Brenham, TX, USA
The Viet Nam War - a wife's perspective
A Navy recruiter held an assembly at Amarillo High School when we were seniors. Only the senior boys were required to attend. The purpose of the assembly was to pump patriotism into our senior boys. My future husband was among the new recruits in the Navy Reserve. The Navy made several guarantees to the young men that were never honored. We were married the Saturday before our graduation in May of 1965. We had our first son later that year. In 1968, my husband, a music major, was carrying eighteen hours in Amarillo College, on the Dean's honor roll and was holding down three part time jobs, in addition to being a Radioman in the Navy Reserve. We were nineteen and twenty and had a two-year-old son. I was two weeks away from delivering our second son when my husband was called to active duty. The Navy had a desperate need for radiomen. Out of the three radiomen available, my husband was the only one married and with a child and the only one sent to Viet Nam. He left by train from the old Amtrak station in Amarillo the day before Christmas, 1967. His parents were there to say goodbye to their only son. Rolly Dean, our two-year-old was running around playing on the chairs at the train station. He had straight, white-blond bangs. He wore a little white turtle neck shirt with gold corduroy pants and tiny little black cowboy boots. His bottom wobbled with his puffed-out diaper when he ran. I was huge-pregnant, and miserable in an awful, pink maternity dress. My husband told me I was beautiful. I had lain awake all the previous night, crying and watching him sleep. I was terrified that I would never see him again.
When he arrived in Viet Nam, he was assigned to a river patrol boat in the Mekong Delta. On January 5, 1968, two weeks after he left for Viet Nam, I delivered Rob, our second son. My husband's mother was caring for our two-year-old while I was in the hospital, so she picked us up and dropped me off at St. Anthony Hospital. My parents decided to finish out their workday since my first son had taken a long time to be born. I cried all day because I was having my baby alone. The Nuns kept hissing at me to shut up my sniveling. I felt so sorry for myself that I was having my baby alone. I finally realized I was not alone. I had my baby. We had each other. I felt a fierce connection with my child. I felt calm and strong. I knew we would both be fine. I had my son at 4:30 that afternoon. When my parents finally arrived, it did not matter. I knew I could survive anything. The Hong Kong flu was sweeping the country when I brought my new baby home from the hospital. My pediatrician warned me not to let anyone in our house. He explained that my new baby would not survive this flu. I took care of my two-year-old and my new baby with no outside help. My family left food on the porch for us. Everyone brought stew for some reason. I ate stew for a month, while nursing my new baby. This son, who is now thirty-two, has determination like no other person I know. Perhaps he was teaching me, even then.
I wrote a letter to my husband every day the first year he was in Viet Nam. In August of 1968, the river patrol boat he had been assigned to was ambushed by North Viet Nam troops. Everyone was killed except for my husband. He was able to radio back to warn the troops in the remaining boats. He saved the lives of several men and was given a medal for his courageous actions.
He had taken a small wooden recorder (flute like instrument) with him to Viet Nam. While there, he wrote a sonata for a five-piece orchestra. When he returned, he gathered our friends together to play his sonata. In my memory, it is the most beautiful music I have ever experienced. He came home Christmas night, 1968. He arrived at the Greyhound bus station on Ninth Street. It was snowing sheets of huge, wet snowflakes. I remember how the snow looked in the streetlight outside the Bus Station. He met his one-year-old son for the first time. His three-year-old son did not know who he was.
When he returned from his first year in Viet Nam, he still had one year of active duty left. The Navy assured him that it would be stateside duty. His orders were for a Navy base in San Diego, California. We packed our boys into the old Chevy Malibu and drove to California. We found a small duplex in Clairemont California. We had barely survived the last year, but now we were together now and everything would be fine. My husband came home from his new base with his new assignment. He was assigned to the Cocoapa, an ocean going tug boat, which goes to Viet Nam periodically. It was time for this boat to go to Viet Nam. As my husband explained this to me, I fell away emotionally. My world stopped. We had five dollars between us as a result of the Navy screwing up his pay. He gave me the five dollars and left for Viet Nam a second time. The five dollars went for gasoline for job interviews. No one would hire me because I had no experience. Now, I am in a strange city with two babies. I feel myself starting to cave in on the inside. I started crying and could not stop. I cried in my sleep. I cried when I ate, as I drove, and while I cooked. Lillie, my duplex neighbor, suggested I go to a free counselor at the YMCA. He looked like Abraham Lincoln. I do not remember what he said, but I finally stopped crying. I felt myself changing. I carried my babies in a sling on my back and walked barefoot in long, flowing dresses. I played my guitar and sang on the beach. When my husband finally returned, we were different people. We moved our family back to Amarillo. He was strange and quiet. He seemed content to work in a jean factory for a while. He had a hard time with what seemed to be simple decisions. I had become stronger. Our roles slipped gears. I was too stupid and young to realize that my husband would someday come out of this stunned existence and resume his life. I could not bear what seemed to me, to be his capitulation to life. Our third son, Jascha, was born in 1970. I went to work when our baby was four months old. My husband went back to college. Working and earning money made me think that I could manage on my own. We divorced when our boys were one, three and five. Strangely, we never fought. After the divorce, I found our little boys on the bottom bunk of their beds talking in a serious tone. I asked them what was going on. Rolly Dean, our five year old, said "Mom, if YOU leave, we will probably be OK, but none of us know how to cook." His words, spoken thirty years ago, still break my heart.
The Viet Nam War changed our lives, the lives of our sons and our parents. Our boys grew up without their Father. He never really experienced day to day life with his sons. He seems to have a difficult time relating to them even now. We lost our oldest son to bone cancer in 1983. Our remaining two sons vow to never subject their children to divorce. The Viet Nam war changed our family forever. A similar version of this story happened to thousands of young families throughout the world. Many stories were far worse than ours. Why did the Viet Nam war happen? It happened as a result of the politics of that time. I often wonder what Lyndon Johnson is experiencing in his after-life. It must be hell.