It was the spring of 1989, and I was teaching a course called ‘Vietnam and Literature’ at Colby College in Maine, the northeasternmost state in the United States. One of my students, Mark Wilson, brought in some things of his father’s, including a Bronze Star he’d found buried in one of his dad’s bottom drawers.
“What did he get the Bronze Star for?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “He doesn’t talk about it.”
He also brought in a small reel-to-reel tape his dad had recorded and sent home during the 1968 Tet offensive. I turned off the lights in the classroom, and he pushed play.
As the young, weary voice filled the room, I found myself travelling in time.
One night, circa 1968, my family was at the house of some friends, back in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. Their son was flying choppers in Vietnam. After supper, the father played a “letter” their boy had sent home on a reel-to-reel tape. We all sat there in the living room, listening to the sounds of war.
When it ended, the tape flapped emptily as the reel spun around the capstan. Our parents stared downward. All the adults except my mother were smoking. They sat like that, in silence, for a long time.
Our friends’ father worked for Boeing. He had helped design some of the Army’s helicopters. Before his son went to war, the man had a full head of brown hair. But while his son was in Vietnam, his hair turned nearly all grey.
Fifty years later, most of us who were children then have grey hair, too. Many of us have sons and daughters of our own. My son Sean went to Vietnam on a class trip when he was studying American history as a junior in high school in 2013, returning home with a Non La — the traditional Vietnamese hat. While there, he visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which even now I think of as Saigon. I have a photo of my son sitting atop a tank. Among the other relics in the museum is a UH-1 helicopter, known as a Huey.
The 50th anniversary of the war’s escalation — and the premiere this week of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 18-hour documentary on PBS — is an appropriate time to honour the suffering and the sacrifice of all those who served, including the 58,000 American service members, the estimated 1.3 million North and South Vietnamese fighters and the two million civilians who were killed during the conflict. The effect of the war on those of us who were American children in the 1960s is negligible in comparison.
But the war touched us, too.
What I remember most of all was the constant sense of dread, that the world in which I was growing up was one of violence and peril, that the American government could not be trusted, that the older brothers of my friends were dying in a war whose purpose even some of its most passionate supporters could not quite articulate. It was the leading edge of the baby boom, those born in the late 1940s and early 1950s, that made the 1960s. But those of us at the tail end of that generation were forever altered by it, too.
“We inherited it,” a character says of that time in Lorrie Moore’s great novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? “Once upon a time, it had been all we knew. Rebellion, revolution, and all those songs that went with them. We ice-skated to ‘Eve of Destruction’.’” She recalls a line from that harrowing song of protest — the ‘world it is exploding’ — playing from loudspeakers as she and her friends skated around a rink doing little spins and turns.
In 1970, when I was 12, I told my mother I didn’t ever want to go to college, “because that’s where the riots are and the buildings all catch fire”. I asked my former student, Wilson, about his father last week, and about his memories of learning about the war at Colby, when we read works by Tim O’Brien, Larry Heinemann, David Rabe, Bobbie Ann Mason and others.
Now an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ in Waterville, Maine, Wilson recalled well the moment that we’d played his father’s tape in class. “I don’t remember the actual things he said,” Wilson said. “But I remember the tone, the weariness of it. It felt to me like he was saying goodbye.”
Wilson wonders about post-traumatic stress disorder and the ways in which it can sometimes be transferred from the person who has experienced the trauma to the next generation. “There’s a way in which, like my father, I’ve put an emotional wall up around myself,” he said. “There is a way in which I can easily put a cocoon around my heart also and insulate myself from things that I’ve done, things that I’m doing, things that I’m capable of, and not in a good way.”
Fifty years later, the shadow of the war still falls upon so many of us — the men and women who were there, and the children of that war as well.
“I have U.S.A.A. insurance because of my father,” Wilson said. “I once called them and ... started reading the VIN number on my car using military lettering, you know, Alpha, Bravo, Charlie — and I got to H, and I didn’t know what the code for H was. I told the agent, “Forgive me, my father was the one in the service, not me.” She told me: “Maybe so, Mr. Wilson. But you served under your father’.”
— New York Times News Service
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of the novel Long Black Veil.