Daddy Goes To War – And A Stranger Comes Back  (Tokoni 05/22/2009)

One of my early memories is when my father left for Vietnam. We usually didn’t get to see him off, because 0400 is early in the morning. But this time – we were, I’m fairly sure, in Texas – then again, maybe not. All I can really recall is waking up – the house is dark — and going to my parent’s bedroom, the only source of light.

Here’s the scene as I remember it:

Imagine a dark bedroom. There is a single dresser against the wall, facing the door; it’s a cheap thing, with one of those three-quarter length mirrors on top. There is a lamp – maybe two – on either side of the dresser. The rest of the room is dark. I can ‘sense’ more than see the sleep rumpled bed to my left. I’m pretty sure (sensing and faintly seeing through the darkness of time, memory, and the fairly dark room) that there is a closet to my right. The floor is carpeted??? There are things on the dresser – I’m not sure what, though I know my momma’s cheap ‘cut glass’ (fake crystal) jewelry box is there, almost placed in the middle. My dad is standing there in front of the mirror, adjusting his uniform. He looks sharp, not thin, but broad framed in my memory; I can see the flare of his Army dress jacket winging out around his hips. These people are more in silhouette than light, though there is enough light for me to see his face in the mirror. I’m not usually allowed in the parent’s bedroom: it’s forbidden territory, and woe to the child that randomly ventures in. To the left of my dad stands my mom, thick bodied in a way, but I’m pretty sure it’s just the housecoat that she has on. (She used to wear one of those cheap thick quilted looking housecoats that ran down past her knees – you know the kind. The kind grandmas used to wear.) My dad looks straight and tall – he is a tall man, just over six foot, and my mom is kind of petite, but like him, has the hereditary thick bones of her ancestor stock – Western pioneers, they were, riding the wagon trains to Wyoming. This I know from my great-grandmother, who had pictures of those times, and the piesafe (now in my mother’s possession) that rode on the wagon train with them.

There is a sense of sadness in the room; I can feel it. My mom is angled away from the dresser, looking at her man – perhaps helping him a bit with buttoning his coat. They embrace, then pull apart as she notices me standing there. Without being invited, I come in – a dangerous thing to be sure, but I can feel no anger in this room (so RARE, that feeling between them!). There is only love and sorrow that he is leaving. I can not embrace them – I’m not allowed to – but I do go up behind my father, watching, and ask something. Something about what is happening.

I can’t remember all the words; perhaps there were very few, but I do recall this one: “He is going to war . . .”

Even though I am young, I do know this much: war is a terrible and dangerous thing.

My dad did two tours in Vietnam. I’ve always wondered about that. I’m probably mistake, but I thought one tour was it – one tour, and “you’re done.” But maybe I’m wrong about that. Looking at today’s current Iraqi situation, I see our troops being extended, returned, re-extended, and then returned to the ‘battle’ (though it’s hardly a ‘battle’ anymore; it’s more of a ‘police action’). I can’t tell you how much I feel for them and their families – and especially the children left behind.

I know this much: My dad came back, and I didn’t even know him.

My mom likes to tell this story, about how confused I was about this stranger’s new presence in our lives.

Apparently he had gotten back – it had to be the first time, because I remember real well the second time, and the second time I knew who he was. But this first time . . .

According to my mom, he came back, and as daddies often do, began behaving like “dad” – telling us what to do, where to go, all of that sort of ‘parenting’ mess. And somewhere during that first few days or week or so I finally had enough. He told me to do something or other – and I turned to my mom and asked:

“Do I really have to do what this man says?”

I’m sure that hurt. And, I sure, other mothers around this nation find themselves presented with this question by their toddlers and small children – but my heart really goes out to their dads. It’s an awful thing to have to leave your family behind, not knowing if you are ever going to see them again – but just imagine: you get back, and your children don’t even know who you are.

They have to ask their mother – your wife – to find out.

What a hard thing that must be to bear.

(Note: We had a military family nearby a few years back.  Their daddy went off to Iraq; we helped watch over his family and children.  Within a few months the youngest sometimes forgot who her daddy was . . . and would accidently call me ‘daddy’ – and I would gently correct her . . .  and encourage her to look at pictures of her daddy . . . to remind her.  Sad, huh.)