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Not Just the Eleventh

I’m a little late in getting this posted, but as LawDog pointed out, it’s important to remember our vets on days other than Memorial and Veterans Days, after all.  So in a way this is good, right?

I got my hands on a little book of poetry called The Boomerang Poems a few months ago through a strange set of circumstances and made the mistake of starting to read it on a night when I’d had a drink or two.  Wow.  It was a little too powerful for that.

The title, he says in an introductory note, comes from “The Wall” in DC:  “As I stood on the knoll, overlooking the monument, it reminded me of a large, black boomerang.  The closer I came, the more the memories came flooding back.  Vietnam is like that:  we can throw it away, but it keeps coming back, again, again, and again, wrapping its ugly arms around you, like a fat Aunt you haven’t seen in twenty years.”

Good description, that.

Since it’s a tiny book with very little circulation I’m sure none of you have ever seen it, which is disappointing.  So I wanted to share some with you.  So here it is.

Questions on a Mental Ward

When I was in Vietnam,
I kept my life
by keeping my head down.

After twenty five years
of bad publicity
it’s difficult to hold it up.

A Doctor once told my brother
that, “Vietnam was a lesson”
a test my brother failed.

If Freedom is the answer,
then, Vietnam was the question,
and those of us who passed the test
did so by cheating.

–Robert Franklin Pate


8 Responses

  1. Wow, great poem. Really brings it home. Vietnam must have been hell.

    Actually, Pate has a short poem in which he describes Vietnam in a metaphor. Email me if you want me to send it to you.

    Dys tells this story better than I could, but when my father-in-law met my mother-in-law, he told her he was a year younger than he was. Later, at his birthday party, she counted the candles on his cake and noticed an extra. When she asked him about it, he said the year he spent in Vietnam didn’t count as being alive.

  2. Heavy.

    And your response to Suzy? Heavier.

    I’m nowhere near an expert, but as I’ve gotten older and gotten to know more Vietnam vets, I’ve become gradually more curious about the war and I’ve done a modest amount of reading on it.

    The more I read about it, the more shocked I am that anyone came out of it with anything approaching sanity.

  3. My father (a Vietnam vet) and I did a tourist day in DC a couple of years ago, and he told me while we were still planning what we were going to see that wherever else we went, he wouldn’t go to the Vietnam Memorial. I said okay, and he said again, “I mean it, I just won’t go there.” “Okay,” I said.

    When I went on my own, later, I saw why. It’s designed perfectly to be a physical representation of the war itself – it starts small, just a few names, a few inches off the ground, and then as you walk in it gets bigger and bigger until it swallows you up. And then you keep walking, and the marble gets shorter, and the number of names trickles down until it’s only a few, and then you walk away…but you keep looking back: was it really that tall and overwhelming? Really so many names?

    I first saw the Wall as a seventh-grader. At that age, it’s almost impossible to grasp the enormity that it represents. I remember classmates looking for uncles’ names and being surprised…theres’ something on this big wall that connects to someone I know?

    I didn’t see it again until I was in my 20s, and Dys and I made the visit with her parents. That was a different experience altogether.

    It’s funny how so many people were opposed to the memorial’s design at first – that’s how the Frederick Hart sculpture came to be included – but it clearly evokes such a more personal reaction that now it’s the standard for memorials, with good reason.

  4. Wow, that may be too powerful to read sober. Now I need to find me a copy of the book.

    Best bet is through Amazon, where I linked it above. The publisher is a tiny outfit near Virginia Tech…you probably won’t see too many copies at your local bookstore.

    It’s not a big book – only about 50 pages – but it’s inexpensive.

  5. I my years working with the local VFWs, I have dealt with a lot of people from both WWII and Vietnam. Most of them have been stable enough for me to bring my son around (some aren’t) and I think it is good for him to get to know these people and hear them tell some of thier stories. I spent some time “in the sandbox”, but it doesn’t compare to the experiencs that these people had to endure…

    This really hit home…thanks for posting it!

    My father-in-law is stable now, 25 years later, but supposedly for years after he came home he’d wake up screaming in Vietnamese. He rarely tells stories about his time overseas – of course, as far as my wife knows, his father rarely talked about WWII, either. But when he drove my father-in-law to the induction center, supposedly he stopped and said, “You know, we could be in Canada before dark.” That says a mountain in and of itself, I think.

    But I think about that sort of thing to the point that I often think about trying to talk him into doing an “oral history” interview about it, so my son and his children can know something about it when they grow up. I just don’t know if he’d willingly go there…and to some extent, asking someone to put themselves back through traumatic memories can be triggering events. I would hate to do that to someone.

  6. I can see how it might not be a good idea to read after you’ve had a few drinks in you.

    My friend Heidi’s father was a medic who died in Viet Nam just before she was born. She went to The Wall just to see his name. Her mother and his family don’t talk about him so she doesn’t even have stories of what kind of person he was, all she has is his name on that wall.

    That’s just all kinds of wrong.

    I agree – why would you knowingly do that to a child? Even if he was a serial killer, lie to the child. Tell her his favorite colors and his favorite books and his favorite songs or anything. That enforced silence just seems to say “this is a bad thing and should never be discussed.” If that “bad thing” is your parent, how can that not be absorbed and internalized as a child?

    In a bit of a carry-over from the comment above, I remember seeing a documentary a few years back in which a lady was cleaning out her mother’s things after she died and found a box full of old reel-to-reel tapes. They turned out to be recorded letters home from her father in Vietnam, who also died before he ever saw her. I can’t imagine how joyfully painful it would be to find such a treasure trove.

  7. Re your comment to MTAE – I understand that my dad nearly received the Silver Star for something that he did in Vietnam. Apparently his commanding officer was killed before he could put the paperwork through. I have no idea what this acheivement was. A few years ago I found out that after a vet dies, family members can request a copy of his service record. I tried to find out whether it was possible to request the record before his death, in case I wanted to try and talk to him about his service (although I doubted I would be able to), but the answer was no. I could ask my father’s permission and receive it that way, but he would have to know that I wanted it. I went on an internet forum about this topic and explained my situation, that I wanted to know what had happened to him but he refused to talk, and asked for advice. The vets (who were all very sweet to me) all said not to ask him, just to let it lie, and said that I would have to wait until he chose to talk. If he never did, I’d have to learn what I could from his record and that was that.

    I felt sad about this, but I ultimately decided to respect my father’s decision to bury his memories until he is ready, if he ever is. It’s not that good a compromise, in my view, but it would be wrong to cause him pain in that way.

    Right – I don’t know how to handle that. He might be more willing to talk to me without my wife present, but maybe not. I’ve also heard that sometimes vets are more willing to talk to other vets, and maybe he and another guy could talk and they’d tape it. But even broaching the topic carries an air of danger about it, so I’m very torn about what to do.

    I think my father-in-law also won a Bronze and/or Silver Star – the only description I ever heard of it was something like “The chopper came in and I picked up the goddamned Colonel and threw him in it in so he’d quit drawing fire on our asses.”

  8. I have an email that my son sent me from Iraq shortly after his buddy was killed. He does not talk about that day… or too many other events of the war.

    That email makes me cry even reading it years later.

    I can only imagine the personal war that rages in each Soldier’s head. The guilt that is felt by the survivors. The pain of losing a close friend.

    I won’t post the email, but let me know if you would like me to forward a copy to you.

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