Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Thing They'd Rather Not Have Carried




Dad went off to Vietnam in 1968 with the knowledge that his first son would enter the world without him. He was 22 years old.

I used to think my dad's Vietnam was just six-man football, Cam Rahn Bay, snakes and bulldozers (my dad's unit made roads, some of them easier than others). His dress uniform hung in his closet, and when I was in high school I tried it on and I discovered it fit me more perfectly than any other jacket I'd ever wear--it'd been tailored to him, but it also fit my 9th grade frame.

The regular Vietnam depictions irritated him.  "It wasn't Rambo.  It was mostly sitting around playing cards.  That was Vietnam for most guys.  Then you got the crazy things that happened, but that was rare. It was mostly just being bored and playing cards."  He was big on cards--bought a pinochle deck to show us how to play.

We went to the Vietnam Memorial when it was built and Dad spent the time finding names of guys in his unit.  He didn't seem emotionally overwhelmed; he just wanted to find several names.  And he found them:  "They're there," he said.

Forty years later Dad made it to his first reunion where he saw men he'd last seen as twentysomething soldiers, when he was a twentysomething soldier.  My mother describes the event as a "room full of bikers, tough guys, all of them weeping." 

When he got home in '69 and met his son (and then made a couple more) he built a house and then a barn and filled it with goats and calves.  He planted a garden and an orchard.  In the Fall he cut wood, split and stacked it for winter--row after row of red oak, black oak, beech, and maple.  And he gradually had us join him in routine tasks of stoking the fire and cleaning out the ash tray; of milking the goats and feeding the animals; of tilling the soil and weeding it and watering and de-bugging and harvesting it; always trudging through snowdrifts and ever-moist Michigan air.
It was through Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, with it's exhaustive list of things--some physical, some mental--that I first imagined my father in Vietnam with any sense of depth.  My Dad, I realized, carried stuff: letters from my pregnant mother, he carried pinochle cards, a Bible, a .45, P-38 can opener, "pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water."

Some of these things were still around.  He had carried these things everywhere he went in his big worn pack he kept in the basement with "CROSS" stitched in black.  He'd sewn his name on his pack.  Eight or nine years after he came back--when I was old enough to remember seeing it--he still wore a floppy drab hat he'd carried; a faded "Red" (his nickname) inked on the brow. 

How did Vietnam change the tone of others' lives?  How will Iraq and Afghanistan?

I'm only one son of one veteran, but war did something to me through my dad.  I know World War II did the same for him and his father, my Grandfather.
I can't say the effect of wars is all bad, although for the dead, I'd venture to say that it mostly is. 

Spring is coming, although to look outside, it wouldn't seem so. The ride to work today packed snow on my beard and left wet spots on the parts exposed.  I carried coffee.  I carried lunch container in panniers on a rack. I carried a Blackberry, my iPhone, a wallet, a warm hat, gloves, a ratty jacket fit for riding through slop.

The thing I long for these days is to ride without carrying anything.  I don't want to put on another layer.  I don't want to carry food, a patch kit, a phone.  I want to soldier forth with nothing.

Of all the cool stuff I thought Dad brought back from the war, most of it was stuff he had to carry; he didn't want it.  He was there serving; it wasn't a liberated life. But he did it for me and the rest of us, and I guess I owe it to him to think about that as I, eventually, get out to West Virginia on a warm Spring day with only a granola bar in my pocket and carry nothing at all.

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