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Island profile: Dave Clark, one who came home, remembers those who didn’t

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Dave Clark, commander of the American Legion Mitchell Post 281 at the Legion Hall.

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Dave Clark, commander of the American Legion Mitchell Post 281 at the Legion Hall.

Dave Clark, commander of the American Legion Mitchell Post 281, has conflicted feelings about his service in the Marines, especially the months he spent in Beirut getting shot at.

But he is very clear about whose military service should be remembered on Memorial Day, and it’s not his.

“It’s a time to think of men and women who gave their lives, to reach out to their families and give them a hug,” Dave said.

One of four children of Robert and Suzanne Clark, Dave’s family’s roots on Shelter Island go back many generations. Robert Clark owned an auto repair business in the 1960s and 1970s and Dave learned a lot about fixing cars by hanging around the shop.

Those were the days of “lot buggies”  — old cars that Shelter Island kids, too young for a driver’s license, would fix up and drive on rough trails in big, empty lots, to the horror of their parents.

When Dave was about 9, his interest in all things auto was shared by his friend Tom Speeches, and the two of them turned about 35 acres of land behind Robert Clark’s automotive shop into a figure-8 track and trails for lot buggy races. “We’d drive those things and make our parents nuts,” Dave remembered.

After Dave graduated from Shelter Island High School and spent a year at an automotive trade school in Colorado, he returned in 1980 to an Island with few opportunities for employment. Dave and Gunnar Wissemann, good friends then and now, decided to enlist in the Marine Corps at the same time, “on the buddy system.” But there was another influence on Dave.

“Thirty years earlier, to the day, my dad joined the Marines,” he said.

Dave survived boot camp, trained as an infantryman and went to serve in a security platoon in Okinawa where his experience driving lot buggies proved helpful. He was assigned as a driver for his platoon commanders, Sergeant Major Hildebrand and Colonel Geraghty. “Somehow they liked me,” he said. “I don’t know why.”

Dave realized he must have been doing something right when he got a letter from his father on the Island, saying a colonel in the Ninth Marines had written to tell him what a fine son he had. “The letter was praising my manner, saying I was a great Marine,” he said. “My dad asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ I didn’t see the letter until I came back.”

Home on a one-month leave, Dave met and fell in love with Jennifer Byington. They started a family and two weeks before he was due to ship out to Lebanon, they married.

Honeymooning at Gurneys in Montauk, Dave turned on the TV and saw the American Embassy in Beirut had been bombed.

Jennifer began to cry.

When Dave got to Camp Lejeune, he discovered that the sergeant major in Okinawa had contacted his new battalion to recommend Dave as a driver. “It was such a cake job, anybody would take it,” Dave said. “But I came to the Marines because I wanted to learn something.”

Dave was assigned to an M47 Dragon platoon and trained to use a shoulder-fired anti-tank weapon that weighed 75 pounds and took so long to get off a round that any soldier firing it was vulnerable to being spotted by the target he was trying to hit.

In Beirut, Dave’s platoon stayed in the barracks that were completely destroyed early on the morning of October 23, 1983 by an enormous truck bomb. At the time, Dave had just finished a watch at the end of the Beirut airport runway and had no idea that 220 Marines, including his entire chain of command, had been killed in the early morning attack.

For five days his family was not sure if he was alive. “It took a few years off my parent’s lives,” he said.

Dave’s first child had been born on October 4, while he was in the thick of it in Beirut.

Informed that daughter and mother were healthy, for some reason he thought his baby would be named Melissa Ann Clark, until a letter came from home saying, “Bethany is a beautiful girl.”

He realized that the fog of war had apparently extended to fatherhood, and had to tell all his buddies he got her name wrong. “You really should know your first child’s, first name,” Dave said. “I missed her birth and her name.”

When he got leave at Christmas 1983, Bethany was three months old, and he brought her a cockatiel named MAC (for Melissa Ann Clark) a bird that squawked quite a bit and lived for 15 years.

By 1985, Dave was back on the Island with his young family, working as an automotive mechanic and has worked for the town since 1995. Dave and Jennifer bought the South Ferry Road home of Dave’s grandfather after he passed away. “It’s been in the Clark name since it was built,” he said.

The baby whose birth Dave missed was just the start. He and Jennifer have five children and a growing crop of grandchildren. Bethany works on the South Fork and has a little girl named Kenzie. Michael works for Jernick Moving in Greenport and Matthew works in the city in advertising.

Nicole, who is a true harelegger, was born in the same room as her grandfather, and is a lawyer in New York. Dave and Jennifer’s youngest son, Samuel is in the Army and served in Afghanistan for a year.  Samuel lives in Washington State, where he and his new wife are expecting a baby in July.

With Memorial Day on his mind, Dave pointed out the large rocks in front of the Legion with the names of the Island’s soldiers who gave everything in the service of their country.

The rocks are a reminder of personal sacrifice; from the seven Island men who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War, to Jimmy Wilson killed in Vietnam and Joe Theinert killed in Afghanistan.

When 1st Lieutenant Joseph Theinert’s mother, Chrystyna Kestler, asked the Legion to guard the casket of her son at Our Lady of the Isle before his funeral in 2010, Dave was grateful to be one of those to stand guard, and honor the service of one of Shelter Island’s own.

LIGHTNING ROUND — DAVE CLARK

Favorite place on Shelter Island?  When the kids were growing up we’d always go back to a big rock overlooking Mabel’s Creek.

What exasperates you?  Whiny people.

Last time you were afraid?  When my son was deployed to Afghanistan. I never knew how a parent felt. You don’t even think about it when you are over there. But the parents think about it every day.

Best day of the year on Shelter Island?  The Marine Corps’ birthday, November 10.

Favorite movie or book?  Tom Hanks in ‘Castaway.’

Favorite food?  Once a year, I get a tuna macaroni casserole. My wife makes it for me. That’s all I want for my birthday.

Favorite person, living or dead, who is not a member of the family?  My commanders in Okinawa, Sergeant Major Hildebrand and Colonel Geraghty.

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