Six feet, two-and-a-half inches tall, rangy and handsome, Robert H. Merriman was 23 years old when in the fall of 1932 he began studying at UC Berkeley for a Ph.D. in economics. A fellow student in his department, John Kenneth Galbraith, called him “the most popular of my generation of graduate students at Berkeley. … Later he was to show himself the bravest.”
I enlisted in 1966, in the Navy, so that I wouldn’t be sent to Vietnam. But it didn’t work out that way. I was sent to work as an advisor to the Vietnamese Navy’s swift boat operations in Qui Nhon, north of Nha Trang; beautiful country, beautiful people.
We had about ten boats operating there, and about 20 U.S. personnel. The mission was to patrol the coast to make sure the North Vietnamese weren’t coming in with contraband. We also worked with Seal Team One insertions and did MEDCAPs, where we’d take corpsmen or doctors in to treat villagers without medical care.
It was Super Bowl Sunday, 2005, and we were on base—this was in Hit City, Iraq—waiting for the very last convoy to come in, so we could watch the game together. It was gonna be a special night. We were going to have wings. It was about three in the morning, and that’s when we heard the booms. I lost count of how many. We all loaded up, headed out to go see what’s happening, and confirmed it was an incident involving our personnel—the last convoy in.
I registered for the draft when I was 18 and was called up in March 1944, just five years after my parents and I had arrived in the United States as Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. I still hadn’t finished high school and was technically an “enemy alien.”
My eyesight was so bad that I had to memorize and fake reading the first two lines of the eye chart to pass my physical. Certainly I wanted to fight the Nazis, but I also wanted to get away from home and be part of history in the making.
We all have a certain subset of memories burned deep in our forebrains: images so vivid, so invested with emotion that the decades serve to sharpen rather than diminish their resolution. It could be a few mental frames from childhood: a tableau of mother and puppy on a vast expanse of lawn. Or a traumatic event: the onrush of ruby brake lights just before a collision. Such memories seem fixed in amber, impervious to time; richly detailed images that can be examined again and again from all aspects.
I’d been sitting there for 30 minutes staring at my Arabic homework when Elijah texted me.
What do you think about getting together around 5?
OK where you wanna meet at?
I’m studying at Peet’s on Telegraph if that’s cool with you