April 30, 2000
Dear Pfc. David R. Augustus: xxYou probably never expected your name to end up on a postage stamp. But in a way, it makes sense. Thirty-one years after you died in Vietnam, letters are the closest we can get to you.
I have to go out on a patrol for five days with four men. I'll be all right, so pray for me, and I'll be home safe and sound.
In the letters you are real. More real than in the friendly voice of the daughter who never knew you. More real than in the anonymous sea of white headstones at Baltimore National Cemetery. More real than in the conclusion of an autopsy report that raises more questions about your death than it answers.
How is the baby doing? Is she getting any bigger? Does she look like me anymore?
Who would have expected to see your name on a stamp? You didn't win a Medal of Honor. You didn't die in combat. Your fate wasn't something people talked about, let alone celebrated. The truth about your life is elusive and complicated.
But not your name.
Nothing about your story is more clear than your name, etched in black granite at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and printed in tiny letters in the middle of a new postage stamp commemorating it.
Guess what. I got a job back in the rear so keep praying. I just might get home early.
In the beginning, your name was all we knew. Not why you went to Vietnam or how you died or who you loved or what you left behind. That was the point: To tell, 25 years after the fall of Saigon, the story of an unknown Baltimore soldier.
It is very lonely over here. Sometimes I sit and realize how far I am away from home. It is a long way.
The people who designed the postage stamp didn't know you either. A randomly chosen section of the wall was photographed, and the photo was reduced to postage-stamp proportions. Then an artist painted a soldier touching the names.
On the stamp, the names are minuscule, barely perceptible, and yet somehow still legible. Some are fully visible; others are covered by the soldier's hand. Yours appears on the right side of the stamp, in the middle. The soldier's hand obscures the first few letters.
It looks like this:
ID R AUGUSTUS
As if the artist knew: No matter how hard we try, we can't see all of you.
You were the kid with a passion for drums. You had bongos and a real drum set with cymbals and you carried your sticks everywhere. Kids would hang around the steps and lean up against the windows to listen to you practice with your band in a basement on Collington Avenue.
What's been going on in the world? I've tried to write everybody but it seems like I just can't get any letters returned.
It's not that your relatives and friends don't remember you, Private Augustus. They do. They remember you as outgoing and aggressive. Fearless. "All boy." They remember you as the kid who was spoiled by his godmother and protective of his sisters and who led neighborhood kids on nature hikes through Clifton Park. They remember calling you "Gus."
It's not even safe around here. Last night the VC hit a tent next to us. It really shook me up. I think I was the first one to run into the bunker.
Problem is, hearing what people remember about a person isn't the same as getting a feel for him.
Thirty-one years after you died, the obstacles to knowing you are numerous and complex. There is no single keeper of your memory, no thick scrapbook packed with mementos, no longtime confidant to chart the course of your life. Your mother, who died last summer, didn't raise you. The doting godparents who raised you died years ago. Your four siblings were raised separately, each by a different guardian; as kids, you and your brother and sisters didn't see each other often.
Some people who loved you have scattered and couldn't be found. Others could be found but had nothing to say.
And even the letters -- written to your sister and godmother -- have unanswered questions between the lines.
You know, I've sent Ann her rings so now I am legally engaged, and you know if she does the wrong thing, I'll kill her!
You didn't go to Vietnam because you were drafted. You enlisted, like so many of your friends and neighbors and cousins did.
The Army offered you something, people say. A chance to prove yourself to the world. To accomplish something, despite having left high school after two years. To emulate your late father, a World War II veteran. To stay out of trouble on the streets of East Baltimore. To take responsibility for your life, and that of the child you'd fathered at 19.
People give different reasons why you joined the Army in the fall of 1967. But they all amount to the same thing. Whoever you were, you wanted to be somebody.
You know, when I got out here, I thought it was all a game. But now I have realized. Because I could have been dead.
But I think the big stranger in the sky didn't want me to go yet. Maybe because he wanted me to think about how Sister Wilson used to tell me, 'You've got to grow up, David.' Now I see what she meant.
On July 18, 1968, you began your tour in Vietnam. You were 20.
You left your drums set up in the neighbors' basement so you could play with the band when you got home.
Well big sister, remember what I said about writing. Please don't you disappoint your little brother, OK? You don't know how much I love you.
In Vietnam, soldiers didn't have to put stamps on their letters. Yours arrived home with "FREE" written in your tight-looped handwriting where under normal circumstances a stamp would be.
I am sending you $50 a month to help you and the family along.
Your spelling and punctuation were nothing to write home about. But you expressed yourself as eloquently on paper as people say you did on your drums. You wrote to Barbara, your big sister, and to Sister Wilson, your godmother. Those are the only letters I've seen. But I know you wrote more, because you wrote about writing them. To aunts, other sisters and neighbors. To Rose, the mother of your baby. To another girl, the one named Ann.
You signed your name Little David and Love you always, Guess Who? and From: The best brother you ever had and Your son, David.
You were an infantryman who saw front-line action; we know that from your badges. But your letters speak of another kind of action, the sort taking place in your mind, as you struggled to grow up and make sense of your life.
You know, I've been over here for a long time and during that time I've had a lot of time to think. And what I'm thinking about now is how you and Mr. Wilson took care of me when I was small. ... What I'm trying to say is I really do appreciate it. And I'll prove it to you when I come home, and it will not be in words alone. Well, until I hear from you, be cool. Love always, David.
In the letters, you had a future. In the letters, you were coming home. You were counting the days. Wondering if your baby would know you. You wrote your godmother asking if anyone new had moved into the neighborhood. If they have, tell them that I said "Hi."
You know, you wrote Sister Wilson, I'll have to get used to the block again because my mind is not like it used to be. So if I do anything wrong, please correct me.
In the letters you asked for a radio and hometown newspapers and canned meat and fruit. You asked people to pray for you. You said you were praying, too.
I'm sorry that you haven't got a letter from me sooner but I've had a lot of things on my mind, you wrote Sister Wilson. And it was just working on my mind, but now I guess I've gotten over it ...
My days are going downhill now remember. When I left I had 365 days. Well, now I have 193 left and that means pretty soon I'll be home.
Not long after you wrote that letter, you were.
You died on Feb. 4, 1969.
You are the only person in the world who really knows why.
"He loved drums," Barbara began.
This was a few months ago, at your Aunt Ruth's house in West Baltimore.were looking at the stamp, and your Aunt and sister were remembering you.
They didn't have many photographs, but listening to their stories was like watching a slide show. I could picture you climbing -- and falling off -- the monkey bars, wearing your blue choir robe, fidgeting in the tub while Barbara gave you a bath, playing with your toy rifle.
But when I asked how you died, the screen went blank. Silence.
After a moment, your Aunt Ruth spoke. "When there's a mystery about someone's death, when it's something you can't know, it's something you'd rather not talk about."
I don't know what the soldiers said when they came to the door, so upsetting your mother that she wouldn't discuss the telegram with anyone. But I know what it says on your autopsy report. "Possible Darvon overdose."
In Vietnam, Darvon was a commonly prescribed painkiller.
I don't know why it took almost two weeks for your body to arrive home. Or why there were scratches on your face, or why your light skin was so dark that some people whispered that the body wasn't yours. I don't know the names of Army buddies who might have answers. But I know what it says on the page of the autopsy labeled "Microscopic Examination."
"Not performed," it says. "Tissues lost."
Your Aunt Ruth has no doubts that it was your body she saw at Hayes Funeral Home on that sad day 31 years ago. You know why? Because she recognized a scar on your forehead. From that time you fell off the monkey bars.
Problem is, hearing a person's cause of death isn't the same as knowing why he died. If you died of an overdose, what led up to it? Was it an accident? Where did you get the drugs? How many capsules did you take? Who were your Army buddies? Who was the last person you talked to before you died?
What was on your mind?
"I can't know," says Ruth. "And it's better that I don't, because I can't find out from him. He's gone."
They don't know. All they can do is speculate. "The war created all these little demons that came out of people," Ruth says. "The war was behind the whole thing."
You were buried in Baltimore National Cemetery, just three rows of white headstones from the American flag. Your drums were donated to a church. And in the years that passed, your sister Barbara says, the cause of your death was rarely discussed.
"Some people just didn't want to talk about it," she says. "They said if anyone asks what happened, just tell them we don't exactly know. And it was true, because we really didn't."
Not long ago, we sat in her kitchen, looking at the faded type on the autopsy report, page after page of clinical language describing your body. She had never read it before.
"...A 2cm scar is present on one of the fingers of the left hand...Rigor mortis is present in the legs only... The fingers are long."
Barbara looked up from the page. "He had long fingers," she said. "I do, too."
She touched the page as if it were your hand. "I feel like this is David," she said. "Even though it's about his death, it's a part of him. Just to see this much, this makes me feel good. At least it's something. It's more than what we had."
In the beginning, your name was all we knew.
David R. Augustus was a soldier who died in Vietnam. But he was also a brother, a son, a nephew, a neighbor. A father.
Your daughter Rita is 32 now, married and studying to be a nurse. She lives far away -- physically and emotionally -- from her past. She has not been in touch with her mother for some time. But she is a successful young woman, and she is yours.
I like to think there's a reason your name ended up on that stamp. It doesn't resolve things for your family. It doesn't make the story of how you died any easier to tell. But telling it gives everyone the chance to remember you.
Seeing your name on the stamp prompted Barbara to display your photograph on her dresser and re-read letters she hadn't read in 31 years. And she recalled one of the clearest images she has of you, something you might not even remember.
After your father left, your mother had been unable to cope with the demands of parenthood; all of you were taken in by different relatives and friends. On the day Barbara wwent to live with the family that would raise her, you kept unpacking her suitcase, trying to keep your big sister from leaving you.
People reacted to the stamp in different ways. Your sister Portia screamed with delight. Your Aunt Ruth thought your mother would have been proud. Rita marveled. "How cool is that?" she said. Your sister DeBorah, an artist, imagined a collage using the stamp and your photo. The cousins were so excited that their reaction took Barbara by surprise. She had forgotten how much you mattered to them.
And then there's Edward Jones, your next-door neighbor and friend. He thought the stamp was nice. But it would have been a lot nicer, he said, if your picture was on it, too.
A few months ago, your sister DeBorah went to the post office and purchased the sheet of 33-cent collectors stamps on which the Vietnam Veterans Memorial stamp appears. She asked the man behind the counter for a magnifying glass. She held it over the stamp and stood there, peering through it, until she saw you.
ID R AUGUSTUS.
It didn't matter how you died. Just that you lived.
She looked up at the clerk.
"That's my brother," she said proudly.