Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Semper Fi

What It Means to Be the Daughter of a Marine

I am the oldest daughter of a United States Marine. Born in the Pink Doctor Building during the final years of a Cold War conflict we did not win, I learned to walk on Honolulu’s sandy beaches, waving to the improbable sky hippopotamus that hovered over the sea behind my base house, its tandem rotors thumping rhythms I felt in my bones, its lights flashing red and green, port and starboard, my father’s way of signaling his love to my mother and me as we collected blue glass balls that washed up on our beach. The glass balls, my father said, once floated fishing nets in far-away Japan.

My father, USMC Captain Theodore Thomas Long, Jr., piloted CH-46 Sea Knights during the final gasps of the Vietnam War. He earned his nickname, “Machine Gun,” when he asked his CO to transfer him from an assault squadron to a unit that flew medical rescue missions. Anybody who knew my father knows he could not have flown a gunship. He was not that kind of guy—he was the kind of guy who wept every time he read the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, who sang “When You Walk through a Storm” so clear and sweet it gave you goose bumps.  

My father’s Vietnam was not Ken Rodger’s Vietnam, not the “confused alarms of struggle and flight” described so vividly in Ken’s documentary of the siege of Khe Sahn, Bravo: Common Men, Uncommon Valor. You see, my father was an officer. He joined the ROTC in college, where he majored in Political Science. Dad started his thesis with the intention of defending the Vietnam War and the United States’ role in it. Upon researching the subject, he concluded that the war was indefensible. Then he graduated and went to fly helicopters in Vietnam anyway, because that’s what you do when you love your country: you support it, right or wrong.  And my Dad, the fatherless liberal Democrat Mormon boy from Utah, loved America.

Here is what it means to be the daughter of a United States Marine who served in Vietnam. Your first word is “jet” (“No, helicopter! Helicopter!” my Dad would say).  You belt out “From the halls of Montezuma” while the other kids are singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” You are never, ever allowed to say the word “Army.” When you forget to do your chores, your Dad yells, “Drop and give me 20,” and you do. On Sundays, the only movies you can watch are the following: Patton, The Great Escape, Victory at Sea, and Chariots of Fire. But mostly Patton. You and your siblings can reenact the entire film.

In sixth grade, on your Dad’s advice, you read The Iliad, holding your breath: “Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles.” Your teacher is disappointed with you because you write an epic poem in dactylic hexameter about a war between ants and wasps instead of a pretty lyric about butterflies.  In high school, you have your first crush on Lawrence of Arabia and begin to contemplate the oxymoronic problem of Heroism in the Modern Age. You learn what the word ambiguous means. You learn that things are not black and white. You learn to love America anyway.

In 1991, when you are home on break from college, driving with your Dad, who has just been diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia (a war he will not win), you find your way blocked by barricades, a parade with tanks and ticker tape to honor heroes of the Gulf War. Your Dad starts to cry. “They spit on me,” he says. “When I came home, they spit on me.”

I thought of all these things when I saw Bravo for the first time. Author and 1968 Khe Sahn siege survivor Ken Rodgers has been a longtime friend and mentor. I wrote my first novel (probably for myself) under his tutelage. There is nothing like learning the power of strong verbs from a man who experienced them like Ken did. Seeing Bravo made me understand some things I’d always wondered about my own father, about the war that shaped him, and by extension, me.

What I learned  from watching Bravo is this: you are never more alive than when you are facing death. In that moment, you are the Ubermensch, hyper-alive, hyper-aware. You can see bullets pass you by. You can contemplate their curves, their hard, deadly tips, the lovely crimson clouds that they create when they impact something not protected by a flak jacket. Watching Bravo, I learned that war is hell. But I also finally understood why we keep waging it. At some level, war is fun. And nothing else in life quite lives up to that powerful chemical cocktail your body slams when you face death (except maybe childbirth, but that’s another story).

Here is what it means to be the daughter of a United States Marine who served in Vietnam. When your father dies at age 50, they bury him near Hill Air Force Base, in the shadow of mountains, beneath the flight path. A bugler plays Taps. The guns salute. They hand your mom a folded flag. You don’t know whether the cancer that killed him was part of a cluster that afflicted Vietnam pilots, or whether it was because he was born in Reno, Nevada in 1944, or whether it was just one of those things.

You love America anyway. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

Read more about Bravo at http://bravotheproject.com