A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
In “my dream about time,” the poet Lucille Clifton writes of “a woman unlike myself” who “is running down the long hall of a lifeless house.”
I am fifty-two years old now, adrift in a way I have not been since my twenties. I understand very well how time may trigger such nightmares. But simultaneously I am confounded, as I have always been, by how little I know about the time in which I have actually existed.
I was born in the last quarter of 1964, which according to some statistical charts puts me at the tail end of the post–World War II baby boom and according to others makes me an early Gen Xer. Whatever the label, very little that happened during that year had anything to do with me . . . although a great deal did happen. Meet the Beatles! was released. The Klan abducted and murdered Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. Cassius Clay beat up Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine. Richard Burton and Liz Taylor get married for the first time. From Russia with Love premiered in movie theaters. Shea Stadium opened in Queens. Ken Kesey embarked on his Magic Bus adventures. President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Jim Bunning pitched the National League’s first perfect game since 1880. Nikita Krushchev was deposed. ABC released the first episode of Bewitched. Martin Luther King, Jr., received the Nobel Prize. The list goes on and on. But during most of 1964, I lingered in utero; and when I finally appeared in early October, I slept and ate and rid myself of wastes but didn’t do much else until well into 1965. The dramas of my birth year swirled through the aether, became part of the air that sighed in and out of my tiny lungs, yet they were separate from me.
Lately I’ve been copying out Hayden Carruth’s long poem “The Sleeping Beauty” and, along the way, thinking about how dream and disappointment can distort or magnify our connections to our own history. When Carruth wrote the poem, he was in the process of separating from his wife, yet the version of her that appears in the poem is a fairy-tale figure—erotic, timeless, nearly silent. She is not a portrait but an incantation.
Lately I’ve been mulling over the memory of my uncle Paul, my father’s little brother, who was killed in Vietnam in 1968 at the age of twenty-three.
At the time of Paul’s death I was three years old, and my recollections of him are the fractured ones of early childhood. He ate a giant plate of mashed potatoes at Sunday dinner. His uniform was scratchy. I liked to hug him. My existence overlapped his, but just barely, just enough for me to recall an affection, a bond of liking. I could not even call it an attachment, or love . . . though perhaps he saw it that way.
In “An Odyssey,” Daniel Mendelsohn writes, “Children always imagine that their parents’ truest selves are as parents. But why? . . . Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never be quite mysterious to them.” Yet over the course of half a century with my parents, even as I’ve padded and decorated and misunderstood their mysteries, I’ve had solid material to work with. My uncle Paul, in contrast, has remained a shadow. He died with neither a lover nor a child to remember him. He left his parents, two siblings, their spouses, and a handful of nieces and nephews. His parents are now dead, his brother-in-law is dead, and his sister, his brother, and his sister-in-law are in their seventies. And I, the oldest child of my generation, may be the only one of those nieces and nephews with any physical recollection of him at all.
Nearly fifty years later my father’s grief is still fresh. He speaks freely of his brother, but only as the boy he grew up with, never as a soldier. He refuses to visit the Vietnam Memorial and, as far as I know, has never made any attempt to track down the details of Paul’s eight months in combat. From the moment in 1964 when my uncle, a freshman at Rutgers, joined the ROTC, my father dreaded the outcome, and his willed avoidance of Paul’s soldiering history is a version of shellshock. My father hated the war, he always hated the war, and he could not prevent his brother’s death. Nor could he dissuade him from believing that fighting in the war was not only patriotic but also a whole lot of fun.
Because that’s what the evidence suggests: my uncle was having a good time over there.
Or he was telling his family he was having a good time. How could anyone figure out the difference? His correspondence is vague, and purposefully so. According to an article published in the Trenton Times four days after his death, Paul “worked in supply with the 5th Special Forces Group, . . . and much of his work was secret. ‘He often could not say what he was doing, and we usually did not know exactly where he was,’ a member of the family explained.”
I do know that he was involved in the classified operations of a Fifth Special Forces Group initiative known as Military Assistance Command, Vietnam—Studies and Observation Group, a nom de guerre that sounds more like a bureaucracy than a combat unit. It is still difficult to decipher exactly what MACV-SOG was up to in 1968, but much of it seems to have involved covert missions in Laos and Cambodia with the goal of stopping the flow of North Vietnamese soldiers and weapons down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I have no way of knowing whether or not Paul participated in these operations, which many observers would have seen as illegal, given that the United States was not at war with either Laos or Cambodia. But he was a parachutist, and he was involved in supply operations, and both of those skills would have been useful in such missions. In a letter dated January 23, 1968, he wrote to my parents:
I’ve been having quite a time over here. I’m in the unit that does all the good stuff that I wanted to get into. Surprisingly, the rest of the 5th SF Group companys don’t get involved in the missions we . . . get into. I’ve been in 2 copter coveys that were supporting two different teams on missions and got a good view of a hot fire fight with air support.
Later in the letter, he crows, almost as a dare, “Da Nang, Pleiku, Daktu, Khe Sanh, and Kontum are expected to be hit hard by Charlie before Tet (29, 30 Jan).”
“He was a child!” wailed my mother. Five of us were standing on her deck in Vermont, coatless on this strangely warm day in early April: my parents, my sister, my nineteen-year-old son, and me. My father and I were both weeping alongside my mother, but my sister and my son were dry-eyed.
Later that night my son felt the need to apologize. “I am so interested in the stories,” he explained, “but I don’t feel the same grief.” I reassured him, pointing out that my sister, who wasn’t yet two when our uncle died, hadn’t cried either. Thanks to a slim contiguity between my uncle’s life and mine, I’d ended up on my parents’ side of the divide.
In Lucille Clifton’s poem “what manner of man,” King David asks, “what is a man? what am i?”
I, the child, had believed my uncle was a man. But my mother knew otherwise. According to the Trenton Evening Times, dated September 10, 1968, so did “Mrs. Chris Theoharis, owner of the Candy Kitchen, [who] had known him since he came into the store as a boy for candy and cokes. ‘He was so proud of his green beret,’ she said.”
Yet beyond his brief enthusiastic correspondence, beyond the death notices in the newspapers, my uncle left my father a version of a legacy—the fragment of a novel. It was a legacy that my father took seriously because he, too, believed that literature was a route to life after death. My father took this legacy so seriously that he wrote his own full-length novel based around the characters in his brother’s draft.
When, earlier this week, I read that draft for the first time, I comprehended something more about how much my father must have loved his little brother—for the novel fragment is a truly wretched amalgam of Christian angel-in-the-house romantic ideation and a John Wayne war movie. I’m not going to quote it to you because I feel protective about the scrap—not that it has any redeeming virtues as a work of fiction, but it pains me to imagine anyone ridiculing it. It is so earnest, so uncynical, so bald and absurd and babyish. No one would be surprised to learn that it had been written by a Presbyterian farm boy, the youngest child of John Birch Republicans—an embryo evangelist infatuated with notions of romance and heroism but unable to allow himself to look directly at his own desires.
My uncle neatly typed his novel scrap onto pink paper. He folded it, and slid it into an envelope, and mailed it to my father. Undoubtedly, like any writer, he let himself dwell for a moment on the dream we all dream—that he had created something rare and beautiful, that he had left his mark on the art. If I cannot bear the thought of your laughter, that’s because I know that I, too, would have laughed . . . if he had not been my child to protect.
This is the strange point we’ve come to, my uncle and I. My oldest son is nearly the age that my uncle was at his death. I have crossed the years, shifting from infant to mother. But he is still a raw young man, the child of the family, forever earnest and awkward and silly. Forever lost.
In the course of compiling her article about Paul’s death, the Trenton Evening Times reporter wandered around town asking various people what they thought about both the dead man and the war. “His father,” she wrote, “hopes that in 10 or 20 years, some good will come from the war so that his son’s life will not have been given in vain.” The barber, “a former American Legion commander,” told her, “If we’re going to fight, let’s fight and not play.” An ex-Navy man argued, “The military could end the war but the politicians won’t let them.” Mrs. Theoharis, over at the Candy Kitchen, “said the war is right but . . . the peace demonstrators are harming the effort.”
What else could a good boy do, when the grownups were saying, “Go”?
In 1968 an earthquake in Sicily killed 380 people, and American troops in My Lai killed 500 people. Joan Baez got married. Planet of the Apes was released. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Hair opened on Broadway. Bobby Unser won the Indianapolis 500. The pope condemned birth control. The Republicans nominated Nixon for president. Led Zeppelin first performed live. Yale announced that it would admit women. LL Cool J was born.
Many things happened in 1968, and I remember very few of them. I do recall dancing in the living room to, of all things, a recording of the Red Army Chorus singing “The Volga Boat Song.” I remember knowing which book on the shelf was Heidi, not because I could read but because I recognized the shape of the title on the spine. But I have no memory of my grandparents’ visit in late August, nor do I recall the soldiers who showed up at our house during that visit to tell us all that Paul was dead.
My uncle was attending a conference at Command and Control North, a Special Forces compound in Quang Nam province. Very early on the morning of August 23, the North Vietnamese attacked. According to an eyewitness, my uncle died in his bunk, “impaled by a jagged piece of two-by-four that a satchel charge blew through his chest, literally nailing him to the bed.”
The army returned his unopened mail to my father.
In a brief metaphorical poem called “Time,” the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley constructs an image of time as an “Unfathomable Sea! whose waves are tears.” “Who shall put forth on thee?” he asks. Sailing into our own past requires us to navigate not only our guilt and our shame but also our ignorance. Logically, I should not feel guilt over my uncle’s loss, yet I do feel it . . . perhaps simply because I have always loved being alive.
In 1968, a foolish, romantic young man died stupidly in a stupid war. My parents and grandparents and aunt and uncle were devastated, but my own life was barely touched. I rode my tricycle up and down the driveway. I tried to dress up the cat in doll clothes. I listened to The Wind in the Willows,and I hugged a stranger’s Great Dane. I choked on a fishbone and stuffed a wad of Scotch tape up my nose.
There is no moral to this story.
There is no end to lost time.
Dawn Potter is the author of a number of books including How the Crimes Happened published by Cavan Kerry.
(c) 2018 Dawn Potter.