Return to Vietnam

Ken Burns’ PBS Vietnam documentary featured twelve heart-reaching episodes that must have been excruciatingly painful for veterans of that combat as well as for their civilian contemporaries who watched the war at home on their television sets as those tragic years unfolded while others took to the streets in protest. I was one of those college students who marched on Washington, D.C. of 1967, but returned to campus, disgusted, that those peace demonstrators were exhibiting the same violent behavior they sought to oppose. I was conflicted. I saw many of those demonstrators as children of privilege, of the eastern establishment, who had no experience of poverty or oppression. The country has elected to office the last group of people who lived through that tempestuous period and to have preserved in their memories both the idealism of the period and the subsequent disillusionment with government policy both domestic and foreign. Ironically, the nation has a Commander-in-Chief in 2017  who neither served in Vietnam nor marched against the war. When great issues face a nation in any era, the sideliners and bench-warmers are not the ones I look to for leadership in the future. In that respect, I admire both Senator John McCain and former Secretary of State John Kerry who has the distinction of both serving and protesting.

Watching the documentary reminded me of the question that I had posed previously to Vietnam veterans I know. I asked them if they would ever return to Vietnam in order to see what the country is like now and to revisit the places they remember. One man answered succinctly “no.” I did not prod him further. The other veteran replied that it was a beautiful country and if given the opportunity he would go, but really had no great urge to do so.  The third veteran unhesitantly affirmed he would go. Burns’ Vietnam documentary interviewed a few veterans who return, meeting with Vietnamese they had fought with. Before I saw this documentary, in a short story I had imagined an aging Vietnam veteran who intended to return to the scene of combat to fulfill an item on his bucket list.

It is well-known that many World War II combat veterans have returned to the Normandy beaches and visited the American graveyards in Belgium and France, a painful pilgrimage, but one that they felt necessary in order to sooth their souls. Their youth perished on those battlefields. They left something of themselves behind on that bloody ground as well as their fallen comrades. Death will get us all in the end. Before that we must make peace with ourselves and everyone who has ever touched our lives. That is what I think a soldier does when he goes back to the killing fields.

Here is the short story I wrote before watching the documentary:

April

It was her husband’s birthday. They were having a small dinner party and the invited couple would be arriving soon. Marian did not feel in a party mood, but she put a good face forward not to dampen the celebration. He was wearing a fresh navy-blue polo shirt with a white stripe across the chest. San Francisco was stitched on the left corner diagonal to where his heart would be.

“Why are you wearing that shirt? You haven’t worn that in a long time,” she said.

“No reason. I can change if you don’t like it.”

“No … don’t. It’s just that Claudia gave you that shirt … remember … when I went with her to California.”

Why of all times did he pick that shirt of all the clean shirts in his closet? She burst into tears. Through her tears, she said, “Nothing happens for nothing. You subconsciously picked it in memory of her.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to remind you.”

“Why do all the people I love die in April when everything comes to life again?” she looked out the dining room window where a few piles of snow lingered along the long driveway to the road. Juncos and red-breasted nuthatches flittered around the bird feeder suspended from a tree limb.

“Who was it,” her husband asked, “said ‘April is the cruelest month of all’?”

She folded like a paper parasol into the easy chair. “I knew her since I was eight-year’s old. She was a second mother to me. She was always there for me—when my parents died, when my daughter took her own life. Why couldn’t I be there with her niece and nephew holding her hand when she closed her eyes for the last time?”

“Because you live in Washington and she lived in Illinois. You have a job you couldn’t leave. Be thankful you made the last trip with her to Germany.”

“Oh, that was prophetic!” Marian daubed her eyes. “When I awoke New Year’s morning and I had the vision that I must visit her native country and celebrate her eightieth birthday with her in Dusseldorf after making one excuse after another for years why I couldn’t travel—the kids, my job, no money—I always had something.”

“Marian, if you’d rather not have this party …”

“Ridiculous. We can’t call it off now. They’ll be here any minute. I just can’t believe she’s no longer on this earth. And to die on Good Friday at three o’clock in the afternoon.”

“She had cancer throughout her bones and lungs. Did you want her to suffer longer?”

“No, it’s not that. She went too fast—diagnosed in October and gone in April—a month to the day after her 81st birthday. It’s like the end of an era.”

“We are at the age when this sort of news will not be unusual until it’s our turn.”

Marian fell silent. Her husband had spoken the unvarnished truth. To be born was to begin to die. Vince, the realist, was trying to console, unaware the balm he thought he was applying to her fresh wound was really salt.

But she was a survivor herself, a realist too after her own fashion, and the show must go on as long as there was a live audience to play to. Life was full of ironies and synchronicities. After the party there would be time to grieve alone. We die alone. No one can do it for us, she thought. We can’t hire someone to do that dirty work. She could not then expect anyone to participate in this grief for a woman who had first treated her as an adult, who had first opened the world up to her, and talked to her about history and politics with the passion of a university professor. Claudia had experienced first-hand the crucible of war in Europe, the bombshells, the sirens, the air raids and the hunger that the drawn-out battles brought. She told stories of how her and her neighbors had hid Jews. Crossing through a forest behind her family’s house, she discovered a downed British pilot and escorted him to her home where her father, a doctor, had treated his broken arm and sheltered him in the cellar until April 1945. Touring Belgium and western Germany some vestiges of war remained—the grass-covered bunkers and the cemeteries of row upon row of white crosses. But by-and-large the countryside had returned to orderly fields bordered by well-pruned trees. The cities, cleared of rumble, had been rebuilt. Pleasure boats plied the Rhine River and the Gothic churches welcomed tourists. Perhaps time heals all wounds, Marian had thought, as she knelt before the ornate altar in the Cologne Cathedral.

Claudia met and married an American serviceman stationed in Paris where she had been studying economics. After his Army discharge, they came to live in the United States. In 1965 they moved next door to Marian, who first met her when she was a freshman in high school. That’s when her education really began about the outside world. Claudia spoke with a heavy foreign accent never mastering the English diphthong th either in its voiced or voiceless variant.

The doorbell rang. The birthday guests, Joe and Sylvia Martin, had arrived. Vince and Marian had known the Martins since they had moved to Seattle twenty years ago, becoming fast friends as soon as they discovered they shared similar ages, political opinions, and interests. Marian put on a cheerful face and welcomed their friends into the living room while Vince poured two glasses of wine.

“Here’s to a happy birthday and many more,” Sylvia toasted, raising her glass. Decked out in jewelry from her ears to her fingers, she sparkled as always with geniality. A bracelet on each wrist, rings on almost every finger, Sylvia valued taste in fashion and hair style, proving that with the correct accessories and cosmetics a short, plain woman can be transformed into a beauty queen. Jim, her consort, reserved flashiness for his wife, preferring a subdued, unostentatious white polo shirt and tan slacks. His face was unassuming—a male face similar to any other in the crowd of business men with short, clipped greying hair boarding a commuter train for a downtown office. In short, he was a tall, lean, washed-out looking man about ready for retirement.

The table was already set. The white layer cake, one fat candle, stuck in the cream cheese frosting, captured Joe’s attention.  Although his slimness belied the fact, Joe possessed a sweet tooth of huge proportions. Regarding the cake, he said, “No room for sixty-two candles.”

Sylvia sidled over to Joe and poked his side. “But you’ll find room for a slice, won’t you?” she said.

“Chicken cacciatore is ready,” Marian announced from behind the kitchen counter. “Everyone take a seat around the table. Help yourself to salad and vegetables,” she said as she placed the serving dish in the middle of the table. Of the foursome, Marian preserved a younger appearance in contrast to Sylvia’s well-made up face, salon-tinted hair, and flattering dress. A slight streak of gray colored her right temple but otherwise her shoulder-length brown hair had not faded. Her complexion had an outdoor glow, which she had no need to embellish with cosmetics. She wore no lipstick. Meeting Marian for the first time, a person would not call her pretty, but rather think she was unremarkable, perhaps lost in a crowd, likely to happen as well to Joe.

But not Vince, who was robust, full jowls, broad-chested, meaty with a full head of salt and pepper hair brushed back from his forehead, making it difficult for Marian to conceive he was sixty-two. Where had the time sped? Surely, it was rushing past them as they, passengers on a train, watched through the window. Fasten your seat belts, Marian thought, the ride was going faster and faster every year. Hadn’t her grandparents and her parents told her it would seem so the older she grew?

“I imagine you’ll be retiring this year?” Joe remarked to Vince.

“No, I don’t think so; I’ll just drop dead at my desk one day.” Vince laughed, and then added, “Hey, I love my work. I’m not ready to throw the towel in yet. We’re still working on a new passenger jet design.”

“Well, I’ve notified management that I’m retiring,” Joe said. “I’ve had it. I’ve hated corporate finance since I started with the company. I’m sick of the office politics and the finagling. I did what I had to do to make a good living. Any time left I have, I want to spend on the golf course.”

“Good for you, Joe. Congratulations. We all have to make choices. If it’s right for you, go for it,” Vince said.

Marian studied Sylvia’s face. From what she observed, Sylvia’s smile testified to her concurrence with her husband’s decision. Vaguely, she wished that Vince would follow suit. He appeared as vigorous and as healthy as ever, but she wished for their lives to slow down. She felt as if life was flowing too fast through her fingers. It seemed as if they had just finished celebrating Vince’s birthday last year and here it had rolled around again. She hesitated upon voicing her opinion. After some reflection, she decided to give it.

“Vince, that’s not a bad idea. I wonder if you shouldn’t start thinking about retiring also.” She brightened and said, “The four of us could travel together. See more of the world before we kick the bucket. Wouldn’t that be great?”

Sylvia gleefully agreed. “That would be a blast. Count me in. I want to take some cruises. Joe can golf his way around the world.” She laughed.

“Sounds like great fun,” Vince said, “but I’m not quite ready to call it quits. I want to work just a few years more.”

Marian stood up. “It’s time to cut the cake and sing Happy Birthday.” The celebration continued with more good conversation and wine. The evening ended with the two couples agreeing to meet for dinner next time at their favorite restaurant.

After Joe and Sylvia left, Vince grew somber. His glum expression perplexed Marian. How in a space of a few minutes had his mood changed from happy to morose? She peered curiously at him and was about to ask him what was bothering him when he took her by the hand and led her to the sofa where they both sat down. He looked seriously at her and began to speak slowly and deliberately.

“I didn’t what to spoil the party with bad news.”

“Bad news?” Marian stared at him perplexed. “What bad news?”

“This could be my last birthday party—”

Marian cut him off. “Don’t be silly. I know we’re all thinking we’ve lived pretty long so far, but—”

“No, I’m not being melodramatic. I’ve been keeping this news from you because I didn’t want to upset you, particularly, with your thinking so much about Claudia lately.”

“What does Claudia have to do with anything?”

“Everything.” He paused, took a deep breath, and continued.

“Marian, I have pancreatic cancer. The doctor couldn’t give me more than a year.”

“Oh, my god, you should have told me.” Consternation then denial rapidly reflected in her eyes. “No, it’s not true. You’ll beat the odds. He’s wrong.”

“Of course, I intend to fight this thing. It will be treated aggressively. But facts are facts. I didn’t want to tell Joe that I have put in for retirement. I had to wear a good face today. Our friends will know soon enough.”

“What’ll we do?”

“All that we can.”  He put his arm around her. “Chin up, girl. There’s nothing we can’t survive together, right?  What does anyone do in a case like this?  Make the best of the time they have left. I intend to do exactly that.”

“What do you mean?” She looked quizzically up at his oddly happy face.

“I’ve had it on my mind for some time. I want to see Vietnam again. I want to see the country I was sent to as a young man to fight something I did not understand. The jungle had its beauty and dangers. The beaches were gorgeous. They say the ravages of war are gone. They say the people hold no animosity toward Americans.”

Marian was plainly shocked. She had thought Vince was one of those Vietnam veterans who were able to put the war behind them and live normal lives without visible signs of post-combat trauma. He had not forgotten his youth. Who could not forget his youth, those formative experiences that shaped and colored his life ever afterwards?

“I’ll visit Vietnam, north and south, before I die,” Vince affirmed, making it indisputable to Marian that he would fulfill this wish. She sat quietly, absorbing the reality of Vince’s terminal illness and full import of what he desired to accomplish in view of his prognosis.

Both of them sat silently, finding speech difficult. What words could express the enormity of what loomed and how drastically the birthday mood had altered? After a while, Marian took her husband’s hand and whispered, “I’m going with you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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