Written By Cindy Lefler 7/22/2016
Commander Render Crayton. It was the name that encircled my wrist for the better part of three years.
“We starve, look at one another,
Short of breath, walking proudly in our winter coats
Wearing smells from laboratories,
Facing a dying nation
Of moving paper fantasy
Listening for the new told lies
With supreme visions of lonely tunes”
~ Flesh Failures, “Hair”
I didn’t know Cdr. Crayton. I had never met him – didn’t know what he looked like, where he was from, if he was married, or had children. I only knew what was etched on the nickel-plated bracelet I bought for $3: his name, rank, and when he became a prisoner of war – 2-7-66. By the time I got the bracelet, Cdr. Crayton had already been a POW in Vietnam for four years. It would be another three years before I would learn his fate.
The Vietnam years were not easy ones: young men of 18, fearful of the draft, wary of being sent to a foreign land to die for reasons they didn’t quite comprehend; mothers of sons, terrified of losing their children on the other side of the world; families on edge watching, waiting for the “numbers” – draft numbers – to come up; everyone feeling helpless, viewing the gritty, grainy coverage every night on the evening news.
As the war dragged on year after dreadful year, we became weary of the carnage. In time, we became almost apathetic, numb to the images we saw on the television. But in 1970, a group of California students came up with an idea that would ensure POWs in Vietnam would not be forgotten – small, inexpensive bracelets bearing the names of those soldiers captured and held by the enemy. Those who wore them vowed to leave them on until the soldier named on the bracelet (or their remains) were returned to America. Between 1970 and 1976, approximately 5 million bracelets were distributed. One of them came to a little row home in Camden, addressed to me. I put it on immediately, promising I wouldn’t take it off until Cdr. Crayton was home. Every night I prayed for a soldier I didn’t know, would never meet, and who wasn’t even aware of the existence of an 11-year-old girl a world away imploring G-d to keep him safe.
The Vietnam War was a long, divisive conflict, spurring protests and unrest at home. The anti-war movement began mostly on college campuses by students, artists, intellectuals, and members of the so-called “hippie” movement. As more young men were called up for deployment anti-war demonstrations grew and spread across the country. The crippling cost of the war and the mounting casualties added fuel to the anti-war fire. When all was said and done, 58,000 Americans were killed in the conflict; 1,622 still remain missing in action.
This climate of unrest, activism, and outright rebellion against the “establishment” not only changed the course of American history – it changed the face of Broadway. In 1968, a renegade rock musical called “Hair” laid bare on stage the war protests and calls for peace and love with a woozy drug-induced plot and unusual, sometimes disjointed, music and lyrics. In his book, “Rebels with Applause: Broadway’s Ground Breaking Musicals,” Scott Miller explains that the musical “satirizes racism, discrimination, war, violence, pollution, sexual repression, and other societal evils… (it) shocks the audience by challenging what they believe, by showing how absurd, how offensive, how nonsensical, and in some cases, how dangerous are the behavior and language that society calls ‘normal.’ ”
That was then. And also now. The challenges that the show brought to light almost a half a century ago are just as prevalent in today’s socio-political climate – maybe even more so. Miller says “Hair” asks the questions: “Why did we send American soldiers halfway around the world to Vietnam to kill strangers when there was no direct threat to our country? Why can’t we talk openly about sex? Why are certain words “dirty” and other words that mean the same thing acceptable? Why are there so many offensive words for black people but hardly any for white people? Why are so many straight people interested in what gay people do in private? If the Constitution guarantees free speech, why can’t we burn the flag? Is it right to protest and refuse to follow laws which are unjust?”
It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. After watching the news recently, and viewing segment after segment of man’s inhumanity to man – footage of soldiers fighting and dying halfway around the world; police officers being ambushed and murdered; young black men being assassinated; terrorists attacking innocents all over the globe; minorities being demonized; politicians slinging mud, and so much more – I was inspired to dig into my top drawer and pull out the large plastic baggie that contained a remnant of my past, a remnant of this country’s past – Cdr. Render Crayton’s bracelet – in order to share a little history with my youngest son. He looked at the bracelet, then asked what happened to the Commander. I explained:
In early 1973, American POWs of Vietnam began returning home. Although the war would drag on for two more years, because of a series of diplomatic negotiations called “Operation Homecoming,” the first wave of 40 POWS were returned in January of 1973. Many more waves would follow. With every wave, the names of those being released and repatriated were listed in the local newspaper; with every wave, I scoured the list for the name Render Crayton. Then one day, there it was. The name of my POW… MY prisoner of war. He was alive and coming home! On that day, I took off my bracelet, slipped it into an envelope, wrote Cdr. Crayton a letter, and put it in the mail. I sent the bracelet to show him that he had not been forgotten during all those years he had been a POW. About a month later, a letter arrived. The return address was U.S. Naval Hospital, San Diego, California. As I tore open the envelope, my bracelet fell out. My heart sunk as I thought the worse. Then I read the letter that accompanied it:
18 June, 1973
Dear Cindy Schwartz,
Thank you so much for your letter and your concern for me while I was a prisoner of war. Although I always felt certain that the American people would remember us with faith and loyalty, it was deeply reassuring to witness the depth of this concern upon my return to the United States. I want to thank you personally for wearing my bracelet as a symbol of your faith in my safe return. I would feel honored to have you keep the bracelet to signify my heartfelt appreciation. May we all continue to pray and work for the eventual safety of those listed as missing in action. I am receiving the best possible care and hope that soon I will be ready to continue to serve my country. God Bless You and Our Great Land Always.
Commander, United States Navy
I kept the bracelet and the letter all these years, tucked away in my dresser drawer. They serve as a reminder of all the sacrifices our military men and women have made, and continue to make. And they serve as a lesson that concern and compassion for our fellow human beings – even if they are strangers to us – makes us a better society. In a world where it is “easy to be hard, easy to be cold,” it is my hope that the sentiments of a revived 48-year-old rock musical will turn us into people who do care about strangers, who want to rise up against “evil and social injustice.”
In the words of Margaret Mead: “Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”
Peace and Love,