Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Arizona VII

I do not usually write about individual soldiers that were lost in Vietnam, but I completed a journey on this trip to Tucson that started several years ago, in fact it was late October of 2009. I was visiting a local museum to see the exhibition of artist’s interpretation of Del Dia los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. You have probably seen the brightly dressed skeletons celebrating the feast. They are often depicted dancing, playing musical instruments, drinking as this is a day of celebration and remembrance in the Mexican and Southwestern culture.

The museum, located at Tohono Chul Park, was just full of these marvelous representations, but then I came across one the likes of which I had never seen.

A skeleton, like all the rest, except that he was dressed in Army Class A’s, the green dress uniform worn on special occasions was staring back at me.  Around his neck was the Medal of Honor. A small note identified the artist and told the story that the artist had created this to honor his brother, lost in Vietnam.

I had never seen anything like this and was quite stricken by it. I stood and looked at it for quite some time wanting desperately to know more. There was a sign in the museum saying “No photography” and I always respect the wishes of these places or the artists involved. However, this time I was just overcome. I knew I would not be back, I knew that the exhibit would soon end; I knew I only had this one chance. So, I surreptitiously snapped a photo.

To prove that the universe is indeed just, when I got to look at the photo, it was lousy, completely unusable. Point taken.

I returned home haunted by this art work. I decided to see if I could locate the artist and maybe arrange to get his permission to photograph the piece.

I search the internet and found nothing. This went on for months, then a year, then nearly two years and finally I came across a group of which he was a member.  My hopes which had been dashed repeatedly, soared. Only to be dashed again, there was no contact info for him on the site. I tried repeatedly to contact the group with no luck, either.  Then I tried to contact other group members that did have contact info. And finally found someone who pointed me in the right direction.

I contacted the artist, Rhod (Rod) Lauffer and he was kind enough to tell me that the next time I was in Tucson we could get together and I could photograph his work.

A couple more years passed before I made it back, but I did and Rhod welcomed me into his home and shared the work with me. He, also, showed me his brothers Medal of Honor, Citations, Purple Heart and other artifacts.

Rhod and his tribute to billy

He, also, told me the story of how his brother, Billy Lane Lauffer, feared that he would not make it back from ‘Nam and how Rhod had chided him for thinking like that. Billy went off to ‘Nam; five days later he was gone.

Note the pin (red) to the right across from about his chin
Rhod did not tell me the details of Billy's loss or of his heroism. When I returned home, I was able to track down the story of this remarkable, brave, young man. 

Billy’s patrol came under fire, a couple were killed and others were wounded. They were pinned down and Billy realized that his buddies would not make it to safety unless something changed. He stood up and single handedly attacked two enemy machine gun placements, killing four and wounding many others. The wounds inflicted upon him cost him his life, but he is credited with saving many of his fellow soldiers.

Rhod made this to honor his brother.  Every single piece of this, except the pin marking where Billy was killed on the map of Vietnam, is made of paper. It is truly a remarkable piece and a stunning tribute.

Rhod told me that the Tucson Unified School District named a Middle School after Billy in 2005. Billy Lauffer is the only resident of Tucson to ever be awarded the Medal of Honor. I went to the school and was granted permission to photograph the school and was shown the display case where all the schools achievement trophies and awards surround Billy’s picture and story. The lady who escorted me said, “We try to base our excellence upon his excellence.”  I will write more about the school at a later time.

I want to thank Rhod, and his wife Diane, for allowing me in to their home, their memories and their lives. It cannot have been pleasant to bring all this back up and I want them to know that it is greatly appreciated and based on what I hear from Vets, all over the country,  I know Billy's story will be another that adds greatly to the healing of many.

I have been waiting to tell this story for almost 6 years. I hope you feel, as I do, that it was worth the wait.

Next time, on the 11th, we will be back in California, join me then, as always, at 9:00am.

To see other memorials from Arizona, or any other state, click the state name on the left side of this page.

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