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And He Blessed Me Unaware: Veterans Eve 1989,
Making at Last a Personal Peace with Vietnam
By Gretchen Kay Lutz, English, San Jacinto College Central, Pasadena, Texas
On November 10, 1989, at the Vietnam war memorial, I witnessed four former servicemen pay tribute to their enshrined comrade. As I stood back from the wall, I watched and listened to these veterans, my contemporaries, but very distanced from me. The men, dressed remnants of their old fatigues, passed among themselves a half-gallon jug of cheap, paper-bag-wrapped wine, and memorialized their dead friend by attempting to affix under his name a faded Polaroid photo of him as he had livedyoung, pale, barechested, reclining in repose in tropical heat. I, a woman, dressed in 1989's fashion in wool, leather, and fur, stood back in the Washington cold, unnoticed.
The men spoke, as men our age will, especially when alone, unobserved, and warmed by wine, in benign profanities: "I was probably the last son-of-a-bitch to see him alive." Utterances of assent. Silence. And then the question, "If it could be your name up here on this wall and him here tonight, which would you choose?" One began to answer, "Shit, man, I'd rather be the name there..."
But then one of them noticed me.
Perhaps I had sobbed aloud. Certainly tears streamed down my face. The big one, the leader, spoke and said, in embarrassed apology for their indelicate language, "Oh, excuse us, ma'am."
Realizing then from his words the separation between them and methey were young soldiers again in that past when their friend had lived, and I was a forty-year-old woman in the presentI said, "No, no, I am just so moved by you." Then I entered into the light where they stood. I reached up and embraced the big one, and one of the others joined. We rocked and sobbed together for only a moment.
Then drawing back, the big one assumed the dignity of his full height, took his index finger to my lips, kissed it, and pressed the kiss down on my forehead. "You have just been kissed by the Bear," he said.
By then, my companions had come walking past on their way back to our waiting taxi, so I joined them.
At that time, I could not speak to my friends about what had happened. They were some of my teaching colleagues and their husbands, friends with whom I am close enough to have told virtually all of my secrets. But they are all just enough years older than I, I felt themhowever irrational it might seemnot to understand what it is to be a member of the Vietnam generation. And upon this questionable assumption that they simply would not understand, I rationalized my reticence, telling them later the narrative, but not the meaning of being blessed by the Bear.
Because I am usually a flippant smart-aleck, the sort one would expect to appropriate Oscar Wilde's tone if I repeated his observation that now "life imitates art," I further felt daunted by the thought of telling anyone that I had myself been Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. My friends would think I was being ironic if I had told them that years ago I had murdered the albatross, but that now, because, as Coleridge's Mariner confesses, "a spring of love [had] gushed from my heart," the curse had been lifted; the Bear had blessed me.
I could not expect others to understand that for more than twenty years I have felt ashamed that my sin was the same as the Ancient Mariner's. His is not the sin of malicious evil, of deliberate, mean-spirited violence. His rather is the sin of unthinking, indifferent, mindless action. And so is mine.
But I had not realized the nature of my sin nor the depth of my guilt until that Veterans Eve by the wall. Now, thinking back, I understand why I have avoided anything and everything that brought to my consciousness the Vietnam war. I have not seen one of the Vietnam movies, not the Green Berets nor The Killing Fields, nor any of the others one might imagine on a continuum between those two. I have not read any of the books on Vietnam, though I have declared that I really intended to. I have chosen to remain oblivious to the war. Remain. That is the word. Remain oblivious. When my male counterparts were there fighting, or even when they were at home contemplating the prospect of going to that war, or later remembering their time there, I was obliviousoblivious not to the facts of what was going on thereI followed the newsbut oblivious to the truth of what it was like to be in a young man's circumstance.
Certainly I was aware of the facts of the war. Precocious darling that I was as a teenager, I had a better command of the facts of current events than many adults. As far back as 1965, I had even exploited that knowledge when I had won a U.I.L. Ready Writing Contest by suggesting that Senator Wayne Morse, one of the first to oppose the war, might be viewed by history as a successor to those statesmen Kennedy's Profiles in Courage lauded for having made the courageously moral decision when they knew that doing so would make them outcasts.
By the time I was a junior in college, as many of the male graduates of the highschool class of 1966my class were either in Vietnam or soon would be there, oblivious to the predicament of those young men, my counterparts, I had skewered a whole flock of albatrosses.
Even as I devoted myself to sorority, band, history, and literaturein that orderI knew why most of my male college classmates were in ROTC. It was better to go to war as an officer than as an enlisted man. I knew that, but I certainly didn't get it. Even when my main boyfriend had flunked out of school and subsequently had rushed to enlist rather than be drafted, I was more vexed that his failure had betrayed me, leaving me dateless on the weekends, than I was concerned for what might happen to him.
That trombone-player-turned-Airman was soon replaced in my life by a much more glamorous man, glamorous because he was older, because he had seen the world while in the Navy, and especially glamorous because he had served in Vietnam with the Marines as a hospital corpsman. Unlike the mere boys my own age, here was a man who could tell war stories. He was using his GI benefits to ace his way through Texas Christian University, and then to go on to medical school. To our eventual bitter regret, during our senior year I married him, at his insistence, this veteran and surgeon-to-be. I had donned another albatross as I eventually came to realize that I had fallen in love with the image of, the idea of this "great catch" and not the man himself.
Thinking back now, I see that Vietnam pervaded much of what happened to us at TCU then, even though at the time one probably would not have deemed it so from looking at us. For us Horned Frogseven the many, including me, who had moral and religious objections to the warhippie-style protest was not fashionable, mainly because hippie fashion was not fashionable. It was still important to us to be able to drape our coats over the back of our chairs so that the Neiman-Marcus labels showed at the very same time that our counterparts at places like UT-Austin thought it important not to get haircuts and not to bathe. And despite what those who had affected the hippie fashion might say about those of us who adhered to what was later to be called preppie, I think we were not less committed to peace and justice. We wore black armbands, and observed a quiet Moratorium day with the quite literal blessing of our ordained minister chancellor. We felt no need for indecorous rebellion.
Years later, when I was talking with a friend about our contemporaneous college days, he confirmed my surmise that for many of his fellow students at UT, the hippy dress was at least as much fashion statement as political statement. He tells of having encountered a radical rally on campus. He noticed that many in the crowd that shouted assent to the exhortations of the radical leader were wearing t-shirts on which were printed an upraised clenched fist. Curious about the t-shirts and the meaning of the rally in general, my friend questioned a young woman who had been jumping up and down, shouting with the crowd in support of the radical message, whatever it might have been. My friend was not close enough to the speaker's podium to hear or understand. At any rate, he interrupted the coed long enough to ask her what the t-shirt she was wearing meant. She responded breathlessly, before going back to cheering with the crowd, "I don't know. but you can buy them right over there for $5.00. They come in red, black and green."
In contrast to my contemporaries elsewhere who were blowing up the ROTC building, my personal main concern was blowing up 1500 helium-filled red, buff, and green balloons for sorority rush. While I was focused upon such crucial matters as making sure the balloons stayed up long enough and that our cast performed convincingly the skit and songs for the Raggedy Ann and Andy theme party, one of my sorority sisters got a long distance phone call. Linda was shocked to hear the voice of her fiancé Jim who was at that time a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. He told her that he was being held by the enemy and that she should get in touch with Senator John Tower to help him. For a few days after the call, we were all very concerned and all-too-excited about being in on such a dramatic episode.
I do not remember whether Linda called John Tower or not, but I do remember that we soon learned that Jim had been given a medical discharge and was on his way home. Soon our excitement about the phone call was supplanted by our excitement that Linda and Jim would be married right away.
It was not until a couple of years later that I came to understand the significance of what had happened that day of the phone call. I heard that Linda was getting a divorce from Jim. It turned out that in Vietnam he had had a schizophrenic break. He had made the phone call from an Army hospital. Because he was a paranoid schizophrenic, he had thought he was being held by the enemy. After his discharge and subsequent marriage, Jim was still undergoing treatment. As long as he took his medication, he was fine. But when the paranoia would overtake him, he would refuse to take the medicine. One day Linda came home to discover that Jim had thrown their decorated Christmas tree off the balcony of their sixth floor apartment. On another occasion Linda learned that Jim had delivered on a silver tray a single long-stemmed rose and a loaded pistol to a bank officer who had turned down his loan application. When I later talked to Linda herself, I learned that she was heartbroken. She still loved the sane Jim, but when he lost himself, she was afraid of him and found herself forced to leave him.
By this time, after being married to the veteran-now-medical-student for a few years, I was beginning to see through a glass darkly, what the Vietnam veterans around me had lived through. One more albatross was yet to come into my sights, however. I was teaching English at Galveston's Ball High School and was playing the part of responsible adult rather well, I thought.
That was the time when "relevance" was the education buzz word. Students would and should learn only what was of immediate interestrelevanceto them. Following this theory, I reasoned that nothing could be more relevant to juniors and seniors in high school in the early Seventies than the Vietnam war, so I devised a unit on war poetry. We read war poetry ranging from Lovelace's "To Lucasta" through Owens' "Dulce et Decorum Est" to Jarrell's "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." My scheme worked. For once the kids stayed in their seats, fell quiet and listened.
It was not until years later, when the Sunday newspaper reported the dedication of the Vietnam war memorial, that I remembered the war poetry and those kids who would come to know for themselves war in a way I never would, no matter how much poetry I read. As I scanned the newspaper's list of the dead from Texas, I searched the Galveston listing for familiar names. There I found Gonzales, Rodriguez, Johnson, but I could not tell, I could not remember if those particular young men had been there in my English classes. I did not know them.
For the first time I understood that I did not know any of them, and I never had. At once and for the first time the guilt of my ignorance bore down upon me. I cried with shame.
After that I knew why I could not stand to see Platoon or Full Metal Jacket or even John Wayne's Green Berets. It was not my delicacy that caused me to shrink from the violence in the works of art; it was my shame that when the real life the works imitate was going on, I did not get it. I had never put myself in the place of those young warriors. What is worse, I had exploited both the glory and the suffering, imposing upon the veterans an interest in them as idealized tragic heroes, characters of fiction, not life.
And so I stood this November, viewing that solemn work of art, the memorial wall. And as I walked along, looking at the names, real life emerged out of art in the form of the Bear and his comrades. As I looked on them, vicariously I imposed myself back there in time and place with them in their memories. But when the Bear spoke to me, I understood that I was, from their view, alienalien in time, in place, and in gender. But because I wanted to share their pain and love with them, even if I could never really know it, they let me join for a little moment their tableau.
Then, without knowing the nature of my shame but sensing my need for absolution, the Bear reached out to bless me.