Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Unknown Hero

It was the summer of love, my parents actually missed Woodstock, passing on the concert a mere two hours away because they assumed no one would show up, a fact that clouded my childhood with doubts about their judgement well into my teen years.  But my father was called to serve and rather than flee north to the promised land of pot and universal health care in Canada, they packed up their lives, their toddler who was now 3 years old and headed to Nebraska for basic training, then onto the big city, Arlington, Virginia.

Over the years my parents often spoke of that time when they first arrived in the mean streets of DC; both of my parents like so many people from the mid-west are natural born storytellers, but I never really understood the impact of that time until the opening of the Vietnam Memorial, the black wall.  My father and I went there together when it first opened.  Until then, my father had always been quite tight-lipped about the war itself, in fact he refused to be called or veteran or accept any veteran benefits.  I didn’t get it.  I knew he had served, and if fact had been stationed in Arlington when it was discovered I was going to make my grand debut.  Although he would regale us with tales of sneaking away from KP duty or his near court-marshal from climbing out the window during basic training, he never spoke about his actual time in the military.  My father and I shared a special bond from the time I was little, different to my other siblings.  My sister would eventually be Daddy’s little girl, but he and I were buddies.  We had this game where I would get sad and run away, and he would come get me.  Usually I didn’t make it past the edge of the yard, but he’d come rescue me, put his big, bull-like arm around me and ask me what was wrong.  Then we’d go for a car ride to the store or 7-11 while I told him my troubles and he assured me that all would be right with the world.  One of these special father-daughter outings was to Washington, DC.  When the war ended, my father got a job with the DC power company and I became a bit of a minor celebrity in elementary school because my father would arrange a yearly trip to the power plant.  I actually thought for years that my parents were both television personalities because there was a show on PBS called the Electric Company, which ran right before Romper Room.  I thought my Dad was a behind the scenes guy and my mom, well, I was sure that she was Ms. Molly from Romper Room and that the camera just made her look different.  

Anyway, this particular day, my father had to go into DC to pick something up from his office and invited me to go with him, to make a day of it in DC.  Well, I’ll admit, I would visit DC about once a year to go to the museums but the idea of a whole day in the big city with my Dad was really exciting.   So we dropped by his office, and I got the grand tour.  It was the weekend so there weren’t a lot of personnel in the office but still plenty on site.  Then we went for a bit of lunch in the park, and then we went to the monuments.   We did a little tour of Arlington, ending at the newly opened Vietnam Memorial.  I had of course heard all about it, the black marble wall covered with the names of soldiers, dead or lost.  There had been a national contest and hundreds of artists had submitted designs for the tribute.  My eight year old brain still couldn’t process the impact of these events; I still didn’t understand national politics; I thought the conflict in Ireland had happened a hundred years ago and the Vietnam War was over before I was born.  I had seen the aftermath growing up in DC but still didn’t understand it.  And my father’s time in service was until this day still a mystery to me. 
So we went to the Memorial and it is impossible not to be moved, even if you don’t have any frame of reference or understanding, even if you can’t speak English, the wall is like a living shroud on the landscape.  People walk by speaking only in hushed tones; the only sounds, the wind, the traffic and the occasional catch of breath.  In those early years, the impact was even greater.  My father walked by the wall, pointing out occasional names to me or telling me about this friend or that friend who had been shipped overseas. 
There is a book, a gruesome phonebook which sits adjacent to the wall.  Again, I don’t know that the impact of it would even be understood by the new generation of texting, tie-in teens who have never seen much less used a pay phone.  But this phonebook is unlike any other.  It is a list of all the men who served in Vietnam, a list of where they are now.  I stood quietly enjoying the sun on my face as my father turned page after page and then he let out a slight gasp, more a catch like he was trying not to cry.  Now I have seen my father cry only three times in my life, each time over concern for his family.   But when he looked up at me, chagrinned to have made a sound, he had tears in his eyes.  

“I never knew what happened to David,” he said.  “I didn’t call him after the war because I hadn’t heard if he had come home.  We lost a lot of good people.”  And he started rattling off names of so many of his friends and what had happened, men who had not made it out, men who returned shell shocked and shattered to families who could no longer welcome them, men who were alive when they returned but so dead inside that it was comforting to take a bullet rather than face another day of attempted normalcy. 
I realized as my Dad went on and on, the commonality among all these men.  Each and every one had been shipped overseas.  

“Dad, you served too.”  

“I served here.  I should have been there.  I should have…”

And it was then that I realized the injustice of it all.  My father was ashamed.  Ashamed that when asked to serve his country, he had done so, but by some wonderful luck of the draw, he had come to Washington to fight not with a gun but with a computer.  To use his mind in service to his country.  And at that moment, I was angry.  I was angry at a country that did not honor my father for the hero that he is.   Angry that it wasn’t enough that he serve as asked, even after he had tried to enlist and refused for a heart condition that was too severe for eligibility as an enlisted but not so problematic for eligibility in the draft.  And I was angry that my father felt so badly about his time in service that he was afraid to reconnect with his friends who had served overseas, for fear that they would think him a coward, that he should endure their wrath because he won the coin toss.  

My eight year old mind was wheeling and before I could stop myself I told him how I felt.  “Dad, I know you think that somehow you should be ashamed but I’m proud of you.  When you were asked, you did your duty.  And I know you feel badly that you didn’t get called overseas but I’m glad.  I’m thrilled.  I know maybe I shouldn’t be but I’m grateful that you are alive and healthy and if you had gone, I might not be here so I’m not ashamed.  I’m grateful.  And you should be.  You are a hero; you are a soldier, like your father and your father’s father.  And when they served it was so you wouldn’t have to and they lied.  That’s what Mom says.  And she’s right because you shouldn’t feel bad and I don’t want you to feel bad because I love you and I want you here.  And if that means someone else had to die, I’m sorry for that but I’m happy it wasn’t you.”  And I started to cry.  It came out of me in such a rush, that feeling that if things had been different, I wouldn’t have a Dad.  And I was grateful; to all the men who served and to my father who, after that day, was never again an unknown hero.   

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