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?”
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.
The following poems are excerpts from Private Thomas McFadden's notebook. McFadden wrote hundreds of pages of poems following the war. His son transcribed the poems and shared a few with The Broadkill Review.
22 July 1972
My friends, how did it happen?
Somehow you followed me home
All the way from Camp Evans,
Little red pen, to write the poem.
Today it seems, if not before,
This guy would have ended his tour.
Two years ago, today,
The last free night was spent,
In a shabby little bar
Looking at the others’ girlfriends
The drunker one got,
The less it seemed to matter.
So many beers did we drink
And not from the silent bus ride,
But the uncertainty of the silence.
How do you discuss
What you don’t know?
The effects were only vivid conjectures
Forced into the mind, for relief.
Talk of the options
Made it actually easier to accept,
Or maybe it was just the beer.
From that padded little broth,
On that warm summer night.
To that house by cab,
The tolerance of the drive respected,
Were the beginning of the drab.
Amazingly, not, Day 731
Or more to Jensen
Day number one
With tomorrow only zero,
And not even in the mail.
Back at the house,
The birthday phone call made,
With the Canadian roomie
Weirdly there, present.
The drunken girl at the party,
Had only giggles for words
Somehow, the night did end,
Tomorrow to be drafted.
A true story, to be sure,
For to me, it did happen.
There always to endure,
In my head to fatten.
Things would be so different,
If only somehow I realized,
All the things significant,
And shyed out, to be cauterized.
Truly, only a trifle incident.
1st and 2nd day of August
Tomorrow’s another day
To express slack at NCO’s
If they could only count so fine
We’d be all ours to divine.
No sweat to find a slip
A spin back in
Wire bridges unnerve me
How much can you make?
So, I’ll sit and watch -> how could
Secrets of Sail
Snatched from New Bedford
To hunt the whale illusion
Miles of only ripple and swell
But you have the reply
Damn, but what the hell?
This strange land indeed
Shall be your home
Forced down your throat
Like a beer bought by a “friend”
The best you’ll have to make
Maybe even some money, too.
And everyday you curse that inn.
No more rum for thee on the dock.
How happy it would be
To view a clock that doesn’t rock.
Listing as it flows
The eyes attached to the sea
Someday you’ll return to thee (me).
The months pass with stripping and carvery
Your lips jabbering of only home.
The legs you’ve learned to master
And lunch isn’t now a disaster.
Even the fruit’s easier to chew
But the storms still wreck you.
Again tis vowed to never sail,
Like a kid to drink no more.
Only the word sounds will prevail.
They only fall out to empty ears
How many times heard before
One day they’ll stop for sure
Because more experiences you’ll relate.
Your head and flowing beard
Will only shake - empty ears.
The eyes and sun wrinkled skin
Will seed yourself so young
A wager you will place
What bet he’s here next race.
Though you swear everyday to quit
It’s inhumanly possible to forget
And you know you’ll be there, too.
Your excuse to see if you win.
A flimsy way to say
Someday, your body will be dumped
Into some unheard of little bay.
Not the last to die is me
For now I’m here at home
Some unfortunate troop
Still beyond the realm of imagination
With here a bitch & there a bitch
His blood shall be the last
Into the red dust it will flow
Too bad only his parents will care
Even the government may respond
How unfortunate to die
Before the big blind audience
They’ll probably laugh & cheer
An end to war with you
Tis’ hoped you never know
Because the day before
Would have meant the difference
Years have passed with death
But inches maybe even less
Combined with their ignorance
Snuffed your young existence
In God’s hand you’ll surely be
Not some lifer from before
But just a lowly PFC.
Nate McFadden interviewed his father before taking him on a trip to Viet Nam. Thomas McFadden lives in Maine with his wife, Sharon.
Nate McFadden doesn’t like admitting he’s an artist; he will admit to leading an extremely lucky life. Born on Friday the 13th, he grew up in Houlton, Maine, where locals grow potatoes and fear being annihilated in a nuclear attack (due to their proximity to a missile launch site). Mom survived his difficult birth, despite the cancer that wracked her body. Dad survived the Vietnam War, although he refused to carry a gun. Nate’s grandfather taught him how to tell stories, and his grandmother gave him a second home filled with cookies and love. Early in life, he discovered his religion: music. His next-door neighbor, a college professor, trained him to play multiple instruments, arrange symphonies and compose his own pieces by the age of 11. Nate studied film at Emerson College for several years before dropping out. He considered becoming a homicide detective, but music drew him into its creative clutches. He played in rock bands, hosted radio programs and bugled TAPS at military funerals. He also worked as a janitor, a cheesemonger, and a caviar buyer. He once hosted a party at his home and there met his future wife, Christina. She remembers this; he doesn’t; but they’ve been together now for more than two decades. He says the only reason he’s successful in business is because Christina taught him not to be an idiot. They moved to California together in the late 90s and within a few years, Nate landed a job at Apple. He now works for Adobe, where he fixes organizational problems and helps build tools that enable others to tell their stories. Fixing things is more than a career, for Nate. It’s inspiration, and maybe even compulsion. His writing, comedy, visual art and audio documentaries all evolve out of his desire to change the world. He uses satire and other forms of storytelling to inspire empathy and give voice to underdogs. Ultimately, he wants to put an end to genocide and slavery. A lofty goal, but one he believes is possible through art and stories. “The more we know, the less we want to kill each other,” he says. Nate believes in reincarnation, but he is aware this lucky life is his last. He’s still not willing to call himself an artist, though. A fixer, maybe.