I’m lucky that I’ve never lost a loved one in a war. My dad fought in Vietnam and despite many close calls in his helicopter, he survived and came home. I’ve been thinking about him and his experiences over there more often these days as this year marks the 40th year anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the end of the Vietnam War.
Did you know that as of Memorial Day 2013, 58,286 names appear on the Vietnam Wall Memorial? Originally the names on the Wall were those who died in the war or remain missing. According the the Wall’s website, “Names are added when it has been determined that a service member has died directly from combat-related wounds. Cancer victims of Agent Orange, and post traumatic stress suicides do not fit the criteria for inclusion upon the Memorial. Some have calculated that it would take another two or more entire Walls to include all the names in those two categories alone.”
“Two or more entire Walls,” can you even imagine? I’ve often wondered why we exclude cancer victims of Agent Orange and post traumatic stress suicides. To me, their sacrifice seems no less important.
I know one thing for sure, many of the servicemen and women who return, return injured, and even if they have no visible injuries or wounds, they all return with a story, with memories they will never forget. I grew up listening to my father’s stories of his time as an army helicopter pilot in Vietnam. I’ve been writing about those stories for years.
There were times when I did not want to listen. As a child, some of his stories were very difficult to hear. More importantly, though they must have been extremely difficult to live through. I imagine many of these memories are like their own ghosts, waiting to be heard, acknowledged and maybe even buried.
Perhaps one of the ways of honoring those who have returned is to listen to their story. With listening comes compassion, understanding and something as simple as validation for what they experienced.
At the end of this post I’m including an essay I wrote years ago, “Riding in the Backseat” about my father and one of his Vietnam stories. It was originally published in the 2002 edition of Full Circle, A Journal of Poetry and Prose, which is no longer in print.
I also want to share information about an amazing organization called Home For Our Troops (HFOT). Their mission is, “to build mortgage-free, specially adapted homes nationwide for severely injured Veterans Post-9/11, to enable them to rebuild their lives.” My friend, Michelle, is running a half marathon this fall to raise money for HFOT, and you can click here, or the link below, to donate.
Homes for Our Troops Donation Page http://hfotWDH15.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=1132679&lis=0&kntae1132679=AB6A1BC1988745EDAD03E4A5A65F4915&supid=419955098
I hope you are all having a wonderful Memorial Day weekend!
Riding in the Backseat
Freshly mowed lawns, some still damp, and the perfumes of lilac and jasmine. I sit behind my father in the backseat of our 1976 red Volare wagon. It is summer in Denver and I am nine. My dad, my brother, Kevin, my sister, Megan, and I ride through the streets on an early evening drive.
Mom is at home with her Bridge group. So it is just the four of us and just four is a good number during these outings. No one sits in the middle seat, the seat without the view, the seat with someone else’s head in your way. We each have our own space, special and roomy, and in that space we collect images and store them safe in locked rooms.
A hint of the Colorado summer air, dry and light, drifting to my face, brings those evening rides back to me, here in another city, in another time, as I drive home from work in the early twilight. The sky a pale darker blue, as it fades into dusk, lawns being mowed, lilacs, and overgrown American elms whispering secrets to each other, calmly, as the city’s busy daytime sounds quiet and the other world of tree-lined neighborhoods take back control until morning.
Just as the distant world of my memory wraps its arms around me.
I look out the window, drawn in by shapes and hues and movement, watching as things come and then pass us by. It is my favorite time of year for an evening drive, late May, just before school ends; everything is lazy. The sun stays out long, lingering, not yet wanting to gather its end. We eat Rocky Road ice cream, chocolate almond in a cup with hot marshmallow sauce poured over the top and dripping down the sides. I rush to eat it while the thick, white, gooey sauce is still warm and melting. This contrast of hot and cold on my tongue surprises me.
“The pizza oven story!” Megan begs my father as she sits next to him in the front. “Tell us the pizza oven story.” Her voice is goofy, almost singsong.
“You’ve heard that one before,” my dad says, but I can almost feel the smile growing on his face; his love for telling a story cannot be hidden. “Do you really want to hear about the pizza oven again?” He looks at her and then glances in the rearview mirror toward my brother and me, pretending not to know how much we enjoy the listening.
I see his eyes in the mirror and his thick black hair. If I peek through the opening between the front seats, I can see his hands. One holds the steering wheel; the other maneuvers through the air, pointing out nooks and crannies unique to our city: a run-down neighborhood, an old Victorian proudly displaying a new paint combination, the mountains in the distance. His cup of Rocky Road rests on one knee, balanced. It is the same as it always is, but no matter how many times I ride with him, I am always a bit in awe of how easily we stay on the road, soft and simple, even as his mind and hands seem focused elsewhere.
“I used to fly helicopters,” my father boasts, as if that is the only explanation we need to stop worrying about hitting the car in front of us. I knew my father was a scout pilot long before I actually understood what that really meant. I knew he searched for people, sometimes secretly and low to the ground. And I believed, for a time, the experience of flying helicopters granted him the award for Perfect Maneuverability Skills for Ever After.
“Please tell it,” my sister asks again, this time holding his arm with her small hands, wanting to possess all of his attention.
Gradually I am drawn away from my window and the outside world, once again interested in hearing my father tell a story.
“Okay,” he begins, “We used to get really tired of the army food in Vietnam, so a bunch of us from the Officer’s Club saved enough money to buy a pizza oven over in Long Binh.”
I lick the last bit of sticky-sweet sauce off my plastic spoon, twisting my tongue around all of the edges. Did my dad eat Rocky Road like this in the army? He must have. It is his favorite. The air moves across my face and like a slow motion movie everything blurs. I close my eyes to listen–and smile.
“Some re-supply pilots delivered the oven to Can Tho for us, which was only about a twenty-minute flight from where we were at the time. Can Tho was at the tip of the Mekong Delta.”
“What’s a delta?” My sister is insatiable and fearless.
“It’s a piece of land at the mouth of a river…”
My thoughts are lost for a moment as he explains the geography of this place called Vietnam. I swallow the scents of dust and grass and sweet lilac coming to me on the dry breeze; I hear the leaves on the elms and the stubborn old oaks whisper against a dimming sky. I am comfortable in our wagon with funky, wiser-than-its-time wood trim proudly streamlining the side. Red Rider we call it. I feel happy during these lazy drives, with no real destination.
“The Mekong River runs through the southern part of Vietnam and the delta sits at the end of the river. My buddy and I got permission to use one of the ships to go down to Can Tho and pick up the oven.”
“A ship?” My sister giggles and makes a funny face at him as she crosses her eyes. “I thought you flew helicopters?”
“We did, Hon. That’s what we called our choppers—ships.”
I picture him in his helicopter. He is in the cockpit, helmet on, controls in hand, eyes scanning the valley below. He effortlessly juggles the controls. He smiles. I see that in this far-away land, he is happy.
He becomes lost in the telling; I am drawn in. I climb inside the back of his helicopter, traveling across the periphery, from the present of my childhood, into his memory. A rider in a different back seat. My gaze follows his; we look out. Below I see canals traipsing across the delta; some are full with lush green and yellowish rice paddies pushing up full from the dirty brown water. There is a small cluster of thatched-roof houses, and far in the distance, some villagers, their pant legs rolled up, walk through the shallow water that cuts through the flat land.
“We had an old sling.” His voice continues but I remain in the belly of that Huey. “The sling had thick, black straps of webbing; it was old and the edges, frayed. The oven weighed a couple of thousand pounds, and we were already carrying a few thousand pounds of fuel, so we weren’t sure we were going to be able to carry it.”
That black pizza oven takes on the size of a dark giant.
“With the humidity we had to be careful of how much weight we could lift.”
I knew then how the thick air of humidity makes everything seem slower, heavier. With this, I grasp even harder onto my father’s story.
“We dumped out some of our fuel and finally they let us take off. As we got into the air, I felt the extra weight, making me concentrate harder. All of a sudden…” and his voice takes on the tone of a man telling ghost stories around a camp fire, pausing just before he scares the beejezus out of everyone. I shyly open my eyes, not wanting to lose the image, but also not wanting to miss out on the four of us facing the end of this story together.
My brother, sister and I lean in, like we are hearing everything for the first time, our ice cream forgotten. Megan is quiet, and stares at my dad; Kevin’s jaw hangs open and his glasses sit crooked on his face, magnifying the many brown freckles around his eyes. The pause is unbearable.
“All of a sudden,” he begins again, “we felt this tremendous surge of power, of lifting. One of the door gunners yelled, ‘Oh My God!’ And I looked out just in time to see the oven splashing into the middle of the Mekong River. We had lost it.” He finishes with a sigh, the sigh of someone who is losing the oven all over again.
“Oh no!” the three of us say with disbelief, which turns to laughter as we imagine the fat oven falling into the water. Our delight brings me back to my seat in that red wagon. We are still young, Megan, Kevin, and I, young enough not to know what war truly means, and we sit in awe of a father who used to fly helicopters.
“What did you guys do?” my brother asks. And in an attempt to bring that place clearly into my own, I close my eyes and see the oven disappear into the river and it fades as the pilot continues.
“We could do nothing. It was lost. But I used to joke I was the only pilot ever to bomb the Mekong River with a pizza oven.”
As he returns to us in our wagon, I see myself walking away from Vietnam, back into our laughter. We are—all of us—riders, even my father, the driver, the navigator, the storyteller, is a passenger of some sort. Our laughter dwindles and we sit, watching the quiet houses pass us by, a stop sign, gray sidewalks, and an old red-and-white-striped candy store on the corner, each of us lost. We listen; gravel crunches underneath the car tires, parents call their children in; we listen as the sun goes down too far and the other cars’ lights poke us out of the moment. Red Rider delivers us home. We stumble out of the car, tired. I glance back, just once, and silently say goodbye to my seat for the night.
As my own evening drive ends, I struggle to locate the space I was lost in. My connection is gone as quickly as it came. It’s as if I need the lull of being a backseat rider, with the windows down and a breeze that carries the scents of a warm summer evening, across the boundaries of the years. I rest my forehead on the steering wheel. I close my eyes and struggle with the darkness, and listen for the story, but these voices vanish, as if they were never mine to hear in the first place.