In childhood, we very much want to be adults so we can make our own decisions and not have to follow the orders of others. We have no clue of course. And most people will say when they become adults how very simple childhood was. Not that we don’t have trauma, we do. But it becomes buried in our unconsciousness as we try to navigate the rapid waters of adulthood. That was certainly my case: a simple child’s life following the mandates of school and parents. So, leaving home was met with great enthusiasm looking forward to making great decisions and accomplishing wonderful deeds. And, the first five years were seemingly so. I had finished my college degree in a little over 3 years, had married my childhood sweetheart and had two darling baby girls in those five years. But then came Vietnam. My husband had received a draft notice in college and chose not to fight it as many were doing. Instead he went gung ho into Army Ranger School. All of these training schools were in the South where ideologies about race and war were met with hawkish values and enthusiasm: a total foreign concept to me. So, while we were safely ensconced in our life in North Georgia; me teaching HS and my husband teaching at the Ranger Camp orders came for Vietnam.
This was the Fall of 1967. And so, he left full of steam and ingrained patriotism. After all, he was a Ranger 2nd Lieutenant Infantry and certainly infallible. He could make calls from the middle of the jungle and he did and he wrote detailed letters everyday, outwitting Charlie with his rifle he called “Lynn”. And all did proceed smoothly for a while. Oh, there were the fire ants trying to conquer his body, and extreme heat and mud slime that was testing his sanity along with the jungle rot. But a few cigarettes and whatever else and a safe spot for the night and all was good. Then came Tet of ’68, the Chinese New Year celebration which gets wild in Saigon. The secret plan to surprise our troops was working and death was everywhere. Even with the letters and the calls, I had such a vague concept. And so, he was hit in the head with a Chinese rocket and had a few cracked ribs and bones. Certainly nothing worth being sent home for. Instead he was sent to Cambodia— Ha, we weren’t there, were we? Certainly, the media wasn’t saying so. But his head was hurting big time and he was failing to adjust to this unjust war. So, in April of ’68 they sent him back to Georgia.
What a contrast. He was at the hospital in Augusta which was only a couple of hours from our home and where I was teaching. But the US was getting restless and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were shot, and to say how prejudice existed would be difficult until you know my HS would not let the kids off for the funeral.
Where was the simplicity we so thought adulthood would be about? Who had the right to sign our young men up to be targets for patriotic Vietnamese just wanting their country back after fighting the French for 25 years. So, I immediately went to the Army hospital to see my returned husband. In walking down the very long Army hospital hallways lined with returned soldiers with contorted bodies all bloodied and severed screaming in every possible pitch in pain, my simple concept of adulthood was swiftly shattered. What were we doing to these young men? My patriotism was slowly eroding. A few short weeks and his visible breaks were healing and the jungle rot had mostly peeled off so he was released to home until further orders. But in arriving home (I drove), it was strange. There is this vine that grows while you watch it in North Georgia called Kudzu.
It comes to the edge of the road and covers fences and bushes and trees if not stopped. It was all along the way from the hospital to home. His words were to drive faster so they couldn’t catch us as he crouched below the window. Paranoia was oozing. Once back home he wanted to visit friends: horrible idea. His best friend, Gabe, looked 20 years older and couldn’t speak in congruent sentences. Another friend had built a hut in the woods filled with guns and grenades ready to “get them” when they came. Whew. Fortunately, soon he got orders to run a simulated Vietnam village at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. Once again in a position of command, he seemed to suppress his experiences with a substantial amount of alcohol along with the other officers. Then our son was born. I was so consumed with the protocol of being an Army Officer’s wife and the duties of children that I took lightly the nuances of insanity he was starting to exhibit. But there was no counseling after Vietnam and no PTSD diagnosis.
It was simply tranquilizing medications that numbed the pain. So, onward to Virginia where he was approved to finish his degree at Hampton Institute as I also was going to school at the College of William and Mary for a grad Degree. However, he failed to show up for class, started exhibiting strange radical behavior (such as driving to the edge of a cliff and trying to Jump or taking one of the guns he had and shoot himself). Fortunately he was rescued. So, not conforming, he was sent to Korea. Now, with 4 small children, teaching part time I was still trying to finish school. Rather overwhelming for my childhood’s concept of adulthood. I graduated and we survived but he again did not conform and got heavy into opiates in Korea. Seeing so much death just took him down another notch. Now, he got transferred to Oakland Army Base to be the Race Relation’s and Alcohol and Drug Officer. Are you kidding? This was Black Panther and Zebra killing territory with Patty Hurst, The Weather Underground and Caesar Chavez marches.
He grew his hair long and got burns all over his army suit. So, he was released from service after 10 years in beautiful but radical San Francisco: the city of love and drugs at the time. This was a nightmare to the nth degree. There was no normal anymore. It was either he sat all day on the medications or without doing them, would go off and disappear for weeks at a time. So many times he would call me to bail him out of one situation or another. One evening when he was home we went out to dinner with a Colonel and his wife. He had put a joint behind his ear like people put a cigarette. At the restaurant he was told to remove it or leave. His reply was “What, are you going to do send me to Vietnam? I’ve already died there.” All this time I was trying to teach part-time and be actively involved in the children’s school life. But explaining his whereabouts was impossible and then one day he never returned. I had been trying to get monetary help from the city but they needed a divorce paper to invoke a URESA in another state to sue for money. I DID NOT want a divorce.
I just wanted a sane husband to return. The DA’s office forced me to sign but their URESA did no good. He had ended up in Denver but never showed up in court. He was unresponsive and illusive and did tell me in a call he was doing huge amounts of acid to try to regain it. The “it” was never regained and we all suffered. He ended up with another woman and another child and attempted to get custody of the children. My world was shattered. Being an adult was not the rose garden envisioned 20 years ago. I saw several psychiatrists; one who went to his office closet and pulled out a rifle and said if it’s that bad then take this gun and use it. Another was gay and couldn’t be bothered with war victims as he was fighting other battles. The 3rd said to me, “You are alive and well so just pick yourself up and put things back together again.” Then my husband died and yes, it was from the aneurysm from the Tet Offensive of ’68 that they had never checked out. So, insanity turned all sorts of black colors while I attempted to glue things back together again.
Material things became unimportant and children became all encompassing in an attempt to find sanity in our life once again. I had so many things I could hate: the war and all who perpetuated it; another woman; the SF DA’s office because of the stupid divorce (I got no compensation). My whole life had been pulled from under me and I was made to seem the villain. Are you kidding? So, life went slow and I became aware of the detailed beauty of a growing plant, a sunrise and the smiles so hard to come by. I wrote and wrote. It was my Panacea and my writing changed from sorrow to surprise, awe, and love. This was the reason 30 years later I found this stack of poems and decided to publish. Maybe there would be someone who would see there is hope where there is love. There is love where there is forgiveness. There is healing where there is forgetting and moving on. I moved on.