I don’t know much at all about my dad’s time in Vietnam. I don’t know how he felt during that flight across the ocean; his first and last flight across the ocean. (He would always stick close to home once he made it back.) His first sight of exotic grasses and exotic people. What smells greeted him each morning and tucked him in bed at night? Shit and piss and sweat and sulfur and rain and rot? Was it claustrophobic in the hull of that tank as he tracked across the land? Who was his gunner? Were they friends? Did he have close calls? Did the sounds of bullets and bombs make him flinch, break into a sweat, give an involuntary shout?
I imagine him as pristine. In the war, but seeing none of its atrocities. In the war but not of the war. He sent home a picture of a stray puppy that the troops had adopted. I imagine him as innocent as that puppy. No blood shed near him, no blood shed by him, no blood shed.
Mom says he had nightmares when he returned. He wouldn’t talk about any of it. His brother asked if he’d seen anyone killed over there. He wouldn’t talk about any of it.
He never really did talk about any of it. Just a couple of times with me, when I was a teenager. It was like he needed to get something off his chest. His story made us both cry. That was the only time I ever saw him cry. There had been blood shed near him.
As he got older, he talked more openly, matter-of-factly about it all. But he never gushed with information. He kept in much more than he shared. And all that he didn’t share went with him to the grave. Maybe I should have asked more questions. Maybe I did, but could sense that I shouldn’t have. He was the mellowest person I’ve known. Had complete faith that everything would somehow work out. He didn’t dwell much on the past.
Recently, I located part of a cigarette lighter–I recognized it upon seeing it and was glad to have it in my hands again. It’s a Zippo lighter, metal, the kind that you flip the lid in order to light it, and then shut the lid to snuff out the flame. This is only the bottom part of the lighter; it’s hollow inside. On one side is an etching of a naked woman, reclined on her arms in, what looks like, an uncomfortable position. On the flip side is this saying:
Yea Though I walk
Through the valley
Of the shadow of
Death I will fear
No evil for I’m the
Evilest son of a bitch
in the valley.
Inside the hollow lighter was a piece of paper that I folded long ago and had placed inside. I pulled it out and read what I had written:
“Jackie McLaughlin owned this lighter when he got killed in Vietnam in 1969. I received it from dad on Feb. 8, 1994, 25 years later.”
Dad had kept that lighter for 25 years. I found it again 15 years after dad first gave it to me. Forty years after Jackie died. Nearly 4 years after dad died.
I imagine them both pristine.