MORGANTOWN — Theirs is a love story for all eternity.
In the Aquarian year of 1969, Peter and Peggy Borsay were newly married.
Peter, an earnest intellectual sort, with dark features and prominent eyeglasses, was on his way to earning a doctorate, much in the mold of his father, Lazslo Borsay, a towering professor of classical languages at WVU.
Peggy, a pretty brunette from Charleston, was just as smart. The couple met at school in Morgantown.
College life in Morgantown in the late ‘60s was Janis and Jimi. And beer and late-night bull sessions.
And glorious fall football Saturdays at old Mountaineer Field, down the hill from Woodburn Circle, where the gridiron mantra held firm: I don’t care how many we lose, just as long as we beat Pitt and Penn State.
There was something else, lurking around the edges. Lyndon Johnson’s little war in Southeast Asia.
Well, check that. It was a pretty big war by then.
And each time a flag-draped coffin of an American boy would be trundled from the back of a C-130, the sound the enterprise made carried a rattling wrench of finality, like the chains of Marley’s Ghost.
Those young soldiers were sent off to a place where nothing was defined. A place where flashing lights from the tree line meant bullet holes in backs and bellies.
Black kids from the Inner City. White kids from The Sticks. Young men in olive drab from anywhere and everywhere, really — but mainly from the places where high school diplomas and draft cards marched in unison.
Then, there was the academic, Peter Borsay. His country of birth was Hungary, and he lived there as a child, until his family fled the Revolution in 1954.
They settled in Canada, then Pennsylvania, then Morgantown, where a greeting from Uncle Sam would change everything.
“These were young men,” Tom Ables said, recently.
“They weren’t just numbers or names on the wall. They had real lives. They had dreams. That’s why we’re doing this.”
A family reunion, and how John Wayne got it wrong — and right
Monday is Memorial Day, the holiday that honors American military men and women who have fallen on battlefields the world over.
Ables, a retired history teacher and Cold Warrior who served in the U.S. Marines and U.S. Army, is talking about a gathering that will be held in advance of that day.
“Honoring Real People Who Gave Real Lives” will be at 2 p.m. Saturday on the lower end of Morgantown’s venerable Oak Grove Cemetery, near the intersection of Dorsey Avenue and South High Street.
VFW Posts 548 and 9916 will be there, along with members of Marine Corps League 342. The Daughters of the American Revolution will representatives in attendance, and invitations have also been extended to state and local dignitaries.
The gathering will honor the 36 soldiers from Monongalia County who died in Vietnam.
Most important of all, Ables said, relatives of some of the fallen will also be there to share memories.
“We’ll have people here from Tennessee, Michigan,” Ables said. “That’s pretty special that they would want to come in and share stories and memories.”
Gary Wiles, who helped plan the day with Ables, is especially heartened by the above. Wiles, who grew up in Masontown, has war stories of his own — but he won’t tell them.
Six months after his high school graduation, he was drafted. That following year, was in combat in Vietnam.
As said, he never talked about the war, and for a time, he even downplayed his military service.
All he knew was that things were just … different … when he came back home.
“I tried to reconnect with some of the people I ran around with,” he said.
“But it never really worked. I don’t know if I changed, or they changed. I guess it was a little bit of both.”
Over the years, Wiles has dealt with health issues, some nagging and some serious, that he says can be attributed to his repeated exposure to Agent Orange in the jungle.
During his first days back, he was exposed to open derision of the war, as society in general was trying to process the enormity of Vietnam.
Hollywood, too, which gave him a laugh — even if it was a rueful one.
Wiles finished his tour just in time to see “The Green Berets,” John Wayne’s universally maligned movie about Vietnam.
“I’m sitting there, watching that thing, and I’m saying, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’ But they did get one thing right. There’s a scene where John Wayne asks a reporter, ‘Have you ever been there?’ and the reporter says ‘No.’ John Wayne says, ‘Well, then you don’t know what it’s like.’”
Civilians didn’t know either, he said — unless they had a loved one over there. That’s also what Saturday is about.
And that brings it back to Peter and Peggy Borsay.
From this day forward
A certain Hungarian immigrant didn’t have to go, Ables said.
“But he was an American now, and he loved what America did for him and his family.”
Peter Borsay was in-country for one month when he was killed in a friendly fire incident on Memorial Day, 1969. He was 24.
Peggy Borsay was 22 years old and never wavered from her funeral home vigil for her husband in Morgantown. She never remarried.
After her degree from WVU, she went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin and earned her doctorate from The Ohio State University.
She became an executive director of global research and development for the Pfizer Corp. and founded an organization for Vietnam widows along the way.
She unwound from the rigors of the job with intricate needlepoint and owned a craft shop on the side in Michigan, where she made her life and career.
The soldier’s wife lost her battle to breast cancer in 2006 at age 59. She was cremated, and had one request that those who loved her made so.
Her ashes were spread on her husband’s grave at Oak Grove Cemetery.