Photo by Elizabeth Evans
My Father Teaches Me Life Lessons: A Quartet of Memories
I. The Environment Must Be Cared for by All of Us
“Police the area,” my father told my two younger sisters and me as he handed us a paper bag and pointed to the backyard. We were living on an American army base south of Munich during the Cold War in a government-issued apartment. Rising up the hill behind us stood identical gray stucco buildings, each with three stairwells connected by a concrete basement hall. My mother hung laundry in the communal drying room down there with the other army wives on her assigned day, while we children roller-skated past storage room after storage room. We shared the yard outside, too, with sledding and softball and forts. When he asked us to pick up the trash, my father was saying that we were all responsible for that common ground. We longed, instead, to walk to the PX for a candy bar or to play hopscotch on the sidewalks. But he insisted with his sergeant-authoritarian voice.
Decades later as I rode my bike along the Genesee River in Upstate New York, I watched picnickers on the shore throw their empty plastic bottles into the water. I stopped my bike and stood there watching, feeling both angry and responsible. But I struggled with saying anything because I wasn’t sure of the safety of the downtown neighborhood or if it was worth pointing out the failings of others. I was afraid as well that they would laugh, or worse, tell me off. So engrained in me was mutual responsibility that I decided to take a chance. “We all share this river,” I said to the strangers as I approached them, my hands tightly wrapped around the handle bars, suddenly feeling like that ten-year-old on the base. “So please don’t litter,” I repeated. They mumbled some form of yes, you’re right, and for a moment I felt hopeful for the beauty of the earth.
II. People Are Complex
My father, a World War II soldier, learned to speak German fluently before we were stationed in the 1950s at Hitler’s former SS headquarters. On many weekends we climbed nearby mountain paths to visit my father’s acquired German friends, people we came to call Onkel Zeppi and Tante Anna. They ran a small inn in the Alps where my sisters and I soaked in hollowed-out logs filled with cold mountain water, drank orange sodas and watched fawns eat gently out of Onkel Zeppi’s big hands. A young German neighbor girl with two long braids and an apron held my hand like an old friend as we posed for my father’s camera. Onkel Zeppi—gray-haired and barrel-chested and wearing Lederhosen with deer horn buttons—stood by smiling like a grandfather watching us play.
On another weekend my father drove me to Dachau, which was only an hour away from our base. We stood next to a Star of David carved into granite and then entered the museum. I did not know about Jews before that because no one spoke of them on base where you were either a Catholic or Protestant. Except my father, who insisted that day that I look at those large photographs at Dachau of heaps of children’s shoes and bone-thin men in ragged striped pajamas. We paused silently in front of one picture after another, neither of us able to say anything. He had told many war stories around our kitchen table with his soldier buddies drinking beer as he leaned back laughing, but he had never told this one. Neither had he ever mentioned that the Germans we came to know—the ones so friendly and eager to learn about us—might have been the same Germans who knew about these pictures like a secret forbidden to be spoken. Still, it never occurred to me to ask Onkel Zeppi back then where he might have been during the war, or what he knew about these horrors. Instead, I put these scenes away for a long time like one might put things in a drawer, hoping no one would ask.
III. There Are Holes Left after War
I look over a valley northwest of Saigon—or Ho Chi Minh City, as it is now called. I am searching for the Song Be River where my father threw himself on a grenade meant to kill his entire team on their way back to a remote Special Forces camp in 1967. It’s an ordinary hot day in Viet Nam near a forest of dust-green trees in a place of erased footprints and children, born long after the war ended, gathering to watch me.
If it were just the hole that comes with death, perhaps I would not be here. I would have buried my father long ago in his flag-draped coffin, told his war stories, and gotten on with my life. But the lies, secrets and shame of an entire nation have felt like shrapnel in my body. Maybe because of such pain, it took decades to take the actual journey to Viet Nam. In many ways, my adult journey there actually began in junior high when my father left for Viet Nam the first time, then left again for a second tour of duty—this time for eighteen months—and then again later for his final one. The inkling of the journey began when the war continued on the nightly news with the country dividing like a stack of cards, later with the protests, and finally when I saw my pregnant reflection in the Black Wall and wanted to introduce my three-year-old son to his grandfather whose name was carved on panel 17 E.
IV. The World Is Filled with Denial
How do you say “my father is fighting a war,” when the country goes on as usual, when even the President of the United States doesn’t declare Viet Nam a real war, and only some people must join the fight but many don’t? Our lives continued with television shows and high school football games, but when I was elected sophomore class representative to the homecoming queen’s court, I couldn’t help juxtaposing this event to those thin blue envelopes arriving at our home from a faraway jungle. When my father wrote about children with hypodermic needles filled with snake venom, memorial services for his buddies, Russian guns found on “dead VC” or trips into Saigon with his body guards, I buried the news as soon as I put the letters back into their unstamped envelopes with a mysterious APO address in the corner. I spoke nothing to any one because it seemed no one wanted to hear.
It felt odd after reading those letters, to be sitting on the back of a convertible driving through town with that big smile of mine and waving to the crowds. When I saw my picture in the newspaper the next day, I cut it out and sent it to my father. Imagine seeing my photograph when he was searching for tripwires and claymore mines, or when his buddy was headed home in a black body bag. Imagine tucking me inside his pocket near the grenade hanging off his belt. Imagine him writing me back to say how proud he was, as he leaned into a rubber tree, his AK47 and rucksack lying next to him.
The pep rally and homecoming pictures of the “local beauties” took up more space on the front page than an article about recent war skirmishes, as if to teach us some things we should not write about, some things we must clean up. As if to say the “higher ups,” as my father referred to those in charge, would take care of these godawful things. But as my father insisted, there are some things we must never forget. We must call it like it is. We must police the area.