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Remembering Bert

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IT WAS A TREK HE HAD MADE MANY TIMES before. So it shouldn’t have seemed all that unusual on Memorial Day when a husky, salt-and-pepper-haired man strode up to panel 29 west, line 89 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, knelt down and made a pencil rubbing of the name James H. Jeffries. Except this was the President of the United Stales and thousands were watching.

Some booed. But in Hot Springs, Ark., Sonny Jeffries stared at his television screen and wept. Bill Clinton and Jeffries’s son, who went by the name Bert, had been best friends since they met as boys in Sunday school at Park Place Baptist Church. On weekends, the two would hike and hang out together al the Jeffries’s summer home on Lake Catherine. “They would roam around the woods and things. ‘says Jeffries, 73, who remains a fan of the President’s. “They were just pals.” Later they played in the Hot Springs High School Baud: Bill on sax and Bert on drums. They double-dated, and they boogied at the senior prom.

After graduation, Clinton went off to Georgetown University, while Jeffries married his high school sweetheart, dropped out of the University of Arkansas and moved to Dallas, where he worked for the slate highway department and a printing company. He and his wife, Julie, had a child, Jennifer, but divorced in 1968.

In the meantime, two of his friends had died in the Vietnam War. It was then, at 21, that Jeffries decided to enlist in the Marines. On March 20, 1969, he stepped on a mine while on patrol 10 miles north of Khe Sanh.

His daughter, Jennifer, now 27, says that for most of her life she has buried whatever thoughts she ever had of her father. But seeing Clinton’s gesture on television unearthed them. “I was a baby when he was killed,” she says. “It’s been real difficult, but it’s nice that even though he’s President, Clinton still remembers his friends.”