When I saw that I’d be reading Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” as a grad student, I internally groaned. Seriously? A stupid war book that all the cool male teachers from middle school on up want to incorporate into their classes. I’d read it a thousand (OK, three) times. Junior high, high school, and college. By the time college came around, I was so bored with it, I think I just skimmed it. And so, I begrudgingly bought the book I knew I probably already owned and misplaced.
“What a waste,” I thought to myself. “We should be reading something more upper-level than this.”
I tried to shove that back down my throat, though. My attitude just sucks sometimes when I think I know something. When I think I have enough knowledge to teach myself everything I should be learning. I’d talked to vets before. Interviewed them for stories and spent time with them. I knew what I needed to know.
Yesterday, I picked up the book and I might have prayed about it. I might have asked God to change my head. To screw up my heart and unfurl a new bunch of thoughts instead.
Every time I read, I remember one particular guy, just a little bit older than my own father. He fought in Vietnam because he’d been drafted at about 18 years old. His father told him in his bedroom that it was time to serve his country. So he went faithfully believing he was going to fight a just war. He was going to liberate oppressed people. It was something worth blood. Something that would bring him home a hero like some of the guys from his own father’s generation.
When he got home, his father sat him down and apologized he ever encouraged him to go at all. He said something like this:
“Son, It looks like all the politicians’ sons got out and all the rich boys got to have their way paid out for them. I’m sorry you had to go.”
During this interview, the man’s wife held his hands sometimes, gently waiting for him to continue. She was a small woman who seemed to adore her husband after more than 30 years of a marriage they both admitted hadn’t always been easy. The man, we’ll call him Jim, said he’d always thought he was angry because he’d started drinking after ‘Nam and never stopped. He thought he’d explode because of the booze. After he retired a year or so ago and quit drinking for good, he didn’t get it. He was still flipping out.
Now he’s doing much better. He could look me in the eye, tell me portions of his story, and calmly pet his German Sheppherd. Often, during the interview, he would stare a little to the left of me, looking at nothing at all except maybe something he remembered about Suoi Tre. Something about the days where he felt tricked into a war that he hated. A war he didn’t think was worth all the blood shed.
So what made him better? What eased his pain? He started talking and it wasn’t to all the people immediately around him. When he finally connected with some buddies from his platoon just a few years ago, he could breathe again. When he came home, people were spitting at him, calling him “murderer,” and when he was walking around Chicago after the war, he didn’t think he could talk to anyone. He spent eight “lost” years, just hanging out with the hippies and playing baseball with “the black guys.” But it took until the last decade for all the silent rage and confused guilt and sadness to emerge. To translate from nightmares to stories. To a story he could share.
The hardest part, he said, was not being able to talk to anyone. No one wanted to talk about Vietnam. The soldiers were crooks to so many of the general population. There weren’t the honorary services like the ones he sees for the guys who have come home from Iraq or Afghanistan.
After our talk, he showed me his most recent form of catharsis: He’d begun to make a memorial trailer that he could take all around the state – even across state lines if people would put him up – full of memorabilia from the war and most specifically, to B Company. It was hot, almost steamy in that trailer, full of weapons, MRE’s and even a painting depicting the terror of Suoi Tre.
Reading “The Things They Carried” has an entirely different meaning after that. It wasn’t the M-60s or even the gory mural. Really, it was the quiver in his voice when he told me that there are just things about war you just don’t know. That some people will never know. My oldest brother once told me that the reason he went to war was so that I’d never have to know what he did. I’d never have to really see what he had.
It was the way Jim’s eyes shifted to a truth for him that will never die. A truth for him that still wakes him up at night. There is this certain part of those men that will never be returned, so the hollowness is frozen and timeless. Even the healthiest men who have been to war never seem to be able to fully look you in the eye for very long. It’s not a trust issue, but that they seem to be living then and now, concurrently. All the death never dies. And life doesn’t seem fully alive all the time to cancel it out. I’ve seen it in men my own age, just looking for something to love or hate because it gives them a sense of direction.
Perhaps, I take liberties in writing that, but it is an observation of men who are my dad if he’d been drafted. It’s not everyone, but it’s in enough of the people I’ve talked to or loved that I absolutely cannot read O’Brien’s book the way I once had.
Is it a book a lot of the cool teachers want to teach? Of course it is. Some of them teach it well, and most of them don’t. I can say, though, that I’m glad I’m giving it the first fair chance as a 23-year-old woman. It’s not like I’ve reached some sort of intellectual or even experiential nirvana by now that I “get” all of it. I don’t.
It’s the fact that more than ever now, I know I never will truly understand what these men and women have seen and done. I wasn’t there.
I just hope they all know, though, I hope talk and that someone will listen.