Today (Saturday, May 17) is my father’s birthday. Had he lived we would be celebrating his 82nd birthday. It is a fact that my father has been dead years longer than he was ever alive. He’s been dead long enough for the politicians who started the American War in Vietnam to admit to their own wrongdoings regarding that war.
In 2003, I traveled to Vietnam, to my father’s battlefield. I discovered a lot of things on that trip. I discovered Vietnam to be a beautiful country full of charming people and weird food and muggy weather and unforgettable landscapes.
After that trip I found the men who served alongside my father. The men who knew the real story, that my father’s death was due to a blast from one of the 25th Infantry Division’s own guns. I have sat in the Texas home of the surgeon who tried desperately to save my father’s life. I’ve had opportunity to thank him for that.
On Friday, I will fly to DC again, as I do every Memorial Day, and join with the men and women who served our country in Vietnam as they were asked to do. I will hear their stories, again. We will laugh. We may get teary-eyed. We will hug each other a lot. We do that. Among those there will be the two men who were my father’s gunners. They were young boys when my father, the old man at age 34, died. Young boys from the farm fields of Nebraska and the rhythmic streets of Harlem. Good boys both of them and they grew up to be even better men.
The gift of my father’s death is that I am welcomed and embraced by Vietnam veterans all over this nation. I call them my own veteran mafia. My last book – Mother of Rain – is dedicated to a Vietnam Veteran. I wrote part of that book in his home. In it is a poem he penned. Those characters from Normandy? I gave them the names of some of my veteran friends. Even named one after a veteran who never reads. He’s a good man, too, even if he doesn’t read.
When I went to Vietnam I was working on another book, After the Flag has been Folded. I’d been at work on that book for a very long time. I didn’t imagine when I started the book that I would one day go to my father’s battlefield. Losing a parent abruptly can leave a girl with all sorts of convoluted feelings. Losing a parent to a war that was as contentious as Vietnam can create a lot of anger and bitterness for a child.
The gift Vietnam the country and the people of Vietnam gave me was the gift of letting go of all that anger. It was a gift of acceptance. I came home a different woman than the one who went. I still sorrow for all that was lost – not only for me but for thousands and thousands of others. My heart aches for my veteran friends who were thrust into a war they did not want to wage. My heart aches for the way that war changed them, robbed them of so much life in so many ways. My heart aches for the women and children of Vietnam and the untold horrors they faced. And for the women I know by name who lost the love of their lives in Vietnam, who continue to feel the loss of what should have been.
I will never run out of words for the way wars disrupt lives and alters the course of lives forevermore, and not usually in good ways. I will never run out of the sorrow I feel for so many and for the losses they have endured, continue to endure.
I was standing at the airport in Singapore on my way back from Vietnam, from my father’s battlefield, when Bush announced we had invaded Iraq.
I wrote the following essay for the New York Times on the heels of that announcement.
Some of those Gold Star kids, who lost their fathers in Iraq, in Afghanistan, are graduating high school soon. Some are graduating college. Some have already joined the military. One I know is buried alongside his father. A bright boy, full of promise, whose life was cut short by an overdose.
Published: April 21, 2004 NYT
I keep a photo of my father on my desk. In it, he’s wearing combat boots, Army greens and a grin so sweet it makes my heart drip with sorrow.
He was always the picture-perfect father. On days off, he’d pack the car with fishing gear, while my mother prepared picnic lunches of potted-meat and pimento-cheese sandwiches. My siblings and I learned how to bait a hook before we knew how to tie our shoes. We fished off the muddy banks of Georgia’s Chattahoochee River and off the porous rock of Oahu’s North Shore.
Besides fishing, my father relished Pet milk poured over fresh peaches, banana pudding with vanilla wafers, black coffee and speeding through the pineapple fields on a moped he’d restored, with my sister, Linda, perched between his legs and me clinging to him from behind. ”Do it again, Daddy!” Linda and I would shout as he revved the engine.
It didn’t matter to Daddy what we were doing, as long as we were together, having fun. It’s as if, somehow, he knew those moments wouldn’t last.
I can remember what my father smelled like — sweat and sun-dried T-shirts — but I can no longer recall the timbre of his voice or the warmth of his embrace. Photos and memories are all I have left of him.
He went away in December 1965. ”President Johnson has asked me to go to South Vietnam,” he said.
”What are you going to do there?” I asked.
”Help fight communism,” he replied.
I retreated to my room in tears. Only nine at the time, I didn’t know that South Vietnam was half a world away and I sure to heck didn’t know what communism was. I didn’t even understand that my father would be in any danger. I cried simply because he was going away and I was afraid he would never come back. ”I’ll come back, I promise,” Daddy said, wiping my tears as he sat on the edge of my bed.
Daddy kept his promise. He did come back: in a silver coffin, draped with a red-white-and-blue flag.
My mother still has the flag, folded and tucked neatly into a small wooden box, along with the half-dozen shiny golden medals awarded my dead father. His name — David P. Spears — is etched in black granite on Panel 9E at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
The sacrifices didn’t stop when the war ended. My mother sold the moped and tossed out the fishing poles. She gave away all Daddy’s T-shirts and his Army boots. At 14, my brother, Frankie, burned Daddy’s footlocker and all its contents. ”Mama told me to,” Frankie said. ”Everything in it was covered in blood.”
My parents fell in love as kids. They expected to grow old together. But only Mama has grown old. She eats her soup beans and cornbread alone and remembers with heartache the man who enticed her to laugh on sunny days.
I’m troubled by the nightmares that surely await this generation of battle-scarred children. I know they will grow up longing for just one more embrace. And like me, they are doomed to spend their lifetimes asking, wasn’t there any better way?
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain (Mercer Univ. Press).