That summer, the flowers grew larger than ever, and more beautiful. At least, that's how Bessie Boffman remembers it.
In the days and weeks immediately after her baby had been killed in combat, Mrs. Boffman spent many hours, more than ever before, in her garden in Norfolk. "I didn't want people to see me cry," she was saying last night at her apartment in Baltimore. "I'm sure it was my imagination, but the flowers were never so beautiful as they were that year."
The year was 1971.
Bessie Boffman's youngest son, 1st Lt. Alan Boffman -- one of four sons who served in the Army -- had been reported missing and presumed dead on March 18. He had arrived in Southeast Asia only two weeks before his death. "We took him to the airport in Norfolk," Mrs. Boffman recalls. "We said goodbye, and he turned and walked into the darkness toward the plane."
His last communique was a postcard from Hawaii, mailed on his way to the war zone.
They called him Pinkie. He was 24. He was married, with a baby girl, when he was sent to Vietnam. He was copilot of an attack helicopter, assigned to the 101st Aviation Battalion. A couple of weeks after Boffman's arrival in Southeast Asia, he was copiloting helicopter missions into Laos. The pilot of his helicopter was Capt. Keith Brandt, 31 years old. Brandt's code name was Music One Six.
According to an account by a retired Army colonel, a battalion of U.S. and South Vietnamese troops had been flown 40 kilometers into Laos and, after six weeks of combat with North Vietnamese regulars, was decimated. All of the battalion's officers had been killed. Eighty-eight troops remained; 61 of them were wounded. On March 18, they were surrounded in a large bomb crater near a river called Xe Pon. The helicopters were coming back to take them out.
Brandt and Boffman, operating under code name Music One Six, volunteered to lead the rescue mission. On its first approach, the helicopter came under intense fire from North Vietnamese troops on the perimeter of the bomb crater. The helicopter caught fire. The hydraulic controls were destroyed. Music One Six radioed a farewell message, then the helicopter crashed and exploded into flames.
It was two months -- Mother's Day, 1971 -- before the Army pronounced Alan "Pinkie" Boffman dead. On May 30, there was a memorial service in Norfolk. One of Boffman's four brothers, Army Capt. Clarence Earl Boffman, stood in dress uniform at graveside with the family. A few months earlier, at Fort Rucker, Ala., Capt. Boffman had pinned lieutenant's bars on his younger brother's cap. There's a photograph of this hanging in Bessie Boffman's apartment.
"Pinkie was special," his mother said. "He was always kidding me, always saying something witty. He used to kid me about my weight, or about almost anything. He kept us laughing. So later, after he left us, I would think of him and laugh or smile. He had left me with so much to laugh about, so many memories."
But the Army did not recover Boffman's body.
"At first," said his mother, "I hoped that he was still alive, everybody in that situation does. And I had people tell me, 'You never can tell. He might come back.' But your hopes die after a while."
Bessie Boffman was a grade school teacher years ago. She is a religious woman who gives in conversation the distinct impression that she has reflected on just about all of life's important matters. Her answers are thoughtful, even philosophical, always serene. She seems to have resolved a lot of things in her heart.
All these years, did she want the Army to recover her son's remains from the helicopter wreckage in Laos?
"As far as I was concerned, I had outgrown that desire," she said. "When the calls started coming this summer, I was doubtful."
The remains of Lieutenant Boffman and Captain Brandt were recovered from an excavation near the Xe Pon River earlier this year. They were returned to the United States 19 years, four months and one day after the last mission of Music One Six. The remains were buried at Arlington National Cemetery last Friday.
"It was very nice," Mrs. Boffman said. "Same as before. They played taps. There was a 21-gun salute. I got to meet Captain Brandt's family for the first time." Her daughter-in-law was there. And so was her granddaughter.
"She was 15 months old when Pinkie left us," Mrs. Boffman said. "She's 21 now. She goes to Hampton University. Her name is Carla."