Ruth Crocker pens a post-Vietnam War memoir

Ruth Crocker, author of 'Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War,' at her home in Mystic on Oct. 31.
Ruth Crocker, author of "Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War," at her home in Mystic on Oct. 31.

People in Mystic know Ruth W. Crocker. They know her because she grew up here, with her family running the Mystic Manor nursing home. They know her because she has lived here as an adult. She has worked in clinical nutrition and health-care administration but has delved into the arts as well, as a singer, actor and storyteller. She has created and performed one-woman shows about Emily Dickinson and Louisa May Alcott. She has written essays; one was recognized in Best American Essays in 2013 and another was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Yet, there is a segment of her life that those besides her family had not really heard about.

When she was 18, Ruth met a West Point cadet on a blind date. His name was Dave Crocker. They fell in love and wed in 1966. In 1968, Dave, a first lieutenant, was sent to Vietnam. Tragedy, alas, followed. Six months into his time there, he died when an explosion went off while he was inspecting a deserted Viet Cong bunker. His widow was just 23 years old.

Ruth Crocker has now written a memoir - "Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War," on her own Elm Grove Press - about that time, framed by rather dramatic, surprising decisions that she made.

When Dave died, Ruth had his body cremated and scattered the ashes on Switzerland's Eiger Mountain, where they had visited and where he had wanted to return to climb the challenging north face.

And she decided to bury something else in his coffin in Mystic's Elm Grove Cemetery - all the letters they had written to each other, along with her wedding dress and his uniform.

It might seem a startling move, but Crocker says now, "It felt immensely relieving that I could actually do something. ... I think it's a very healthy thing for people to find their own ritual that makes them feel like they're somehow in charge at the moment. It's the helplessness that really makes grief more difficult to handle. It makes you feel like you're drowning."

Those letters remained buried for decades. Eventually, though, Crocker had a change of heart. She began thinking about having someone dig them up. On Halloween 2011, she did.

"I didn't feel like I needed to tell the story for the benefit of the world," Crocker says. "I just had this impulse that the story still was churning in me and bubbling around."

She does tell the story, eloquently, in "Those Who Remain." The book details Ruth and Dave's courtship, her visits to West Point, and their time stationed in Germany. She offers evocative reflections of her life as a young woman in the late 1960s and of the Vietnam War era.

And she writes movingly about receiving the news of Dave's death and about the emotional aftermath.

"I had never talked about my experience to anyone except my family," Crocker says. "It was like 'why talk about this? That was the first few years. It's not going to be a difference to me' - that's the way I felt."

Ultimately, it's a story of innocence and love, grief and resilience, remembering and healing.

Crocker first wrote a fictionalized version of things, in a play presented at the Local Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in 1998.

"A lot of Vietnam vets came, and I hadn't even met any Vietnam vets before that. And I had never met another widow," Crocker recalls.

Then, her mother's health worsened, and Crocker had to run the family nursing home for 10 years. During much of that time, Crocker wrote essays during that time but wasn't working on a memoir.

In 2006, though, meeting the men who served with Dave in Vietnam had a huge impact on her.

"Just by serendipity, my brother-in-law - Dave's brother - called me and said, 'I found these tributes to Dave on The Virtual Wall. Do you want me to be in touch with these guys?'" she recalls.

Ruth, along with Dave's siblings, ended up attending one of the 22nd U.S. Army Infantry Regiment Society reunions. She says the military men embraced them as if they were long-lost family.

"They said, 'Oh, we always wanted to be in touch with you. We loved Captain Crocker so much.' It was just like a family reunion," she says.

The veterans invited Ruth to sit with them and listen as they reminisced.

"I heard everything," she says. "Many of them were there the day Dave was killed. I'd never heard a first-person report."

Crocker has returned for other reunions and kept in touch. They encouraged her to dig up the letters; they told her they wanted to know what Captain Crocker had said about them. It wasn't the first time someone had encouraged Ruth to disinter the notes. When she was getting her MFA in creative nonfiction at Bennington College, a teacher suggested the same.

But, Crocker says of the soldiers in Dave's unit, "it was really them telling me their stories that made me curious. Their stories were so vivid, and I began mentally to try to go back and recall these letters and what Dave had said about different points because so many things happened during those six months over there. And I'm thinking, 'Did he tell me about that?' So I just became curiouser and curiouser, as Alice said."

In 2011, she arranged to have the casket dug up by two grave diggers, with a funeral director and assistant on hand as well.

What she discovered, though, wasn't what she expected. Water had seeped through the coffin. Nature and time had had their way with the coffin's contents. The letters had disintegrated.

Crocker was shocked. But in the book, she writes of how she then did what she has always tended to do: accept reality quickly and keep the dream in a safe place.

She describes, too, the support she got from son Noah Bean - her child from her second marriage, and now an actor on such TV series as "Damages" and "Nikita." He had been encouraging her to write her story since the late 1990s, and he was on hand to be with her and to video the retrieval of the letters, gently asking her questions along the way. Crocker now has that part of her life on film for when she's ready to watch it.

"Knowing the destiny of my treasure is more a parentheses in the story than an ending," she writes. "Nothing is different. My original intention was for eternity. Now I know the letters are safe from all eyes, forever - including mine."

And, when she remarried in 2007, she writes, "I felt the presence of Dave smiling through the clouds. He is with me in all my beginnings - and never ending."

WHERE TO FIND THE BOOK

"Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War" by Ruth W. Crocker is available now at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble's website, and elmgrovepress.org. List price is $18.95.

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