Jerry Price’s daughter, Heather, called recently with news about her dad, my only close friend from the Vietnam War. He had suffered a severe stroke, and then, as the days passed, his condition deteriorated. He died last Monday at a hospice in rural Missouri.
Heather asked if I would write a eulogy. I complied, of course, but it wasn’t read at the service. The Baptist minister refused because, in going over it, he came across the word “infidelity.” Heather read it the next day at the military burial, where it was probably more appropriate in tone. But judge for yourself.
Excuse me, not Jerry but Gerald. Actually, Gerald T. He had a kind of formality to him, if you disregarded his informality. He had a way of saying profound things, and then laughing at himself.Well, then, Jerry. He was, certainly, one of the brightest people I ever met. I didn’t, of course, expect to meet bright people in the U.S. Army — it is, in fact, a court-martial offense to be brilliant. But he was brilliant.
We met one day at the battalion headquarters in Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. When I asked him what his job was, he said that he was the civil affairs officer. I said, “That’s great. But tell me, what is a civil affairs officer?” He smiled, and said something like, “A civil affairs officer is someone who meets people for coffee in the morning, hangs around in the afternoon, writes long letters home about how difficulty the duty is, and, at night at the officer’s club, orders one rum and Coke for each hand. All in the proud defense of his country.”
Jerry, then, became an instant friend and confidant. We talked of our wives, the children we would one day have, the various idiocies of military life. He also listened to my complaints about the number of papers I had to push, and the press releases I had to write about how beautifully the war was going. Near the end of our tours, we flew to Tokyo on R&R together. We had suits tailored for us. We went to the Ginza, and to bookstores and to nightclubs, where we thought seriously about the act of infidelity — but only thought about it, I am sad to report.
The years after the war was when Jerry really showed how different he was. The rest of us veterans moped about the lack of hospitality soldiers received when we got home. None of this ever bothered Jerry. He had a good time in the war, and a good time when he got back. “And, besides,” he said, “what is the difference between Vietnam and Jefferson County?“
Well, life didn’t quite work out the way we planned. We had kids all right — great kids — but we also endured some of life’s trying if ordinary obstacles: marital crises, health issues, and living through the Jimmy Carter administration. Jerry, who loved the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and I didn’t agree on Carter but we tolerated our political differences. Because in the end, there were more important matters to discuss. He was the one person I could call whenever I failed at something, either professionally or domestically, because I knew he wouldn’t judge me, he wouldn’t tell me what I knew so well — that I had disappointed myself.
You all need such a friend. A person who calls you, maybe, after three months of no contact but picks up exactly where the conversation left off, as if he’d been in the room that whole time, knowing exactly what’s on your mind and in your heart.
I felt guilty in recent years that I haven’t taken the trouble to get on a plane and come to visit. He, after all, traveled to Connecticut a few times, and I hadn’t been to Barnhart or Imperial or even Festus for years. But we talked to each other, and I learned about what Pat was doing, and what Robert was up to, and about the birth of each grandchild. I knew about Heather’s progress because she and I have been in touch almost all of her life, and I have also gotten to know the miracle called Benjamin. Well, brilliance is in the blood, isn’t it? But so is kindness and caring, respect, laughter, and wisdom — all the things that shape the legacy of a man sometimes called Jerry.
I salute you, my friend, if a little late.