends, roommates and family members.
I also discovered personal connections. It turns out that we shared the same middle name, James, and that he, too, was called Jim by family and friends. Odder still, I learned he had been declared killed in action on my father’s birthday, Feb. 4, in 1974.
I still know relatively little about Jim Fickler, but he matters a great deal to me. I look at his picture occasionally and wonder about the thoughts and experiences that shaped his 25 years, what he might have become had he not died in Vietnam and even if his remains will ever be found.
It’s not much to go on, but it’s enough to breathe life into the bracelet that I now again wear on my arm. His life makes Memorial Day – when we remember those who sacrificed their lives for our country – even more meaningful.
This Memorial Day, I plan to say a prayer for the sacrifice of Jim Fickler, as well as for all those others—and their families—who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country and the freedoms we enjoy.
I chose the name Plowed Fields for my blog not only because it is the name of my fist novel, but because it also pays homage to my farming roots.