(Stick A Flag In Your Yard, Redux)
In 1970 the Vietnam War was unpopular.
My father was a medical resident, specializing in orthopedics, and therefore excused from military service as part of The Berry Plan.
The draft couldn’t take him.
Still there was an unconscious sense of honor and duty that ran deep in my dad—an unspoken expectation. His father had been a Lieutenant in the Navy and his grandfather had served in the Merchant Marines, and his great grandfather had fought for the Union in the Civil War.
Deep down he felt a little guilty as if he wasn’t doing his part.
But there was more, too.
He’d started to second-guess what life would be like as an orthopedic surgeon. Part artist, part scientist, he couldn’t imagine being tied to the hospital in the way that orthopedics would demand. He wanted to be like his father, a schoolteacher, who had never missed dinner with his family or a kids’ sporting event. He wanted to build stonewalls and wooden boats, to paint pictures, and to see his children’s soccer games and track meets.
When his dad had a heart attack, he experienced a prick of panic that made him prioritize his life.
He quit his orthopedic residency.
My father would be an ER doc instead—five days on, five days off—the hospital would stay at the hospital. No on-call. No office hours. No cases at home.
His Berry deferment was gone.
A couple of his recently graduated medical school buddies had been conscripted into the Navy. One was stationed in the Mediterranean and another one was on assignment off the coast of Rhode Island. The Navy was safer than the Army.
He called Washington for his orders.
Do you want them over the phone?
His young wife wanted him to call back, to make sure he’d heard it right.
Danang, Vietnam in two weeks. The Marine Corp needed Navy doctors.
She begged him to run away to Canada. They didn’t speak his last night in the United States. It was a long, quiet flight from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.
Like M.A.S.H., Firebase Ross was lined in chicken wire and sandbags. He was the head battalion aide surgeon. My mother wrote to him everyday, exaggerating my six-month-old vocabulary. Half way through his tour, he surprised her, calling from Alaska to say he’d be home in twelve hours on a three-day leave (my brother was conceived). But he had to go back. His sister tucked protest books into his care packages.
He served his time.
When he lifted off from Firebase Ross for the last time, he watched helicopter’s wind rip through the rice paddies below. He shifted, his boot knocking against something solid.
A body bag.
A young man about his age, his brains oozing onto the dirty floor.
They were going home together.
He figured the rest of his life would be gravy.
There was no parade when his plane landed.
No trumpets blared.
A Lieutenant Commander—the highest rank anybody in our family has ever received.
But they weren’t heroes—those boys who came home from Vietnam. They tried not to wear their uniforms in public lest someone called them baby-killers. They didn’t tell people where they’d been.
It was 1972.
His last day in the service.
He had to report to Bainbridge, MD, a small out-of-the-way town on the quiet Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay for his formal discharge.
Dressed in his uniform khakis, he drove the Baltimore Pike, a road he’d traveled many times as a kid. He remembered this strip of Rt 1 hopping with diners and gas stations. Now it was mostly abandoned. The road was flat and stretched as if it melted into the horizon.
He was ready to put this chapter of his life behind him, to be done with it all.
He stopped at the only diner he could find.
The place was empty and quiet.
Red and white checked tablecloths.
Shiny chrome stools with worn leather upholstery.
Heavy glass salt and pepper shakers.
He sat at the long counter and waited. An older, pretty woman appeared and took his order. He guessed she had inherited this restaurant from her parents. During World War II, she would have been a teenager and the diner probably would have been in its hey day.
The waitress wiped the counter and paused in front of him.
“Were you in Vietnam?” she asked.
“Yes, I was.”
“Was it bad for you there?”
“Not too bad for me. But it was for other people.”
“Yes, I guess it was.” She moved pass him and continued cleaning.
At the cash register when he tried to pay for his meal, the waitress said, “This one’s on the house. We’re proud of you, mister.”
It was too hard to talk. He turned and made it out of the diner before he started to cry.
When my dad tells this forty-five year old story, his voice still catches.
My father is an old man now. He can barely walk. His hearing is shot. The VA says his Parkinson’s disease is a result of his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. But he’s had a long and full life. Married for fifty-one years. Four children. Eight grandchildren. All gravy.
Lots of boys (and now girls) go off to war for all kinds of reasons. Their sense of duty wrapped in liberty, human rights, freedom, or maybe just a steady paycheck. They come back, if they come back, in all sorts of different conditions.
I say “thank you” when I meet a service man or woman because I know those two little words might be a defining moment in that person’s life.
They were for my dad.
And that thank you became a story he told his children.
It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle.
It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.
Breakfast for dinner is always a big hit. Try these Patriotic Red, White & Blue Breakfast Buns I found on Food.com. Click here for the recipe.