Slowly the story of my father’s war came out, intermittently, as the years rolled. Perhaps I first heard of it at a parade in my early youth. It was when I saw them, that day in May with lilacs still perfuming the air– the impossibly old Doughboy veterans of World War I, riding in the last parade floats.
At that time my father was still a young man himself. He had seen and heard enough death for a thousand lives and had somehow been changed, although I couldn’t have known how, by a faraway place called Vietnam.
He told me that he’d been only 26 years old, when he climbed out, onto the tarmac of sacrifice, of the transport on a sultry June night in 1969. He’d left behind a wife and son. The air base, at Tan Son Nhut, Saigon, was presently under mortar fire. Someone was screaming “incoming!” and several explosions cracked out into the humid air. Some MP grabbed him and shoved him into a sandbag bunker. Overhead several helicopter gunships were scrambled, dropping flares to spot the enemy mortar team, who, he later learned, were killed only 100 yards from the perimeter of the air base. Acrid smoke filled the air as he crawled out and walked to his billet.
It turned out that death in Saigon, 1969, was an ever-present friend for his enemies and a constant enemy to his friends. He was a combat radar controller at the base, who guided airstrikes to their targets across South Vietnam and, later, into Cambodia. During his year in-country he came under daily rocket and mortar fire from North Vietnamese soldiers who had infiltrated into the capital of the South and set up malignant terror-teams.
“As a radar controller,” he later explained to me, “I guided bombers, fighters, reconnaissance missions, gunships and forward air controllers into some tough situations and helped them get back home safe. I helped save lives.”
But he told me only much later, when I was an adult, more:
A bad day was when a rocket was fired at the radar station where I worked and hit about 20 yards to the left of the big Radome. I was just a few yards away in a Quonset hut when the explosion happened. It blew up a barracks where several of the military police who guarded us were sleeping.
Every comrade’s death diminished his spirit in his year of fiery trial. “I tried to save them,” he said, “the aviators who crashed and died anyway.” And he could say no more. I didn’t know what to say.
None of us, really, can ever say much. Words are too small for the moments, which is certainly why he brought these things up so rarely, at a parade, or at Arlington Cemetery, or perhaps after the fireworks on Independence Day.
On Memorial Day it’s the lilacs I remember; I, who never served in the military but always, in the bottom of my mind, somehow knew I was a recipient of these men’s grace, of their sacrifice, of their devotion. I had not given my fullest measure. Lilacs always have a tinge of regret, whether they lie in the dooryard fronting an old farmhouse in Cades Cove, with “heart-shaped leaves of rich green,” or in the sprigs of remembrance fallen on patriot graves in Virginia. Lilacs cover the time with purplish royalty. They cover the fallen like kings.
Memorial Day was first called Decoration Day and was founded after the Civil War in 1868, when the Grand Army of the Republic, a huge group of Union veterans, established it as a time for the whole nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers.
This Memorial Day, I will to try to remember my gift of devotion from men and women unseen, buried in white tombs and laid there on account of that “father of all things,” as the ancient Greeks called war. Let me remember those fallen Federals of the 20th Maine Regiment at Little Round Top. Let me not forget one of them, the G.I.s, the fallen Doughboys whose General exclaimed, “Lafayette, we are here!” Let me remember every lost SEAL and Seabee, every airman and Marine, who bled for Old Glory on tiny island hells, in sinister jungles and in rocky Afghan canyons – for in remembrance, there is identity, and ultimately, survival of the glorious cause of America for which they lie.
“War is the father and king of all, and has produced some as gods and some as men, and has made some slaves and some free.” (G. T. W. Patrick, 1889) Heraclitus of Ephesus; c. 535 BC – 475 BC
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