A wise man once said our fascination with anniversaries reflects both our limited capacity for remembering and our risk of forgetting.

Landmark anniversaries are opportunities to divert our attention from urgent matters of the moment and focus instead on a specific event from the past. Dates like Dec. 7, 1941, and Nov. 22, 1963, and Sept. 11, 2001, are universal, but we all have other unique moments to recall — starting with positive times like birthdays.

These special dates on the calendar allow us to not only remind ourselves of important events in the past, but also to reflect on how they affected our lives and lives of those around us. Too quickly, that day passes — until next year.

I’ve managed to remember a small collection of anniversary dates important to me. Dates like June 10, 1965, when my parents moved from North Carolina to New Mexico and I boarded my first commercial airliner. Or like May 10, 1968, when before high school graduation I took delivery of my first new car. And then there’s the anniversary of my own wedding, which happened sometime in July 1974. I’ll have to ask my wife for details.

Speaking of vows, I had promised myself last year that I was going to act like I understand my current status in life, which is “retired,” and that going forward, I wasn’t going to write anything beyond this column. I made an exception to produce a story about a Vietnam veteran now living in Tennessee, who served in the U.S. Marines with Wayne Wheeler of Brown County. It ran last Friday, and I’m taking my space this week to explain why.

To recap that article, Wayne Wheeler was killed in Vietnam on May 10, 1969, and his body is buried in Pleasant Valley Cemetery south of May. He was crew chief of a helicopter that was shot down by enemy fire, but he and several others escaped the wreckage. Wheeler raced back into the burning aircraft to rescue those trapped, but he and others were killed in a subsequent explosion. Wheeler had maybe two weeks left before coming home. Making the narrative even more tragic, if that’s possible, is that Wheeler was not originally scheduled to be on that mission. Wheeler had taken the place previously assigned to that man from Tennessee. Earlier this year, he visited Brown County and Wheeler’s family for the first time.

Things got quite emotional when everyone went to the cemetery, and that included me.

We never met, but Wayne Wheeler deeply affected my life. As a college student with the good fortune of having a car, I often drove the backroads of Brown County pondering life and the choices a young man must make.

Something drew me to Pleasant Valley Cemetery and Wheeler’s grave, where the date of his death — May 10 — hit home. Although a year apart, that anniversary was one of joy for me, but one of sadness for the Wheeler family. I frequently stopped at the cemetery to reflect on that, and to wonder why our fates hadn’t been swapped.

I lived in Brownwood for decades before I found out I had known members of the Wheeler family all that time. Through his family, I’ve seen glimpses of how great a man Wayne Wheeler must have been — from the day of his birth until May 10, 1969.

He was a hero, and we will never forget.

 

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at news@brownwoodbulletin.com.