A guide for ENGL 2501 and ENGL 3801
For decades, there was really only one narrative that covered my father’s service in the Vietnam War. It’s the story of the end of his service in Vietnam, and how he met his daughter for the first time.
Bruce W. Lord was drafted in February 1966. He was always very specific about this: it was not his choice to go. The youngest of five brothers and the only one to graduate high school, my father met my mother at UMass Amherst and married just after graduation in 1964 (Feature Writing students may remember the story of the engagement announcement from the mystery-solving class). By the time he left for Vietnam, my mother was pregnant. Dad went to Saigon with the 44th Med Brigade; Mom went to Cape Cod to ride out his service and the rest of her pregnancy with her mother and step-father.
The argument for years was who had a tougher time in the war. Nana wasn’t exactly the easiest person in the world but, then again, she preferred verbal barbs to bullets.
So the story goes: my parents wrote letters to each other daily, arguing over what to name the baby. The last letter from my dad declared that his daughter would be born on June 12, 1967 and would be named Jennifer Suzanne Lord. My mother, watching the movie “Can-Can” on June 11, went into labor and gave birth to, yes, a daughter, who, yes, became part of the vanguard of the Jennifers who populated the 1970s.
Six months later, Dad came home. Mom picked him up at the airport and brought him back to my grandmother’s house, where he was undeterred by the news that the baby was napping and should not be disturbed. Dad looked into the crib — and I looked up at him and gave him a great big grin.
You’ll note this story is an ending. The handsome serviceman comes home to wife and daughter and life continues where it left off. The credits roll.
There were other bits that came out over the years. There was a small cane in the corner of my parents’ bedroom that Dad said he carried after he received news of his impending discharge from the war. There were dogtags dangling from the caricature of my father made during his time at Lambda Chi Alpha, his college frat. I found copies of a newspaper in the basement with Snoopy cartoons that my father said he drew, because he didn’t have access to actual Peanuts comic strips. There were letters, too, with interesting stamps. I remember my brother asking once if he’d ever fired a gun or been shot at; we were little and the question was shot down.
We didn’t talk about Vietnam.
Vietnam was there in the background. My father went to Suffolk Law School at night on the G.I. Bill. When he ran for state representative, the ballot had the notation “veteran” under his name. My high school history teacher, a self-described “radical,” spoke negatively about the men who served in the Vietnam War instead of protesting; I called him an asshole after class and mocked his dedication to free speech when he attempted to send me to the principal’s office. I took political science with Howard Zinn in college and wrote in my class journal about my father’s reaction — Zinn had gone to Vietnam to protest American involvement.
We didn’t talk about Vietnam.
My mother took my father to Washington, D.C. to look at the Vietnam Wall. I lived at home and worked at my first newspaper job, writing obits and answering phones at the Boston Herald. He mentioned a few things about Vietnam — starting a newspaper, getting interrupted while reading Catch-22 by a person who was actually named Major Major, having dreams about his service. I moved away, got married, had kids, brought him a Snoopy dressed as the Red Baron. He gave us names to photograph when we took the kids to D.C. for our own trip to the Vietnam Wall, asked us to take a photo of the Nurses Memorial.
Driving into Boston one day with my then-middle school aged son, he started talking about Vietnam.
My father traveled from medical unit to medical unit in a position that was mostly clerical. He talked about how impressed he was with the nurses he met, women in a military that wasn’t quite female-friendly. He talked about Saigon, the roads, the black market trading that was just part of life in a war zone. I was driving; I wished for my notebook.
Last year, he sat for the video above for the Bellingham/Mendon Veteran’s Oral History Project. It wasn’t easy to watch. He had been unhappy for years that no one really asked about Vietnam. It had been ingrained when I was younger: he came home, we had the happy ending. We don’t ask about what was actually in the envelopes with the interesting stamps. We didn’t talk about what it was like to come home from an unpopular war to sudden fatherhood, an unwelcoming mother-in-law and people who just didn’t want to talk about Vietnam.
This, for my fall Introduction to Journalism students, is the final exam: Interview a military veteran. It must be someone who has seen service during wartime; it does not have to be an American. It can be someone who is serving now if they have been overseas for at least a year. Talk about their life before their service, their life during, their time adjusting to their return. You must have information from at least two other sources besides your veteran, they can be family members, friends, or military groups.
While the above is all decidedly a memoir and told in first person, your story will not be. The final project must be written as a news profile — no first person, no Q&A format. Ask for photographs to include with your story, which you will post to your blog.
We will discuss how to locate your veterans in class on Friday. Start within your own family and circle of friends; crowdsource on Twitter and Facebook. You may be surprised at how easy it is to find a veteran — there are a lot of them out there.
You’ll be surprised what they say when they’re finally asked to talk.