My cellphone rang at about 6 on Tuesday evening.
"May I speak with Michael," asked a raspy, unfamiliar voice.
"Speaking," I said.
"Hello, my friend. You sent me a letter last week trying to get in contact with me."
It was Frank, the Marine Corps veteran of Vietnam whose Purple Heart medal I bought at online auction last year.
He was calling me from a veterans home in upstate New York.
My heart skipped a beat.
This was the man, the complete stranger, to whom I needed to return what rightfully was his.
Frank said he lost the medal three years ago. I didn't ask how. I figured it was none of my business. I thought that asking about its loss might somehow imply doubt on my part. Anyway, it wasn't important.
He wanted to know how I found him. I explained how I searched a public records database at work and came up with a name that I hoped would be the right one. And then I sent a letter to the address exactly one week ago.
"Just a stab in the dark," he said.
He asked me how I acquired his medal. I told him about eBay.
"I didn't know they could sell medals on eBay," he said.
Unfortunately, they can. It seems that everything in our society, even recognition of valor and blood sacrifice, can be bought for the right price.
The paperwork that accompanies Frank's Purple Heart indicates the date it was bestowed, but not the circumstances. I wanted to know, and asked Frank if he would be uncomfortable in relating the story.
"You're not asking questions about blood and gore, so it's OK," he said.
Frank was stationed in the village of Phu Bai on Highway 1 near Da Nang in April 1968. His Marine squad of about 15 men was living in the village on a one-year assignment, working side-by-side with the villagers in defending their homes against attack.
"I caught a Chicom grenade [manufactured in mainland China] and got shrapnel in my back," Frank said. "I was medevac'ed out and was in the hospital for a month."
I asked Frank what it was like living in that village.
"You had to be on your toes," he said. "We had a compound in front of the village. Then we got rid of that and moved into the village.
"At night we had to set ambushes. I don't trust anybody, I don't care who it is. You couldn't tell friend from enemy because everyone looked the same.
"You had to stay alert."
Frank was very glad that I had sent that letter. I told him how I had agonized over whether to try to find him, not knowing what wounds of his I might be reopening. He said he was grateful, and that I shouldn't worry.
I, too, am grateful. Grateful that I had the chance to close this circle.