A Lost Brother's Lost Words
"WE HAVE A BIG SURPRISE FOR YOU," MY SISTER CAROL TOLD ME, unlocking the door of my mother's house. Mom had had a stroke and was in a nursing home. My sisters and I needed to decide what to do with her possessions before renting her house. It wouldn't be easy. She was a saver, a Connecticut Yankee who hung on to things, even grocery lists and rough drafts of thank-you notes.
Carol led me into the house, which was empty except for rented tables onto which my sisters had placed the accumulation of our parents' 50-year marriage, including travel souvenirs, knickknacks, heirlooms and even some wedding presents in their original wrapping. I took in the piles of piano music, musty hardcover books and paintings leaning against walls.
"You'll never believe what we found," my sister Holly said as we walked into the living room. In the far corner sat my old, blue camp footlocker. "It was locked, but we found the key," Carol said. I knelt and raised the lid to behold a jumble of papers in utter disorder. Then I saw them: my brother's long-lost letters from Vietnam.
From the time he'd gone away to summer camp, my brother, Pete, had always been a good letter writer. When he went to Vietnam in 1963 to help build schools and teach English for an organization called International Voluntary Services, he kept in touch by sending us wonderfully descriptive, often humorous letters. Early in my adolescence, the names he mentioned -- Diem, McNamara, Lodge and Rusk -- didn't mean much to me. As an adult, I'd longed to reread every word he'd written. Only one thing -- or rather, one person -- stood between me and my desire to better understand who my brother was and what had happened to him. That person was my mother.
After Pete was killed in a 1965 ambush that was reported in The Washington Post and the New York Times, a curtain of silence descended in our home. Barely 15, I quickly learned that to talk about him could set off my mother's tidal-force grief. Before, she had been a model of decorum, but with Pete's death she wept at the mention of his name. Behind her tears and sadness lurked a fury I didn't understand.
MOTHER SAID THE LETTERS HAD BEEN DESTROYED IN A BASEMENT FLOOD. That's what she told me when I asked to reread them a few years after I'd graduated from college. By then, it had been more than a decade since Pete's death, and she no longer broke down at the mention of him.
My brother had gone to Southeast Asia directly from Wesleyan University, where he'd majored in government. Never much of a student, he had nonetheless discovered an aptitude for languages, studying French and excelling in Chinese. Close to his graduation in 1963, he'd signed up with a little-known organization called International Voluntary Services (IVS), which was recruiting agriculture and education volunteers for Vietnam. A forerunner of the Peace Corps, IVS was a nonprofit organization founded in 1953 "to combat hunger, poverty, disease and illiteracy in the underdeveloped
areas of the world, and thereby further the peace, happiness and prosperity of the people." Pete was assigned to the education team and was sent to Phan Rang, a coastal city between Nha Trang and Saigon, just before the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem was overthrown and John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
When the trunk filled with his letters was shipped to my house in Northern California, I recognized Pete's elongated, slender handwriting -- very much like mine -- on letters and thin, blue aerograms. Photographs of smiling Vietnamese and cactus- and eucalyptus-studded landscapes peeked from envelopes that still bore their stamps from the now-nonexistent Republic of Vietnam.
Sympathy letters were stuffed into several brown paper bags. There were spools of audiotape and reels of 8mm film that Pete had sent back to the States. Along with his journal, photo albums, handmade Chinese-language flash cards, road maps and other windows into his world were 74 letters he'd mailed us from Vietnam.
I resisted the urge to riffle through the letters immediately. I wanted to read them in chronological order, and, more important, they were fragile. To avoid overhandling the aged originals, I photocopied them first, along with his diary. Then I finally sat down to read my brother's words almost 40 years after he'd written them.
On June 20, 1963, he'd written in his journal, "Kiss the sisses goodbye" after he left Connecticut for his IVS orientation in Washington. Two weeks later, he was in My Tho, Vietnam, for language training and was at the top of his class. The playfulness I remembered so well appeared early in Pete's correspondence: "Kids swarm all around you. I told one that I had a cat in my pocket. At first he couldn't believe I was speaking Vietnamese. He thought I was speaking English that sounded an awful lot like the Vietnamese equivalent of 'I have a cat in my pocket.' Then I pulled out this little cat puppet . . . Well, the kid went wild."