Thursday, September 28, 2006

War stories

Almost everyone I know has a story they have been told since they were small; the story of how a child drank his mother's perfume, or the traumatic story of when they got lost at the zoo, you know, that kind of thing. Somehow those stories become touchstones in a way. We return to them, or at least I do, when I am trying to find meaning in my life, make a decision, or reconcile an issue in my own mind.

Stories are important. My story, the one that has defined me since my earliest days, the one that I have heard so many times, is a war story. It is a story that really hasn't ended yet, but the beginning is etched in my mind. I have heard it a thousand times: "You were born on the tenth, baptized on the 15th, and your dad left for Vietnam the 17th."

That's me.

I am the first child of two first children. The first grandchild on both sides, the first girl in 2 generations on my dad's side. The only thing regarded as universally wonderful to come out of a marriage which was grudgingly accepted on both sides.

It was 1970. My parents had been married just over a year and a half. They were 23 and 22 when I was born. My dad was home on leave when I came (almost 3 weeks late, my mom reminds me) and a week later, he was on a plane to the jungles of Southeast Asia.

My dad isn't a political guy. He wasn't concerned with the war protesters or whether or not Vietnam was a just or moral war. He was drafted, and he knew one thing: his country needed him, and he was going to do the job it required of him. Period. I don't think he harbors any resentment toward the guys who skipped out to Canada (although maybe he does, we don't talk about this a lot). He just knew that for him, this came down to the fact that his country had called on him, and he was going to answer the call as so many generations of his family had, all the way back to the American Revolution.

At 23 he was the old guy on his firebase. He worked 12 on, 12 off and lived with the bedbugs, the C-rats, and the monsoons for almost a year.

Back home, my mom and I moved into her parents' house. Not exactly a harmonious household, but a cheap roof over our heads and days in the house to ourselves while her parents and siblings were at work and school. She cooked and kept house while my grandmother taught school and worked on her Master's degree. I had my grandpa and grandma, an aunt and uncle around, and my paternal grandparents and 2 uncles lived not far away. I was surrounded by love, and I had everything I needed.

On January 1, 1971, my dad came home. I will be forever grateful that he benefited from Nixon's "early drop" program and that he made it home alive and ahead of schedule.

My parents had spoken on the radio phone only a couple of times, each saying a sentence and ending with "Over," before the other responded. My mom had no idea he was back in the States until he called from SeaTac on New Year's Eve.

I was afraid of him for a while -- cried every time he went near my mom. Who was this stranger in my house?

Once home, he had many issues Vietnam veterans reported -- insomnia, nightmares, physically debilitating illness. He was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and I remember being told he couldn't carry me when I was only 3. He was just not strong enough, and it hurt to hold even his little girl.

When I was 12 or so he went to some training where he talked for the first time about his experiences there, with other guys who had been in 'Nam as well. The nightmares finally stopped.

He took me to see "Platoon" when I was 17. I was astonished. Speechless. Horrified. He told me stories of things that happened "over there." Another time, another place, but these were not fairy tales. They were gruesome, gut-wrenching, tremendously sad.

And when I was 18, I joined the Army. For college money, I said. To see the world, I said.

But I've thought about it for a while now, and I think it was because my dad came home and a lot of dads didn't. And how do you pay back the universe and your country for somebody NOT dying?

Go live your own war stories, I guess.


  1. My uncle went to Vietnam 1969. According to my mom, he enlisted and was given a choice of where to serve. He picked Vietnam to piss his parents off. Apparently it worked. And luckily, he came home too.

    Have you been to the Vietnam Memorial in DC? I've been 3 times. Words cannot possibly describe the feeling.

    Thank you for todays posting.

  2. I enjoyed reading this blog entry--I learned about you today. :)