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.
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.