RONAN – Unlike most of us, Ernest Frederic Davidove celebrated his 21st birthday in the jungles of Vietnam.
It was the last birthday he ever saw.
Approximately five weeks after his Jan. 2 birth date, Davidove, who was drafted into the Army, was dead. He was killed on Feb. 13, 1968, in Quang Tri Provence, barely two months into his tour of duty.
More than 45 years later, at 11:20 a.m. EDT Wednesday, an old high school buddy of Davidove’s walked up to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
He located Davidove’s name among the tens of thousands listed there, used paper and pencil to trace over his friend’s name.
And he cried.
The steps Chuck Lewis took to reach Davidoe’s place on the wall Wednesday morning were the last of millions.
Lewis, of Ronan, set out on foot last spring from Everett, Wash., to walk across America, and to the wall.
It took him almost six months.
He walked more than 3,000 miles.
Through blizzards, lightning storms, howling winds, pounding rain and sweltering heat, the 62-year-old hiked, pushing a baby stroller in front of him filled with gear and supplies, and decorated with American and military flags.
There was a sign on the front of the stroller.
“Walking for the Fallen,” it said.
Along the way, countless curious people pulled u-turns and drove back to stop Lewis – who spent four years in the Marine Corps in the early 1970s, and eight years in the Navy Reserves in the 1980s – to find out just what he was up to.
Some gave him money. By Wednesday, Lewis had collected more than $35,000 along the way, money he will donate to various causes that benefit America’s veterans.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” Lewis said in a telephone interview Wednesday, “given that I was not standing in front of a Wal-Mart with a sign. More than $30,000 of it was collected on the road (the rest came in at www.walkingforthefallen.com, the website that tracked his progress and also accepted donations). People had to go out of their way to stop and see me.”
He didn’t have the 30 grand on him when he arrived at the wall, of course. Lewis steered the baby stroller into post offices along the way often to mail the latest donations home to Ronan.
That it wasn’t the $50,000 he’d set out to raise didn’t matter to Lewis. The target had been selected out of thin air; he’d had no idea what to expect when he took off from the shores of Puget Sound last spring.
His final day of walking was probably his shortest. Lewis’s wife, Linda Sappington, flew into Washington Tuesday night and met her hiking husband at a hotel in nearby Alexandria, Va.
It wasn’t his first night on a bed since spring. People he met along the way often took him in for the night, and Lewis estimates he only had to use his sleeping bag and tent about half the time during his five-month, 26-day walk.
Sappington walked with him on the final leg of Lewis’ long journey. They arrived at the wall 2 hours and 15 minutes after leaving the hotel on foot. A half dozen members of local Marine Corps League detachments met them there, and took the final steps with him too.
Lewis left a handful of items people along the way had asked him to place at the wall for them.
There was a pin from an honor guard group he’d collected way back in Wenatchee, Wash. A coin from a young woman he got outside Spokane – Lewis calls her “a Marine at heart” who tried to join the corps, but was rejected because of three open heart surgeries she had undergone.
An attorney for the Blackfeet Tribes in Montana, a Vietnam vet himself, sent along a dreamcatcher to be placed at the wall.
And in Indiana, survivors of a veteran who, like Ernest Davidove, had been killed in Vietnam more than four decades ago, sent along a cartridge shell casing to be left there.
The casing held some of the cremated veteran’s ashes.
On his hike, Lewis said he learned that the instant noodles and freeze-dried meals he took to cook along the way didn’t provide near the caloric intake he needed to hike 20 or so miles day after day, for months on end.
“You could eat a whole bag of freeze-dried food, and it’s only 500 calories,” he said. “I wound up eating at McDonald’s a lot – a double quarter pounder with cheese, large fries and a drink is 1,100 calories.
“I’m thinking about starting my own diet program, and it would rival Weight Watchers. On my plan you can eat anything, and as much as you want. You just have to drink a lot of sweet tea and walk 25 miles a day.”
Lewis dropped 45 pounds on the journey.
The most he walked in one day was 34 miles, in Minnesota.
The least: 11, in Montana, where Lewis “was stalling” in order to be a guest speaker at a Memorial Day observance in Sidney.
In all, Lewis figures he walked at least 3,200 miles, and rode a few more.
“There were times people would give me a place to stay, and drop me off the next morning at a place that was more convenient for them than where they’d picked me up,” Lewis explained.
His favorite parts of America, he said, came in states like Wisconsin and Illinois, where curves, hills and foliage hid whatever was coming up.
“As you know, there are parts of Montana (the California native crossed his adopted state on the Hi-Line), as well as North Dakota and Washington, where there are long stretches that you can look down the road for 10 miles, and see where you’ll be in three hours,” Lewis said.
The pinnacle of his trip, he said, came in Indiana.
“A gentleman who’d seen a newspaper article about me came out to greet me, and told me, ‘I want you to know, you’re a true American,’ ” Lewis said.
“That really resonated with me, in the way I view myself,” Lewis went on. “My mom was born in Spain. Technically, I’m 50 percent Hispanic, but I never check those boxes when I fill out forms that ask. I don’t believe in hyphenations. There’s a time for cultural diversity, but not at the expense of dividing our country. I’ve always felt if everyone saw themselves as American first, our country would be stronger.”
But, he added, the trip was not about him. It was about the people whose names are on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall, and veterans who served, and gave their lives, in other wars.
Lewis said he’s not sure what, exactly, he felt Wednesday morning when he took the last of his millions of steps.
“I was too busy crying,” he said. “It was very emotional – just the completion of the journey, the wall itself, the names of 58,479 of your young men and women who died over there.”
Ernest Frederic Davidove, an old high school classmate of Lewis’ from Ridgecrest, Calif., was one of them.
If you take even a minute to think of him, and all the others who have given their young lives for your country, Chuck Lewis would probably feel his walk was worth the effort.