As Memorial Day approaches each year, I think of Christopher O’Brien, the only person I have known who was killed in combat.
He was two years behind me in high school. I remember him as having a goofy sense of humor, though a peer remembers him as “kind of a witty guy, a comedian.” He was on the chubby side, and he wore glasses. He also played tackle on the high school football team — my position. I remember scrimmaging against him. He was rather easy to block, and sometimes I would let up on him a little. I didn’t want to embarrass or discourage him.
However, two years after my graduation, his senior-year team would be the undefeated league champion. Chris would be the starting right guard.
After high school, I believe he went on to UMass for a while, but the next that I heard of him, he had joined the U.S. Marines and been shipped out for Vietnam.
In the summer of 1967, between my junior and senior years of college, after completing my own three-year enlistment, I was working as a summer camp counselor in Contoocook, N.H. Word reached me that Chris had been killed in action.
“Are you OK?” asked the head counselor as I stood with my group of boys at a camp meeting. My eyes had misted over, but I bore up.
For some reason, long since forgotten, I did not attend the services. But I can imagine the pomp and circumstance of the military funeral, as I can imagine the anguish of the family. What must it have been like to have heard the knock on the door, to have seen the bearers of bad news?
Chris’s father, Tom O’Brien, was my high school baseball coach. Further, his father and my own father were baseball teammates in the Cape Cod Baseball League in the 1930s. And my father had served as coaching assistant to Tom O’Brien’s Athol High School football team, also in the 1930s. So Coach O’Brien called me by my father’s name — “Pete” — as he called many of my teammates by their fathers’ names.