“We need your discards!” reads the postcard from the Vietnam Veteran’s National Headquarters. I imagine it’s from my father even though I know it’s direct mail. “Please call now,” it says, in big bold letters, underlined.
They sell whatever is donated and use the profits to support state and national programs. After the word “programs,” in parenthesis, the card clarifies, “homeless Veterans, agent-orange related health problems, improved hospital care for veterans with disabilities.” They mean men like my father. Veterans who came home with “adjustment”issues. I grew up without him with stories about him unemployed, drunk and homeless.
I picture him waiting at the end of a line, maybe ready to try on the beige winter boots my husband never wore, hoping the card reached me, and it did, as a direct hit to the heart.
The card says I can call and leave my clearly-marked donations outside and they will come. Not him though. He won’t. He has never shown up.
What could I give him? What could he take?
I picture him in my husband’s old sweaters and boots, perhaps using a blanket I stuffed in a plastic bag or reading one of the many books boxed up and left in the front of my house. One mailing thanks the postal resident for tax-deductible donations in support of the “forgotten warriors.”
His last correspondence is dated July 12, 1969. The paper is light blue and white with a map in the lower left-hand corner of Thailand, Cambodia, South Korea, North Korea and Vietnam. The number 274 is circled and he writes, “8 month, 22 days” as if to emphasize the meaning of the number.
I was two and a half years old when he wrote that letter to my mother’s parents. He addressed them as Ma and Dad even though he and my mother were separated, even though he had been abusive to their daughter and grandchildren. The letter, though not addressed to me, is the only correspondence I have from him.
He didn’t have a living relative of his own to write him a letter or send him a care package. He was a husband, the father of two, and an orphan by his early twenties.
“I was very happy to hear from you and get my first letter. It gets kind of depression “[sic.]” when you don’t get any mail,” he wrote. “Well today is July 12 and we got hit about 12 this afternoon but we were ready. We try to be over here. I am glad the kids are all right and doing well and Nancy too.”
“They call this place Rocket Alley” he wrote, “and they are not kidding. The VC always have us jumping and I am even learning their language and it’s pretty easy I guess.” I haven’t imagined my father as smart or descriptive. Each word in red ink sparks my curiosity about the person he was. He signed the letter, “Love, Frankie” and I’d never heard his nickname before, never seen love come from him.
He refers to a picture of himself in the letter. He was wearing a patch on his arm which read “595 SigCo” the communication signal group he served. I wish I had that picture now.
I stare at the paper. I am a forty-two year old daughter holding her father’s forty year old letter. “The lady who predicted Kennedy’s death said that the part of Nam I am in is supposed to be the hardest hit of all the war,” he wrote, but why? What was he warning of, his potential to be bombed or killed? Why did he include that one line; did he know then how many ways lives are blown apart by bombs that injure but don’t kill?
He didn’t know, when he wrote, that my mother was seven months pregnant with her next husband’s baby. He didn’t know he’d never return to the family he left.
“I feel sorry for these people over here. You wouldn’t believe the way they live and survive, the way they go through the garbage, you couldn’t believe it,” he wrote.
I am relieved to learn he was capable of compassion. “I hardly ever eat because it’s so hot you won’t even want to eat. So I give my food to them.”
I sink into the image of his generosity as I picture him handing his military rations out to civilians more desperate than him. His words, back in time, are the baby food he did not provide and satisfy a longing beyond longing.
For as long as I can remember, his name, his memory, has been treated with anger or irritation. When I was in grade school I’d ask my mother, “What was Daddy Frank like?” And she’d answer crisply, “A drunk. A bum. You’re better off without him.”
As I got older, I’d argue, “But he doesn’t have anyone to love, Mom. Maybe he needs help. Maybe he’s the way he is because of Vietnam?”
“Oh Cissy,” she’d say, “He was a drunk before he even went to Vietnam.” My mother never complained about his lack of child support, her long hours at full-time jobs and her role as thankless bread winner, yet, her tolerance for conversation about him was low. She would not keep me company as I romanticized and imagined what might have been if he had been in my life. Instead, she hung her solo portrait: the alcoholic failure we were all better without.
When I picture him now as a uniformed young man, a soldier who sounds like a father and at least acknowledges his children I am heartened. When I envision his empathy for other people I am reminded he was once as human, complex and mysterious, maybe even sympathetic, as the woman he saw digging through the trash in Vietnam.
“You couldn’t believe it,” he wrote.
“I feel responsible for him sometimes,” I told my aunt Worry on the phone just yesterday as I was clearing out my office and piling up boxes of photos. I know I shouldn’t,” I said.
“No, you shouldn’t,” she says.
“But I do.”
“I know,” she says.
“I mean, if he’s not my responsibility, whose is he?”
We do silent laps around uncertainty.
I think of how often I drop clothes off at Goodwill, how I volunteered for a year at shelter for homeless families in college and how I am a proud progressive and activist. When I see men at red lights holding out cups and begging for money I want to roll down my window and scream, “You owe me!” I want to whisper, “Get it together man,” or if I give coins I want to say, “Use this money on your kids not your addictions. You can’t con me.” I imagine him as younger than me, a lost child in the woods, and yet, I am unable to manufacture enough energy to reach out to him.
I wonder if pitying eyes look on him now. Does a young professional woman in an apartment in Boston see him from her window, collecting bottles in a grocery cart, while writing in her journal? Does she wonder, “What can be done for these people?” Does she say on the phone to a friend, “You couldn’t believe it?” Maybe she wonders whether she should give him granola bars or cash if he she sees him sitting by her building begging.
Maybe she thinks, “Where the hell is his family? He’s a veteran for Christ sakes,” not knowing the ruins he left before he served, the bombs of violence he scarred our family with even before he went to Vietnam. I don’t remember his violence but have heard of the table he upturned, the bones he broke, the time he chased my mother with a knife while she held a crying baby – how she literally ran for cover and out of his strike range. It is not my place to bring him back from the border, plant him in a recliner, hand him a paper and tell him to act fatherly. My mother has moved on. My sister wants no contact. Closure is not possible.
There are a few things I know besides his social security number: They are his blood type (B negative), his place of birth (Detroit) and his mother’s name (Madeline). I know my grandmother died of cirrhosis of the liver when she was sixty. I know he was raised by her and his aunt, Fran, in the Fidelis Way projects, in Brighton, MA. But the list of what I don’t know about him longer.
I see him as a family stray who was lost so long ago no one expects he’ll return. I hope he has been taken in somewhere, has porches to rest on, bowls he can eat from, shelters where he can go to get warm. I hope people see him and smile, maybe know him by name.
When I give money in support of veterans, give coins and get a dark blue felt mini-flower and a skinny piece of white paper, I hang it in my car attached to my rear view mirror. I wonder if he and I still have the same long sloping nose or if alcoholism has changed his into a rounder, puckered and fleshier feature.
“Please send me more pictures of the kids,” he had written, “It rains so much that your pictures don’t last long.” Did my Nana sneak photos of us and send them to him against my mother’s will? Is that why there are so few baby and toddler photos of my sister, Karyn, and me? Did our pictures melt on the ground of LA Khay where he was stationed? Did they dissolve like notebook paper in a washing machine out there in Rocket Alley? Did they curl at the corners, color bleeding over images before falling onto the soil outside of Saigon? How long did he hold onto our soppy images before letting go?
“Well, I have to go out on the perimeter now,” he wrote. “P.S. Tell Nancy I hope she changes her mind. She still has nine months to think it over,” he wrote not knowing about the baby boy, my brother Joey, who would be seven months old when my father got discharged in the spring of 1970.
“Tell her to write me a letter. Tell Nancy to write for the kids” and there’s no period at the end of that – the last sentence of the last letter. He did not mention me by name but acknowledged me as his child.
He is a fringe father to this discarded daughter. He, through biology, created the dotted outline of me. But the substance of my being, the baby child who became the woman who is now me, was left orbiting. We are not two points in space connecting a clear and solid line. We are planets on the outside of each others existence.
I was shot into the dark of night in 1966, not a rocket, but a star left to hang on the perimeter of the sky. I am a light beaming in the darkness. A light he cannot see.