My dad was a Vietnam veteran. He was in the first infantry division, The Big Red One. He was a Chaplain's assistant and a radio man in Lai Khe. In seventh grade I tape recorded an interview with him for my social studies class. We sat on our guacamole colored tweed pull out couch and he told me some stories.
He told me a story about going into a lookout tower with another soldier with a tub full of beer. They had to be up there for twenty four hours. They got drunk, nothing bad happened.
Another story was when he was on lookout one night and a black panther crossed his path. He told me,
“It was so dark, you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I heard leaves crunching and I held still with my gun cocked. Two eyes passed me and could hear my heart pounding. Then it passed.”
He told me about Fast Eddie and Doc and where everybody was from and how Doc still owed him twenty bucks.
At one point my mom gave him a questionnaire about post Vietnam stress disorder and it sat on our dishwasher for months. My Dad never went out on the 4th of July.
Over the years he told me things like how he learned to drive a stick shift there on a Jeep, or how many potatoes he peeled. Mostly the glaze that went over his eyes was one of loss. Regret for feeling.
He told me that I would make a good tunnel rat. Jungle heat and his arch nemesis mosquitos were other topics. Secrecy was the last one.
I’ll refrain from distributing the now discarded and disposed of documents that trail my father’s life. I’ll only tell you this:
Sometimes at night when I am drunk, I take his dog tags still seeped in jungle juice and place the beaded chain around my neck. I think about the first night he came home from ‘Nam, years before I was born. The night he had a welcome home party at my Aunt Pat’s house down the street from the house his father built. I think about how he ate a loaf of white bread with a pound of fried bologna and drank fifth of Jack Daniels, sitting in a kitchen chair and pinching his forearm all night long saying.
A year after my father died, I was digging in my boyhood basement for artifacts of my youth, I found his old fatigue shirt.
At some point in my youth, I asked my father if he had brought back a gun from Vietnam. He was concerned and irritated. He looked at me close, holding my shoulder and said,
“The only thing I brought back with me was me and the clothes on my back.”
The fatigue shirt is typical olive green, covered in drips of paint. The patch of the big red one on the left shoulder and a triangle with a black cross on one front breast pocket and our name over the other. It is growing thin.
Men my father’s age look close at me when I’m wearing the shirt. Most nod or look straight into my eyes. One has pointed to me. These are Veterans too. They all seem to know that I didn’t get the shirt at a thrift store. I always smile at them and hold my head high and I might wave or guide the dog their way. Sometimes, they talk to me and I ask them when they were over and I tell them about my Dad. I meander away with eye leak. Missing my Father and mourning for the men that I meet, their survival, their bounce with death.