My father was drafted and fought in Vietnam. It was his duty and he bore it. Dad never needed me to be proud of that fact but I always was and always will be.
Growing up, I was obsessed with war, though at the time, I didn’t think of it as war. I thought of it as guns, helmets, uniforms, and valor — all things GI Joe. The realities of war, young people dying for politics and ideology, never crossed my mind. Just like how my grandfather rarely spoke of his time fighting in northern Africa during World War II, my father rarely spoke of his time fighting in Vietnam. Still, I’ve pieced together snippets of his experiences over the years.
He had a Full Metal Jacket/Forrest Gump moment in boot camp. The drill sergeant screamed in his face something like, “Why are you in this man’s army, boy?” My father answered, “Hey, I was drafted. You tell me.” The drill sergeant was not tickled. Guess he had heard that one before. Like many Vietnam veterans, my father quipped that Vietnam was stunning country and, if people weren’t shooting at him, he would have enjoyed the vacation.
In his platoon, Dad operated the M60, a behemoth machine gun nicknamed “the pig.” The M60 chewed-up battlefields. It wasn’t a close-in, precision tool. The M60 was an indiscriminate, sweeping weapon and it was effective. At my father’s funeral, my Uncle Bill gave me a photograph of Dad lugging the M60 over a shoulder. Dad was svelte. He looked something like JFK in the president’s war days and nothing at all like the Santa-Claus-esque father I had known. Uncle Bill said, “The biggest hoss carries the pig.” Dad was the biggest hoss.
My mother once said of that photograph, “That’s Charley but that’s not Charley. Your father hated the war machine. I don’t know who that is.”
I once asked my father, “Did you kill anybody?” I thought it the sort of inquiry best avoided in polite conversation, like one’s voting habits or income, but he was my dad. I was young and mistook the matter for my business. He said, “I don’t know. They shot from the trees. I shot into the trees.”
Once, in a duck blind on a flightless day, Dad told of a buddy of his who had begun his tour several months before my father had begun his own. It goes, Dad’s buddy had about a month before his tour was up. The platoon stopped for the night. They scouted the surrounding jungle and, finding nothing but wilderness, began to settle into camp. Dad’s buddy bathed in a river. The trees opened fire on the water. The rest of the platoon responded and sent the Viet Cong fleeing into the jungle. Dad’s buddy had hidden below the trunk of an uprooted tree in the river. His chin was bleeding from where a bullet grazed his skin. He had had a towel wrapped around his neck. The towel now sported a bullet hole. He was shaken. That night, as the men slept below trees and stars, Dad’s buddy rolled on top of him and began beating the hell out of him. Eyes clenched tight, screaming and flailing his arms, Dad’s buddy was still asleep. Not sleep walking but sleep brawling. He was no good to himself or the platoon. They sent him home early, maybe not broken but certainly not the same.
My father had his trials after the war. My mother once told of how he would wake thrashing at night. Unsure who concealed a gun or might have a bomb strapped to their torsos, Dad was uncomfortable in crowds for a long time. He hated fireworks. I was born more than fifteen years after Dad left Vietnam, so I missed most of this. Dad had, for the most part, recovered by the time I came along. Still, I saw it resurface at times.
Dad lost a lot of feeling in his hands. We don’t really know why. Tinkering on his truck or the lawnmower, he would slice open his fingers and not notice until his tools became slippery with blood. In his early fifties, Dad was diagnosed with multiple-sclerosis — a condition that primarily affects women, beginning in their early twenties, but (from what we saw) seemed to also target Vietnam veterans. In Vietnam, infantry breathed air and drank from rivers polluted by Agent Orange. To be fair, I do not know of any research that connects Vietnam service and Agent Orange to multiple-sclerosis but, watching my father’s health deteriorate, I could not help but draw such Damn-the-Man conclusions as an increasingly angry teenager. I just wanted someone to blame. Complications founded in multiple-sclerosis (e.g., copious medications wreaking havoc, depression, pain in movement, inability to move, muscle atrophy, and an unexercised heart) would eventually take my father’s job and then his life.
A year after my grandfather passed away, Dad and I were driving toward Houston. We had spent the weekend hunting with Uncle Bill an hour’s drive or so outside Dallas. My grandfather never knew that Dad battled multiple-sclerosis. We kept the matter to ourselves, not wanting to worry the man in his twilight. Stumbling from the duck blind that morning, Dad had struggled in muddy water to board a small aluminum boat that would ferry us across an artificial lake toward camp. He said, “Thank you.” I asked, “For what?” He said, “For taking me on my last hunt.” My grandfather had announced his last hunt to my father in the same way.
The song “Riding with Private Malone,” by David Ball, played on the radio as we drove home. In the song, Ball tells of a man who lucks-out when looking through the classifieds for a used car. For just $1000, he buys a ’66 Corvette. In the Vette’s glovebox, the man finds a note written by a soldier, a Vietnam casualty, named Andrew Malone. The refrain goes:
“It was a young man named Private Andrew Malone,
Who fought for his country and never made it home.
But for every dream that’s shattered, another one comes true.
This car was once a dream of his, back when it was new.
He told me to take her and make her my own.
And I was proud to be riding with Private Malone.”
On busy I-45, Dad jerked the wheel and parked his truck on the shoulder. He cried — bawling hot, real tears. It was only the second time I had seen my father cry. The first was at the end of the movie Saving Private Ryan. Many decades after World War II, an old man named James Ryan, the titular Private Ryan, stands in a veterans’ cemetery beside the grave of Captain Miller, who died so Ryan could live. Ryan asks his wife, “Tell me I’ve led a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.” The credits rolled. Lights came on in the theater. Tears streamed down my father’s face. (I’m sure Dad also cried at my grandfather’s funeral but I was so torn up myself that I can’t recall.)
Alongside I-45, as “Riding with Private Malone” still played, Dad snatched the bifocals from his face and rubbed away tears. He said, “I miss the old man sometimes.” He was speaking of my grandfather. The loss of “the old man” was still fresh. “Riding with Private Malone” triggered such a strong response in my father because he and my grandfather had a connection that no one else in my family shared. They were both veterans. They had both seen active duty. The trees had fired upon them and they had fired back.
I wanted that connection with my father. I was still swayed by a “GI Joe: A Real American Hero” mentality and still believed war was cool and, in its own way, beautiful. War made boys men. I had already begun compiling a personal campaign for West Point. “Stoked” and “pumped” were words my teenage-self used to describe my conviction and anticipation. I wore a Black Knights ball cap until it busted and then bought a new one. I wrote my governor’s office, looking for support. Uncle Bill and my Uncle Walto had both been officers in the Army. Neither had seen active duty but both served our country honorably, all the same. They hoped to sponsor me or, at least, back me. My grandmother said that she thought I would make an excellent officer. My father remained silent on the matter.
But one major thing got in the way: cancer. After radiation therapy and my own vacation in the Neurosurgery ICU of the Methodist Hospital in the Texas Medical Center, I lost 85 pounds and even more vision. I am now legally blind in one eye — a daily reminder of how lucky I am to have survived a condition that claims so many people. Fifteen years later, I am still being poked and prodded and stuck by countless needles in search of resurgent tumors and to monitor the side-effects of radiating my brain. I’ve grown accustomed to needles and long hours cramped inside MRI tubes, which is good because I’ll be poked and prodded for the rest of my life. Time has taught me to be grateful and accepting of uncertainty but, in the early years, uncertainty was crippling. By the time I reached fighting age, I had lost my will for war. I had fought enough. There are many experiences that make boys men.
I did speak to a recruiter with the Marines, once West Point was out of reach. When I told him my medical history, he laughed and said, “If they ever reinstate the draft, we’d take women and children before we’d take you!” I’m not sure how accurate that statement was — I think he was trying to be funny — but it was good enough for me. I hadn’t the fire any longer. He then said, “You know Buddy H—?” Buddy was a good friend of mine back in high school who had recently enlisted via the same recruiter. “Tell him I said to get his fat ass outside and run!”
Around the time I graduated college, my father commented on that time in my life when I made the decision (or the decision was made for me) to forego military service. He simply said, “I’m glad you didn’t go.” And that sparse dialogue between us concluded. In his few remaining months, war and military never again came up. Yet, a personal dialogue, the one in my head, continues. I want to tell Dad that, to this day, I feel guilty for not enduring what he was drafted to endure. “But for every dream that’s shattered, another one comes true.” That’s the price of liberty.
Even if I heard it, I could never know what my father faced but I might have understood him better if we had been more open to discussing difficult things. He decided that it was for the best not to speak to his own father about multiple-sclerosis. We didn’t talk about war because he didn’t want to. We didn’t talk about cancer because I didn’t want to. He’s gone now and we can’t talk at all. I think the hardest thing about death is forever wanting to just talk. Is that so much to ask? I guess it is. I miss the old man sometimes. I miss him always.