Monday, December 14, 1970

“Look at this,” seventeen-year-old Trixie Belden said, pointing to an article in the Sleepyside Sun. “It’s such a neat idea. There is an organization that is selling bracelets with the names of soldiers missing in action. It’s to bring awareness to the number of MIA’s and POW’s. ”

Trixie’s best friend, Honey Wheeler, was sitting next to her in the school library. They were supposed to be researching a current events topic for their World Issues class. This week they were encouraged to write about something other than the Vietnam Conflict. Of course, it was hard not to read articles about the conflict.

“That’s really interesting,” Honey said as she read the article over Trixie’s shoulder. “It says the bracelets are engraved with the name and rank of a soldier missing in action. The idea is to wear it until the person is found.”

Diana Lynch was also sitting at the table. “It says here they cost $2.50 each. That’s about what you’d pay for a ticket to see a movie at the Cameo and a hamburger at Wimpy’s afterward.”

“Does it say where you can get them?” Honey asked.

Trixie scanned the article again. “It looks like you can order them from an organization called VIVA but they are also available locally from a group over in White Plains. They’ve made arrangements to sell the bracelets at the local pharmacy.”

“Why don’t we go over to White Plains this weekend and see if they still have some? It sounds like a perfectly perfect Bob-White service project,” Diana said.

“Do you think the guys would wear one of those bracelets?” Honey asked.

Trixie thought for a moment. “If you had asked me a year ago, I would probably have said no. Ever since Ben Riker and Lester Mundy were drafted I’ve taken a greater interest in what is happening over in Vietnam.”

“You’re right,” Diana said. “Especially after that scare when Lester was injured and no one knew how serious it was or where he was. It must have been so scary for his parents to get a telegram telling them Lester was injured but no other details.”

“I’ll never forget that night,” Honey said. “Mr. and Mrs. Mundy drove up to the house wanting to see Dad. Mrs. Mundy was understandably upset. Even so, you knew that they didn’t know if they should ask Dad for help. There really wasn’t much Dad could do but he did place a few calls. He’s just grateful that Jim has a high draft number.”

“Yeah,” Diana agreed. “All of the guys have been lucky, although it looks like Mart’s number might come up within the next year. I hope not, but he says if he gets drafted he’s ready for it.”

Saturday, December 19, 1970

It was a snowy day. The roads were clear so the girls decided to head over to White Plains anyway. Mart and Dan had come home for the weekend and thought the bracelets were a neat idea. They weren’t sure if they’d actually wear them but they would find a way to honor the missing.

When they arrived at the pharmacy they found several others looking for the bracelets. They were sitting in a box on the jewelry counter. The bracelets were very modest -- simple metal with the name and rank of the serviceman engraved on it.

Dan and Mart quickly picked out ones for themselves as well as Jim and Brian. The girls, however, took their time reading each bracelet before picking one out.

“Are we going to be here all day?” Mart asked. “I’m getting hungry.”

Trixie looked up from the bracelets and glared at her almost twin. “Since when are you not hungry?” she asked. “You won’t starve. I want to find a special one.”

“And how will you know which one is special? You don’t know any of these soldiers,” Mart replied.

“I may not know them, but each of these soldiers has a family that is worried about them, wondering if they are alive or dead, or if they have been taken prisoner. I’ll know the right one when I see it.”

For several more minutes, the three girls continued to look for the perfect bracelet. Suddenly, Honey exclaimed, “Here’s the perfect one for you, Trixie.”

She showed the bracelet to Trixie whose eyes widened. “It is perfectly perfect,” Trixie replied as Diana looked over her shoulder.

“What is so ‘perfectly perfect’ about that particular bracelet?” Mart asked. He grabbed the bracelet and then looked into his sister’s eyes. “Yes it is.”

On the bracelet was engraved the name PFC Larry Gene Belden.

Soon after, Honey and Diana found bracelets. After they had checked out, the girls immediately put their bracelets on. Mart and Dan put theirs in their pockets and they headed across the street to a local diner to have lunch.

Over burgers, fries, and malts, the friends made plans for the upcoming Christmas holidays. Dan and Mart had completed their finals and were off until mid-January. Brian and Jim had finals until mid-week and then they would be home as well. The holidays would be filled with horseback riding through the preserve, last minute Christmas shopping, the Bob-White New Year’s celebration and just enjoying everyone’s company.

All through lunch Trixie couldn’t keep her eyes from straying to her bracelet. “Who is Larry Gene Belden? I wonder if he’s a relative,” she thought.

“Earth to Trixie,” Mart said, punching her in the arm. “Honey’s asked you three times if you want to go for a horseback ride this afternoon. What are you thinking of?”

Trixie shook her head to clear her mind. “I just keep thinking about Larry Gene Belden. I wonder what he’s like and if he’s a relative.”

Diana replied, “I wonder about Captain Thomas Anthony Mravak. It’s so sad. No matter how old he is, he has some sort of family. It must be awful for the family not knowing if he’s dead or alive.”

Honey wiped her mouth with her napkin and daintily placed it next to her plate. “Do you suppose someone at the library might be able to help us find more information about these soldiers?”

Dan had been sitting silently. He had yet to put his bracelet on. “I wonder how the families feel about someone unknown wearing their child’s name on their wrists?”

Honey started to say something, stopped and started about three times.

“You want to say something, Honey?” he asked quietly.

She took a deep breath and then plunged ahead. “Well, I just thought, you know, that your dad was killed in the Korean Conflict. I just wondered how you would have felt knowing there were people wearing your dad’s name on their wrists.”

No one said anything for what seemed like an eternity. Dan stared at the bracelet he held in his hands, his fingers running over the engraved name. He then looked up and gazed at each of his most important friends. “When my dad was alive, I wouldn’t have understood. But as an adult I think it would have been cool to know that people I don’t even know, cared about someone I loved.”

For several minutes, no one knew what to say. Finally, Mart said, “Well if that isn’t Honeyspeak at its best I don’t know what is.”

Everyone giggled relieved that the tension was no longer there.

“Let’s get out of here,” Diana said. “Someone mentioned going for a horseback ride. If we don’t get back to Sleepyside soon it will be dark and you know Regan won’t let us take the horses out with so much snow on the trails.”

While the others chattered away about Christmas plans, Trixie was silent during the ride home. When Mart pulled the Bob-White station wagon into the driveway after dropping off Dan, Honey and Diana, she barely waited for him to stop before she rushed out of the car.

“Moms,” Trixie yelled as she raced into the house. “Do you know a Larry Gene Belden? Is he from New York?”

Moms calmly wiped her hands on a kitchen towel. “Who is Larry Gene Belden and why should I know who he is?”

Trixie took a deep breath, trying to calm down. “You know the Bob-Whites decided to buy POW/MIA bracelets for a service project. We went over to White Plains to pick some up today.” While she talked she removed her coat, hat and mittens and much to her mother’s surprise neatly hung them up in the coat closet. “Well, we were looking through the bracelets. They all had different names on them. Dan and Mart just grabbed one for themselves as well as ones for Brian and Jim while Honey, Diana, and I took our time looking at the names. I don’t know what it was, but for some reason I knew there was a certain bracelet I had to have. Then Honey showed me this one. It had Larry Gene Belden’s name on it.”

She walked into the kitchen, Moms following behind her. “The name doesn’t sound familiar,” Moms said. “That doesn’t mean that he isn’t a relative. Your father would know more about Belden family history than I would.”

“See, Moms,” Trixie said holding out her wrist. The new bracelet shined in the bright kitchen lights as Moms looked at it.

“It is exciting. With the number of MIA’s reported weekly, it’s amazing you found one with the name Belden on it.”

Trixie shook her sleeve over her wrist. “Where is Dad?” she asked. “I can’t wait to ask him about Larry Gene.”

“He said something about wanting to straighten out the garage. He was wondering where everyone had gone.”

Trixie grabbed her coat and headed out to the garage. Why her dad thought the garage needed to be straightened up when it was 20 degrees out was beyond her, especially when she recalled that she and her brothers had spent a Saturday in October cleaning it out.

“Dad,” she yelled as she made her way into the garage. “Who’s Larry Gene Belden?”

Her father quickly made his way to the front of the garage while wiping his hands on a cloth. “What did you say, Trixie?” he asked.

Taking a deep breath, she began to slowly tell the story again. When she was finished she waited for her dad to say something.

“My first cousin, Fred Belden, had a son named Larry. I’m not sure if it’s the same person or not. Fred moved to Kansas shortly after your mother and I were married,” her father began. “I remember at our wedding, Larry kept trying to pull on the flower girls braids. At the end of the night, the flower girl finally had enough. She ended up giving him a black eye.”

Trixie chuckled. She loved to hear stories about her parents before she was born.

“Do you have your cousin’s address?” she asked. “I’d like to write them a letter.”

“I think they send us a Christmas card each year. If not, Uncle Harold might have it. He and Fred were the same age and may still keep in touch.”

Trixie bounced up and down, unable to control her excitement. “Can I call Uncle Harold? Please, Dad, I’ll just die if I don’t talk to him.”

Her father took a deep breath and shook his head. For about the hundredth time this month his daughter had threatened to die. Fortunately, either she had more lives than a cat or his daughter exaggerated a little. He hated to call his brother. They had grown apart the past few years. Both of their lives were busy and they just didn’t seem to have a lot in common.

Harold’s business meant he traveled a lot. He’d spent the previous summer in South America checking out several mines he was interested in buying. If he called, Harold would panic and think something tragic had happened. Of course, if the Larry Belden he remembered was the one on the bracelet Trixie had bought, something tragic had happened.

“I think Uncle Andrew mentioned Harold wasn’t planning on traveling for a few weeks. I’ll call him after dinner. Even though it’s Saturday, he usually spends quite a few hours at the mine in Idaho when he’s home.”

She sighed in disappointment. It might as well be five years instead of the five hours she would have to wait until her dad would call her uncle.

The afternoon seemed to drag. It didn’t help that she had to sit and listen to Bobby read for half an hour. The only consolation was that it wasn’t Peter Rabbit. The horseback ride through the woods helped as well.

Finally, after dinner had been served, the last dish washed, and everyone had settled in for the night, Peter called his brother.

Trixie could barely contain her excitement. As her father spoke to Uncle Harold, she bounced up and down next to him.

After the requisite inquiries about how the family was doing, Peter finally approached the subject of Larry Belden.

“Tell him about the bracelet program,” Trixie whispered to her dad.

He nodded and continued the conversation.

“And don’t forget to tell him about how we found this particular bracelet,” she added.

When she started to say something for the third time, her father excused himself from his conversation with his brother, placed his hand over the receiver and said, “Trixie, I know you’re excited but you can’t keep interrupting me. Why don’t you go into the family room and watch T.V.? I’ll let you know what I find out as soon as I’m finished talking to your uncle.”

Trixie started to protest but realized with one look at her dad’s face that she had better leave.

She slunk into the living room and plopped down on the sofa. Bobby and Mart were playing checkers while Mission: Impossible was on T.V. It was one of her favorite shows but she couldn’t concentrate. At first she just sat there staring at the show. Then she started pacing and sighing.

“Would you sit still?” Mart said. “I can’t concentrate.”

“Yeah,” Bobby agreed. “I’m about to beat Mart for the first time and I don’t need any distractions.”

Trixie started to head out to the kitchen when her dad came in.

“What did you find out?” she asked.

Her father guided her over to the sofa and sat down next to her. “I’m afraid it’s not good news,” he said. “Uncle Harold said that he had just received word from Fred that Larry was on patrol near Chu Lai when he went missing and was feared captured this past summer. The family has been at their wits’ end trying to get information from the Army. So far they’ve found out very little other than that he had been in Cambodia in June. There were heavy casualties reported in June but they know little else.”

“He must be the same person that is on my bracelet. Did Harold agree?” she asked.

“He seemed to think so. He remembered Fred’s father’s name was Gene. He also gave me Fred’s address. I know you want to write to the family but please be respectful. Just send your thoughts and prayers, you can mention the bracelet but no sleuthing.”

Trixie spent all day Sunday trying to compose a letter to Fred and his wife Alice. It was the hardest thing she had ever written. She had so many questions to ask but agreed with her dad that now was not the time to ask them. In the end, she wrote a short note offering her thoughts and prayers and explaining about the bracelet she had bought.

Monday, December 21, 1970

“Come on, Diana,” Trixie urged. “Mart and Dan probably have been waiting in the parking lot for twenty minutes. And you know how impatient they can be.”

They were standing next to their lockers, grabbing books they would need to complete their studying that night and putting on their coats, hats and mittens.

“Is it the guys who are impatient or you?” Honey asked. “You have been daydreaming all day. It’s a good thing your teachers didn’t decide to confer with each other today or you probably would have had to stay after school to make up for not paying attention.”

Trixie shuddered. “Don’t even think that. It was hard enough getting through yesterday and today.”

“You didn’t tell us what your parents thought when you showed them your bracelet,” Diana said.

Trixie explained her conversation with her father.

“I sent the letter out this morning. I really don’t expect a reply. From what Uncle Harold told Dad, they were having a hard time. They had received little information from the Army and to make matters worse some anti-war protesters had tried to picket their house,” Trixie explained as they headed out to the parking lot.

Dan and Mart had parked the BWG station wagon and were standing beside it talking to several of their classmates. When they saw the girls approach they bid their goodbyes and got into the car. When the girls were buckled in, Dan backed out of the parking spot and headed toward Glen Road.

“How was your day?” he asked.

“I can’t wait for Christmas break,” Trixie said. “It seems like the teachers have decided that we need to cram in two months of classwork into the last two weeks.”

Diana and Honey agreed.

“Well, just don’t get behind,” Mart warned. “You don’t want to have to spend the entire break being tutored.”

“I don’t know,” Honey teased. “If Jim is the tutor, Trixie might think it’s worth it.”

Trixie playfully whacked Honey in the arm. “I’ll have you know that I’m getting all A’s and B’s in my classes right now. And there are much more fun things to do with Jim than studying.”

Mart whipped his head around and glared at Trixie.

“Get your head out of the gutter,” Trixie said.

The rest of the ride home the friends spent bantering back and forth.

The days leading up to Christmas were filled with decorating, baking, some shopping and enjoying each other’s company.

The girls wore their bracelets religiously. The guys carried theirs in their pockets most of the time. On Christmas Eve Bobby brought in the mail. He started to sort the junk mail from the Christmas letters.

“Trixie,” he called. “There’s a letter for you.”

Trixie came bounding down the steps. “Who is it from? I wonder if it’s from Delores and Lupe? I haven’t heard from them in several months.”

“I don’t think so,” Bobby said. “It doesn’t have those funny stamps on it. The return address says Belden. Maybe it’s from Hallie.”

Trixie snatched the letter from Bobby and then headed upstairs to read it in private. She noticed the postmark was from Kansas and knew exactly who it was from. She sat down on her bed as she began to read.

Dear Trixie,
Thank you for your caring letter. It has been a rather trying few months and we haven’t really felt like celebrating the Christmas season. Then we get a letter like yours and we realize that we need to celebrate the season some way, if not necessarily the way we usually do. We sent care packages to some of Larry’s army buddies. It helps us stay connected to him.
It’s pretty amazing that you found a POW/MIA bracelet with Larry’s name on it. We are honored that you are wearing it and look forward to the day we can write and tell you that he has come home safely.
I hope you have a lovely Christmas. Tell your mom and dad we send our love.
Fred and Alice

Trixie read the letter several times. She couldn’t imagine spending the holidays not knowing if your loved one was alive and worrying if he was being held as a prisoner of war. She worried about the bracelet on her wrist and said a silent prayer for Larry and his family as well as for all of the soldiers serving in the conflict. She also thanked God for sparing members of her immediate family from being drafted. For several minutes she lay on her bed.

That evening the family went to Christmas Eve services. As had been the tradition in the past few years, they went as a family but all of the Bob-White families attended the same service. The families had become very close over the years and were in some respects closer than their blood families.

During the service, family members were asked to hang a glass ornament on a special tree for those that were or had served in the Viet Nam conflict. Red ones were for those who were serving or had returned home safely, blue ones were for those who were missing in action or prisoners of war and white ones were for those killed. As the ornaments were hung, the congregation sang “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”.

Each of the Bob-Whites walked up and placed a blue ornament on the tree in honor of the soldier that was engraved on their bracelets. They were surprised how many ornaments had been placed on the tree. Solemnly, they returned to their seats.

The service then returned to their tradition service and concluded with the congregation and choir singing “Joy to the World”.

The New Year came and life returned to normal. The novelty of the bracelets started to wear off for Diana and Honey. The two friends wore theirs most of the time but on occasion would forget to put them on in the morning.

Trixie never took hers off. This surprised her friends as she wore that bracelet more than she wore the bracelet Jim had given her years ago. That bracelet she would take off at night. The POW/MIA bracelet she never took off.

As winter turned into spring, the Vietnam conflict was winding down but soldiers were still dying. American support began to wane as more young men were drafted and many of those were either reported as missing in action or killed. Trixie remained in contact with Fred and Alice Belden. She tried to write about once a month.

They were difficult letters to write. She wasn’t sure what to put in them. She tried to offer words of encouragement. In addition, she treated her letters like ones she would send to Delores and Lupe. She’d tell them about what was happening in Sleepyside. With the help of her father, she would share news stories about people Fred might have known when he lived in the area.

Fred and Alice always replied. They seemed to appreciate the letters as they provided a distraction from their worries. At one point Trixie even approached Mr. Wheeler and asked if he could do anything. He made a few phone calls but there really wasn’t anything else anyone could do but wait.

As time went on, the anti-war protesters began to get more vocal. Trixie continued to wear her bracelet as she prepared for her high school graduation.

It was a Saturday night in mid-May. Trixie, Honey and Diana were watching Mission: Impossible while making final plans for their graduation party and end of the year activities. The phone rang and Peter Belden got up to answer it. The girls continued their planning until he returned.

“Trixie,” he said solemnly.

She looked up and saw the sadness in his eyes. “What’s the matter? Did something happen to Mart or Brian?”

He moved into the family room and sat down next to her. “That was Uncle Harold on the phone.”

“It’s Hallie isn’t it?” she jumped in.

“No, it’s not Hallie or Cap or Knut,” he said patiently. “It’s Larry Belden. Fred called him earlier today to say that they had recovered his body.”

“Recovered his body?” Trixie was confused. “You mean he’s okay then?”

He moved over and placed an arm around his daughter. “No, honey, it means he died. Apparently his plane had been shot down behind enemy lines and he didn’t survive the crash. No one did, but it took all this time to confirm the identities of those involved and to recover the bodies.”

Trixie looked down at the bracelet she’d been wearing for almost six months. She ripped it off her arm and threw it into the unlit fireplace. Tears streamed down her cheeks.

“Stupid bracelet,” she said. “What a waste of time. Six months of hoping and praying only to find out he didn’t make it.”

Peter tried to console his daughter. “It wasn’t a waste of time. Fred told Harold to let you know that they appreciated all of your letters. Your thoughts and prayers have helped them get through this most difficult time and they’ve realized that they miss their roots in Sleepyside. When things settle down they are going to come for a visit.”

Trixie was not that easily consoled. She tried to control her tears but it just seemed to make it worse. Honey and Diana tried to comfort her and she pushed them away. Finally, they decided that it would be best to just leave and let Trixie deal with her emotions. Her parents would be there to support her.

Trixie tried to get excited about her graduation but in the back of her mind Larry Gene Belden remained. She couldn’t imagine someone that young losing their life. Part of her was proud of the service he had provided while another part started to wonder if the anti-war protesters were right.

She was surprised when she was asked to give the senior address at the commencement ceremonies. She was honored and a little scared. She wasn’t the smartest or the most athletic in her class. She saw herself as one of many in her class. After giving it some thought, she knew she wanted her speech to honor Larry Belden and all of the young men from Sleepyside who had been called to duty. She wanted it to be positive and not focus on the reasons for the war but that these kids had done their duty without question.

She wanted the speech to be a surprise for the class so she did not give it during the graduation rehearsal. She did get it approved by the administration. The last thing she wanted to do was offend someone.

Finally, graduation day came. Dan, Jim, Mart and Brian sat in the stadium along with the girls’ parents, Miss Trask, Regan and even Mr. Maypenny. It was a beautiful, sunny day.

After the graduates had marched in and the class president gave the welcome, Trixie was called to the podium. Nervously, she began her speech.

“As the class of 1971 leaves Sleepyside High School today, we will go out into the world ready to conquer whatever comes our way. Some of us will go on to college and pursue degrees in agriculture, business, nursing and even criminal justice.” A few of her classmates giggled as they knew about her dream to become a private investigator. “Others may join their fathers and work in the family business. Some will get married right away, others will wait. And some may be asked to make the biggest sacrifice of all and to serve their country in the armed services.

“Those of you that are called up will be in my thoughts and prayers. Over the past six months, I have come to realize the number of young men who have been called to serve. I am not here today to debate the war itself but to honor those who did not shirk their responsibilities. Many went over, many returned, many are in POW camps and many came home in coffins.

“In December I read about an organization called VIVA that was selling bracelets with the names of soldiers that were either missing in action or prisoners of war. The purpose was to wear the bracelet until the soldier came home. My friends and I decided this was a neat idea and went over to White Plains to purchase some. Imagine my surprise when I found a bracelet with the name Larry Gene Belden on it. It turned out that Larry Belden was a cousin of mine. He and his parents had lived in Sleepyside for several years and then moved to Kansas. With the help of my dad and uncle I was able to contact my cousin and his wife. For most of the winter and spring I regularly wrote to them. Mostly, I filled them in on things that were happening here in Sleepyside. I didn’t know what else to write.

“A couple of weeks ago, my dad took a phone call from my uncle. It was to tell me that they had recovered Larry’s body. I was devastated. I had so believed that he would make it home alive. I cried many tears and sent my condolences to my cousins. I wanted to go to Kansas for the memorial service but with graduation it just wasn’t possible.

“I’ve heard from my cousins, however, and they expressed how much my letters had meant to them. Later this summer they are coming back to Sleepyside to visit and reconnect with old friends.

“Larry Belden may not be with us any longer but he has provided something even the US Army couldn’t have planned. He has reconnected family and made us all realize how important our family and friends are.

“I’d like to take a few minutes to pause in honor of all of the soldiers from Sleepyside that have served or are serving in the armed forces.” Trixie bowed her head and remained silent for several minutes.

“And now as the Sleepyside High School graduating class of 1971 goes forth to take on the world, I challenge you to not forget about the family and friends you’ve made while here. You may not remain the best friends you are now, but those friendships will always be special ones. Go off and conquer the world. I know you can do it.”

There was thunderous applause as Trixie walked back to her seat. Above it all she heard the familiar bob, bob-white of their secret club whistle. Trixie knew that even though she’d never met Larry Belden a little part of him would live on in her.


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Author Notes

So I’m few months late on my Veteran’s Day story but I’ve finally got it edited. It took me longer than I had hoped because I lost a complete edit to cyberspace and just didn’t have the gumption to re-edit.

Thanks to BonnieH and PatK for editing and Mal for her lovely graphics.

This story was inspired by an article that Bonnie sent me two years ago about the POW/MIA bracelets that were popular in the early 1970’s.

Larry Gene Belden and Thomas Anthony Mravak are both listed on the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

MIA/POW image courtesy of the National League of Families POW/MIA Flag.

Word count, 5,169

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