Friday, March 30, 2007

Memoria: a Continuation

As I said a couple of weeks ago, I am slowly transferring posts from my Memoria blog for the purposes of consolidation. In that first Memoria post, I explained that an email from my Uncle L.T. had fallen out of a old journal. Written almost two years before he died, he was responding to a letter I'd sent him. He had previously shared an excerpt with me from a book about one soldier's experiences in Vietnam. I must have written that the story seemed surreal to me and this is what my uncle said in response:

Yes, that story did have a surreal imagery to it, didn't it. But for me it rang true and clear. The banality and mundaneness of worrying over what you were carrying as violence and death were moments away. In the unit I was in, 101st Airborne we stayed out on longer missions. Typically we were in the bush for 3 to 4 weeks at a time. We would be light re-supplied with ammo and food every four days and then a heavy re-supply every 8 days. So you worried and fussed over ounces and keeping your rucksack as light as possible (even though it was always over a hundred lbs.) At the same time you lived with the daily possibility of firefights, ambush, and booby traps. It really was long stretches of boredom interrupted by moments of intense terror.

On one mission we had been humping the bush for days on end it seemed. It was hot, humid with the ground being marsh-like so our feet were getting in bad shape. The marsh had made the walking more difficult so everyone was tired and grumpy. We found a dry spot and took a break. I was sitting on my rucksack talking to Luther Ward who was maybe 3 feet from me sitting on his rucksack. Suddenly the right upper fourth of Luther's head exploded out splattering his blood and brains everywhere. Luther did not die immediately. Even though he was in shock he continued to gurgle and make sounds. I cut a tracheotomy on him so that he could breathe and put a field bandage on his head. He continued to gurgle and make sounds till the evacuation helicopter picked him up.

But once he was gone the banality of our existence continued as we put our rucksacks back on and walked and walked and walked. For hours that day and for days to come we walked. Extreme boredom interrupted by moments of intense terror. Word came down the next day that Ward was dead. Word came down over the radio and the news was passed up and down the line. And we walked.

That is only the second story I know of a specific event which my uncle experienced in Vietnam. I'll tell the other story another time. Both stories, however, have horrific aspects to them. He was only 19 at the time, I believe. He was this goofy guy who played practical jokes on people and liked to laugh all the time.

To imagine just sitting there when someone right next to you was killed.

To try to help that person but having to just do what you can and then move on.

To know that it could just as easily have been you.

It isn't difficult to understand that a one year tour of duty had a profound impact on his life. I think for years and years he never talked about his experiences. I believe only after he went through rehab, lost his marriage and was working on recovery that he opened up a little more about his time there. At least to me. I'm glad to know something of his experiences. It does help me understand part of what haunted him. I'm glad he shared with me. He was an incredible man--incredibly intelligent, funny, talented, flawed.

I wish we could still be sharing.

P.S. By the way, I'm kind of the queen of internet tangents... After rereading this email, I was poking around online looking up stuff on the 101st Airborne, eventually that led to a website for the Vietnam War Memorial. They have a "virtual wall" that allows you to look up names. I typed in Luther Ward and there were two entries. One died in the late 60s. But the other died on October 30, 1971. That is about the time my uncle was there. It is weird to see but at the same time almost reassuring. On that wall is a part of Uncle L.T.'s history even though his name isn't there.



March, 30 2006: A few weeks after finding that email, I was in Border's and happened across a book called The Things They Carried, a soldier's memoir of Vietnam. Because I had been writing about my uncle, I decided to buy it. As I started reading, I realized it was the book my uncle had shared with me.

11 comments:

Alpha DogMa said...

I got chills up my spine reading that.

daisies said...

wow ... i have no words but this was so moving and intense and somehow beautiful, thank you for sharing ...

Mel said...

No words......

Lots of fragmented thoughts on the things they all got to carry....

*hugs*

atypical said...

I too felt the beauty and the sadness all rolled up into a soldier's pack.

{{{hugs}}}

Thank you for sharing a little bit of your uncle with us.

-t

Julie Pippert said...

That war---any war---is tragically surreal. When I interviewed WWII vets, they had one sort of mentality about it. When I interviewed Vietnam vets, they had a different mentality. I think people changed how they viewed war. This doesn't mean they questioned the noblility of what they did, or didn't feel patriotic. I just mean, something changed. I can't quite put my finger on it.

Someday I'll share why, but suffice it to say it really resonates with me, what you write, and think about it.

Aliki2006 said...

Tim O'Brien has written many, many books and stories about his time in Vietnam. I have a few of his books and I recently finished teaching "How to Tell a True War Story" in my War & Culture class. He's an amazing writer--he's talked much about how he blends fact with fiction and about how very vrey difficult it is to sit down and write about war--an act which seems so unspeakable and unwriteable (to coin a word!).

Heart-breaking about your uncle's experiences...

Mary-LUE said...

Aliki, There is a chapter in The Things They Carried which talks about story truth versus happening truth. I think I wrote a post about it after reading the book. I read that part of the book right as the James Frey controversy was brewing. It was quite interesting to have that in my mind as I watched that situation unfold.

Pendullum said...

And you are so right on the mark looking for the name on the virtual wall.. It somehow validates experiences of your uncle's distant past at a distance...
So very sad for his loss then, and happy that he madeitthrough... andthe scars these boys/men carried may not have been physical but would have been emblazed upon their minds and hearts forever..

Em said...

Wow.

I can't even imagine the utter horror.

atypical said...

Yoo hoo, Mary! Where are you? I hope all is well, and you are just caught up in the wonderful adventures of daily life.

-t

edj said...

Great post. (Sorry I'm a little behind on my blog reading) THanks for sharing a bit of your uncle with us. He was an excellent writer, too.