Donna Johnson is seventy. She’s a tough cookie. She spends her days at Veteran’s Grove Park in Elmhurst, where she’s lived for twenty-six years, a block away from the park. She scolds people for drinking in the park, meets with friends, or takes part in the nightly Zumba classes, while seated in her motorized scooter, as she’s disabled from a lengthy debilitating illness. She has three children, eight grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren, yet something significant in her life has been missing since 1968, when her brother, Richard Myskyweiz, was killed in action in Vietnam.
“The medal I wear I have engraved with his and my names. We were very close,” she says. “In my heart, I still feel he’s alive in Vietnam. We were given his dog tags, but no body identification. There’s no closure. I don’t think there will ever be.”
Ms. Johnson grew up in Forest Hills, at 73rd Road and Austin Street. Her father, a WW2 veteran, was superintendent of Holland House, one of the first of the taller buildings in the area. Her mother later operated a pet store on Eliot Avenue, off Queens Blvd, where Donna worked.
“We had a ball growing up in the 1950s. Ricky and I had a three-year age difference, so he looked out for me. We were a tight family.” Richard (1946-1968) was an Army Private First Class who began his tour March 25, 1968, “Ricky’s last words before he left were, “Thanks for making me an Uncle. I won’t be coming back.” losing his life only two months later on May 16th, 1968.
“One thing about Ricky was his voice. He was a good singer, and I’m sure he could have made it big. His voice was something else.”
Ms. Johnson discovered the Vietnam Memorial, unveiled last December with much fanfare, at Elmhurst Park by accident during February. “We took a trip to the Stop and Shop Mall and looked in the park, and my friend said there’s a Vietnam Memorial.” She hadn’t heard about this new recognition for Queens Servicemen lost in the war. “Way back when, there was talk of naming a park after him on Austin Street but nothing came from that, and I know his name is on the Vietnam Wall in Washington D.C.” Ms. Johnson drove her scooter closer to the names to examine. “I looked up and down, saw his name and started screaming. I was shocked!” I asked her about the monument’s design and how it impressed her. “It is gorgeous. It’s magnificent. They couldn’t have done a better job if they tried.”
Donna Johnson now rides her scooter once or twice a month down Whitney Avenue to Broadway, across Queens Blvd, and up Grand Avenue. “I just like to sit for a little while next to my brother’s name. It puts me a little bit at ease.” This momentary sense of peace and comfort may never provide full closure, but at this special site in Elmhurst Park, it makes the missing just a little less, and is treasured, by one such as Ms. Johnson, a sibling who lost her brother fifty-two years ago, but whose sisterly love still endures.
James McMenamin is Vice President of both the Newtown Civic Association and the Elmhurst History and Cemeteries Preservation Society.