Reading the special series for Veteran’s Day in my local newspaper brought up flashes of Vietnam. I cried as memories of those years swept over me.
In 1969 I was a teacher living in San Antonio, Texas. One evening Scotty, a former boyfriend from the University of Texas, showed up with three other guys, arms full of groceries, sleeping bags, and a Christmas tree. They had all been drafted and had just finished boot camp. He asked if they could stay with me these last few days before they shipped out. Without hesitation, I said, “Mi casa es su casa!”
My apartment was in an old three-story house in the university area. From their perspective, standing in my doorway, they saw a tiny, open-space, studio apartment. The bathroom on the left had the only interior door. The “kitchen” was a small fridge, stove, tiny counter, and sink on the same wall as the bathroom. A small table and two chairs were a few feet away at the other end of that wall in the dormer facing the street. Parallel with the kitchen was a broken-in couch and a tiny table beside it, facing the bed that was in the dormer on the side of the house. There was only a sheet-curtain tacked to the ceiling for privacy.
Despite the close quarters, we all got along like a box full of puppies. No strangers here! No one gave orders; everyone just seemed to know what to do.
Someone flipped through my vinyls and kept the music coming: Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Doors, Steppenwolf, the 5th Dimension, Cream … They put up their Christmas tree between the couch and my bed and decorated it with lights and joints while Scotty and I made stir-fry.
All these guys were medics– aka “conscientious objectors.” After dinner they practiced tying knots on my toes. And we talked about everything but the war as we listened to upbeat tunes.
One of them had made the well-worn leather belt he was wearing. It was a long strip of leather with holes on one end like an ordinary belt. But it had a “belt buckle” made of contrasting leather rectangle decorated by a loop of brass beads and a skinny length of leather to tie it closed through the holes in the belt. When I admired it, he took it off and gave it to me.
They all wanted me to come with them; they knew I was also an activist against that war. But I was a poor teacher; I couldn’t afford to go on my own. I said I’d try to find a newspaper that would sponsor me as a field journalist! At midnight we listened on the radio to the marvelous Jimi Hendrix improvisation of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The weekend was a sparkly blur of good food, good conversation, and so much laughter! I loved each of these guys as best friends! But I fell in love with the man who made the belt.
I never found a sponsor so I could join them. Two years later only two of these men returned: Scotty and one of those three friends — but not the man who made the belt…
As unbidden memories of that war wafted before me, I felt the pain again. Added to the unbelievable numbers of people killed in that war were the boyfriends and lovers of so many girls my age — like my cousin’s boyfriend since junior high, a helicopter pilot, and my new love, a medic.
A few years after that, when I was in graduate school at UT Austin, another cousin, the motorcycle riding, American Hero we all revered in our family, was then serving in Vietnam. He communicated with his parents by sending them recordings. And I spent weekends at their cabin overlooking peaceful Lake Travis, while we listened to his updates — with a background of explosions and gunfire.
We never talked about it. No one ever talked about it. We only listened in silence.
Several years later, when I was a professor, The American Hero came to visit me. My friend in the philosophy department had invited him to speak at our college, but they didn’t have enough money to also cover his travel expenses. I still lived in an attic apartment, but it was twice as large as the one in San Antonio (600 square feet!). And it had two rooms (besides the bathroom) with doors! And by the time he arrived, I had a futon in the living room. I felt honored to have this wonderful man stay with me!
On the night of his talk, the auditorium overflowed into hallways and other spaces with live-feed monitors on carts. It was the most attended event our college had experienced. The American Hero told about his experiences in war and the CIA. A brilliant man, he spoke passionately about what he saw, what the U.S. military/CIA did. And he offered chapter and verse to support what he said.
His words were highly explosive! At that time there was very little honest disclosure about what really happens in war.
I could not sit still because I’d heard some of this story as it happened, from the one who was there, and I knew what was coming. So I listened from the foyer with that philosophy professor, also a Vietnam vet.
When a young man in the audience stood up and angrily questioned the speaker’s facts, I couldn’t help but feel angry on behalf of all who served. Despite the harassment, the speaker remained calm. He simply pointed out that he (the student) had access to the information if he looked for it in the library, that he could check the facts himself.
Amazing grace under fire!
Times have changed. Now our culture supports some honest, open disclosure. Even our tiny local paper does. By publishing that series, the editors not only honored those who served and those at home who supported them. Remembering Vietnam is an invitation to all who have opinions about that war to reconsider their judgments. It is an invitation for everyone to find forgiveness for themselves and for all others involved.