The upstairs bathroom in Susan and John Greifer's Silver Spring house had always struck them as a bit odd. It was L-shaped, with a corner that seemed to intrude into the room unnecessarily. And, indeed, when the drywall was torn down during a renovation in the 1990s, there was nothing back there — no pipes, no wiring, nothing except a paper bag full of snapshots, letters and newspaper clippings.
Nothing but memories.
"Dear Family," one handwritten letter begins, "I'm sitting on the side of my bunk, listening to Perry Como's Thanksgiving program on Armed Forces Radio and counting my blessings."
In a neat hand, Lt. William A. Stacy Jr. wrote to his family in Maryland describing what Thanksgiving 1965 was like in Vietnam. ("We are going to have turkey today," he wrote. "They dropped it out of an L-19 aircraft yesterday.")
He wrote about how he would soon be starting a new job, as senior adviser to a South Vietnamese army unit in Ben Tre, a promotion from his job as an assistant adviser. (“The new job will mean a great increase in operations, but I’m looking forward to getting out and doing some work — it makes the time go quicker.”)
In a letter to his grandmother, Bill Stacy wrote approvingly of his cousin John, who was working with the Peace Corps in a leper colony. "I would say that you head a pretty fine family — all of them are builders or healers," he wrote. "I'm the only destroyer, but I guess one black sheep in the family isn't a bad average."
The photos included ones of Bill Stacy before the war and during it. In one picture, he’s a young man sitting on a couch in a knotty-pine-paneled room. He holds an acoustic guitar. In another photo, he’s standing in shorts, T-shirt and aviator sunglasses in what looks like a tropical setting. He’s casually holding a machine gun.
For nearly 20 years, Susan and John kept the papers inside a manila folder in a filing cabinet. The new Ken Burns-Lynn Novick documentary on the Vietnam War prompted them to take the papers out and get in touch with me.
“I think it is now time that they be sent somewhere for posterity, or reunited with the original owners,” Susan said.
The PBS documentary has a lot of us revisiting the Vietnam War. It’s hard to watch at times, but it seems important that we do. It explores the architects of the war — the politicians and generals — but brings it down to the human level, too: to the soldiers on both sides who, like Bill Stacy, left behind their families to fight.
From the small collection of ephemera I started to get a sense of the young man. He was a good writer: direct, engaging. “This is my first experience of a Christmas spent away from everyone I love,” he wrote to his family on Dec. 24, 1965. “All of us over here are trying not to get too emotionally involved this Christmas. We’re trying, in fact, to treat it just like any other day so it will pass quickly without too much pain.”
He predicted he’d be a “terrible bore” when he got home, writing “I’m going to make you and everyone else sit through a couple showings of all my slides and lecture you on my Vietnam impressions. Good and bad, there are many aspects of this country and area of the world that Americans should be aware of.”
A newspaper clipping mentioned that in his spare time, Bill Stacy gathered clothing, food and medical supplies for an orphanage he’d adopted in a nearby village called Mo Cay.
“I am fighting with and advising a Vietnamese infantry battalion in the Mekong Delta, but this is a strange war,” he’d written to a young Ohio girl who’d sent in a donation. “It is not fought completely with guns and bullets. It is also a war for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people. With individual Americans sending gifts of friendship — such as you all are doing — we will win the people of Vietnam and the war.”
Bill Stacy wouldn’t be around to see whether his hope would come true. Among the yellowing newspaper clippings was an obituary: “Lt. William A. Stacy Killed in Viet Nam.” He was 25.
His grandmother had crossed out “Lt.” and written in “Capt.” The headline writer hadn’t known that her grandson had been promoted.
The obituary listed the survivors: his parents, two brothers, a sister. Last week, after some digging, I dialed a number in Royalton, Vt. When a man answered the phone I told him about the bathroom in Silver Spring, about the drywall, about the pile of letters, photos and newspaper clippings.
"You've just given me goose bumps," said Art Stacy, Capt. Stacy's little brother.
Tomorrow: A brother remembers.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.