The Last War Story

The Last War Story

By Michael Knight
Phoenix: Spring 2004, Inspirations Issue

My father's war story is a simple one.

He shipped out to Vietnam in 1968, an ROTC lieutenant, trained for airborne duty. All blood and balls, to hear him tell it, but I have a difficult time seeing my father in that more dangerous light. He is a small man, maybe five foot eight, the top of his head hardly even with my chin. He jogs twice a week. He wears bifocals and carries a key ring with too many keys. But there he was, twenty-two years old, standing on the tarmac with the other new arrivals, waiting for somebody to tell him which way to go, when four guys pulled up in a truck and started reloading the plane with coffins, dead men to be channeled home. He stopped counting at nineteen. He had a change of heart.

Much to his relief, he was routed out of airborne two days later and assigned to an officer’s club on the South China Sea. My father spent Vietnam at the beach. He played volleyball and borrowed insect repel- lent. He managed inventory at the club; it would have been a tragedy if the war ran out of booze. He attended hygiene classes and wrote letters to a new wife back in Alabama. He bought a camera, like he was away at summer camp, and mailed the pictures home: palm trees and elephant grass and men whose names he can’t remember now He saw traces of the war, distant blooms of light above the tree line and flickering sound, like thunder and heat lightning. They had resupply choppers moving in and out and sometimes they took mortar fire, a few stray rounds that scattered sand and seawater impressively then tapered off without anybody getting hurt. His commanding officer—a Texan named Bible—maintained a veneer of military discipline, salutes and guard duty and observation posts out on the perimeter, but nothing serious, nothing that could get you killed.

Once or twice a week, my father would wander down to the nearby village with his camera and his sidearm. He never carried bullets but he always had plenty of film. He took pictures of mud huts and water buffalo and old women washing clothes in the Chu Lai River. This one particular mama San had picked up a few bars of I Wanna be Loved by You from somewhere. Boop boop be doop, she would say when he took her picture. And my father would say it right back, boop boop be doop, like it was part of some secret that they shared.

If this was a more complicated story, here would come the rising action. My father would be transferred to a combat unit or his old mama San would turn out VC and try to kill him in his sleep. But, as I said, this war story is a simple one. The hero does his rotation and ships home and marries the girl. She bears him two children, four years apart. They build a house on a river and he practices law in the town of his birth. Every morning he wakes and kisses his wife and sees his kids off to school and never once is he called upon to prove his courage in the traditional sense. He never faces down an intruder or rescues his family from a fire. No one gets cancer or has an affair. So where is the dramatic tension? Where is the rush of a narrative line?

When I was sixteen years old, I gave my father a story that I had written. It was about a kid my age who heard voices and went around starting fires all the time. My father came back to my room in the middle of the night and sat on the edge of the bed. He shook my shoulder to wake me. He wanted to be sure everything was all right. I told him I was fine; it was just a story. I could see a light outside on the end of the wharf, and I knew my father was debating whether or not he needed to haul himself down there and take care of it before he went to bed. My father is the sort of man who will let a thing like that—a burning light or an open window or an unanswered question—keep him awake at night. I could sense him weighing matters in his head, the winter cold and getting dressed all over again versus the effect a light left burning would have on his sleep. He sighed and shifted on the bed.

“What happened to simple stories?” he said. “Why can’t people ever write stories where everything turns out all right in the end?”

“That’s not a story,” I said. “You could write about a father and son who go fishing or something and discover they have a lot in common,” he said. “That’s a story I’d like.”

“Right,” I said. “Sure.”

After a while he patted me on the back and shuffled off in his bedroom slippers, closing my door behind him. I was big on privacy in those days. I listened to him grumbling to my mother about the light, heard the back door open and close. He appeared in the yard in a parka and winter boots a few seconds later and made his way to the end of the wharf. For a long time, he just stood there, his breath ghostly in the cold. The water was as dark and still as the sky Insects darted against the warm bulb casting extravagant shadows. I watched him shake his head, clearing out the at my window and hit the light switch and I couldn’t see him anymore.

Here, then, is a story for my father.

Inspiration: “There’s just enough untruth here to call this piece fiction but it was obviously inspired by my dad, his war story, our so-so relationship. I wanted to write about simple, everyday heroism. Being a good father, a good and decent man in general looks pretty heroic to me, especially given the fact that my dad has me for a son—I had issues, ok, leave me alone—and now that I have a child oh my own.” 

 

Artwork: "Young Street Bridge - Aberdeen, Washington" by Jody Lynn