I’m may be the only person who has been attacked by a Navy SEAL – and lived to talk about it.
It was Fall 1974 or Spring 1975, the waning days of high school for me and also of the Vietnam War. Most of the young men in my senior class had received our draft cards, but the designation – I-H, or “Registrant not currently subject to processing for induction” – meant that we, unlike many of our older schoolmates, had “nothing to worry about.” The draft was all but over. The war was all but over. Before we graduated in May, Saigon would fall – the complete end. Our paths were clear toward college or work. Our futures were wide open, as they had not been for many of our predecessors. Walt, on the other hand, had sought out for his future a career in the military, following the model of his forebears.
That evening in Middletown, R.I., Walt and I were visiting in his room – one of the relatively cavernous rooms on the top floor of the largest dorm complex. He was noodling with a Swiss Army knife, and had the larger of the two blades out, which he was waving back and forth and up and down – like a knight in battle. According to Walt, everything was under control until I moved in a direction he did not anticipate – and the blade nicked my eyebrow. No major damage, but I bled like a stuck pig, and the blood ran over and into my eye. Ever the gentleman, Walt led me across the campus to the infirmary. Along the way, I left a decent trail of drops of the blood that was by now pooling in the hand I had covering my eye – drops of blood down the stairs, drops across the quadrangle, drops along the hallway of the main building, drops through the paneled dining hall and along the narrow hallway to the infirmary where the nurse gasped and uttered some uncharacteristic words of shock because she thought the blood – by now covering the side of my face – was coming from my eyeball, not from above it.
An hour or so later, after a trip to the ER at Newport Hospital, I was equipped with half a dozen stitches holding the cut closed – and the story of a lifetime: attacked by a man who would become a distinguished and honored member of one of the nation’s elite military forces.
We all knew in high school that Walt was aimed toward a career in the military, and that his prowess as a competitive swimmer probably meant Navy.
Walt was a consistent hard-worker, in academics, in sports, and even in his relationships with us. So when he told us, 40 years later – after his stellar career as a captain in the Navy SEALs – that he had cancer, we knew he would work hard to fight that, to protect his wife and his young son and daughter from the threat. That was his job, and that was his nature.
I have taken a long break from Facebook. My news feed was alternating between incremental news from friends and family, and pitched battles over politics. The battles became distracting, so I stepped away. Periodically, I would follow an email notification back to Facebook to learn more about some event, or rarely even to post a brief response. But I did not see the most recent threads about Walt, who I knew had already been through surgery, chemo, and radiation, and had been publicly positive and optimistic throughout.
Thus it was a shock when I opened the envelope from school that shared the news that Capt. Walter Samuel Pullar III had died. I thought, wait, is this an announcement about a relative? But it was Walt’s picture, Walt’s name, Walt’s obituary. He was survived by a wife whose name I recognized, by a son and daughter, whose names I recognized. It was Walt. I was crushed.
I know enough about cancer to know that even beating it can be a short-lived victory. It has mercilessly claimed family and friends of mine all along my path from when I was 10 and my maternal grandfather, a towering figure – physically and in my life – grew gaunt and celebrated Christmas 1966 from his bed, and only because of the quiet kindness of the ambulance attendants who were willing to work on Christmas Day to carry Grandaddy home to be with his family.
And still, the last sense I had about Walt’s treatment was that it had been successful, whatever that means with this insidious illness. Checking the Facebook threads I had missed, I discovered that was not the case at all.
I don’t know what I could have done had I known, had I been paying closer attention. Perhaps I could have called. Perhaps I could have written. Perhaps I could have grieved ahead of time, to be more prepared.
At the least, I could have reminded Walt that I carry a proud artifact of our crossed paths in the small scar above my eye, now all but hidden by my eyebrow. Perhaps that could have reminded him that in our lives, it is what we carry forward from our interactions – memories, artifacts both physical and emotional – that keep us alive past the day of our passing, in the way the American poet Walt Whitman envisioned when he was confronted by the horrors of the Civil War.
Perhaps Walt could have smiled and chided me once more: “John, why did you have to move right into the path of the knife?”
I suppose I could have told him: “I am honored to carry this scar from you, Walt. Get some rest. You have worked hard.”