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.
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 multiple-child-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.