About Vietnam

I spent the afternoon talking to my stepdad about Vietnam and how he dragged his co-pilot from their broken down fighter jet, waiting too long for the slow bird that wafted down into the elephant grass. How he pushed his blood back into his chest with his balled-up fist, cursing the help who came a minute too late.

I was shot in the back, but it didn’t hurt until I realized that Charlie was dead.
Then my spine was cracked open, and I passed out.
When I woke up, everything was gone.
If they had just come a little sooner and if that goddamned reporter had helped instead of taking a picture of the blood that covered my face.

He talked about the fear of dying and of watching other men die.
His father’s generation taught him that he was never allowed to show the emotion that war stirs up in a man.

The right side of my face had been shot off, and I came home on sick leave, but my parents had left for Disneyworld, so I had to sleep alone in a hotel room until the skin graft healed.
The hotel manager comped my room and meals. Thanks for your service, he told me.

After that, he grew his salt-and-pepper Agent Orange Hair log and had a beard, the symptoms of chemo and radiation at 35. His mother refused to serve him dinner at her table looking like a hippy.

He didn’t eat dinner in Pennsylvania again for 15 years.

He moved to the Cascade Mountains in Oregon and bought a cabin in the woods.
Had a pet bear. Shot at a Chinamen who killed his bear for the pelt.
He cries when he talks about the bear, which he named Bear.

I hated the Vietnam Memorial because it made no sense. Until I realized that Vietnam made no sense.

In 30 years, he spoke about Vietnam only twice and only in five-minute spurts. This afternoon, he talked for two hours straight, until the words caught hard inside his throat and he looked down at his fingers spread out upon his lap.

Well, shit.

After that, we talked about my mother’s father and how he was a rounder and liked Oklahoma hill country hooch. Everyone laughed until their faces turned the color of blood and their eyes took on the shiny film of tears.

But now and then I would catch my stepfather staring off, watching the clouds, and saying something about being gone and being still there and how the clouds were already getting dark at noonday.

Photo Credit: manhhai Flickr via Compfight cc

Tiffani Burnett-Velez

Tiffani has been a freelance writer since 1996. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Toe Good Poetry, Nicean Magazine, and St. Anthony Messenger. Her nonfiction essays and narrative journalism have been published in Pennsylvania Magazine, Yahoo! News, Country Discoveries, The Times-News, and many other magazines and newspapers across the US. She is the author of three novels, Budapest (featured at the NY Book Festival), A Berlin Story (a #1 Kindle Free Book), and All This Time (featured in The Big Thrill magazine). She holds a BA in Cognitive Science and has studied English and American Literature at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently completing her MFA in Writing at Lindenwood University.

4 thoughts on “About Vietnam

  1. Mary Rowen Reply

    I’m glad he was able to talk to you about that, Tiffani. I’m sure it helped in some way. It still boggles my mind when I think about what we did to so many people–our own troops included–in Vietnam.

    1. Tiffani VelezTiffani Velez Reply

      Thank so much for this, Mary. I boggles my mind as well. War tears people up and leaves them so changed afterwards.

  2. doriowendoriowen Reply

    Tiffani, what a difficult memory this had to have been for your stepfather to share. This was the war that soldiers returned hated, not heroes, because the US hated the Vietnam War so deeply. It was a great travesty to everyone who served. So much respect for your stepfather. Thank you for sharing this story. xoD.

    1. Tiffani VelezTiffani Velez Reply

      I think it was really difficult for him, Dori. He has really only spoken about it a handful of times, so this was pretty significant. I told him that I wrote it, but I have’t read it to him yet. XO

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