Growing up in the late 1960’s, I was surrounded with many familiar words, or terms…
DMZ (demilitarized zone)
Ho Chi Minh Trail
On the evening news there were television images of helicopters and jungles. I was glued to these images – not by a macabre force – but by the hope of seeing my uncle, Garry Jolliff, in those jungles or riding around in one of those nifty helicopters. I can remember the thrill of having Uncle Garry’s letters read to me allowed by my parents. I had a little rubber American GI doll that I called, ‘Uncle Garry.’ I watched the Bob Hope Specials, and sat close to the television set so I could search the crowds for Uncle Garry.
I was sure he would be there to see Bob Hope.
One night during one of the Bob Hope shows, I remember turning to Mother, who was standing behind the ironing board while the sweet smell of Spray Starch filled the air.
“Will I have to go to war?”
Since I was a very small boy, I am sure she was relieved to answer, “I hope not.” However, there was also an expression on her face that was seared into my mind, and still vivid forty-odd years later. I know that expression well. My nineteen year old son is finishing up basic training, and the possibility of going to battle for an uncertain purpose looms in the near future.
Now, it is my turn to say, “I hope not.”
This evening, my sixteen year old son and I sat in my sitting room to watch GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM. I knew most of the Vietnamese War jargon would be over his head, but I was certain he would enjoy Robin Williams’ portrayal of Adrian Cronauer. And he did. He asked how old I was when the movie came out… twenty-three years old. Did I like the movie when it came out? Most certainly! Robin Williams was a box office draw, and I returned to watch the movie several times while it was still in theaters.
Tonight, the movie was still hilarious, but I truly saw the movie for the first time. It cried out to me like the musical, MISS SAIGON: ‘those living reminders of all the good we failed to do.’
Sunday, the tenth anniversary of 9/11, I did not post anything on Facebook in regard to the modern day of infamy. The same rhetoric was appearing over, and over on status updates, and nothing really spoke to me. I am not saying I was not moved by the heart-breaking scenes that were linked across many of the television channels, I simply chose to remain silent.
Tonight, when I finished watching the movie I thought back to my early youth when Vietnam was nothing but a very long, drawn-out, agonizing form of 9/11. The dark foreboding of families fearing “the news” might be delivered seemed to linger, and in our own home, as well. The nightly news tallied the number of soldiers killed that day. Images of bombings, fires, tanks, helicopters, wounded soldiers blazed from the television set each night. News of distant family and friends losing a loved-one in combat stuck in the air like the repetitive-scratchy sound of a record player that has run its course in playing a record. There were scenes of destruction, scenes of a young spy being executed, scenes of Buddhist monks being engulfed in suicidal flames, scenes of… always, more scenes. The day of 9/11 I saw the scenes live – much like scenes broadcast during Vietnam. The days following 9/11, the scenes were repeated with numbness.
During 9/11, and especially this Sunday I heard about one hero after another. As a young child, I do not recall hearing about heroes of Vietnam. I remember Uncle Garry’s stories on the battlefield, and the story of the fellow soldier beside him on the helicopter who placed his own St. Christopher’s medal around my seriously wounded uncle’s neck – my uncle survived, but the soldier did not – but I cannot recall ever hearing anyone from that era referred to as a hero.
As I sit here in my study, typing out my thoughts of the movie, a National Geographic documentary on Henry Kissinger is rolling. That voice, coupled with so many photos and video clips of the Vietnam era seems to be a sign that I will be conducting more soul-searching, more research. For what purpose, I do not know. Too many God-winks all in one evening.
The scars of WWII and the Korean War have all but vanished. The scalding scars of Vietnam are healing, but will probably not be entirely extinguished in my life-time. Two other wars have occurred since Vietnam. But these wars talk openly about heroes. It seems as though the Vietnam war had its own ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy but obviously nothing to do with Gays in the military.
I knew one particular hero who served in the Vietnam War. He died nine years ago, physically crippled by wounds received in Vietnam, but a spirit that rose far beyond the jungles in which he fought. When completely crippled veterans were only receiving 10% disability funding, Uncle Garry embarked on a mission far greater, far nobler than the mission he was coerced to serve as a twenty-one year old young man. The veterans – those oft ignored heroes of ‘that’ war – now have full disability coverage. However, I am confident they still live with those scars. May God bless them, and aide them in their continued healing.
“And I think to my self, ‘what a wonderful world.'”