When my brother, Steve Merlo, died in October 2016, he left behind a treasure trove of columns he’d written over the years for The Bakersfield Californian.
In them, Steve shared his hunting and fishing expertise. He recounted outdoor adventures with family and friends. Sometimes, he nostalgically recalled his Buttonwillow boyhood. And, on occasion, he wrote about Vietnam War veterans like himself.
That chapter in Steve’s life came to light recently, when his son, Christian, visited Bakersfield from Austin, Texas, for the first time since Steve’s funeral. While here, Christian visited Steve’s widow, Candy. She had several of Steve’s things she wanted Christian to take home. Among them was a scrapbook stretching back to Steve’s childhood.
Inside the old album Christian shared with me, I found a small envelope edged in red and blue diagonal lines. I immediately recognized the sender’s name in the upper left corner: PFC Larry Johnson. The letter is dated Feb. 16, 1968.
Larry was serving in Vietnam then. For years, he and his family lived three doors down from us in Buttonwillow. He and Steve had become best friends as they discovered hunting and fishing together in the countryside around our small town.
I can still see Larry standing in our living room before he left for boot camp. He had a high forehead and curly brown hair he slicked back, hoping to make it straight. He was shy and blushed easily in our noisy household.
While Larry was in Vietnam, he and Steve corresponded by mail. Only one of those letters survives in the scrapbook. In that three-page, handwritten dispatch from the front lines of Vietnam, Larry wrote:
“The second platoon of which I’m a member lost 14 men on the morning of the 13th of Feb., 7 killed, 7 injured seriously. We only had 28 men to start with so we’re pretty short of men now. I was sick so I stayed back in the forward rear for a couple days. If I had been in the field, I would be dead now. The hutch I would have been sleeping in was hit with a rocket and everyone was killed. I knew all of the killed and injured pretty well. It is quite a loss. We had memorial services for them today. One of the men had gone to Bakersfield College and had known Larry Burleson [also from Buttonwillow, who served in and survived Vietnam]. The war over here is really going big right now and I’m in one of the bad areas near the D.M.Z.”
Larry was killed during a massive bombardment in the Quang Tri province of South Vietnam on May 11, 1968. He was 21-years-old. He is buried in Oklahoma, his parents’ birthplace, where they returned to live after Larry’s death.
I can only imagine what losing their only son meant to them. His still-grieving father, Fred, died in 2002 and is buried next to Larry. Larry’s mother, Marie, 92, now lives in Bakersfield with their only daughter, Pat, and Pat’s husband, Ron Huston. They have lived with their pain, and the flag that once covered Larry’s coffin, for a long time.
Steve, who served in Vietnam in 1969, mourned Larry’s death to the end of his days. He wrote about Larry many times.
In one of his most powerful columns, Steve remembered Larry, Bob Banks, W.R. Crabb and Peewee Edwards — young Kern County men who were killed in Vietnam. On national remembrance days, Steve wrote, “I am overcome with a strange sense of guilt, having fought in Vietnam alongside the real heroes, those 58,000 men and women that never made the return trip home to their families and friends. I used to wonder why the Almighty selected me to make it back relatively unscathed, to continue my life where theirs was cut so short, so I have taken a vow to never forget their sacrifices and intend to keep it as long as I am alive.”
He kept that vow. It’s something we can all do too.
Catherine Merlo is a Bakersfield-based writer.