Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The War That Still Haunts Us

My first novel, How I Grew Up, is a roman à clef ─ the fictitious re-telling of an actual event. In real life, in January of 1954 a man named Bob Duke entered the home of his wife’s parents and shot and killed three people. His wife’s mother died instantly, her father died sometime during the overnight hours, and their other son-in-law lingered for some three months. My book is about how my close friend Anita Barker auditioned for our high school musical less than a week after burying her parents, won the leading role of Julie Jordan in Carousel, and performed brilliantly.

Three other books grew from this story, and I have gone back to that event again as I am at work on a two-book series. Anita’s two young nephews, Bob Duke’s sons, were in the house at the time their father murdered their grandparents and uncle. With every book I write, I strive to improve my craft, and occasionally I will re-read one of my novels with the thought of perhaps revising it and smoothing out the way I’ve told the story. So far I haven’t done that. I’d prefer to continue to write new stories.

I re-read How I Grew Up with the idea of possibly doing some rewriting, but decided against it. It’s written in first person, and I tried to give Anita her own voice. But I was struck by a thought: what if those little boys actually witnessed the shooting? I don’t make clear in How I Grew Up whether they did or not. I’ve learned that in real life, those two boys grew up to serve in Vietnam, one as a Marine, the other in the Army. Their mother remarried and had apparently a successful second marriage.

I’ve completed the first draft of a novel, Memories of Jake, about these brothers. While the conflict in Vietnam was taking place, I was a young mother, busy with an elementary school daughter, and sons born in 1965 and 1969 … the height of the war. I knew it was happening, of course; I had a brother-in-law serving in the Marines. I remember Johnson’s announcement that he was not running for re-election, the riots at the Democratic Convention, My Lai, the fall of Saigon, and the Pentagon Papers. News stories.

But since I’ve decided to tackle this book and realized from what little I had read that being in Vietnam would have become integrated into my characters Andrew’s and Jacob’s consciousness, I realized I needed to learn more. So along with numerous on-line articles, some videos and films, over the past several months I’ve read a number of books about the war: some novels, most first person accounts. I just completed Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, and I’m still dealing with this remarkable piece of literature and how deeply it affected me.

More than any of the other books I’ve read, this one put me right into the country, into the battles and frustrations and agony and yes, the excitement, Caputo experienced during his tour of duty. I understand now why I had often seen this book recommended as the definitive work on the warrior’s experience in Vietnam. It took the author ten years to write, partly because of the overwhelming impact from his tour of duty. He shows us a clear-eyed, heart-wrenching, totally honest look at the things war can do to a man. And the things a man can do while he is at war. I salute his courage, I admire his skill, and I thank him for his service.

And I wonder: how would I have reacted if subjected to what these military men had to deal with? My Native American ancestors have a saying my mother made part of who I am: do not judge another until you have walked a mile in his moccasins. Philip Caputo took me much farther than a mile into the darkness that was Vietnam.

One thing that I saw while doing online searches: we as a nation have still not resolved our feelings about Vietnam. In May of this year, more than forty years after the fall of Saigon, a bipartisan bill was presented to Congress to set aside a day to recognize our Vietnam Veterans. Co-sponsor of the bill was my senator from Pennsylvania, Pat Toomey, and I sent him a message thanking him for this action and received this response:

“I was proud to introduce S. 3002 on May 26, 2016. This bipartisan bill would encourage the display of the flag each year on March 29th, National Vietnam War Veterans Day, in order to properly recognize and honor the many proud veterans who served in Vietnam.”

My copy of A Rumor of War is a re-issue in 1997, twenty years after it was first published, and the author’s thoughts as he looked back over those two decades included this:

“Vietnam was the epicenter of a cultural, social and political quake that sundered us like no other event since the Civil War …it was an anomalous chapter in our national mythology. Our self-image as a progressive, virtuous, and triumphant people exempt from the burdens and tragedies of history came apart in Vietnam, and we had no way to integrate the war or its consequences into our collective and individual consciousness.”

My feeling is we are still searching for some resolution to what happened forty years ago. We still haven’t completely recovered from the Civil War. And in its own way, Vietnam divided the country as nothing has since the Civil War. I have the greatest respect for every casualty of that conflict. I can understand the vehemence felt by those who opposed it, and I vividly recall that the Tet Offensive finally made those of us here in the United States understand this was not going to be the quick and easy conflict we had been made to believe it would be. Yet for several more years, we continued to send young men into what we understood was an “unwinnable” war.

My works-in-progress are not about the Vietnam War. They are about two men whose lives were forever altered by their time in Vietnam. As with all my novels, it is the power of music and in the case, art as well, that helps them find a way to begin to heal their wounded souls.