My dad’s a vet. Vietnam. He graduated high school, took off to Iowa for the corn harvest, and ran with the carnivals selling postcards and knickknacks until one day outside of Baton Rouge he got a phone call from grandma telling her only son his draft notice came in the mail. His boss, Pennant Red, said to him, “Son, get your ass back to Seattle and sign up for the Army so you can go through Basic and pick what you want to do. Otherwise, you’re good as dead.” Lucky for dad, between Pennant Red, Little Joe, and Big Cowboy and Little Cowboy, there were enough war veterans working the carnival circuit to give my father the best advice to save his neck.
For him, not going wasn’t an option. Not because he agreed with the war, but because it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. So he went to Vietnam and felt wrong about it the whole time— and when he got back was told he was wrong for being a soldier and for going. He told me he was convinced his plane home was going to crash and sweated the whole ride home. He got off the plane at Sea-Tac Airport and went to the bathroom to take a leak. The bathroom was strewn with abandoned army suits. Dad refused to take his off, not because he agreed with the war, or even because he respected the army, but because he couldn’t disrespect those other soldiers who didn’t make it home.
He waited all night for a cab, but no one would pick him up in his green suit; so he called his dad, and Grandpa picked him up.
Settling back into American life was difficult. He told me he was really interested in a girl, but she told him one evening over a beer, “I just wouldn’t have gone.” That’s what she said, “I just wouldn’t have gone.” He disappeared for a few years after that but came out the other end. We are all thankful that he did. Some in our family didn’t.
Grandma told me, my Great Uncle, Ken died during WWII in Alaska. Ken was her favorite brother. I asked my dad, when I got old enough, how Ken died. Dad said, “He was stationed on a tiny island in the Aleutian Island chain and thought the war had ended and was forgotten. He ended his life with his service weapon and was found days later.” With Grandma, painful things were always masked in understatements.
She said her younger brother was a very sensitive boy, but brave. He began to leave the farm at six-years-old to work the railroads and would come back with money for the family. I think Dad reminded her of Ken. When I asked her what she thought of dad going to war, she said, “We took a road trip back to Iowa one summer when the kids were young and your dad insisted that he always got to a campsite before sunset so that he could lay on top of the car and watch the sunset slip behind a mountain, cast its rays over a cliff, or set a cornfield on fire.” She paused and stared into her past and then qualified her story, “A boy like that isn’t meant for war,” she said. “And, that’s the thing.”
Fighting hurts us all.