Column - Beilue: Son's sleep restive

Mail worsens father's pain

By Jon Mark Beilue
Publication Date: 06/11/08

"Dear Mr. Dewlen,

I'm glad your son was killed. So he was a good soldier, so what? So are many Viet Cong. If he had been a good person, he would have stayed home, gone to school and experienced the joys of youth, but he lacked the courage to stand up for humanity. He was a machine, not a man. ..."

Forty years ago today - June 11, 1968 - Al Dewlen's life changed forever. It hurt him in ways that go even beyond the death of an only child. He felt bitterness, frustration, emptiness - an unspeakable pain magnified when strangers mocked his son's death and acquaintances almost ignored it.

Forty years ago today, Marine Lt. Michael Dewlen, 24, was killed in Vietnam. His outnumbered battery of the 1st Battalion fought the Viet Cong in hand-to-hand combat in the darkness southeast of Khe Sanh.

Before Mike was cut down by a submachine gun, he and four others killed 28 of the enemy, bought enough time for arriving American troops to quell the offensive, and prevented the Viet Cong from capturing some large weapons.

Mike Dewlen was a former president of the senior class at Amarillo High. He was a captain for Bum Phillips' Sandie football team and later captain of the football team at Baylor.

He was No. 2 out of a class of 492 in Marine Corps officer school. Posthumously, he received the Silver Star, the country's second highest medal of valor. He was indeed the best and the brightest. Today, he would be a hero.

Forty years ago, he was called a baby-killer.

"... Just brood on this. Your son is being gored and gouged on by ugly worms, while the rest of us enjoy the beauties of marijuana, sex and alcohol,"


One Who Gloats

"It let me have my say," said Al Dewlen, 86. "We were being tortured by all circumstances, but I had to do something. I wrote the piece in one afternoon."

What Dewlen, a former novelist, wrote was "Report To A Sleeping Son," a poignant piece in which a father figuratively cradles a son in his arm to tell him his death was not in vain among the civil hate of the times.

A father who wonders in his own words if his love for country and rigid definition of duty that he passed to his son did not indirectly lead to his death. Ultimately, he told his son, no, that "this country had pledged itself was sufficient for you."

The piece was printed in Reader's Digest in early 1969 as well as many newspapers across the country. The Marines warned Dewlen, former city editor and reporter at the Amarillo Times and Globe, that he, as with many families of slain soldiers, would be showered with hate mail.

It was the climate of the times in the late 1960s. Dewlen, in his fresh grief, received 14 such letters, unsigned, of course, from across this great country of ours.

"... I hope your son burns in hell for violating one of the laws of God that Thou Shalt Not Kill. ... All of this I have written in this letter applies to you as well as that worthless dead punk you call a son. ..."

Al and Jean Dewlen felt distanced in Amarillo. Families whose own sons had danced around the draft felt uncomfortable. Al remembers going to church not long after Mike's death and hearing a political sermon from the pulpit, saying our government was turning its boys into killers. That did it. They sold their home on Matador Street and went to Africa.

Jean never really recovered. She immersed herself in painting, closing out the world to a canvas for 10 to 12 hours a day. She died in 1990.

The pain is like the itch of a phantom limb, a feeling that never quite goes away, even decades after the loss.

"You're not supposed to outlive your children," Dewlen said. "Nature decrees you won't. When you do, a lot of things get thrown out. Mike was my only child, and when he died, so did my grandchildren. Moreover, he was newly married, and we lost a daughter. She remarried, as she should have, and went in a different direction."

"... Let us hope some bright person stashed a few baggies of 'H' in your son's dead corpse before he was shipped back. That way he could be of some use to someone."

Since 1968, much has happened. There's an award given for Mike Dewlen within the Amarillo High football team. There's an endowed Mike Dewlen Memorial Scholarship given at Baylor, funded with the proceeds of one of his father's novels.

Mike's widow, Lynn, was a schoolteacher living in her hometown of Vernon. She and her husband have grandchildren now.

For the past 20 years, Al has lived in Waco, a place he grew fond of after constantly driving 427 miles one way to watch Mike play for the Bears. He remarried, to his current wife Lucille, in 2003.

The anniversary of Mike's death coming on the week of Father's Day always makes Al reflect, wondering what a 64-year-old son might have done with his life, but it's also a day he gives himself the freedom to grieve.

"It's been 40 years, but the grief remains," Al said. "This grief in life …, it stacks up. You grieve, adjust to the idea, go on with life, and something else happens, someone you care about dies, and the grief comes back anew. But it does help to realize that America had no better than Mike, and he was ours."

Jon Mark Beilue's column appears Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at or (806) 345-3318.


By Al Dewlen

(as published in the Amarillo Sunday News-Globe 01/12/69)

On June 11, 1968, at the age of 24, 2nd Lt. Michael L. Dewlen, USMC, was killed in Vietnam. In the June previous he had graduated from Baylor, married pretty Lynn Nowlin of Vernon and donned the uniform of the Marine Corps. Mike was the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Al Dewlen, 4605 Matador. As a youth he had been a leader and outstanding athlete; president of his Amarillo High class, captain of the Sandie football team and regular on the baseball team. At college he earned a starting position on the Baylor football team. Now his young widow is teaching at Vernon, and she and his parents have had six months to look back on the great tragedy of their lives. His father, the respected Amarillo author, reflects some of this thinking and raises some questions any parents of a young son in these days might ask.

This, my son, is how it was, and is.

It was Friday, 5:15 p.m., cloudy and still hot as I drove in from the barber's. I noticed that most of our neighbors were standing out in their yards, but I missed recognizing this as unusual. Pretty Mrs. Kelley, her children clinging tightly to her, raised her hand as I passed. I waved back, turned into the drive and continued on into the garage. I was standing over my workbench, debating which of the endless drudges of household upkeep deserved first claim on the remaining daylight, when someone called my name. In the doorway I saw a preacher I scarcely know, a man you never met, and I suppose I was annoyed.

He said, "Come here a minute, please." Then, more firmly: "I want you to come with me."

I took my time going out to meet him on the driveway. It was as I reached him that I saw your mother coming from the house. She had left the door ajar, as she never does, and was hurrying toward me. Nothing about her looked right. As I stood gaping at her, the minister began tugging on my arm. It seemed he was bent on dragging me ahead to some horror I still had the option to reject, and I resisted him. Then Jean took my hand. I felt her trembling. Every detail of her appeared fatally altered; there was the impression of calamitous change, final, entire. My impulse was to shout at her, to demand that she restore for me the smile she had worn when I left her an hour before. I cannot be sure, but I think that with first sight of her I must have known about you. Nevertheless, I asked, "What has happened?", and she answered, "Mike has been killed."

How can I tell you how much like death was life at that instant? I remember picturing you as clearly as ever I have seen you, in all the ways I've ever seen you – as a fat baby drooling on my shoulder, as a little leaguer straining to throw down to second base, as a rugged softie sobbing from the sight of a starved dog, as furious half-pint clansman wading in because your dad was in a fight and getting whipped, as the fiery captain of those good football teams, as the tall embarrassed boy trying to show grace while accepting those trophies and certificates. I saw you grown, a man blooming with pride in the Marine Corps uniform, so strong and tough and openly sentimental; and I thought, You, Mike, shot down in battle? – it was preposterous, a lie. That you could die at all was unthinkable; that you could have lain dead four days without our having known it or sensed it or dreamed it, was not possible. But there was Jean, wavering before me as the wreckage a woman is when she has lot her only child, and I could lay hold of nothing to fend off belief.

The agony was utter, crippling. I was unable to take your mother in my arms, or even to speak to her. I remember a moment in which I saw you without life, not teasing or laughing, but cold and still, and out of my guts sprang an awful rancor toward God. I wanted to summon Him down to be battered with this range and pain; I wanted to force Him to account for this disastrous mishandling of your trust and of our trust and prayers for your survival.

________ Mike," Jean said. "They do ___________, and he is dead."

_________ free of the preacher and we went into the house. Lynn was waiting. A while earlier she had been talking about your first anniversary, just three days away. This sweet and lovely miniature had sent you a piece of your wedding cake, saved in the freezer as a surprise for the occasion, and she had been much concerned that the mails might mash it. Now she stood wide-eyed and lost at the center of the room. Beside her were the Marines – Maj. Dale Dorman, whom you once pointed out to me as the perfectly correct Marine, and M. Sgt. Del Taft, who helped out that day we arranged your transportation to Vietnam. They met me with quiet expressions of regret and the gentle warning we should not cling to hope. There was no mistake, they said. Your war was over.

Time passed before I could react enough to gather in our women, yours and mine. I held them like a pair of broken dolls. Poor gray Maggie fell into a quivering panic, dangerous for a dog of seventeen. It was as though she grasped she would be living out her days in a sad house, that she understood she would not again be smuggled into your bed.

How could she or I, have outlived you when you were meant to inherit us?

Soon the telephone was ringing. People came flooding in. Dishes of food appeared on the cabinet, flowers popped up from the floor and it had begun, the terrible two weeks of wet pillows, of escapes to the closet for private grief, of alternating collapse and recomposure so critical it menaced even the will to accept the next breath, while we awaited the return of your body from Da Nang.

It is difficult to tell you about those weeks, or to as much as separate one day from the other. Your mother dwindled by fifteen pounds. I experienced sudden savage fantasies wherein the Communist who killed you materialized in opportune reach of my hands. Daytime, Lynn made herself the angel of our consolation; at night she lay crying in your bed.

Jean never slept. She would lie staring at the darkness, remembering the mother things, taking tearful inventory of the treasures she had been storing in her heart since the morning you were born. Sometimes, exhaustion stunned me into periods of stupored rest, and they were hateful. At each awakening the news struck me afresh, as if with every sunrise you died again, right before my eyes. Everything prompted us to recollection. Your dog scratching at the back door, your clothes hanging in the closet, your fishing and hunting gear piled about. In the kitchen doorframe were the pencil marks recording the stages by which you grew. We heard you in our talk, through the ridiculous nicknames and lighthearted phrases you invented and installed so deeply in the family language that now hard as we tried, we could not avoid them. Hundreds of people called to speak well of you. There were mountains of mail, including two fine letters from the President. And, because Lynn and your mother agreed I should, I got myself together amid all this and wrote your eulogy.

Remember the talk we had, the day before you shipped out? "I expect to be back," you told me. "But if I should buy the farm, I want to be buried as a Marine." Make it short and simple, you said, "and in my dress blues."

This was how we did it. You had Marines like gleaming statutes as an honor guard, Marines as pallbearers. There was a rifle volley, and taps, at the cemetery. You would have been pleased with the conduct of your women: your mother controlled, keeping her head high; Lynn wearing the dress you liked the best and looking indescribably beautiful with those mute tears streaking her cheeks as she accepted, in the place of a husband, a flag off your coffin.

Much later the details came to us. On June 9, they tell us, the battery was heliolifted south and east from Khe Sanh, out from under the daily shelling tormenting that rat-infested trash heap, and put down on a ridge squarely astride the Laotian border. With you went two battalions of sweeping infantry in an operation named Robin South. The mission, they say, was to sever the infiltration routes feeding toward Quang Tri, and to mount an offensive relieving the pressure on Khe Sanh during its evacuation.

It was Indian country, a known NVA stronghold which had not been intruded on since the days of French control. Like the other 'Chin-Strap Charlies' of C Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines, you swelled with pride over having been chosen to make a fire base out of a spot so hot it was designated Landing Zone Torch. Indeed, the whole operation appears to have been the sort you had longed for. "I'm tired," you had written, "of granting Charlie the first lick. I'll be glad when we go on the offensive instead of merely counter-attacking and killing the stragglers while the main force gets away."

You learned immediately that you had been set down in the middle of a powerful enemy concentration. Along with the called shoots, you were firing on NVA troops moving in plain sight over the surrounding hills. Your infantry protection was compelled to claim key terrain beyond the range of rapid support, and your six 105's and seventy-five Marines stood vulnerable and isolated in a sea of elephant grass. While the CO hustled at establishing a defense, you, as executive officer, commanded the firing. You worked the crews in shifts around the clock, expecting an attack while you exulted in the commendations pouring in on the effectiveness of your gunnery.

At 1:30 a.m. on the second day, the enemy assault began. With heavy mortar and automatic weapons fire came an infantry force of perhaps a battalion and a sapper platoon. They blew a .50 caliber machine gun sky high off your perimeter, penetrated the position and were creating havoc among the guns before anyone could assess what was happening. A few NVA reached the foxholes and jumped in. Hostile and friendly were suddenly intermingled, and confusion swept the ridge. The battery, your fellow officers say, appeared doomed.

You were napping in the exec's pit when it started. Armed only with the Gold Cup .45 I had given you at Christmas, you dashed downslope under fire, gathering men as you went. You mustered just four. With these you charged the breach in the perimeter, leaping directly into the enemy. You fought it out hand-to-hand in blind darkness through a desperate half-hour. They tell us you prevented capture of the guns, that you wrung organization out of chaos, got the battery to fighting. They say you changed the probable massacre into an astounding triumph.

It was a burst from a Russian AK-50 sub-machine gun, fired from a scant fifteen feet away, that cut you down. Another of your party died with you, the rest fell wounded. But you had won. In the small arms fight you had killed 28 of the NVA. Thereafter, making use of the time you bought them, the men turned the 105's around and brought them into action, getting off 200 beehive rounds which accounted for an additional 150 of the enemy.

You would like knowing the battery has received special commendation; that its men declare you saved their lives; that they requested and held a memorial service for you; that they nominated you for your citation and decoration. How splendid of you, my son, to have given yourself as you did; to have willed us this boundless piece of gallantry as your estate. Thinking on it helps ease the awareness of how those bullets blew apart the bright life-plan you had built and kept with Lynn; of how there died with you a thousand family dreams, among them our promise of grandchildren.

We pore over this final report card with vaulting pride. But your marks have not surprised us. Bravery was like you. I remember it manifest in you always, from the time you took on that formidable neighborhood bully, on through the blood and bruises of a hundred football games, into those later courageous hours when you stood alone in allegiance to standards long since ditched by others of your generation. I recall with shining clarity that cold Sunday in December when you led us, your family on a walk through Arlington; when you wept at the changing of the guard, when you spoke among the graves of the greatness resting there with those who had died, enchanted and believing, under the flag of the United States and in devotion to its causes.

Thinking of you as you looked and talked that afternoon – oh, the attitude wasn't new; the newness lay in the maturity and solemn certainty with which you expressed it – I am compelled again to the question that has twisted inside me like a dagger since the moment I knew you were gone. Did not we, it asks, we, your parents, point you toward this death? Didn't we, out of our own unqualified love of country and rigid definition of duty, actually rear you to die at war?

Perhaps we did. From the first we poured you full of the American glories. We taught you reverence for the flag, the law, the traditions and institutions. We imparted to you an unequivocal confidence in the system, trained you to the habit of everyday joy in your citizenship. We encouraged your development into an aggressive competitor for excellence in a free society. We saw to it you would regard the defense of your homeland and the support of its commitments as a privilege, and we approved of how your career intention always included a time for the military as a mandate of conscience, an essential of your self-respect. The way things came about, it is unlikely you would ever have been drafted. But there was never a doubt you would volunteer. Nor was there much doubt, in view of your automatic compulsion to make the first team, that you would serve as a Marine.

Lately your mother and I have awakened at night to wonder if every teaching you had did not somehow move you toward the cruel appointment you kept on that ugly Asian hill. We deliberately cultured in you the presently unfashionable belief that each person is responsible for himself, that a man is the fabricator of his own consequences. We told you failure is a personal affair, not to be laid off on poverty or wealth, associates or influences, or, worse yet, to be blamed on the remainder of mankind. You listened well. You accepted yourself as what you had to work with, granted yourself no excuse, disciplined your life into its appropriate seasons. The meaningless bypaths the professors so blandly and ______ justify in youth as a search for identity' or the 'effort to relate' never attracted you. Nor were you seduced by the 'new morality', which you recognized, despite its elaborate cloakings, as in truth just a cheap amorality. You accepted the student's role as one of learning, not once misconstruing it as a franchise for the destruction of order, the denial of history or the dismantling of authority.

It was natural, then, that you should have considered Vietnam not debatable. That your country had pledged itself was sufficient. You reacted exactly as other young Americans preceding you by a quarter of a century had responded upon hearing of Pearl Harbor.

So, you were orthodox. In a sense, I suppose, you belonged to the prior generation. Many of your contemporaries must have thought you a hopeless non-swinger, a well-groomed heir to their arch-rival establishment, while we applauded you. But on that unendurable Friday, with the terrible cost of our handcrafted patriotism there before us in the cemetery, we had to ask ourselves whether we had meant what we preached; whether we would continue meaning it down through the bleak years to which your passing has condemned us. If granted a second chance, would we repeat the course? Or would we find ways to permit and justify, consent and retract, knowing that the resultant irresponsibility might, like a foul-smelling serum, save your life?

To answer we looked about us at others of your age. We considered the man in our end of town (you knew him) who ducked into teaching, marriage and parenthood while broadcasting each venture as part of a strategy for frustrating the draft. We regarded those hiding in eternal scholarship, fleeing to Canada or burning their cards and defying prison under the rationale of a love cultism that has obsessed them only with the adoration of themselves. We took into account the pot and LSD sets; the peaceniks and raceniks and mobniks lollygagging along in the degenerate fads of a bogus intellectualism, conforming to filth, reveling in a sophomore complex fixed on them like the acne of a lingering adolescence. We considered the infragrant flower children rotting in their own imagined sweetness, the yippee packs caterwauling that America is too hundred years mistaken, the whole miscellany of people who can celebrate only the hormones by which they amass hair, whose sole product is division, whose single attainment is the encouragement of the enemy that killed you, and we became too sick to go on.

No, my son. We could not have given you an exempted conscience, could never have consigned you to the company of these. We prefer this tearful sorting out of your things, this sorrowful laying away of your expectations, these brokenhearted pilgrimages to your grave. We would do it again. Yet, even in your transcendency, you are owed a score of apologies.

We are sorry that when you died there existed behind you no national resolve to win. It shames us that while you expended your blood for sane America, only insane America was flourishing. We hate it that your sacrifice goes little noticed and unpraised by a liberal press choosing instead to sponsor the street radical and to euphemize treason as 'the peace movement,' mass criminality as 'demonstration,' and exhibitionistic anarchy as 'protest' and 'dissent.' We apologize for abiding the kick-seeking 'new left' with its spewing seditions, for tolerance of government that woos the insurrectionist and is only unnerved by any reminder of your kind; for the souring churches, the orgiastic disemboweling of the heritage, for the tribes of fools swarming your sweet land like ants in the sugar – yes, I beg your forgiveness for everything that enfeebled America during your brief days of manhood and your instant of dying.

Along with these regrets, I confess, there is anger. You have purchased me the right to it. It sends me bellowing out of my place in the obedient silent citizenry where the blames are conveniently dumped and into a new radicalism of my own. I think, Mike, that I have become dangerous. They shall not mutilate the flag in my sight; they'll not sing their Ho Chi Minh chant in my hearing. They shall not sack your street, nor mock your widow. I'll allow no one to belittle or slander you, or even forget you. I give you the promises you must already have known I would make, and I swear to them.

There remains, then, just this. How, my son, do I say farewell?

The willow, the one you joked of as our "family tree" that gay day we made such ceremony of planting it, withered and dropped its leaves the week after you died, as if June were autumn. But the chrysanthemums sent us in memorial are doing well, out under the north eave where we put them, and it appears they are near to blooming again. We wear our gold stars for you, we have left your boots in the corner, we have hung your sword on the wall. We are keeping fresh the good memories, and more often now, as we speak of you, it is with joy. The three of us who loved you and buried you, thank you forever.

America has had no better than you. And you were ours.

Goodbye, Mike, Goodbye.