‘You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye Who cheer when soldier lads march by, Sneak home and pray you’ll never know The hell where youth and laughter go.’
From SUICIDE IN THE TRENCHES By Siegfried Sassoon
My dad has been on my mind lately. His health has been declining quite frequently in the past few years. He’s slowly becoming an old man for the first time.
My dad has looked exactly the same throughout every decade in my life. He has had the same hair style, the same mustache, worn the same clothes, boots, and hat since before I can remember. He has been clean cut and hard working his entire life.
But at sixty-seven, after a battle with prostate cancer (one of the many long term side effects from mass exposure to agent orange while serving in Vietnam) he is starting to slow down. Every year that passes, the poison that he absorbed decades ago, activates and attacks another part of his body. The Vietnam war is still haunting my dad.
‘But I am one of the lucky ones,’ he will say.
He never says anything more than that. My dad rarely speaks about the war. He has gone through some old photo albums, but only speaks about feeding the Vietnamese kids who ran up to them when they were moving through little towns, looking for people to kill.
I will never forget the response he gave me when I was young and first found out that my dad was a veteran. I had asked him if he had killed anyone. My dad had never not answered a question before. He just calmly explained that he didn’t want to talk about it. That moment was my first lesson of empathy. His entire face filled with a seriousness that I had never seen before. It scared me a little. I never asked him about the war again.
My mom has told me a few stories over the years. She never talked about it around my dad though. I think she worried about us, growing up in a house with a dad who had night terrors. I never asked about them. I knew. But sometimes she would feel obligated to explain them to me. She always followed up her stories with expressing her gratitude for the troops. And then she would remind me that my dad was a hero. I already knew that too.
His life story is a literal translation of the hero’s journey. From the poverish childhood filled with neglect and abuse, to the marriage at sixteen to the older woman who had gotten knocked up, to the adoption of a child his wife had conceived while he was carrying his dead friends out of the jungle. When his marriage had finally broken down for the last time, after a decent fourteen year run with his statutory rapist, he immediately married my mother, who I have recently learned was their babysitter. She was pregnant too.
Throughout all of this, my dad has been one of the hardest working men I know. He served our country as a combat veteran. He hired in to General Motors on his eighteenth birthday and retired as a supervisor. He worked so much overtime, that he was pulling in six figures. That was big money for the eighties. That was big money for a guy who used to get his food from an actual welfare line and sometimes a dumpster.
On top of the overtime, my dad also felt compelled to build a fucking house. He bought a beautiful piece of property that my mom and him had always loved and he ordered a package to build his own house. They just dumped off some blueprints and lumber, and he built it with a couple of friends. It took him about a year. He had no construction experience. He just read a couple of books and built a beautiful house. I grew up on forty acres of woods, with a pond, and a river. A large meadow in the center of the property held a couple of barns and a few horses. My childhood was amazing because of my dad’s incredible drive and motivation to give me a better life than he had. I often tell him that he took it a little too far because I will never be able to live up to his example or afford to give my children half of what he gave me.
My dad is going through a crisis of sorts right now. It started after his remission from the cancer. He lost a lot of weight. He bought himself a Honda Goldwing trike. He has grown his hair into a sad little silver ponytail that sticks out from under his army green Vietnam Veteran hat. He is actually driving to Tennessee this spring to meet up with some guys he served with. My mom tracked him down on facebook. I was very surprised that my dad agreed to leave Michigan, let alone stay in the mountains and spend time with people who remind him of the most hellish time in his life. I am happy he is doing the trip though. I do believe it might help him some how.
The biggest change I’ve noticed so far is that he has recently agreed to get a tattoo with me, after always arguing against tattoos. He wants to get a combat medal, the one he has pinned on his Veteran’s hat. I am going to get an acorn, because he has always bragged to me that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. My dad and I are a lot alike, and he has always been very proud of that. I can’t believe he is actually going to get a tattoo!
Unfortunately, we have to wait until October. He has a blood clot in his lung, and the medication regime prevents him from getting tattooed for six months. I told him that I would buy it for his birthday. It is a very strange thing to watch your hero grow old.