Monday, January 25, 2010

I've been 10,000 miles in the mouth of a graveyard.

Finallly getting around to watching Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. It's a Netflix movie, and I've had it for almost two months. I don't like war movies; they bring back too many memories of my dad. When I was a kid, he would tell me all about his time in Vietnam. They weren't really the sort of things you should tell a kid but, young as I was, I understood that he needed to talk about it. An alcoholic, he once told me, "I drink to keep the nightmares away." I must've been 11 or 12 years old. I responded that I'd read somewhere that if you don't dream, you go crazy. "I know," he said, and when he reached for his pack of Benson & Hedges, I could see that his hands were shaking.

Documentaries are the worst, and that's what Dear America is. Actors reading letters from soldiers, while video clips from the war are playing. I've been crying a lot while watching this, as I expected to. I don't want to watch this, but I feel I have to. I feel that I owe it to my father to hear these letters and see the video and know (a little bit of) what it was like for him over there. I keep his medal in my desk drawer. My sister has the American flag from his funeral, still military folded, in a special case, hung on the wall of her office. The first painting I ever bought was Lee Teter's Reflections. It hangs on the wall above the front hall closet, and is one of the first things you see when you step through the front door.

My dad's best friend was killed right next to him. Somehow, none of the bullets struck my father. There is more to the story, but I don't have the heart to tell it. My dad was a hero that day, but he never thought of himself that way. He was quiet in everything he did, including his death.

The year of his death, 1990, the folks from Dignity Memorial created a three-quarter-scale traveling replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. It must have been several months before his death, because I remember it coming to Chicago, and I remember standing there with my dad, helping him look for his friend, Don Gene Stallard. 17 years later, the Wall came to Portland, Oregon. Fittingly, on Memorial Day. My mom, sister and I went. We found Stallard's name again and made rubbings. We also found the names of the servicemen whose POW/MIA bracelets we wore.

Memory against forgetting

Stallard Wall

For Christmas, my dad and his friends drove through the villages and gave potatoes to the children there. He had a dog in Vietnam. Just a little mutt running around his camp. He didn't see him for a day or two, and one night at dinner he asked if anyone had seen the dog. The cook told him that he'd killed the dog and that is what they were eating. My dad got up and beat the shit out of him. Because he had dirt on a commanding officer, my dad was able come home from Vietnam with his uniform and two rifles. He kept them in cases above the wardrobe in our basement.

When he came home from Vietnam, there was no one there to greet him. My mother, his family, but there was no fanfare. Nobody to say "Thank you for what you've done." It haunted him for the rest of his life. He never understood that the protesters were against the war, not the soldiers.

"I would rather to have had you for twenty-one years and all the pain that goes with losing you, than never to have had you at all."
May 13th will mark the 20th anniversary of my father's death. I have not been home, or seen his grave in almost ten years.

1 comment:

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