During my first semester of graduate school, on the recommendation of a friend, I checked out a battered copy of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s collection of autobiographical Viet Nam War stories, from the public library in Logan, Utah. That night, after putting my son to bed and surfing the web for an hour, I crawled to the futon I’d been sleeping on since my wife moved out and pulled the book from a stack on the hardwood floor. I drew back the hard black cover. The window fan was humming, and a stream of September air leafed through the table of contents and copyright before I reached down to stop the fluttering pages. My left pinky landed just under the title of the opening story. My eyes fell on the first sentence:
“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.” Six hours later, as the filter of pre-dawn was just beginning to lift and give form to the locust tree outside my bedroom window, I closed the book, flicked off the light switch, and fought the sun and the chatter of birds for an hour of sleep.
I grew up in the working class town of Dixon, Illinois. Like much of my boyhood cadre and our generation of notoriously directionless flannel shirts known as X, I am the child of a veteran of America’s most complicated war. Its lingering shadows—the divorces, the flashbacks, the disquieting sensitivities of our fathers to television violence, the sheer psychic distance of men whose hearts sagged with combustible loads of guerrilla combat—were the temperamental chaperons of our youth. Beneath the 1980’s small town smear of corner taps and Catholic churches, the aluminum clink of little league games and the massive willows on the grassy bank of the Rock River, they ran through our families like wild horses crossing an open plain—easy to spot, but hard to contain, and still harder to break. While our pack of unkempt hooligans roamed the woodlots and schoolyards, our families lived eerily parallel lives.
In one conspicuous respect, however, my house, the Quick family home, was a bit of an anomaly. At 311 Park Street, the physical scars—war’s visual expression—were uncommonly active and bright, prone to rhetorical flourishes, great leaps of imagination, and eye-catching turns of phrase. In the fibers of the body, our plot began twisting, and our road forked away from the others. In the flesh, our story—mine above all—became singular.
During his tour, my dad had been heavily exposed to the defoliating slurry of 2,4 dichlorophenoxyacetic acid and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid—better known as Agent Orange, king of rainbow herbicides—and had come home with a five-year chloracne rash. But the damage did not end there, for unseen in the compound that had sloshed behind orange stripes on the drums crewmen hoisted and sometimes spilled in the hulls of warplanes, lurked a stowaway named dioxin—among the most poisonous substances known to man.
Along some unprotected route of my father’s molecular highway, the scab of the toxic wound had broken, fluid leaked through permeable walls, and in the process of reproduction, traces of the chemical were picked up by the efficient courier of semen and carried to the first of his offspring. As cells replicated and began to take human form in my mother’s womb, the uninvited traveler jotted strange notes on the expanding pages of my body in a language my DNA could not decipher.
When I emerged from the cervical canal, my left hand was mangled and shrunken, the hole on the tip of my penis was nearly sealed shut, and I had half a foreskin. In the medical jargon, my hand was afflicted with syndactyly, and my penis suffered from hypospadias, but my APGAR score was a perfect ten. Like that of most newborn males in the maternity ward of the Morrison County Hospital, my genital flesh met a scalpel very soon after birth. Unlike the others, I wasn’t circumcised. Instead, my doctor took aim at the barely visible slit on the head of my phallus and nicked lengthwise until he was sure I could pee on my own.
I am not the sort of person who normally stays up all night plowing through a book, but I could not put O’Brien down. Something was there, something in the bluntness of his language and the cool description of the mundane and the macabre, something sacred and profane, an unsavory and absolute truth in those images of Southeast Asia. I felt as though I were sitting in a room with my father while he told me stories I hadn’t realized I needed to hear. One line stuck with me for days: “You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.” Even now, many moons later, those words hold weight. They catch in my head like a vivid dream, cause me to sit up straight, to look off toward the horizon in anticipation of some big truck carrying sacred cargo. It is that cargo—real or imagined—that I knew I had to search for.
At a fairly young age, I learned that I was not quite the same as other people, that there was something different, something I’ve often seen as grotesque. My response—contortion, a tendency toward concealment, the development of adaptive mechanisms—has spun both the fine details and the overall texture of my life in a web of cause and effect that I am only beginning to unearth. Though I’ve cleared dust from the silk as carefully as I can and tried to follow the pattern, my only tools are questions, no less porous than the history they attempt to interrogate. Still, imprecise or not, they are all I have, the only shovels in the bed of my truck, the only device I know how to use, the one place I can start.
My father suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) for years after his return—including the first and most impressionable decade of my life—and I’m certain I’ve inherited, through the environment of my youth, and perhaps, the mysterious dowry of genetics, many of the sensitivities that oozed from his wounds. But what, exactly—besides dioxin—has floated downstream in the hereditary flood, and how can I keep it from reaching my son? What light can a chronicle of Agent Orange—a history filled with obscurity, secrecy, and denial—shed on the hidden places of my own postmodern tale? Where are the crossroads in the journey through these questions, the confluences of meaning, that luminous cog drawing spokes to the wheel’s spinning center? Where is the metaphor?
In Black Virgin Mountain: A Return to Viet Nam, Larry Heinemann points to a peephole in one warrior’s mind. The sight is not encouraging, nor regrettably, at all unusual:
"The thousand-meter stare (as we called it) is a bluntly intense, narrowly absorbed concentration; perfect in its all-pervasive, unambiguous vacancy without warmth or light….And it was irresistible, you understand; by and by, you gave yourself up to it, and you even said it out loud, “I just don’t fucking care.” And I don’t know about anyone else just returned from overseas, but I felt joyless and old, physically and spiritually exhausted, mean and grateful and uncommonly sad…."
The Viet Nam Conflict was unlike its predecessors in that no clear sense of purpose ran through the troops, many of whom were drafted, came from poor and minority households, and generally didn’t believe that they fought for a better world. What’s more, as part of a well-intentioned but ill-conceived effort to provide GIs with fixed discharge dates, the Pentagon piloted a policy of individual troop rotation. The results were weakened attachments among soldiers, who moved from company to company, and a deep sense of isolation that only persisted as each man returned by himself to the odd calm of civilian life.
Where he married and had children. While there are exceptions, the majority of veteran fathers do not speak freely of their time in Southeast Asia. There are no reenactments of Viet Nam battles in city parks on Memorial Day. At VFW lodges, Viet Nam Vets sit by themselves in corners, not entirely comfortable with the past and not entirely accepted, even by veterans of other wars. Their stories are not shared. We children of the vets are left only with nuance and innuendo and the sneaking suspicion that much of the dissonance in our lives can be traced back to events that took place long ago in a far-off land.
On September 11, 2006, the fifth anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks, I parked my car in a lot on the outskirts of Tucson, threw my bag over my shoulder, and took the first essential steps of a pilgrimage through a charnel ground of accident and self-immolation toward a destiny I hadn’t begun to envision. As I approached the east gate of the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center—the 3000 acre desert sprawl of surplus military aircraft and parts—a woman in uniform waved me over, checked my identification, and told me to wait. Five minutes later, I found myself riding shotgun in a government van while Terry—my sure-handed civilian guide—steered us deeper into the military compound known in southern Arizona as the Boneyard. As we bounced through dust and washboards, fields of helicopters—black and half-hidden in uncut grass—blurred past on both sides.
The time was 10:30 am. At nearly that very minute five years earlier, American Airlines Flight 11 was picking up speed on a runway at Logan International Airport. Soon, very soon, the wheels of the aircraft would leave the pavement and the oppressive load of fuel and turbines and over-packed bags. Soon, the wheels would spin air. Captain John Ogonowski would pull up the landing gear one last time before cocking his head ever so slightly in the cockpit of the 767 to watch his beloved Boston relax and unravel below. Less than half an hour later, Flight 11 and three others like it would be converted to missiles.
On the edge of the desert metropolis, armed with a hunch and a few unpromising clues, I was digging through the memorial calm of that morning for the remnants of another small fleet of passenger planes that had been transformed by genius and ego into weapons of mass destruction. Here though, brains and audacity had been dressed not in the tunics and beards we’ve learned to associate with imaginative killing in the 21st Century. This was no relic of Islamic Jihad, no mere suicide bomb. Its creators, even in the 1950s, were beyond such crudeness. Theirs’ was an intellectual variety of warmongering, their creation the brainchild of militant chemists in crew cuts and suits—the starched wizards of the American intellectual class. The end result of their maniacal tinkering was a technically sweet, environmentally catastrophic, and ultimately ineffective campaign of biological warfare waged from water tanks and sprayers in a squadron of C-123 cargo planes—Operation Ranch Hand. During the late sixties and early seventies—the peak years of the military’s defoliation craze—the winged nozzles of Ranch Hand’s fleet unleashed millions of gallons of Agent Orange on the forest and farmland of Southeast Asia.
In the infancy of the new millennium, fresh legions of American veterans are returning, this time from theatres in Iraq and Afghanistan. They serve two, sometimes three tours of duty, participating in a new kind of guerilla warfare. When they come down with mysterious symptoms, they mull over nagging questions about the bromide vaccines, the pesticides, the depleted uranium, the rotten shells of nerve gas. They arrive home with the same Purple Hearts and are treated to the same brush off from the VA and military brass their fathers suffered thirty years before. It would be easy to argue that the matter of contemporary war consequence has never been more pertinent or less honestly dealt with. But on that early fall day in Tucson, Bagdad and Kabul were far from my mind. My mission was personal.
Though the story I was chasing was not new, its moral ironies are thick and persistent. Like all true war stories, it never seems to end. In the states, Viet Nam Veterans are dying in disproportionate numbers from half-a-dozen aggressive forms of cancer. The rashes on their backs still come and go. Defective children still flow from girlfriends and wives.
The news in Viet Nam is worse. Throughout the country, in hospitals, rural clinics, and the peace villages—state rehab centers sprinkled in eight towns from Sai Gon to Ha Noi—children with cleft pallets and clubbed feet swing away afternoons in mesh hammocks and scoot over floors on hands under the patient eyes of nurses who live on practically nothing and aides who live on less. Cropland and fishing grounds have yet to recover from the wartime rain of dioxin. Entire landscapes are sterile. Where spraying was heaviest—Quang Tri Province or Tay Ninh, my dad’s home for a year—a forty-year plague of still births and miscarriages has yet to subside. And yet, American leaders refuse to acknowledge all but the most ambiguously pointed fingers of blame.
As the desert sun arced toward noon, I found the aircraft, seventeen in all. Like the litter of toys from a long-forgotten game, they’d been left to the elements, spread out in brown stubble on the far side of a chain link fence. Thirty-five years after retirement, they were still too contaminated with dioxin to approach. This brief commune with devils from my past and the essay it spawned—“The Boneyard”—offer many connections, but little closure. That journey, the effort to clean out the wounds of a lifetime and add one small scrap to the wisdom to the collective quilt of moral witness, will prove to be the most arduous of my life.
The broken men of Esperanza en Escalante—the veterans’ shelter in the shadow of the Boneyard—will see me off, smiling and aware, I am sure, though they say nothing, that this road I’ve started down will lift me in its teeth, shake me like a mouse, and spit me out time and time again in caverns heaped with the unrefined sewage of self and nation and every precious thing in between. That it will sweep me across the ocean to the long emerald arms of Viet Nam where the murmur of my father will pull me through the folds of a landscape rich with an old and familiar sorrow.
As June rain falls on rice paddies, I will sink into the warm heart of a people who’ve welcomed a fortune much crueler than mine with a boundless capacity to forgive. I will retrace my father’s tour along the dirt paths that weave through the endless rows of rubber trees beneath the looming cone of Nui Ba Den—Heinemann’s Black Virgin Mountain—stopping for cà phê sữa đá and the undivided attention of widows and teenage girls in hamlets that haven’t seen white men in years. I will break bread with doctors and mutilated children, drink with journalists and accept gifts from mid-level officials of a government that is reviled by old men I’ll spend mornings with in Ha Noi. I will read the shitty copies of every banned Dương Thu Hương book I can buy from the street boys that lurk along Hoàn Kiếm Lake, I will roll down Highway One on my motorbike after midnight, and I will take ice in my beer. Mostly, I will fall in love. I will not want to leave. But I will. And when I do, I’ll be delivered back home to my child, the bearer of the immeasurable gift, the one person I can’t afford to fail.
In a restored South Tucson duplex a man must enter by stepping under a crown of wood etched with the name of the building's former incarnation--The Healing Clinic--I will try to be a father to my son. And I will write.