I took up the search for Ernest Samuels again this week. I’ve looked for him on and off for the last 25 years, although I’ve never met him and the last time I heard from him was a whispery phone call in 1970.
Our friendship developed through the mail. At Christmas time in 1967, Mr. Nolan, my catechism teacher at St. Bartholomew’s, gave everyone in the class the name of a soldier in Vietnam. The country was in the paroxysms of the war, and each of us was supposed to send a Christmas card. I not only sent Ernest a Christmas card, but continued to write to him for three years until he was discharged from the Army.
We wrote back and forth dozens of times. I have only one of his letters left dated July 18, 1968. The rest of the letters fell victim to one of my mother’s occasional blitzkrieglike throwing-out sessions. The correspondence with Ernest made the Vietnam war much more real to me. I didn’t have a brother in Vietnam, so without those letters, the war might have remained remote, like the grainy black and white footage I’d see on the news.
One day Mr. Nolan asked the class, “Who had Ernest Samuels’ name when we sent Christmas cards?” I raised my hand. “He was shot down. He’s missing in action.” I was in tears when my mother picked me up after class. “What’s the matter?” I just sobbed, finally spluttering and hiccupping that Ernest was missing.
I wrote to the last address I had for Ernest, scrawling on the envelope in huge letters: “IF ERNEST IS MISSING OR DEAD, SOMEONE PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE OPEN THIS AND TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED TO HIM.” About a month or so after that, I got a letter from Ernest. He was shocked by what I’d written on the envelope, because he hadn’t been shot down. Evidently, Mr. Nolan had bum information. I’m not even sure how Mr. Nolan got those names in the first place. I thought at one time that maybe he had a son in Vietnam and the names he gave were members of his son’s troop. But just this week, when I took up the search for Ernest again and read the 1968 letter once more, it occurred to me that maybe Mr. Nolan had a list of Catholic soldiers because Ernest closed this letter with “May the Lord and his loving Mother watch over you always.” Only the Catholics go in for the mother bit.
That single remaining letter refers to a CARE package I sent him with help from my friends Ilona Toth and Evelyn Westarp. We baked chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies, stuffed them into empty Chock Full of Nuts cans, boxed them up with bags of marshmallows as padding, and shipped them off to Vietnam.
Ernest must have been a patient sort. Who else could withstand the mind-numbing prattling that surely filled the letters I wrote to him at ages 10 through 13? When he wrote to me, he said things like “Study hard.” “Do well in school.” Just basic good advice for a kid.
But here’s why he may have continued to endure my relentless string of letters. I had gotten braces on my teeth, and I must have written in one of my letters to him that I hated my braces. Somehow he thought I had braces on my legs, and he wrote back: “I know you don’t like those braces, but they’ll help you to walk better.” Perhaps he envisioned me as one of Jerry’s kids, a sweetly crippled girl who endured life’s cruelty while writing to soldiers and baking cookies, when in fact I was a sturdy New Jersey brat who had never been sick a day in her life. Little beast that I was, I do remember that I had enough sense to be mortified. I wrote back, ashamed, and said, “No no, the braces are on my teeth.”
Ernest got out of the Army in 1970. He must have looked up my number—back in olden times when everyone had a house phone and a simple call to “information” quickly yielded any number you needed. I wasn’t expecting the call—I didn’t know he was back in the States. I answered the white wall phone in my parents’ kitchen.
Now that I think of it, he was the first “boy” to call me. He said he was in Plainfield, where his mother lived. I stood there awkwardly, not knowing quite what to say. I know I told him I was really glad he made it home, and I remember asking him what he was going to do then. I remember he had a quiet voice. He said he was going to move to Florida and get married. That was the last time I heard from him. As I think of that call now, there are so many things I wished I’d said, and so many questions I wished I’d asked. I’ve so often wondered what happened to him, what became of his life, and whether he remembers me at all, let alone as vividly as I recall him.
About 20 years ago, I answered an ad in the LA Times for a TV pilot that was going to be focused on reuniting long-lost family and friends. After I sent in a short description of my attempts to find Ernest, I got a call right away from the producer. I went to a studio somewhere in LA and they filmed me talking about Ernest. But since I had only his name and one letter, and no address, and no information about which division of the Army he was in, they couldn’t find him. The producer called me back a week later and told me in a disappointed tone that they’d tried everything. Ernest Samuels is a fairly common name, and without more detail, they hadn’t been able to turn him up.
But we have better tools now, so when I came across his letter this week while I was looking for something else, I punched “Ernest Samuels Florida” into Facebook. He’d be about 70 now, I figure. A picture of a slim black man about that age popped up. I sent him a message: “Hello, I am looking for an Ernest Samuels who served in Vietnam in the late 60s. I corresponded w/ him for many years as part of a school project when I was in elementary school in NJ. Are you that person? If not, please pardon the intrusion! If you are, I hope life has been abundantly good to you. I have thought of you often through the years, and wondered what happened to you. Yours sincerely, Treacy Colbert”
Every time I’ve looked for Ernest, I’ve had some ambivalence about trying to get in touch with him. I’d be delighted to know that the last 43 years have treated him well. But if I found out he’d been plagued by the problems so many Vietnam vets have faced—drugs, alcohol, unemployment, homelessness, PTSD—it would break my heart all over again, just as it did that day when I thought he was missing in action.