Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Entering the Dadlands

So, as you know if you've read as far back as Udon Thani, part of the rationale behind this trip to Vietnam was to go to some of the places my Dad talked about in his letters home in 1967-8 during the war. If you start in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), swing east to the coast and work your way up, you can bag quite a few Dad towns: Cam Ranh Bay, Tuy Hoa, Danang, Hue, Quang Tri, Dong Ha. So that's what we decided to do.

I guess this is as good a time as any to say a few words about my father, for those of you who are not my siblings, haha.

Dad was a career Air Force guy. He flew fighter planes in Korea. Then he got married and had five kids, the youngest of whom -- me -- was in diapers when he got assigned to fly fighters in Vietnam. He promptly swapped assignments with a colleague, which doesn't even seem like it should be possible, if you ask me. I mean, you can trade military postings the way third-graders trade sandwiches in the lunchroom? Anyway, he traded fighter planes for the less glamorous duty of flying enormous C-130 cargo planes so he would have a better chance of coming back to us alive.

How did he feel about the war? I hesitate to extrapolate much from the letters, because he died several years ago and isn't here to explain them himself. Furthermore, they were a) subject to military censorship and b) designed to be positive in order to keep my Mom's spirits up. But I can highlight a few things:

He was a product of his era and saw Asians as different from Westerners. Here's what he wrote about the orphanage he visited in Udon Thani:
We have it so good in the States that it's impossible to imagine the plight of these people. The Bishop will only allow Catholic couples to adopt the children because Thai couples of other sects and religions might make slaves of the children. That sounds unbelievable but in a nutshell I think it embodies their attitude toward life. No wonder we can't understand the East.  -- June 10, 1968, Udon Thani

On the other hand, he never demonized or dehumanized the other side. Here's what he writes about picking up a load of prisoners in Qui Nhon:

The prisoners were mostly North Vietnamese and were the most pathetic bunch I have ever seen. Many of them were just kids. They sure looked scared and I felt sorry for them. One of the prisoners had only one leg and was reputed to have killed 50 Marines. Some of the guys were angry with him because of it. Maybe it was wrong of me, but I wasn't angry with him -- I was sorry for him. He was only doing his job just like our own people do. It isn't his fault that he did it well. It just points up the ultimate stupidity of war.  -- October 9, 1967,  Tuy Hoa

He did not revel in the alleged glories of war. By the time I was old enough to remember, he never told war stories. He didn't pressure us to join the military -- although he couldn't possibly have been prouder when my brother graduated from the Air Force Academy. Here’s what he wrote at the end of a stint near the DMZ, where mortars and light arms fire were a nightly occurrence:

War is not a part of my nature and I feel sorry for the poor guys who live through this kind of thing day and night. I hope they are better equipped for it than I.  Dec. 14, 1967, Saigon

I think Vietnam made him more cautious about the use of military force. And I think greater exposure to other cultures softened his view of divisions between nations. Toward the end of his life he tutored kids at our local high school, many of whom were immigrants from all over the world. He also mentored kids from various backgrounds at our church Youth Group. I think he welcomed the chance to make up for the tragedy of the war in some way.

Anyway, that’s my Dad as I remember him. Perhaps my siblings would like to chime in? Sadly, I don’t even  have a picture with me to post. Just imagine a guy with a flat-top haircut working on our family’s motley assortment of second-hand cars on a Saturday afternoon, with just the family dog for company. Or imagine him showing my brother how to fix engines, or going to my sister’s flute performances, or single-handedly getting me through high school Physics despite my nightly fits of tears.

That’s my Dad. I can almost see him now.


Tom B said...

Trish - Wow - this almost brings me to tears. Okay, it did bring me to tears. I lived with a dad that was in the Battle of the Buldge, yet I hardly knew anything about it until he was near death except for some rare comments about the war.

Jim said...

You and Dad had physics; Emily and I have geometry and algebra. I'm sure we'll have physics in high school.

Dad and I had the Corvair, the Pintos, and assorted other marginally functional junk heaps. Kevin and I have my 20-year old Mitsubishi.

The apple falls not far from the tree!

I've really enjoyed these posts, they bring back great memories of Dad.

kopisusu2 said...

Thanks for these comments, both of which I treasure. I read them in Burma but haven't had a chance to go back and respond until now.

Tom, did your father eventually talk about his experiences? I'm not sure how much Dad would have been willing to talk, but now I wish I'd tried a little harder.

And Jim, I can totally picture you working on the car with Kevin. I hope you have the official Sears jumpsuit!