I recall her class, and the conversation, but not her name. Whatever my seventh-grade English teacher's name was, she taught me one hell of a lesson.
Shortly after class, she and I were talking. Thinking back, I'm surprised that I had time to chat. I remember that the walls were blue, and that I was holding my copy of Cry, the Beloved Country - but the particulars of how we got on the topic of our fathers and war remains fuzzy, as this occurred over twenty years ago. How the chat ended stands out like it happened yesterday.
When I remarked that my Dad and I could talk about anything, she sounded a note of caution. "Don't ask him too much about war", she said. Why not, I asked. I then wondered aloud if my father had killed anyone in 'Nam. "I asked my father that question," she said. She told me that she'd done so when she was a pre-teen, like me, wide-eyed and curious. Her father sighed, and replied solemnly,
"And then he said not another word", she recalled. Neither did I, for that matter.
Largely because of that conversation, my father and I haven't talked much about his "time in the service", as he termed it. He was an Air Force radar operator in Vietnam, but I never found out really what that meant. He would talk about his time stationed in places ranging from New Orleans to Laos, but I never asked for dates or details. He'd let me walk around the house in his old fatigues, but never talk about the sweat he surely put into them. He'd show me the faded burn scars on his right forearm, caused by fresh M-16 shells - but I never dared asked him the when and where.
In fact, the only detail I ever really learned was that his rank and classification (which I've since forgotten), when I applied for a Child of a Vietnam Veteran scholarship to a summer college program at Oxford University. I would go to Oxford at 16, while around my age, my dad would be preparing himself for war.
My father graduated from high school in 1964, so he knew damn well what was awaiting him if he enlisted. His older brother joined him, and eventually became a paratrooper. I knew them as completely different people, and still am left longing to know the men they were. But even if I only know what my father did in an abstract sense, I know that his service opened the door to his becoming the great, imperfect man he is today. I really wouldn't have it any other way, and I guess that today, that is what I'm most thankful for.
The man pictured above is not my father, but it might as well have been. He has the same clean-shaven face filled with possibility, a face that I'd never seen before. (My father has had virtually the same beard all my life.) That's a young man I'd like to know. But I'm thrilled to know the old man I know today.
Yes, part of me would like to ask my father about his service, get to know the details. But I'd much rather talk to him about the election, the newest Bond flick and LeBron James. Surely, you'd be correct to assume that I've made assumptions about what my father had to do, and what now has to live with. However, if I can spare my father the pain of remembrance, I have done him a service.
There's no need to ask our veterans about every detail. If you're in doubt, and as conflicted as I was twenty years ago...just do as I did today, in a phone call to my father.
Just say thanks, and leave the rest alone.
Labels: Veterans Day