For me, as a child of the southern coalfields of West Virginia, Memorial Day weekend is a time to remember a childhood hero who went to war but did not come home.
In the early 1960s, I lived in McDowell County in the coal camps of Blackwolfe and Pageton. Had my family not moved, I would have eventually gone to Gary High School, a Class AA school nicknamed the Gary Coaldiggers.
In those days, sports was everything in the coalfields. There were nine high schools in McDowell County and the local high school games were the main entertainment in the community. Friday night football games were magical. So were doubleheader basketball games at the Welch National Guard Armory.
Every week, families loaded up the car and went to see Gary play coalfield rivals such as Northfork, Big Creek, Welch, Iaeger, Mullens, Oceana and Pineville.
My childhood hero at Gary was football star Bobbie Joe Ratliff. To young kids around Gary, Ratliff seemed bigger than life. One of his football and basketball teammates was Gordon “Pig” Lambert, who played football at WVU and UT-Martin and later was a defensive end for the Denver Broncos in the American Football League.
In 1966, Ratliff enlisted in the Marines and ended up as a corporal in Vietnam.
On June 19, 1967, he and five other men were riding in a vehicle when they struck a land mine. An explosion ripped through the vehicle, and Ratliff was badly injured and burned. He died several hours later.
When you are 12 years old and you learn that your childhood hero was killed in war, you lose the innocence of your childhood. When I first read the newspaper account of the story, I remember being frozen with fear.
I remember thinking, “How could this be?” Not Bobbie Joe Ratliff — the toughest, hardest-hitting player on the Gary Stadium gridiron on a Friday night. Surely there must be some mistake.
Over the years, I have been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington several times. It is always incredibly somber and quiet there. The only sounds you hear are the shuffling of shoes on the sidewalk around the Memorial Wall.
There are volunteers there to help you find names. Every time I visit, I ask a volunteer to take me to Bobbie Joe’s name. It always takes me back to a time of watching a hometown child hero playing for the hometown team.
We all have stories like this on Memorial Day. Bobbie Joe Ratliff from Gary High School is mine.