The first time I ever thought I had any idea who my father was, I was in college. It had been several years already since I’d seen him; he and my mother divorced when I was in the third grade. He left, or she threw him out, on Christmas morning. We had just opened presents and then, with little fanfare, he collected a few belongings and said he had to visit an ill relative in North Carolina. He’d be gone for a few days.
On occasion we saw each other between then and when I left home for school in 1997. He was an alcoholic and addicted to pain medications. He moved around the country a lot and married different women. He was a veteran of the Vietnam War.
It wasn’t until college that I began to know what any of that meant, or how they were intertwined. And it wasn’t until much later that I regretted not knowing more.
It was actually a man I’d never met before, an author, who first introduced me to my dad. Tim O’Brien, also a vet, wrote The Things They Carried and one of my professors assigned it as part of the course work. The book bleeds with fear and bravado and grotesque truths wrapped in the bullshit and the beauty of war. It is a book of stories no one had ever told me, but that I unknowingly and desperately wanted to hear.
Instantly, I began to imagine that my father’s experiences in Vietnam mirrored those O’Brien had written. Whether the details were the same – O’Brien was a grunt in the Army while my father was a river rat in the Navy – isn’t important. What mattered, to me anyway, is that someone was finally telling why they couldn’t just put down their rifle and pick up their son.
On Thursday, just this past week, I shook O’Brien’s hand in the foyer of Unity Temple in Oak Park and asked him to sign my beat-up copy of his novel. He was in town as part of a wider celebration of the 20th anniversary of when The Things They Carried was first published. For an hour that night, O’Brien talked about morality and the weight of huge decisions forced onto all of us. He spoke only a little of the writing process. His greatest point, the reason he continues to write about the war, is that it isn’t over yet. Not for him. Not for the aging parents whose sons were blasted into bits 40 years ago.
And, I’m learning, it’s not over for me.
I never heard any war stories from my father – his stories. Instead, he became an almost imaginary part of my life and I thought of him, sometimes with anger, sometimes with indifference, only as a representation of every clichéd stereotype to come out of Vietnam. And then he died. Alone. It wasn’t four months ago, on Christmas Eve.
I never heard any war stories from my father. But a man I once met told me some of his.
Josh Adams, former editor of the Forest Park Review, has been Wednesday Journal’s new reporter in River Forest. Next week, he will be leaving our company and moving with his wife to Nashville. We wish them all the best.