WHAT THEY NEVER TELL YOU
My father returned to the car, inserted the key into the ignition and turned the key. The car started and with 4 words my childhood ended. He turned around, looked at my brother and then me in the backseat, and said with utter simplicity “I’m going to Vietnam.” Period, full stop.
It was a little after 5pm in 1969 and I was 8 years old, looking out of the car window desperately trying to turn back time. 5 minutes earlier Dad, in his crisp military uniform, stood at attention saluting as evening “Taps” blared across the army base. 5 minutes earlier I was a child, 5 minutes and 4 words later, that child disappeared looking out of the window at the flatness of the Kansas landscape. “I’m going to Vietnam”. It’s as if my Dad had already gone to ‘that place’ I’d seen on TV. He was going to war.
Dad slipped the car into gear, pressed the accelerator and the car continued down the road. No one said a word. I was to afraid to look at my older brother and my mother stared out of the front window. It was as if the last 5 minutes were in slow motion yet once the car pulled off we we were accelerating forward as if nothing happened. Was that the intent? To deliver a message of deployment to Vietnam as if it were a trip to the grocery store? Was this how Mom and Dad planned to protect us- their little children?
And that’s when I lost my childhood. If my parents were protecting me, my 8 year old self had to grow up and fast in order to protect them. I continued to stare out of the passenger-side window and did not, would not cry. Inside of my little body were tears and screams that I spread silently across the Kansas landscape as we made our way home.
We arrived home that evening in 1969 and we were the all-American Black military family – a house, yard, dog and 2 kids – with a Dad headed off to Vietnam. My father, my Dad, my daddy – was going to leave us and we came home to play with the dog. My mom (who swore she never did this, but she did) gathered empty jelly jars and caught the small frogs that stuck to our glass patio doors like little green voyeurs and produced the jars of frogs for us and we played with them before letting them free. My older brother, as he had done practically everyday since we moved to Fort Leavenworth, aligned the kitchen table and chairs legs in the cross-hairs of the square linoleum floor tiles, and then showed me how neatly they were placed. All of this so he could later move everything around and trick me into believing a tornado had whipped through our kitchen. He was my big brother after all and that’s how they show love to a younger sister- trick them. And I loved him back so much that I pretended to believe him! Everything was the same yet I knew that soon everything would be very, very different. In 1969 no one prepared a child even an army brat of a child about what to do or how to feel when their Dad is going off to war.
We moved to El Paso Texas soon after dad’s announcement so he could attend a special military language school. That summer we lived in an apartment building and my brother and I made fast friends with many of the neighborhood kids. I spent my time with a little German girl who lived upstairs and we mainly played with dolls. It was comforting to be in a house where German was spoken because I was born in Bremerhaven Germany and I loved speaking German with my new friend. My brother was off with the boys building forts, collecting the crispy outer shed locust bodies left behind on the trees and scaring us girls away. July 16, 1969 we celebrated my brothers birthday and like millions of Americans gathered around the television to watch Apollo 11 blast off sending men to the moon. We repeated our vigil around the TV several nights later to watch the first man, Neil Armstrong, walk on the moon, slow hop by slow hop. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” and as Armstrong pushed the pole of the American Flag into the moon’s dusty surface, the war was pushed far out of my mind. It was pushed so far out of my mind that I don’t remember my father leaving for Vietnam.
He was gone and we were in Englewood New Jersey living with my grandparents, auntie and uncle. My mother, brother and me. I don’t remember my father leaving. Did we have a party? Did we go to the airport and cry while hugging and kissing him before he boarded the plane? Did I kiss my father goodbye and tell him “I love you daddy”? Did I? I don’t remember. I do not remember, I am so angry that I cannot remember my father, my dad, going off to Vietnam, going off to war.
My Dad was gone. Pictures of the war were no longer images of a far away place with green jungles, smoke billowing from burning villages or helicopters rescuing injured soldiers. In every picture and every image was my Dad. Yet everyday I went to school and was mercilessly bullied, I came home and I was mercifully loved. My cousin would come home from college to take me to “father daughter” dances, my uncle would take my brother and me into New York City to see the thanksgiving day parade and eat roasted chestnuts and my Grandma would shower us at every moment with “sugar”. I can hear her now – “come and give your grandma some brown sugar”. I loved those kisses that greeted me at the door after school and comforted me throughout the day. I especially loved those kisses and hugs when we received a letter, postcard or audio tape from Dad. Then we got the picture postcard at Christmas that would change my relationship with my dad well into my adult life. A simple picture of Santa Claus with little Vietnamese children. A simple picture that wasn’t simple at all.
I would stare and stare at that picture focusing first on the little Vietnamese children and then the really pitiful Santa Claus. The white beard wasn’t a full, fluffy white mass but rather some skimpy flat matted “dirty white” fabric. And the Santa wasn’t even fat! But for these children, he was “magical”. That’s the word that stuck with me- magical. Yes, I could understand that that for children orphaned by war, children who may not celebrate, know of Christmas let alone “Santa Claus”, that for them this rather inferior Santa, by my standards, was magical. But the picture post card from my Dad said “he was magical”. I looked closer past the suit, past the skimpy off-white beard and suddenly saw something I did not notice before. The magic lay in the color of Santa himself – he was Black. That was magical indeed as even I had not seen a Black Santa before! But wait, hold on, is it, could it be? Yes, that was my father’s face. My Dad was the magical Black Santa? I couldn’t believe it, I stared again and again and again. I was so hurt, how could he? How could he leave me here and be Santa for other children? I would take the picture out every night hoping that the face would change, but it didn’t. I looked at the picture until I couldn’t look at his face for another moment. I took a number 2 pencil eraser and “erased” a huge X over my father’s face. I erased my father. My mother begged me to tell her why. I couldn’t. I was only 8 and war destroyed my relationship with my Dad. As grown up as I tried to be, I couldn’t be anything but a little girl when I thought I “lost my daddy”. How do you explain that to anyone?
Life went on after the “picture incident”. Christmas and New Year’s came and went. The Vietnam war was present in our household through the newspapers, radio and television but most evident through the absence of my Dad. One night I woke up to hear the sobbing of my mother coming from behind the close door of her room. I could see the illuminated light from the TV seeping through the space between the door and the carpeted floor. I stopped in my tracks and just focused on the light dancing on the carpet somehow hoping the light would reveal to me what my mom saw on TV. What did she see, was there some news story that made her cry or was she lonely without dad -is that what made her cry or worse yet did something happen to my dad? I never heard my mother cry before and it scared me. I skulked away from her bedroom door, scampered down the hall and climbed back into bed, this time tucking myself way, way down under the covers.
In the morning, I decided I needed to “mother” my mom. So I copied the morning ritual of my grandmother – her mom to a T. I selected an olive drab ceramic mug from the cupboard, poured steaming black coffee from the percolator into my mug, caressed the mug with both hands and just as grandma did, inhaled deeply while saying “mmmmmmmm”. I looked deeply into the cup, blowing to cool down the hot coffee just as she did. Grandma looked like taking the first sip was like being in heaven. I too was expecting that the first sip I was about to take would be the best thing ever. I closed my eyes and sipped just like grandma. Unlike grandma, I cringed as I spat out the most horrid tasting drink I every had back into the olive drab ceramic mug. So much for being like grandma. When my mother came down for breakfast- she got what I could give her that was just like grandma, some brown sugar. I never let on that I heard her crying, I never told her how it scared me. I just did what I could -love her because that’s what I thought she needed and that’s what my grandma, grandpa, auntie, uncle,cousins and brother did when we were scared by the war, missed my Dad and wanted him home.
I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know when it happened. But Dad was home. Did we have a party? Did we meet him at the airport and shower him with hugs and kisses? Did I hug my Dad and tell him “Daddy, I love you”? Did I? I don’t remember. I do not remember. I erased my father from a picture postcard, I was angry, hurt and scared. Now I was 9, Dad was back home and I did not know how to tell anyone that “I lost my daddy before and I don’t want to lose him again”. Back then no one prepared a child, even an army brat of a child what to do or how to feel when their dad is going off to war or what to do, how to feel, what to say when he returns. They didn’t tell me then and they still haven’t told me.
I would sit quietly in the passenger seat as my father drove me to college every day responding to his open ended questions with monosyllabic responses (yes, yeah, no) or on a bad day guttural noises (huh, humph). This happened in the car, this happened in our home and this happened basically whenever my father and I would have a conversation. Until the morning of our drive when he told me under no uncertain terms that “he would no longer tolerate these one-way conversations” and that I was to speak to him with real words. Something in my 20-something body rose up and my mind was reeling. That man that I erased from the picture postcard couldn’t be erased from my vision, my mind or my life. That man is my father, will always be my father who loved me so much that he thought to send me a picture postcard of a magical Black Santa in war torn Vietnam knowing I had never seen a black Santa before in my life. I sat up straight, looked at my Dad and started to speak in whole sentences. Something I had not really done for such a long time. Back then they didn’t tell me, and they didn’t tell him how war would change our relationship.
I think a lot of relationships were changed and we all lost something that day in 1969 when he turned around in the car and announced with 4 simple words “I’m going to Vietnam”. But as an adult, I have discovered what we also gained something. Through it all, my father, my dad, my daddy protected me, his family and as a member of the armed forces- this country. I gained a strong and loving relationship with my dad and this country gained a hero.
– Composed on Veterans’ Day 2013 to honor my dad Colonel Howard A Myrick (Ret.) –