Three uncles went to Vietnam.
Three uncles went to Vietnam, and one uncle seemed to have found “the life.”
Three uncles went to Vietnam, but only one came home with a sharkskin suit. He never said what else happened while he was over there, but he was full of the wonder of the tailors of Southeast Asia. “You can get a monogrammed shirt, tailored suit, sports coat, cheap,” he told us, checking his cuffs. He talked about silk, and the little women who stood on chairs to measure his massive Western self. He talked about colors – bright like those birds, you know, parrots. He talked about tiny, perfect stitches- as if his entire tour was comprised of stopping by small villages to check out the couture.
How rare a man, to return unscathed from a war which ground up men like grist in a mill. The uncle wore his sharkskin suit, shiny and gray-blue, together with glossy pick- toed boots, and a fedora. He dove into the garment district in the City. Its walls closed around him in a crisp cotton embrace.
The uncle went to Vietnam, and returned home to sire his sons and show the world what he’d learned. He put on that sharp suit, and tried to get noticed. He kept his nails clean. He bought a big, new house with air conditioning. He hated humidity, and was repelled by certain smells. He told his wife, the aunt, she smelled like rotting fruit. He slept badly. The uncle moved the aunt’s things into the guest room.
The uncle went to Vietnam, and returned home, dissatisfied, to his American wife, she who was as small-boned and big eyed as any Asian woman, but had a mouth which was powered by an American mind, which told her to speak it. She told him where he could go and take his “Big Man” sharply creased polished cotton Miami-Vice blazers with him. She told him what he could do with his loud, angry words like his slow heavy fists. “Shoulda got me an Asian girl. Shoulda gone that way,” the uncle would mutter over and over when the aunt’s unceasing intransigence nettled him. In the evenings, he would eye her darkly over the ironing board, snarling as he smoothed out the creases in his dress shirts. The uncle was obsessed with material – crisp, linen, dense wool, slick, cool, silk. He was obsessed with the cut of a garment, the lay of a seam, the angle of a crease. He insisted that his children pay attention – going so far as to turn his son’s clothes the “right direction” on the hangers, and punishing them when they forgot. The children of a clothier should know better! He was surrounded by Philistines in polyester !
How the man suffered. He longed for the garments – the cheap, tailored clothes – of those distant choked Asian cities! He was nothing but an errand boy in the district, a nobody the East Coast designers like Jordache and Calvin Klein would never see! The garment district was a murky interweaving of paneled trucks and delivery drivers with broken syntax and busted bank accounts. Uncle found a thread he could unravel, and began to pull.
Three uncles went to Vietnam.
Three uncles went to Vietnam, and one was his country’s shining knight, thank you very much, sir. One was his country’s Navy Seal – because he believed, and was stronger, better, faster. This uncle was once a lowly electrician, able bodied seaman, second class, but graduated to the fraternity of super heroes in the Underwater Demolitions Team. This uncle was codenamed ‘Sly.’
Sly the uncle was made for intrigue. He was made for honor. He was made for the swashbuckling role of the savior of the world, never give up, never retreat, never surrender, anchors aweigh, my boys and all of that. Frogman are able to leap tall buildings in a single bound; Sly the uncle dove and leaped and dodged death with sheer effortless grace – until they hamstrung him and told him it was time to go home.
But where was the glory at home? What was the use of “home?” Home wasn’t what he’d been fighting for; he’d been fighting because in Vietnam he’d learned how to live for a good fight. Home wasn’t where he wanted to go. Home was a travesty, a backwater town where they remembered him as Anita’s little boy who’d fallen out of a tree and broken his arm, as Will’s son, who’d been the quarterback on the high school team. No one at home knew who he really was.
But the Frogmen said ‘jump’ and Sly the uncle landed hard.
Home. His father poked at him. “Get on up, son. Get yourself a job. Go to school on that G.I. Bill.”
Home. His mother murmured, “Son? Don’t you feel like seeing any of your old friends?”
And then the night hours came, and the raging, roaring beast that lived in the uncle’s head came to life, and grew and howled and swung, great ham fists swinging, and launched red-eyed into the uncle’s dreams. The Frogmen know a thousand ways to kill with their bare hands. The uncle was lucky. The Frogmen scoured away the uncle’s memories when he debriefed. He was left with a nickname, but his hands were tied in the hollowness of his roaring nightmare.
“Wake up!” called the father.
“Wake up!” wept the mother.
The uncle woke up on a cold sidewalk in a city ten thousand miles away, staring up at a big red bridge in a town he called “Frisco.”
Three uncles went to Vietnam, though one put off his travel plans for about twenty-five years. A Trailways bus to points North came between himself and his government’s call; Ottowa Ontario, was his random destination. Mirrored sunglasses, draft card in his sock, his earthly possessions in a mail sack on his back, somehow he caught the attention of the sharp-eyed man sitting on the side aisle. A lone gangly African-American boy on a bus that far North – what else could he have been but derelict in his duty, AWOL, skipping out, skating off, dodging the draft?
“Son,” sucking his teeth self-righteously, “when my country called, I came.” The uncle noted that the sallow faced sheriff looked like the last war to which his country had called him might have been around 1918, and grinned to himself. The sheriff looked at him sharply, sighed. Kids these days. Least he wasn’t one of those hippie boys (what was the world coming to, anyway?). He didn’t even have that bushman hair, that “afro” they called it. Looked like a boy he woulda been happy to have working around his house.
“Gonna hafta hold ya, son,” he threatened, motioned the hulking uncle ahead of him into a cell. Striving to bring home to him the gravity of the situation. “Gonna have to stay here ‘til the draft sergeant shows up.”
Nothing could knock the guileless smile off the uncle’s face. Even his mother, working class patriotic, gutter-mouthed harridan, screaming obscenities at her second son, only made his brown animal eyes droop down for about an hour. “How could you do this to me?” she screamed. “Did you burn a flag too, you communist?” Even his brother, oozing sympathy and relief (it wasn’t his war, he’d already served, had three kids worth of insurance), shaking his head, bringing his wife and lisping baby girls to peer nervously into the visiting room, “Man. They gonna court-martial you?” – even they could not weigh him down with their burdens of damp, cloudy doubt. He smiled at the little girls. One waved, a shy crimping of fingers, and he winked at her snaggle-toothed grin.
Even the baldpated, screaming Army man who hurled him against the wall and called him a good-for-nothing-spineless-piece-of-worthless-stinking-excrement, spraying spittle all over his face and leaking noxious clouds of testosterone along with throat-closing aftershave, could not keep him from that thought that tickled him, that urged a smile onto those hangdog features. Even the thought of a dishonorable discharge, three long years of incarceration, the country’s scorn, the eleven-by-eighteen cell could not touch him for long. For the uncle had a song, and in his head, the song went like this:
I’m going to live I’m going to live I’m going to live I’m going to live I’m going to live I’m going to live
“Vietnam is one of the most beautiful countries in the world,” the travel agent’s hands fluttered like small graceful birds. “There are no good or bad seasons to visit. When one area is wet, cold or steamy hot, there is always somewhere else to go that is just right.”
“Sounds too good to be true.”
“It’s not…” her voice trailed off wistfully. “I was there once. It was an amazing trip.”
I stood. “Well, thank you. I’ll let you know.”
“My uncle went to Vietnam,” the travel agent said reflectively.
“In the war?”
“No — oh, no, two years ago, for the Tet Festival,” the travel agent blinked. “Not the war.”
I nodded. “Thanks again,” I waved, and pushed out into the summer sunshine. I tucked the brochures into my back pocket, and decided to drop by my niece’s house on the way home.
The burning pages in this photo by Flickr user tamelyn made me think of the power of story – bursting into flame, burning in your imagination, searing your perceptions, and leaving your assumptions in ashes.
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