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From: John (HI) (66.8.164.32)
Subject:         Fathers Day
Date: June 15, 2013 at 6:12 pm PST

I may have posted this many years ago. It's an article I wrote in memory of my dad. Seems like an appropriate day
to resurrect it.

“Hey, “ I yelled at the crew chief above the noise of the C-123’s two revving engines. “The window is still open.”

“No sweat,” he shouted back. “We don’t get high enough to worry about it. We’re just going to get enough altitude to swing around that mountain up there,” pointing vaguely in the direction of a green escarpment. “Phu Bai’s just on the other side.”

I looked around the cramped confines of the aircraft. It occurred to me that this was literally a “milk run,” with the entire capacity of the cargo space crammed with lashed down crates stenciled “Fresh Milk,” destined for the Marines holding down positions just south of the 18th parallel dividing North from South Vietnam. I was hitching a ride from Da Nang to Phu Bai and, as the only passenger, had no one to share my concerns about what would happen if we crashed and those heavy containers of milk obeyed Newton’s First Law, and continued in motion until I was smeared across the forward bulkhead. That was probably the least of my worries on this first trip up country. The camp where I was to spend the next few weeks had been mortared the night before, and enemy sappers had penetrated the wire and tossed satchel charges into several bunkers.

As we lifted off the runway, the pilot banked hard right to carry us out over the South China Sea and away from the heavy jungle which concealed an enemy whose lucky shot might bring down this lumbering prize. Out the open porthole, I could see Highway 1 emerge periodically from the dense foliage, snaking its way north. This highway had long since been declared impassable due to enemy interdiction, so friendly north-south movement was strictly limited to air transport. I thought of another Highway 1, the scenic one I had driven in happier times along the beautiful California coast, from San Francisco down to Monterey and big Sur, and wondered if I’d have the chance to make that trip again.

During that brief flight around the mountain, I had the chance to think about the events and question the decisions that brought me to this hostile land, where I would celebrate (or briefly acknowledge, anyway) my 30th birthday. I would have been less than halfway through my three-year tour of duty in Germany, accompanied by my wife and two children, had I not volunteered for this assignment. Although I may have suspected the underlying motivation at the time, I did not acknowledge until relatively recently that it was anything more than a professional decision.

The night before my trip up country, I sat down and wrote a letter to my father. It is not uncommon for people who are facing the possibility of not returning from war to write such letters, generally to be opened only in the event of the writer’s death. I had serious concerns about what lay in store for me on this trip and felt compelled to say some things to my father that I had been unable to say until then. While I wouldn’t characterize him as cold or emotionless, I would have to acknowledge that he was the product of difficult times (The Great Depression) and was both stinting in his praise and uncompromising in his expectations. His thirty-year naval career, including action in the Atlantic and participation in the landings on Okinawa and Iwo Jima in the Pacific, resulted in extended family separations and overlay his personality and molded the relationship with his wife and two children. Open display of emotions was not his strong suit. I recall an incident from my early years that highlighted his stoic philosophy and deeply affected my own outlook on life. My brother had just finished subjecting me to some childish indignity that left me crying and looking for sympathy. My father looked over at me with open irritation and said, “When I was your age, I would bite through my lip before I’d let anyone see me cry.” Words to remember. It seemed there was little my brother and I could do right or couldn’t have done better. In looking back, I see that most of our efforts were attempts to gain approval that would have meant so much from a figure of such heroic stature in our minds. My brother eventually rebelled and gave up on gaining the elusive approval. I, on the other hand, kept trying. Even as a college student, with my parents living in Japan, I wrote a letter and enclosed a newspaper picture and article about myself--the first student in university history to win four varsity letters in football; the captain of the football team two years in a row; and most valuable player my final year. My Father’s response was, “I hope you don’t let it affect your grades.”

When I went off to Vietnam in the summer of 1967, I began to get a better feeling for what had formed his personality. I thought of the similar emotions he and I must have shared as we left our children, wondering if we would see them again, and wondering how they would fare without us should we not return. It was this sentiment that I tried to capture in my farewell letter that night in Saigon. I wanted him to know all the things that I could never tell him face to face without embarrassing us both--how much he had influenced my life and my thinking, and how much of my success I owed to his strong character and not-always-welcome discipline. He was an intelligent enough person to know that he didn’t always do the right thing, but he had a hard time admitting when he was wrong. I believed that in this letter I was implicitly forgiving those shortcomings, without making him feel guilty about the things he should have done differently.

When I finished the letter, I addressed and sealed it and gave it to my roommate to mail in the event I didn’t return from the Phu Bai trip. When I eventually made it back to Saigon, he was gone, medically transferred the day before my return. I never saw or heard from him again. No problem—I’d made it back safely.

The C-123 had carefully avoided the mountain, swung back over the jungle and made a steep descent onto the pierced-steel-plank runway embedded in the red dirt of the Phu Bai airfield. Red dust filled the air and settled on the equipment and the clusters of troops around the airstrip. Groups of Marines, with Mattel-like M-16s and graffiti-covered flak jackets, sat waiting for their helo lifts to Khe Sanh and other forward operating bases. I often wonder how many of those young Marines I saw that day eventually came back through that same remote airfield as casualties of the war.

My father died here in Hawaii in January 2002, three days short of his 92nd birthday. I had the chance to get to know him in those last few years of his life, to learn things about him I never knew, extracted from him during long drives around the island. He remained the guy who had a hard time admitting when he was wrong, and he never could bring himself to compliment or praise anyone for just doing what was expected of them. But the hard edges had softened, and now and then he might drop a remark that led me to believe there were certain things he had done in his life that he could have done better, and certain things I’d done in my life that might have deserved acknowledgement.

While cleaning out his accumulation of papers shortly after his death, I came across a small box he always kept in his nightstand. In it were a number of things he obviously treasured and kept close at hand: some pictures of my mother, who died in 1984; a wallet-sized card testifying to his crossing the equator in 1945 aboard USS Vicksburg; the paid-in-full mortgage on the first house he bought in 1940 for $5,000. Near the bottom of the small stack of papers, I saw the picture and newspaper article I had sent from college 40 years before—the one I had hoped would generate the praise I always seemed to be seeking. So, he must have been proud of my accomplishment, maybe even passed the article and picture around the office, but it was just not in his makeup to reveal that emotion to me. Time to bite my lip. Then I saw a letter from Vietnam, one of many I had written during the year I was there. Inside the distinctive envelope, with “combat zone” written in place of a stamp, was a dog-eared letter from a scared 30-year-old to his father—a letter that never should have been mailed. It was the only letter from Vietnam he saved and, from appearances, must have read many times. Request permission to cry, sir, I thought, as I reread the letter. And I cried, as I’m crying now. All the things I wished I had said were there in that letter. He not only knew how much I admired him but over the years had drawn some comfort from written words that could never have been said face to face. We had communicated across the years, father to son and son to father, without an open display of emotions unbefitting two generations of military stoics.

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