Reflections: a son looks back at his father's Viet Nam service, and post-war poetry.


People always tell me that I am a lot like my father, Thomas. I consider it a hard compliment to hear. Before my dad was drafted, he was a math teacher. That’s right, Uncle Sam decided it more important for my father to fight a lost war than teach children the writing system that describes the beauty of the multiverse. I never really grasped the absurdity of the whole thing until trying to describe dad’s service to a childhood friend.

“We drafted teachers?” he asked with astonishment.

I had never thought much about it, but his question crystallized my father’s plight. “Yeah…I guess they did.”

Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to have toy guns until I was 8 or so. Dad had tested out as a marksman, just like his father before him. My first time shooting a rifle I placed 10 shots inside a quarter-sized ring on the target at Boy Scout camp. Apparently, I come from a long line of hillbilly sharpshooters. Grampie’s unit, the 30th Division - 117th regiment was Eisenhower’s favorite infantry; they saw action at every major engagement of the western theater with the exception of D-Day.

Unlike my grandfather, my father refused to carry a weapon during his tour of duty in Viet Nam. He claims it was to avoid having to pay for a lost rifle, but I know him better than that. Even though he was drafted, he was put into intelligence, a kind of rare posting for the war He spent most of his duty time going into villages, drinking wine with the elders, and he wouldn’t carry a gun in a village full of women and children. Something in him knew that being armed lessened his chances of getting people to talk to him. When I was a child, I told dad I wanted to go hunting with Grampie, he told me a story about how he killed a squirrel once and cried for days. My father might be the bravest man that I ever met. I didn’t get it then, but I do now.

I had always known dad was a very gifted man, but I didn’t know how far his talents extended. Right after I got into the writing program at Stanford I went home to visit my parents. Dad walked into the living room and dropped a stack of three-ring binders in my lap, all thick as bibles.

“What it is this?”

“It’s from my first year back”

I cracked open the first binder and discovered it was full of poetry.

“I would go to the store and buy a case of beer and just start writing. Some of it is just pure slush.”

All this time dad was a secret writer! I knew he kept journals but had no idea the extent of his work.

The next year, I took him back to Viet Nam and interviewed him about his time there. Even though he was suffering from PTSD, he never lost his inherent sweetness. His experience there only made him want to help others and make the world a better place.

Dad was able to re-frame his whole tour of duty after going back. Part of me thinks it is because he is a builder. Seeing scars of war healed patched up some holes in his soul. He told me I made all of his dreams come true and he could finally achieve serenity. Very few sons get such satisfaction from their father.

We had such a good time, I immediately started planning new trips. “Where do you want to go next?”

“Chernobyl!”

Without thinking I said yes. I had always wanted to see it, too. We are so much alike.

Two weeks later I got a call from my mother. Her voice was shaky and on the verge of tears, “Your father has had a stroke,” With those words, she collapsed into wet sobs, full of fear.

That was three years ago and every day he speaks a few more words and wiggles his head a bit more. I was so angry that he only got nine months of peace before the bleed in his brain washed away a lot of the man I loved.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love Dad 2.0, but he is a different person. He doesn’t want to see his pennies anymore, but the resilience is there. He’ll never give up and I’ll never stop loving him.

Before the war, he collected coins and obsessed over pennies. After he came back from Viet Nam, he went to work for Human Services in the income maintenance group. He knew the value of pennies for the poverty-stricken people of Aroostook County. Every penny has a story and it is the one coin everyone possesses.

 

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