A book brought my dad back from the dead, to tell me things he never could have told me while alive.
Here is what happened. While touring for my book Seinfeldia, I appeared at the Broward Public Library Foundation’s annual Literary Feast fundraiser, which features a bunch of authors talking about their books and signing them. During the signing, I was seated next to Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Robert Olen Butler. I overheard him talking about his new book, Perfume River, to an admirer, and explaining that it was about a Vietnam vet and that he himself was a Vietnam vet.
After the admirer left, I told him my father was a fellow vet. I likely dropped the scant facts I knew: First Cavalry, yes, he saw combat, late ‘60s, I thought. I rushed to buy the book and asked Mr. Butler to sign it. “Pulitzer Prize,” I said lamely, looking at the accolade on the cover. “That must have been cool, huh?”
He confirmed as much, then said something better: “Can I thank him for his service? Some vets don’t like that.”
“He’d like that very much,” I said.
He really would have liked it. I was going to give it to him for Father’s Day, which was about six weeks away. Four weeks later, my father died with no warning. A heart attack, peaceful, exactly the way he would have wanted it. A bit of a shock for us, though.
Sixteen months later, I finally brought myself to open the book. As I read about a character named Robert who was a Vietnam vet, now 70, as he faced the death of his own remote father, I realized: This book had never been for my father. It had always been for me.
I have always turned to books and pop culture—other people’s stories—to understand myself. After all, I grew up to write books about pop culture history. I struggle to recognize my own feelings, as many hours of therapy can attest, but I see them, feel them, when they’re somebody else’s. Classic good-girl syndrome: I feel for others, not for myself. So books, movies, television, and music have always been my conduit to human emotion.
It follows, then, that when my father died in May 2017, I looked to other people’s stories. First they provided distractions from my grief: I binge-watched 13 Reasons Why and The Handmaid’s Tale in the weeks following; I liked seeing people with much bigger problems than my own. But his funeral had also inspired me to learn more about his life, which, it turned out, had been fuller than I had known. He had many friends, most of them fellow veterans, who described him as the center of the action, the guy who showed up for every gathering and ceremony at the VFW or the veterans’ cemetery. His schedule, packed with National Anthem flag-foldings and fundraisers and meetings and funeral services, sounded exhausting.
I had known that his Army service and the war had affected him deeply, and I was aware that he was active with these groups. I just didn’t understand how much more I didn’t understand, until he was gone.
I started with reading the letters he’d written home from Vietnam to his ex-wife, which we discovered in his office after he died. But I wanted more context, more feeling for what he had been through. I worked my way through Ken Burns’s excellent Vietnam documentary series, songs by Paul Simon (one of my dad’s favorites), and Perfume River. I just finished watching the most recent season of the NBC drama This Is Us, which has the 38-year-old actor character, Kevin Pearson, researching the Vietnam service of his dead father, Jack, which we also see in flashbacks. They’ve all given me pieces of my dad I couldn’t get from him while he was alive.
Family stories are often among the least detailed of all the stories we’ll have in our lives. They’re passed down vaguely, to children who don’t think to ask questions until it’s too late. The details are often blurred because the parents blur them, knowing they must tell the story but not wanting to admit to how things really happened. It’s often when we go to recount a story as an adult that we realize it makes little sense: Wait, so was I or was I not intentionally conceived? … The math doesn’t line up at all. … Who proposed to whom?
War stories are even murkier. Vietnam stories tend to be the murkiest. For most of my life, my father didn’t speak about the war. He got angry at my mother and me for watching the Tom Cruise movie Born on the Fourth of July, a biopic about a veteran who returns home and becomes an anti-war activist. He hated Jane Fonda. I consistently forgot and would carelessly bring up her workout videos or movies. To me she was the lady who taught me to do leg lifts. His strong reactions, however, only prove the power of pop culture stories.
They also hinted at how important Vietnam was to his story. During the Jane Fonda Workout years, my dad was trying to live a regular life: dad to a 7-year-old daughter, husband to a stay-at-home mom, guy who went to work with a briefcase every day. It wasn’t until 20 years later that he made his service the focus of his life again.
By that time, the early 2000s, I had moved out of our house in the Chicago suburbs, and so had my siblings, who had been born when I was 8 and 10 years old. He’d spent much of the past two decades drinking, leading eventually to a DUI and mandatory counseling. His relationship with my mom had deteriorated, though they remained together. He quit drinking, cold turkey, then joined the local VFW post and a memorial squad at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in nearby Elwood, Illinois.
Now he wore some variant of an Army uniform nearly every day and spent most days making coffee for World War II vets, organizing Honor Flights to recognize vets of all ages, posting colors at various local events, speaking to groups about being a veteran, and probably lots of other things I’ll never know about. He explained the memorial squad to me: Every Thursday, they’d spend all day performing funerals for veterans, playing “Taps” and shooting the 21-gun salute. Every veteran got this send-off, no matter how few people had showed up for them otherwise. For some veterans, the squad was the only presence at their casket. He concluded his explanation matter-of-factly: “You’ll see it when I die. You’ll like it.”
I saw it many times before he died, as I spent several days at the cemetery with him and his squad. Still, he was correct. When he did die, I loved his ceremony, because his funeral fell on a Thursday, which meant that his actual squad performed it. God, would he love knowing that.
I felt, in some ways, like I met my father at his funeral. In our family, he was known as quiet and withdrawn, conflicted and troubled. His friends described a busy, take-charge guy. I presume he dropped his baggage around them. He didn’t have to try to be some idealized husband and father; he didn’t have to pretend the war didn’t hang over his life. Somehow, it seemed, when he was with others who understood his veteran-ness, he no longer carried it as a not-so-secret burden. It was simultaneously all of who he was while not defining him anymore.
I wanted to know him more now, but not in a regretful way. Honestly, it’s been easier to know him now that he’s gone. I started with reading his wartime letters as well as some interviews he did with an oral historian and some newspaper reporters. I learned what his everyday life in the war was like, which was rather boring a lot of the time. I learned that he loved his first wife very much, in an innocent, young-love way. I learned that they struggled with jealousy during their time apart. I learned that he wanted her to know he loved her, but he didn’t feel like he was very good with words. I learned that he killed a man.
I learned that he felt the war wasn’t all bad, because he got his three kids out of it. That was how he said it, the implication being something like this: He got divorced from his first wife because of the war, he remarried to my mom, and he got us. This won’t leave me: I had long known the war had shaped my father. I had never thought about the war making me.
I wanted more, of course. I had questions now. But he was gone, so I had this: I was the good that came out of that horror.
The history of the Vietnam War was the history of me, so I was lucky that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick released their stunning ten-part documentary about it in September 2017, just four months after my father’s death. It was life-changing to suddenly see Ho Chi Minh and his revolution for Vietnamese independence from the French as a key event in my own life, especially since it happened twenty years before I was born, in 1954.
I finally understood that North Vietnam was occupied by Communists, while the South was perpetually unstable and doomed to fail; America picked the losing side out of pure American hubris. The North was not going to give up, no matter how many people it lost, and that seems so clear when viewed from now. The light at the end of the tunnel promised by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration did not exist. The light did not exist.
It’s easy to see how bad decisions compounded bad decisions as you watch the documentary, as you view events in retrospect. If only the anti-war protests had worked. If only we would have given up earlier. If only Richard Nixon, during his first successful run for president in 1968, hadn’t persuaded the South Vietnamese leader to ditch peace talks so Nixon could win the election. So many times, my dad could have ended up not going to war, and I found myself rooting for this impossibility throughout. I was rooting for my own nonexistence, and his peace.
My mom and I went to Paul Simon’s final tour stop before retiring from the road, the last on his 2018 Homeward Bound tour, which was at Corona Park in Queens in September. Paul Simon might be the one artist everyone in my family truly loves, and we went partly in memory of my dad, who gave Paul Simon to the rest of us. Amid the hits Simon played was a deep cut I hadn’t caught before, a song called “Rewrite” from his 2011 album. Hearing it for the first time that night, live, forced spontaneous tears from my eyes. The narrator is a Vietnam veteran who is either trying not to fuck up his life or wishing he hadn’t fucked up his life.
I started listening closely because it has one of those great, skipping “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”-style beats Simon loves, and because I like any song about writing. The concept is there from the beginning:
I’m workin’ on my rewrite, that’s right
Gonna change the ending
Throw away the title
And toss it in the trash.
The stab to the heart comes in the final verse:
I’ll eliminate the pages
Where the father has a breakdown
And he has to leave the family
But he really meant no harm
Gonna substitute a car chase
And a race across the rooftops
Where the father saves the children
And he holds them in his arms.
My father may not have been perfect at the parent job, he may have been forced to keep parts of himself locked away from us and lost some critical emotional connections in the process. But this man, my father, diagnosed decades later with PTSD and finally treated for it, kept it together the whole time, at least when it came to his children. He provided for us, he was good at his job as a grocery buyer, and he did not leave us. I’m sure he would rewrite parts of his relationships with us if he could; I know I would. I remember wishing at times that he were a different kind of dad, a “normal” kind, as I called it in my head, who would do the emotional work so that I didn’t have to. I wanted him to be the dad, accessible and loving, reaching out, because I didn’t want to figure out how to reach him. When he died, I realized that I didn’t want him to be different. I wish I could have relaxed into the reality of who he was and met him there.
He didn’t need a car chase, a race across the rooftops. He didn’t need a massive rewrite. He didn’t have to save us. We were just fine.
That brings us to, in some ways, the most complicated of my grief-driven pop cultural obsessions: the impossibly perfect patriarch, Jack, on the NBC drama This Is Us. Played by Milo Ventimiglia in various forms of makeup and hair to age and de-age him, Jack is a Vietnam vet who also manages to be a classic TV dad, constantly giving perfect pep talks, leading his children by example, and disciplining them with understanding and grace. He is a role model, the gold standard all three of his children look to for inspiration throughout their adulthood.
I have always been wary of Jack, and of this series. But I was drawn to it from the beginning, despite my skepticism about its syrupy, family-first ethos. And it ended up being another funhouse-mirror reflection of my grief, starting before I knew I would lose my dad. Like that book from the book fair, Perfume River, it looked, in retrospect, mystical, as if I had gathered cultural items ahead of time that would later see me through. But This Is Us has proven even more complicated, perhaps because of its made-for-TV simplicity.
When I read Perfume River, it helped because it was about a Vietnam veteran grieving his own father’s death, so it was like grieving my father right alongside him. This is Us has made me angry, sad, nostalgic, wistful, angry again. I have threatened to stop watching it dozens of times, but I have always gone back. And now that this most recent season had one of Jack’s sons, Kevin, piecing together his untold Vietnam story, complete with flashback scenes, I was stuck with it for another season during which I alternated between tears of recognition and rage at its impossible depiction of a family who always expresses their feelings perfectly and is there for each other.
I started watching This Is Us while on book tour in 2016. If you’re stuck in a hotel room for the night, most of the time you’re stuck watching TV the old-fashioned way, viewing whatever happens to be on. One night I watched The Voice because I always watch The Voice, and throughout the show, promos ran for a new drama called This Is Us. I had heard about how it was a family drama with a twist, but I wasn’t planning on watching until I saw the commercials featuring Sterling K. Brown, whom I’d fallen for hard because of his depiction of prosecutor Christopher Darden in The People vs. O.J. Simpson.
I tuned in, and I did kind-of like the twist, that we would be watching three 30-something siblings in present day and in their family-history past. I quickly grew irritated with the character of their father, Jack, who set that impossible standard for fathers. But I liked that the show was largely about these adult siblings and their father issues, given that he died young. I wailed a cathartic cry when we finally saw how Jack had died, which involved an unfortunate CrockPot product placement. After I cried, I laughed. A CrockPot? This was oddly soothing for me: such a silly, TV-melodramatic death, such a real and still-raw feeling for me, eight months after my dad’s death.
I was ready to quit the Pearson family at the end of last season, their second, until I learned that Kevin would be investigating his dad’s Vietnam history. So this fall, I was back in again, and as conflicted as ever. The flashbacks continued to make me think about my dad’s own story. The episode in which Jack’s brother is drafted is particularly strong in its detail. He finds out by watching a lottery on television, where certain birthdates were called to service. It had never occurred to me, the mechanics of being drafted. I don’t know how my dad found out that he was. I’m hoping I can still learn.
I keep waiting, however, for Jack to emerge as a little less perfect. Yes, yes, he was an alcoholic, but that still doesn’t seem to have tarnished his image much. I was surprisingly infuriated by a promo for a Vietnam flashback episode that promised, “Find out how Jack became Jack.” Like it was a superhero origin story. Like Vietnam made men instead of destroying them. Of course it did both. But the simplicity enraged me.
I don’t want my dad to have to be a hero.
Besides the broader outlines of his Vietnam story that I have picked up since he died, through his letters and my cultural intake, this is what I have learned. The Vietnam veteran at the center of Perfume River was damaged by war and flawed in all the typical human ways, and I liked him that way. I was just rooting for him to connect, despite it all, with his wife or his brother.
I didn’t need a hero. I just needed my dad to stick around and be a dad, the best he could. He gave me that. And from what I’ve learned about that war and its aftermath, that alone made him enough of a hero for me.
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