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Why My Daughter Won't Grow Up in Perkasie
W.D. Ehrhart, Philadelphia, PA
Bob Gillman glared at me, his face red with too many highballs and his eyes full of tears. What am I doing here, I thought. I should have known better.
I had lived in this town for the first seventeen years of my life. Then I joined the Marines and discovered the world was not what the people of Perkasie thought it was. The town looked different when I came back, but it wasn't.
I had wondered then how I could have missed it. These people had misled me. And they had done this not out of malice or greed or spite, but out of willful and studied ignorance. They believed everything they had taught me.
I drifted in and out of town after I got out of the Marines. My father was a Protestant minister, and my mother was a public school teacher. I'd come home for a month here, six weeks there, three or four months between semesters or travels, a succession of jobs and apartments.
My mother didn't understand what had happened to me, but she knew something had happened. My father didn't have a clue, but I worked at liking him, and we managed. I slowed down after awhile enough to understand that they were who they were, and I was not likely to teach them much by shouting.
I kept to myself when I was home, working in the front room of the third floor under the eaves. I had little contact with the people of Perkasie who had sent me off to kill and die and had thought it a fine thing. I could see soldiers burning their houses, raping their daughters, shooting their sons and husbands, their wives and mothers, churning their tree-lined streets to rubble. But the people of Perkasie could not.
When I first came home, I tried to renew old friendships, but my peers were busy with college and families or trying to earn money to go to the East Rock Hill Tavern. They couldn't see it either.
Sometimes I would not come back for a year or more. I worked on an oil tanker. I drove a forklift, roofed houses, loafed in Miami, taught school. A new apartment building went up down by the covered bridge, and a traffic light was installed at 5th and Market, but the town never changes.
By the Twin Bridges over Branch Creek, I could sometimes see Jeff Allison, Max Harris and me chasing painted turtles through the lily pads at the east end of the island, but there was no going back to that. Max was dead, having survived more than two years in Vietnam to die one night while riding his motorcycle at high speed without a headlight or helmet. His name should have been on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, but it wasn't. Jeff, who had flunked second and fifth grade and had been written off as a dummy by the Pennridge School District, owned his own home and business in Fort Lauderdale.
Then I got married. My parents were very fond of my wife. After a year in Maryland, we moved to Newtown, thirty miles from Perkasie, then to Doylestown, only fifteen miles away. I always thought it a coincidence, a matter of jobs, but maybe it was a practical joke on me.
One day in 1985, I got a call from Don Davis. He'd known my older brothers, had been a classmate of one of them. He was the program director of the Perkasie Rotary Club. He'd heard I'd published a book, and wanted me to come and talk at the next monthly meeting.
"Have you read the book," I asked. He hadn't. "You ought to," I said.
"Hey," he said. "You're a hometown boy. You've accomplished something."
"What do you want me to talk about?" I asked.
"Anything you like," he said.
I thought of my mother.
One day I had been sitting in the living room watching the news with her. It was late 1979 or early 1980, during the first few months of the Iran hostage crisis. They were showing videos of the hostages and talking about the harsh conditions under which the hostages had to live.
"But think of what the Shah did to his own people," my mother had said. "And we supported it all those years."
"Okay," I told Don Davis.
In the twenty years since I'd joined the Marines, no one in Perkasie had ever asked me what I thought. I knew the audience would be filled with the fathers of kids I'd grown up with, people whose homes I'd been in and out of, men who attended my father's church and played golf with him.
"All of us here desire peace," I began. "Some of us have seen war first-hand. Others have lost loved ones to it. We want no part of it. If we sometimes appear belligerent, we must believe it is only a necessary response to the provocations of others. We are peacekeepers."
The audience stared at me.
"Thus we explain the invasion of Grenada," I said, "the U.S. Marines in Lebanon, U.S. soldiers in Honduras, our war against Nicaragua, our military aid to El Salvador, and our deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles to Europe."
I looked at Frank Grossinger, vice-president of Bucks County Bank & Trust Company, whose daughter I had launched on her college career, but he would not make eye-contact with me.
I spoke about the Vietnam war, describing the Vietnamese struggle for independence, the venality of the Saigon regime we'd invented, the killing reality of American troops in the ricefields and hamlets of Vietnam.
"But when the war finally ended," I said, "we were content to let it slip away, and then to reconstruct it as we would like it to have been."
From another room, I could hear the dull thump of a heavy object falling, followed by curses.
"Therein lies the tragedy of the Vietnam war: our failure to confront it. Thus, when the Russians shoot down a civilian airliner, we call it an act of barbarism, but when we bomb a civilian mental hospital, it's a mistake. When the Cubans send military advisors and medical personnel to Nicaragua, we call it Soviet expansionism, but when we send combat troops to Honduras, it's a training exercise. When the Russians send troops into neighboring Afghanistan, we call it an invasion, but when we invade a Caribbean island 1500 miles from our shores, it's a matter of national security."
The slow rustle of bodies. The clink of silverware and glass.
"How many more Vietnams will it take?" I said. "How many more times will we send our sons and brothers and fathers off to die in places like Lebanon and Grenada before we learn that the world will not conform to what we imagine? Even now, American warships--"
"Who do you think is keeping the Free World free?" shouted Art Fralich, the plumber, who lived just across the street from my parents. I looked at Mr. Fralich.
"What do you mean by the Free World?" I said. "Do you mean South Africa? Chile? How about Saudi Arabia, where they execute unmarried women for having sex? You mean like South Korea, where it's treason to organize a labor union? How about Zaire? There's a lovely place."
"What the hell do you know about it?" Wilson Scheller called out. He owned the hardware store. I looked at Don Davis, but he wasn't looking at me.
"Well, I've read a few books about it," I said.
"You believe everything you read?" said Mr. Scheller.
"I believe what I see. I've been to Nicaragua. I've been to Honduras. Where have you been? Plumsteadville?"
"Why don't you go to Russia if you don't like it here?" said John Sterner, who owned the drugstore.
"That's the only answer you've got?" I said. "That's the best you can do?"
"My boy died in Vietnam!" Bob Gillman shouted. "Your father would be ashamed of you."
David Gillman had become a helicopter pilot. His chopper had crashed and burned. What was sent back to Perkasie didn't fill a grocery bag, but Bob Gillman put it in the ground and put a headstone over it. He believed his son had died for a reason. It had kept him going for twenty years. Without it, he would have to face his insatiable grief. He glared at me, his face red with whiskey and his eyes full of tears.
I looked at the other faces. Not a flicker of light in the room.
"I'm sorry about your son," I said. "My parents risked three sons in Vietnam. By the grace of God, they got all three of us back. I'm sorry you weren't so lucky. I don't think my father's ashamed of me. Why don't you ask him yourself?"
A few years later my father died. During the eulogy, Rev. Tom DeWitt, who had been my father's assistant pastor, noted that my father had always kept on his desk my first volume of poems, its spine facing anyone who entered the room. Its title is A Generation of Peace. A few years later, my mother died. I put the book in her casket. My mother and father are buried side by side at the top of Market Street, on the ridge overlooking the town. You can see the whole Branch Valley stretching away in three directions. You can see the school where my mother taught, and the creek where I used to play, and the steeple of my father's church.