My uncle has been sending me letters. He’s been telling me about his time in Vietnam. How, even though it was just a tiny percentage of his life, it is a time he never forgets. He says he’s a tormented artist. He says he’s tried to write about it. He’s tried to paint. He’s tried it all. Part of his problem, he says, is that he doesn’t know when to stop. “When something like this happens,” he writes, but he doesn’t complete the thought except to say, “I’ve been thinking about it since 1969.”
My children run around me, crouching behind our couch, peeking out for a second, throwing bombs they’ve pretended from stuffed animals. “Boom! I got you!” one shouts. “You’re dead!” a smile on his face, playfully victorious. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing that my uncle never heard those words in war. I’ve never experienced it, but I can imagine that when someone dies next to you, you wouldn’t actually say that.
In a real war, there is too much at stake. In a real war, you know when damage is done, and no one needs to talk about it.
My uncle went to therapy for twenty years. He writes, “They claim that this much exposure to a hostile environment actually changes your brain chemistry, so you don’t go mad. Of course, some did.” He says most of his therapy was crap. “Your brain chemistry doesn’t change back.”
I asked my uncle to write to me, to tell me about his life, and about Vietnam if he was willing, both because I feel I was cheated by U.S. History classes and because I have only a small understanding of how my uncle came to be. He is an Arkansas bricklayer who rides a motorcycle and chooses Waffle House every time, a man who finally in middle age settled down with a woman and loves her with ferocity. But he is a man who, in my early life, I had always assumed wanted to be alone. His far-off eyes, his low voice speaking wrenches of sentences, simple words put together in a way that always drew me near.
Once, my uncle was in a bad motorcycle accident. I think I remember it, though I may only remember photos, and that is my perception of him as a man too. I have a collection of memorized folklore that makes me think I know him. I have a few hugs. I’ve seen his childhood photos. Yet I know he lived in a time I can never understand. He has seen things that make my breath stop. Though he and I share common ancestors, and my mom is his sister. Whether I was alive when it happened or not, I know for sure his motorcycle crashed and landed him with a severe injury, and I know he still rides. Like I know that the Vietnam War was a real thing, something else that landed my uncle injured—him and millions of others in various ways—yet my uncle still lives to tell.
As a member of the U.S. Army, my uncle dressed in camouflage, trying to blend in with his surroundings. My oldest son has a pair of camouflage shorts which he wears with a Ninja Turtles tee shirt and camouflage high-top shoes with neon orange laces that I can spot through any playground’s barricades.
My uncle grew up in a small town, a town with no traffic lights, where if you walk straight for ten minutes you’ll find you’ve deserted civilization. This is the land where windmills spin and thirty kids graduate each year from the one, the only school building. There is a playground there, where I used to swing and climb when I was a child visiting on summer vacation.
My uncle and a friend of his used to steal cars in that town. No one locked their doors back then. Everyone left their keys in their car. In explanation, he tells me, “It was the 60’s. It was Dean Martin. It was helter-skelter.” My uncle and his friend never took anything from the cars, always returning things to normal. This was simply their small-town sport, the only thing to do that held any thrill. It wasn’t right, but they never did damage. Not on purpose anyway. Once, though, they wrecked one. A Buick Wildcat. $1600. It was 1963. My uncle worked 800 hours in the hay fields to pay his half. $1 per hour. And five years later he volunteered to serve his country in Vietnam. He says he was looking for adventure.
My mom always told me that my uncle was not a very nice kid, but that’s as much as she would say. Didn’t want to tell on him, I guess. And here I am, telling his stories.
My uncle had a twin brother named Eddie. Eddie had Down syndrome. He loved puzzles, The Three Stooges, and pancakes. When he was ten years old, my grandparents sent him to a home for children with disabilities like his, and my grandma went to work at the bank. My mom and my uncle were left to their own supervision. My uncle wreaked havoc and got the belt while my mom studied hard and defended my uncle, trying to save his childhood from reprimand.
They didn’t sell bell bottoms in that small Missouri town. My uncle had to make his own, and when he was 13, he got a clip-on earring. He knew he couldn’t get a real one. But one day he forgot to take it out. “By God,” my grandpa said, probably curling his lips, probably averting his eyes, trying to forget the sight. “If you want to look like a damn queer, why don’t you go to California with the rest of them?”
“I can’t afford a bus ticket,” my uncle said.
For as long as he could grow it, my uncle had the longest, shiniest, dark brown hair I had ever seen, and he wore it in a thick braid, letting it dangle against his spine as he rode his motorcycle fast on country roads. I didn’t know boys’ hair could grow that long, and I would brag about it to my friends. My grandpa hated it. He believed that men should keep their hair tight to their heads, no fuss. Even as a small girl, I remember comments, though much between my uncle and my grandpa had been reconciled by then.
My uncle’s U.S. Army photo shows his hair shaved so close it doesn’t even look like him. Now, my uncle’s hair is grey and thin. It’s as long as it will grow, just past his shoulders.
My boys’ heads are kept shaved like soldiers. Every time their hair grows longer than a couple inches, they ask for buzz cuts. “Buzz Lightyear cuts,” they used to call them. “To infinity and beyond!” Infinity. A word that means numbers go on forever, and so does time, and who knows, maybe my boys’ hair would go on forever too if we’d let it be tested. I know infinity doesn’t belong to human life, but memories and lore go on as long as we are willing to speak them, so in a sense it does. Every life changes the world in some way. Every new life a memorial to all the ones before.
My uncle says that for years my grandfather offered an all-expense paid trip to The Wall, but my uncle never obliged. He says “It’s just something to make people feel better, it’s for those who weren’t there.” He says it’s all in vain, just a wall of stone, and stone could never relate to the madness of war. Yet, I think, maybe it can. I have been to The Wall. I know the silence it brings. The history it lives. The Wall is supposed to honor and memorialize, but my uncle does not feel honored and does not believe that what he experienced is anything for memory.
My uncle says that in 1969, most soldiers were hoping the war would be over by the time they arrived, but my uncle was afraid it would be over. “I got more than I asked for,” he told me.
He was a boy when he signed up. Though not nearly as young as my boys are, he was a boy removed from the reality of the war. He wanted to travel. To see anything outside of quaint. Perhaps to find a place for aggression. Adventure has so many meanings.
My boys are still young enough that everything exists close. The world is a map on a wall. It’s a picture, but the miles don’t equate. Their world is a room of Legos and Nerf guns. A pantry full of snacks. A bike. A scooter. To them, war is a card game and bombs explode, laughter and death just mean you get to go to heaven.
My uncle went to Vietnam willingly, but due to his criminal record, he had to take the only army job he could get. In an all-volunteer unit, in pure combat. A paratrooper. “I spent 300 days in the brush never knowing when it would happen but knowing any moment, it was a cat and mouse game,” he writes. “My life since 1970 is all filtered through Vietnam.”
My uncle made it through, though he was wounded twice. Nothing life-threatening, but severe enough to warrant emergency surgery, to be placed in a hospital, a room where soldiers were packed, all wounded, some screaming all night, some dying every day. “I have always felt they should have placed me in a different ward,” my uncle writes.
My son asked me once, “Where is your grandma?”
“She’s dead,” I said.
“What does that mean?” Though he knew a tiny bit about death, he didn’t really know. Still doesn’t. He barely knows about life, and I’m finding I’m in the same boat. At what age do we finally understand?
“When your life is over, you die,” I said.
He was only four years old, but I wanted to tell him the truth. He didn’t need to know exactly, but I didn’t want to lie. The truth, I think, is the most important thing we can ever give, and yet we are expected uncover it ourselves. Another’s words cannot explain life to us. We have to search. But even when we think we’ve found it, it changes.
In high school, The Vietnam War was explained as a war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. For some reason, America got involved, and a lot of people disagreed with that decision. Hippies. Drugs. Rock and roll. Protests. Kent State. Turmoil. Politics. I wasn’t there, but it sounds familiar.
When my two boys play “grenade” or “swordfight” or “bazookas,” I think why the violence? These are not games my husband or I started. They are purely the games of little boys seeking adventure.
Will they find adventure? In this world where we try to camouflage but trees still sway, and branches break. This world, where we try for treats but ice cream cones meltdown unhurried arms and hot chocolate burns the tongue. A world where I read my uncle’s trying letters, safe on the carpeted floors of my home where two boys jump imaginary hurdles, killing each other for fun.
After years of hard drinking and working in masonry, my uncle was diagnosed with both skin cancer and liver disease, but today walks healed. Of his Vietnam survival, he says, “I am truly one of the blessed. The professionals call it survival’s guilt. Why me?”
Often, after a pretend shot is fired from my boys’ fingers, after a “Boom! You’re dead!” proclamation, the killer, will reach out his arm, fingers wide and strong, saying, “Healed!” This, they say, is the only way to continue the game. When only one gunman stands, there is no game left to play.