I turned twelve the year Pat went to Vietnam.
Pat taught riding lessons at a horse stable. Every week my parents dropped me off at the small stables a few miles from our house, and for one blissful hour I would ride around a ring on the back of a horse that I wished with all my heart was my very own. Pat was icing on the cake. He was my riding instructor, but he was much more than that. He was also my first crush. But, truth is, Pat at nineteen had no idea I existed beyond the confines of the small circle of riders in that class.
That didn’t stop me from mooning over him. Pat stood tall and handsome in the middle of the arena—sporting cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. He had an easy way about him—one that horses and kids alike took to. All of us sat a little taller in the saddle when Pat gave a compliment. He was the kind of teacher that made you want to learn a little better. At the time I imagined he paid special attention to me, a dreamy look on his face when he looked my way, but now—looking back with an adult perspective—I can see that the look I mistook for affection was more likely teacher interest possibly mixed with weariness from breathing in the dry California dirt kicked up by class after class of horse hooves.
After Pat left for basic training then Vietnam, his mother took over teaching the classes, and—my love of horses still going strong—I kept going. But it wasn’t ever the same without him.
One week when we arrived at the stable, Pat’s mom wasn’t there either. A young woman introduced herself giving no explanation of where Pat’s mom was, and she proceeded with the lesson, picking up where we’d left off the week before. The class was more somber than usual, we were just going through the motions, and about halfway through, another young woman came into the ring to talk to the instructor. She looked like she’d been crying, and the two young women hugged for a long time. Our circle of riders slowed to a stop along the arena’s fence, watching, wondering.
Eventually the two women pulled apart and our instructor called us into the center of the ring—to tell us the awful news. Pat had been killed in action the day before.
I stopped taking riding lessons after that—to be honest I think the stable might have closed, I’m just not sure. My family went to live out of the country the next year, and after that I started high school. I found other interests, moved on to new crushes, grew up and lived my life. But every once in a while I’d think about Pat. With sadness. And just a few weeks ago, a conversation with a friend made me think of him again. His love of horses, his handsome good looks, his easy way—but mostly, his dedication to his country. His love of freedom so strong he was willing to put his life on the line.
Pat only fought in Vietnam for five weeks before he was killed. But I know that the five weeks he was there, he gave it everything he had. That was his way. To stand and protect and defend what he believed in—wholeheartedly—and in Vietnam he was defending what he believed in most of all: his country’s freedom. I didn’t wholly understand it then—my feelings of sadness and confusion overwhelming everything—but I understand it now, and I’d like to say what I never had a chance to say then: thank you.
Because Pat was and always will be my hero.