Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day Weekend

The ribs are on the grill, most of the family is here, and I have the weekend off. I posted this two Memorial Days ago, but things haven't changed. I don't think I could say it any better today..
See that earnest-looking kid on the right? Calvin Samuel Martin III, his name was. You wouldn't know it to look at him, but he was a first-class smart-ass, with an easy charm that made people like him as soon as they met him. That was my dad, in his high-school yearbook, before he went to war.

Unfortunately, I don't know a whole lot about his experiences in the war, because he never talked about it afterward. And I mean never. Even in the 80s, when it became stylish to dredge up buried memories of Vietnam, he had nothing more to say than just that he was proud that he'd gone.

Not that he had much choice. It was 1966, and he had just flunked out of UW, and the government offered him a full scholarship to the University of Pleiku, without a lot of room to decline. This was before Kent State, before Jane Fonda straddled an enemy gun like she was posing for a girlie magazine, before it became really fashionable to cry "peace, peace" where there was no peace. My mom says that he had some misgivings about the war itself. But it didn't matter; he went.

I don't know anything about what-all happened there, either, except little snippets. My mom says he got to be pretty friendly with the Montagnards, and got his heart broken by what happened to them. (I had to look them up; I'd never heard of them.) He ran supply convoys, "delivering socks," as he told his younger brother later. I don't think he ever shot anybody, but he certainly got shot at enough.

Whatever he saw over there, it damaged him pretty badly. He came back with a self-destructive streak that he watered liberally with ethanol. My mom says that he was like a completely different person. I wouldn't know; I was born on the army base just as he was getting out.

The problems he came back with exacted a price on both him and his family, and he eventually left. I spent a lot of my childhood without him, except as an occasional visitor. I started getting close to him again when I was in my teens, but by then it was kind of awkward. I didn't know it when I was little, but the war had taken my daddy away.

When I was 26, it took him away for good. Now, my dad wasn't what you would call an abstemious man. He drank like a fish, he chain-smoked for twenty years (then just up and quit), he ate anything he wanted, and he was entirely too fond of the fairer sex. (And I do mean "entirely"; if I didn't know he'd had a vasectomy I'd be on the lookout for people who looked a lot like me.) But just as he had settled into a career he loved (working in the Orient designing mass transit systems), and a marriage that looked like it was going to last, he started having some health problems. He came back to the States for some tests, and three months later he was dead of a brain tumor.

For all his vices, the one really virtuous thing he had done in his life had exposed him to Agent Orange. My dad died from the war, just as surely as if he had been shot by a sniper.

Even with him gone, the war still casts a shadow. He was cremated, and buried in his home town of Goldendale. He has two headstones: one in the veterans' section, and another in a family plot. The family couldn't agree on whether to be proud or ashamed that he'd gone to war.

Well, I paid as much of a price as any of them, and I'm proud. Proud as hell. Yes, I know it's fashionable to regard Vietnam as a huge blunder forty years later. Yes, I know the aging hippies are getting their kicks pretending that Iraq is Vietnam and their sign-waving actually matters a rat's ass. I know these things. But I also know what happened to the Montagnards after we left, and I know that the army today is all that stands between us and this. And I know what my dad would say about the people who insist the only way to "support the troops" is to cut them off at the knees.

I loved my dad. I miss him. He only lived to see one grandchild, but I think he'd have made a helluva grandpa. And on Memorial Day, I think I'll crack a beer, barbecue some dead cow, and be grateful to him and every other fresh-faced kid who stopped a bullet or breathed poison so I could do it.

Thanks, Dad.

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