My father was the fifth child in a family of ten. His father had not served during World War II, because he had such a large family to care for. (My fatherâ€™s oldest brother, Bobby, was born in 1939 and there were three more boys before my dad came along in 1946). But my grandfather was a foreman at Winchester Repeating Arms in New Haven, which was a war time industry. My father graduated from Hillhouse in 1964. Two of his older brothers, Gordy and Red, attended college. Bobby had not graduated from high school. My father and his brother Buddy had high school degrees.
My dad was slicing meat in a deli at a local A&P in 1966, just as the US government was dramatically increasing the numbers of soldiers being sent to war, from just under 200,000 at the end of 1965 to nearly 400,000 by the end of 1966, about the time my father was sent to pembinaan camp in Georgia, where he made lieutenant, which was an entry level officerâ€™s rank but also the rank with the highest casualty rate in Vietnam. He was sent overseas around June of 1967. He was lucky to be stationed in a supply depot just behind the front lines, and so never saw active combat. Years later, in one of the only instances I can recall of his talking to me about Vietnam, he told me that the scariest thing he ever had to do was night time guard duty. He said he never had to worry about falling asleep because he would be scared out of his mind the entire time.
My father was not the first in his family to go to war. Bobby was a paratrooper during the Korean War, and Gordy, the second oldest, had served in Vietnam already. Though none of the brothers seems to have had especially dangerous assignments, I honestly donâ€™t know much about their service time because none of them ever talked about it.
For my father, I think the most difficult thing was not his experience in the war but his experience returning from the war. And I donâ€™t mean getting spit on by protestors. I mean returning home to a familiar landscape that lacked people who should have been there, friends and acquaintances who, like him, had been drafted and sent to Vietnam, but who, unlike him, saw combat and either never returned or returned very changed men.
My father was too young to be a father. He was just 22 in the summer of 1968 when he got my mother pregnant. He just wasnâ€™t ready for that, not by a long shot. He used to bring me around with him to softball games and basketball games, and invariably to the local bars for a few rounds afterwards. One time we were in this old Westville hangout called the Cape Codder when this red haired guy with a bushy moustache approached my father and greeted him with a sort of aggressive friendliness. My father, who was always gregarious and charming in social situations, became awkward, and quickly excused himself and got us out of there. Leaving, I noticed that the man had large bumps on his back, visible through his white t-shirt. In the car, my father told me how that guy had been a childhood acquaintance whoâ€™d come back from Vietnam remarkably changed. Where heâ€™d once been shy and quiet, he returned loud, aggressive, and even violent. The bumps on his back were from exposure to napalm. Years later, Iâ€™d read about this guy in the New Haven Register. He had been charged with manslaughter for beating to death one of two homeless guys seeking shelter on a construction site where he was a foreman. Before my fatherâ€™s friend could come to trial, the only witness, the other homeless guy whoâ€™d also been beaten but lived, died mysteriously in a violent attack witnessed by no one. Thus my fatherâ€™s â€˜friendâ€™ avoided prosecution.
Now I know I probably donâ€™t have all my facts right here. So much of this is second or even third hand, or relies on my memories from childhood. But this is my true war story. This is the story of warâ€™s effects upon even the survivors and those who were lucky enough to endure war without combat. Of my father and his nine siblings, only Bobby, Gordy, and my father served. Bobby died at age 62. Gordy at 67. My father has largely been MIA since December 18, 2005. No direct causes, of course, but one has to wonder about intangibles such as fears that can only be witnessed in silences, concealed lumps beneath cotton shirts, or personalities intact but altered. My father returned from Vietnam safe and sound, unharmed in any visible way. He even went to college on the GI Bill and became, briefly, a high school biology teacher (though he lost that and almost every other job he ever held to alcohol). But how many years were lost to stress, to fear, to sadness? How much worse was his (or Bobbyâ€™s or Gordyâ€™s) alcoholism made by the experience?
Friday is the 93rd year since the end of the War to End All Wars, and weâ€™re no closer to the answers.