|The Moving Wall Vietnam Memorial|
My dad used to tell me stories.
He’d been in Vietnam. Infantry, United States Army. He’d gotten drafted while switching colleges (never let it be said grades aren’t important: they can keep you from getting shot, for instance). And it was a hard year. That year changed his life. He went to war. He lost half his hearing when someone shot a .45 near his ear in a tunnel; he’d had his jaw broken by a bullet; he still has bits of shrapnel working their way out of his chest from a grenade wound he took to the ankle. He still won’t sit with his back to a door. And for years, he could only allow bits and pieces of that year to surface. He’d talk about it, but only in fragments. Some of it he barely talked about at all.
I used to go out into the garage and open the box with his war medals. I remember the cold, rich glow and sharp points of the Bronze Star; the royal starkness of his Purple Hearts. There was a scent to them, old ribbon and polished metal, somehow seeming very distant and serious. I remember his name sewn on his fatigues, and the stiff decorations.
He hated green for a great many years. Green was Army fatigues, and jungles, and too many memories. Maybe that’s part of the reason we ended up in Arizona. Not so much green there. And he wouldn’t eat beans on a bet. Yes, part of that was because of the horrors of his grandmother’s method of cooking green beans (place in pressure cooker, cook until it explodes, scrape beans of ceiling along with flecks of yellow paint, serve). But the rest of beankind got short shrift from him after a year in the Army.
He’d tell me stories.
There were young men in that unit who knew you had to be a little crazy to survive. So they’d be crazy. You’d have to be crazy to be pinned down in trenches, under heavy fire, running out of ammo, and go fetch an enormous sack of the stuff, come back through the trenches with that sack on your back singing “Here comes Santy Claus, here comes Santy Claus – and what can Santa do for you?”
And my father, giddy with the relief of seeing rather more useful bullets come his way than the ones that had been coming his way a moment before, said, “Well, Santa, I’d like some ammunition.”
And the man – Jimmy Blue, I believe, though you can’t trust a kid’s memory and I hesitate to dredge my father’s memory at this time of year – the crazy man with the enormous sack of ammunition on his back handed over some ammunition with a cheerful “Here you go!” and went singing off to the next man pinned down under fire, the best Christmas present they could have asked for.
There was the time they were out on patrol with a lieutenant they didn’t like. Obstacles were supposed to be whispered back. This was enemy territory at night – had to be quiet. So you whispered back the obstructions and moved as quietly as possible. Until you heard riotous laughter from the back of the line, and stormed back there to see what the fuck was going on, and found Zimmerman and a few of the others laughing at the lieutenant, up to his neck in raw sewage in a drainage ditch, because one of them “forgot” to pass the word along.
You did not piss off the men, because they would find ways to piss on you. So would their monkey. They had a monkey who lived in the common area. It once pissed on an officer. This, they decided, was an enlisted man’s own monkey. Nobody had liked that officer much. Neither, it appeared, had the monkey.
So many men, so many stories, hilarious stories, funny and heartwarming and head-shaking stories. There were moments of high bravery and low comedy. Brothels in Saigon. Beer runs. Trying to eat a steak when your jaw had been shattered in a dozen places. Shooting a wild pig at dawn, because as it turns out, pigs breathe quite a bit like humans and don’t identify themselves when they’re ordered to. That poor unfortunate porker came upon my dad and a few of his fellows when they were in a perimeter camp. My dad built that story from the foundations: a dark, quiet morning. Breathing in the jungle. Something creeping closer, closer, surely the enemy. Finally opening fire. Silence. “Should we check?” Finally, a cautious excursion, and the dead enemy: a wild boar. Inspiration. Breakfast. Their commanding officer came up on them just as they were busy roasting the boar for breakfast, demanded to know what was going on, and was solemnly informed that they’d engaged the enemy. They had a confirmed Viet Cong kill: this pig. Would you like some, sir?
He told me the stories. So many stories. And then, one day, the Traveling Wall came through Page, and he handed me a list of names. He couldn’t face that wall yet. Could I find those names and get rubbings of them?
I looked down at the list. On it were a lot of the people he’d told me stories about, people I’d come to love and look forward to. I remember going numb, and then I started crying. I’d had no idea. I knew that war had claimed over fifty thousand American lives, but not them. Not those lives. Please, not the men I’d grown up hearing about. I don’t remember much about that day. I don’t remember getting those names off that wall. I just remember looking at it not as a curiosity, not as a monument, but for what it was: a memorial, a long black monolith with the names of the dead written on it in stark white letters. It’s different, when they’re men you’ve known. It’s different, when they’re men your father fought and nearly died with. It’s harder and it means more.
I wish I remembered them better. One day, my father and I will sit at a table again, and he’ll be in the mood to talk about Vietnam, and I’ll treat those names with more care. There’s only one I’m sure of: Jimmy Blue.
He was twenty years old.
He’d had the kind of outsized personality that made you believe he could never die. And a memory of him never will. There will be his name in stone, which will probably outlast this republic. There’s the stories, which my dad told and which I’ll pass on, and generations from now, someone will remember the crazy kid who once went through the trenches near Christmas with a sack of ammo on his back and a song on his lips.
Your feelings about the justification for the Vietnam War don’t matter here. There’s just one fact, on this day, that we must remember: this country asked these young men and women to fight and die for their country, and they did. Whatever their personal feelings about why they were there or whether it was a “good” war, they served their country, and gave their lives for it, and this is the day we’ve set aside to remember them as a nation.
I give my love to all of those boys who only came home in my dad’s memory. I wish I’d met you. I’m so glad I’ve known you.