I wish I had the courage to ask my dad about Viet­nam

Es­say­ist Pete Can­dler re­flects on the gulf of si­lence be­tween gen­er­a­tions

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Pete Can­dler is a writer in Asheville, N.C. Twit­ter: @tweet­can­dler

When I at­tended my first col­lege foot­ball game in Athens, Ga., in 1981, it was a rel­a­tively spar­tan af­fair by to­day’s stan­dards. As I re­mem­ber it, there were few or none of the mil­i­taris­tic flour­ishes that ac­com­pany sport­ing events nowa­days. We sang the na­tional an­them to or­di­nary fan­fare, palm to left breast, but there were no F-15 fly­overs, no sur­prise half­time re­unions be­tween re­turn­ing sol­diers and their gob­s­macked chil­dren, no pub­lic-service an­nounce­ments re­mind­ing us to sup­port our troops.

A few years ago, I re­turned to Athens with two of my boys and my father. When the na­tional an­them be­gan play­ing over the PA, my father turned to­ward the gi­gan­tic high-def­i­ni­tion flag on the enor­mous new video dis­play and stood at full at­ten­tion, his right hand up to his eye­brow, salut­ing in the way he’d been taught. I’d never seen him do that be­fore.

He stood stock-still, as though he were de­fend­ing some­thing.

Dad has never broad­cast his mil­i­tary service, but around that time he con­fessed — in a long con­ver­sa­tion on In­ter­state 20 to­ward New Or­leans — that he

felt peo­ple like him were “un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated,” that they were be­ing “pushed out,” their service to the na­tion taken for granted. We were on the way to meet up with my brother for a father-son fish­ing trip. Dad was driving a black Hyundai with peach-col­ored Ge­or­gia plates mounted in a frame that read “Viet­nam Vet­eran.” That was new. So was the des­ig­na­tion of a por­tion of In­ter­state 65 in Alabama as the “War on Ter­ror Memo­rial High­way.” It was ded­i­cated in 2014, shortly be­fore Mom, Dad and I rode I-65 be­tween Mont­gomery and Mo­bile. It seemed there wasn’t a mile be­tween At­lanta and New Or­leans that didn’t memo­ri­al­ize a war or a vet­eran of one. We drove the “Heroes High­way,” which was ded­i­cated in mem­ory of real peo­ple but named at one ab­stract re­move, ide­al­ized hero­ism a sur­ro­gate for ac­tual life. My dad has never asked to be thought of as a hero, but some­where in that bur­geon­ing pe­riod of con­spic­u­ous mil­i­tarism, he found the room to do some­thing he’d never done be­fore: pub­licly iden­tify him­self as a vet­eran, and bear on his li­cense plate and on his per­son the some­times word­less em­blems of mil­i­tary service.

When I was a boy, Dad’s Army service uni­form hung in a closet in my brother’s room, along with his com­bat boots and black felt cav­alry hat with the cap­tain’s bars pinned on the front. I never touched the dress uni­form, but I used the hat for dress-up and pos­si­bly for one of the “Son of Rambo” home videos my brother and I shot on the VHS hand­held. Dad seemed in­dif­fer­ent to the ex­is­tence of the me­men­tos of his Army service. If he wasn’t, he never said anything. But we didn’t bother to find out, ei­ther, be­cause the sub­ject of Viet­nam was a no-fly zone. Dad sim­ply didn’t talk about it, and he must have had his rea­sons.

My father vol­un­teered for a con­tro­ver­sial war; he served a one-year tour be­cause he chose to. When­ever I meet an Army solider or vet­eran, I tell them that my dad was a Huey he­li­copter pi­lot in the 1st Air Cav­alry Di­vi­sion in Viet­nam in 1966 and 1967. I watch as their jaws slacken and their eye­brows pinch slightly. They of­ten say the same thing. “Whoa.” It makes me proud that my dad is con­sid­ered a badass by ac­tive-duty sol­diers who have seen hells of their own — maybe even a slightly crazy kind of badass, who put his life in the line of fire fly­ing into hot zones in South­east Asia. It’s a vi­car­i­ous pride, and I take it with some mea­sure of guilt: It’s not my own, and at 46, I know that I will never have to fight in a war the way my dad chose to do. Maybe I tell that to sol­diers to es­tab­lish a ten­u­ous con­nec­tion with peo­ple who have given their lives over to de­mands that will never be made of me. Maybe I tell it to make my­self seem more coura­geous than I re­ally am, as if some­how some of my father’s courage passed down to me. But at times, I feel as if I have as much busi­ness telling that story as I did putting on Dad’s hat for a home movie, bear­ing the ac­cou­trements of courage and mil­i­tary service that I did not earn.

It may also be an at­tempt to so­licit from strangers some iota of in­for­ma­tion on a sub­ject about which my father has cho­sen to re­main mostly si­lent. I had heard from my brother ru­mors that Dad had walked out of “Apoca­lypse Now,” but I have never heard why or if it’s even true. Maybe he saw in Robert Du­vall’s char­ac­ter — like my father, an of­fi­cer in the First Cav, in the same felt hat that sat in my brother’s closet — too much of him­self, or too lit­tle. We saw “Pla­toon” to­gether when it played in At­lanta, but we didn’t talk about it af­ter it was over.

Once, at a din­ner with my wife, my par­ents, and my brother and sis­ter-in-law, Dad vol­un­teered a story about a train­ing flight on a Huey while he was an in­struc­tor at flight school at Fort Rucker in Alabama. The en­gine blew a hole in the side of the com­bus­tion cham­ber, and Dad man­aged to land the Huey in a peanut field. While I don’t re­call the de­tails with the pre­ci­sion I wish I did, I re­mem­ber it for one rea­son: My brother gen­tly hushed the con­ver­sa­tion at our end of the ta­ble. Dad was telling a story from his Army days, and that never hap­pened.

Dad vol­un­teered for Viet­nam, but he has never once vol­un­teered to talk about it. The Fort Rucker story is as close as I think I’ve ever come to hear­ing one. The whole ex­pe­ri­ence is like a blacked-out, redacted por­tion of my father’s per­sonal his­tory as it has been handed down to us. My father didn’t take a sin­gle hit dur­ing his year in Viet­nam, but on ei­ther side are tales of wreck­age: the dam­aged Huey in Alabama, and the story about how his he­li­copter, pi­loted by some­one else, was shot down while Dad was on R&R, not long be­fore he re­turned to the United States to marry Mom.

When Mom texted me a cou­ple of months ago to tell me about the new Ken Burns doc­u­men­tary on the Viet­nam War, I was at­tempt­ing, un­suc­cess­fully, to put one of my chil­dren to sleep.

“It’s on now,” she said. Watch­ing it then was out of the question, a ca­su­alty of mul­ti­plechild-in­duced bed­time fa­tigue. “Worth a watch,” she fol­lowed up. “Makes you re­al­ize what your Dad went through.”

I told her that I would watch it as soon as I had the chance. But what I meant was, I wish he would tell me about it him­self.

And when the boys were fi­nally asleep, the dust of my mind blown away like the cir­cle of ground be­neath a land­ing Huey, I re­al­ized what I ac­tu­ally meant but did not have the guts to say: I wish I had the courage to ask.


Peter M. Can­dler in the sum­mer of 1966, shortly be­fore ship­ping out to Viet­nam.


Peter Can­dler vol­un­teered for a tour of duty in Viet­nam in 1966-67, serv­ing as a Huey he­li­copter pi­lot in the 1st Air Cav­alry Di­vi­sion.

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