The Lost Children: Vietnam

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“Rejoice O young man, in thy youth…”
– Ecclesiastes (from Platoon)

 

I had a strange thought today.

Those of you who have been reading my blog know that I have two fathers: my Dad, George, who raised me; and Jim, my birthfather.

My strange thought today was about Jim.

Jim was in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970. He was based at Lai Khe, headquarters of the 1st Infantry Division and an important base for the outer defense of Saigon. The base had a sign over its gate that read, “Welcome to Rocket City”–in part because by 1970 it was, along with Khe Sanh, one of the most heavily-rocketed bases in South Vietnam.

Jim was in the Air Force, flying back seat as the weapons specialist in an OV-10 Bronco, the Forward Air Control “plane of choice” during the war. He and his pilot served the same type of duty as army scouts–ranging far ahead from the main detachment in search of NVA and VC troops. Once those troops were located, Jim, as the weapons specialist, would mark the target with white phosphorus. Then Air Force, Marine, or Navy aircraft–or artillery–would take over.

My strange thought came as I was watching the film Platoon this afternoon. I thought I remembered how many American soldiers died in Vietnam, but I wanted to be sure, so I Googled it. It was as I remembered: 58,220. I remembered the number from my teenage years, when I was fascinated by the Vietnam War and consumed anything I could find related to it–books, movies, TV shows, magazine articles.

But I never thought about the number. I knew it was a horrific amount of people, but I never thought until today that the majority of those killed in action were just kids–average age nineteen–who would never become husbands and fathers. I thought today about all the children that weren’t born because those 58,220 men were killed.

And then I thought of myself.

Jim survived. He wasn’t shot down. He didn’t crash. Despite being in a light, slow-moving aircraft far out in front of the main group for a full year, he did not go down. He survived.

Which means I survived, too.

A strange thought, like I said.

I’m here, but the children of thousands of other soldiers are not. This is devastating.

But this also means that I may have some role to play in the world, some purpose. As many Vietnam veterans themselves say, why did I make it when so many others did not? There must be a reason.

I suppose the children of veterans of World War II and Korea may feel the same way. A certain sense of grace or luck. Just one well-aimed rocket-propelled grenade, just one loose screw on a wing or engine part, and I would not be here.

I guess, in a way, we can all say that about ourselves. We would not be here if not for the ones who came before us. But there’s something about knowing your DNA survived a war when others did not that makes it different. They are the lost children of Vietnam–the ones who were never born.

As I said, I was always fascinated by the Vietnam War, even decades before I knew Jim served there. I cried at The Wall as an eighth grader, drawing stares from my classmates on a school trip. I felt something back then, staring at the black granite, I just didn’t know what.

Maybe now I do.

His Angel

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“He didn’t want you to be given up.”

Lori, my sister-in-law, Thursday night.

She was speaking of Jim, my birth father, and words he had spoken to her years ago about me–the child he called “his Angel.”

I didn’t know any of this.

I grew up knowing I was adopted. I grew up feeling like some essential part of me was somehow wrong, somehow missing. Off-kilter, out of step with the rest of the world. If the very people who created me were willing to give me away to strangers, then who would, really, want me?

But now I know Jim wanted me. And that has made all the difference.

I’ve cried a lot the last day and a half. Tears of finally feeling accepted. Tears of belonging. Not sad tears, at all. Tears of a sort of relieved joy—a feeling of fitting in at last to the place where I came from.

I have a picture of Jim from 1969, three years before I was born. The picture was taken at Lai Khe, South Vietnam. Jim is young and blond and confident-looking, leaning against a jeep with a cigarette in his hand. He has my cheeks. He has my chin. He has my hair. One of his grandsons, too, has my cheeks and hair. Mind-blowing, after a lifetime of being physically different than everyone in my family.

I never met Jim. He died before I was able to. We had a complex relationship in the years between my finding him and his death. He never told me what he told Lori. He never told me a lot of things.

He never told me I was his Angel.

But through the years, I’ve often thought of him as mine.

I miss you, Jim. Thank you for your words. I’ve heard you now, and it matters.

 

My Grandfather, The Writer

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I was eight when my grandfather died. And when you’re eight, there is still magic in the world. My grandfather, like my father, was my hero. I remember wonderful things about him. Things that a child’s memory freezes in time, and paints gold with the magic of a little girl’s love and admiration.   I know he wasn’t a perfect man, but he was my grandfather, my Poppy, and I remember only the golden things, the magical things.

I remember him saddling up the horses in the ranch yard and taking me for a ride down to the airport business center for Mexican food. In the late 1970s in Aspen, Colorado, you could still do that — hitch your horse up outside a restaurant and go inside with your grandfather to eat a taco.

And I remember his Jeep. Mostly because it was gold and I didn’t know anyone else who owned a gold Jeep, but also because it had a huge eagle painted on the hood. It wasn’t a Jeep like you think of, not the Wrangler-type, but an old pickup truck used for ranch work and for running around town. It had scratchy cloth seats that reminded me of horse-blankets, scraps of hay on the floor, and a gear-shift that made loud noises as it was crunched from one gear into another.

I also remember receiving a fly-fishing kit from he and my grandmother for one of my birthdays, and being proud – so very proud – that I could now be like my older male cousins, a real live fly-fisherman. Poppy taught me to fly-fish up Maroon Creek, standing on the rustic wooden bridge just upstream from the family cabin.

But what I didn’t know about my grandfather was that he was a writer. I didn’t find that out until after he died and members of my family published a collection of his work posthumously.

My grandfather wrote short stories and poetry. According to my Aunt Mary, Poppy had a “surge” in writing that lasted the final ten years of his life. But I often wonder what he wrote before that, because as writers, we know that we are writers our whole lives. The “surge” comes, yes, but the writing has been there all along. For some of us, it takes time to let the muse free, to show the words to others, to admit that, yes, this is who we really are. So what did my grandfather write before, I wonder? What did he write as a boy? As a college student at Dartmouth? As a young father in Highland Park, Illinois? What were the pieces that did not make it beyond the first draft and the trash can in his office on Mill Street?

During my grandfather’s writing surge, he took one-on-one writing lessons with a creative writing professor in Boulder. He would sit in his office on Mill Street (his German Shepherd likely lying in the window as I always remember) and share his latest piece with any visitors who walked in. According to my aunt, he loved to have his writing read back to him, loved to hear his own words read aloud. With a particularly close visitor, he might have sipped Scotch and discussed the stories.

What survives of my grandfather’s writings exist in an anthology called Frontiers Past, self-published by my family in 1981. According to my aunt, most of the stories are based on real people and real events. He changed some names, but also left some names as they were.

My grandfather is well remembered in Aspen. There is a Henry Stein Park down by the Roaring Fork River and a statue of him on the mall downtown.   But I want him to also be remembered as a writer, which is, I think, how all writers would like to be remembered.

The final page of Poppy’s book is a poem. It is entitled “To My Family.” I remember reading the poem in high school, and the final line always stuck with me. I think of it often, even now, twenty-eight years after I first read it, because the words describe how I myself am trying to make my way through the world – and how I, too, would like to be remembered:

“He did the best he could with what he had.”

So I will remember the horseback riding and the taco and the Jeep. And I will remember the German Shepherd in the window and the fly-fishing lessons. But I will also remember the writing. I will remember his love of an audience, his willingness to work on his craft, and his eagerness to discuss his words with others over a glass of Scotch.

I will remember you, Poppy, as a writer. For that is what a writer would want.

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My thanks to my mother Pat Spitzmiller and my aunt Mary Dominick Coomer for their contributions to this post.