Ken Burns and Me

Lots of people have been asking me about this new multiepisode documentary from Ken Burns. Have I watched it?

No, I have not. I like Ken Burns’s work. I’ve seen some of his documentaries, and I know he’s a talented storyteller. But I’ll need to be in a really happy place before I sit down and watch The Vietnam War, which aired in the last half of September 2017. Because, you know, I lived it.

Have I said this before? My father never carried a gun; he had a government-issued one, but it stayed on a high shelf in my parents’ closet. He was not a gun person; he was born in the city (St. Louis), raised in the city. He hated guns (because he knew what they could do), and was vocal about it, and about war in general. (He’d studied military history in college. He didn’t think war solved much.) He was a guy who loved people but thought humanity could think up some pretty bad stuff.

My father was a US Air Force pilot (he enlisted during the Korean War, to avoid being drafted into the army). He went in as an enlisted man but was noticed as officer material and went first to OCS (Officers’ Candidate School) and then to pilot training.

My mother, who was crippled from polio when she six (one gimpy leg, always walked with a limp) was diagnosed with MS when I was six or seven (this would have been ’59 or ’60). When I was ten, she could no longer sign her name (too shaky to write). They barely knew what MS was back then, much less how to treat for it. So I became the joint signatory on my dad’s checking account and wrote out all the bills. Why? Because Daddy was on-7-off-7, because he was in SAC (Strategic Air Command—the guys who run to the planes when the sirens go off). He wasn’t always there to take care of those things, so I, the oldest child, did. I did the family grocery shopping and wrote checks for them. (Another ordeal, since in theory little kids don’t write checks, right?)

At that time Daddy was flying KC-135s. (These planes are for in-air refueling; I did not appreciate how dangerous a task this was until years later when I saw the movie Air Force One, such is the innocence/ignorance of youth.) But he had flown helicopters when he was—and we were—younger. Now, the Vietnam conflict had been going on for some years and they had lost a lot of helicopter pilots. Helicopters are hard to learn (longer training period), hard to fly—much, much harder than a plane. So Uncle Sam started rounding up people like my dad.

Jim Clarke. The best there ever was.

The year I was thirteen we learned he was to go to Vietnam—a thirty-nine-year-old with a sick wife and three young kids—so I had to get an emergency driver’s license, because by that time my mom couldn’t drive either (too shaky). This was unheard of; it was a MAJOR ORDEAL for that to happen. But it did happen, and I began doing all the family driving at thirteen while Daddy was in Vietnam the first time. I carried a gasoline credit card.

Daddy did a second tour, right near the end of the war. He took photos (slides, Ektachrome) during both assignments. A few years ago G took all our family slides—40+ magazines of 36 slides each—back to Dublin to put them through a professional-grade scanner, then color-corrected them and loaded three sets for each of us kids. Lots of these were growing-up family stuff but there were a few magazines from Vietnam. We’d seen the family stuff many times. We’d never seen the Vietnam stuff. It was eye-opening. Heartbreaking. He wrote captions on the slide-carriers, like “Sometimes I just cry.”

He was stationed in Thailand and flew into Vietnam, low, under the radar, at night to pick up downed pilots. Extremely dangerous. He also evacuated women and children from active war zones. It is a miracle he came back to us, twice. But after the second time he was done. He’d intended to stay in the Air Force longer, but he left after twenty-three years. He was never the same after Vietnam. (Although as a human, he was magnificent.) That first year after his return, he sat in the living room and stared at the walls a lot. He cried sometimes.

Meanwhile, of course, those of us back home got to see “live from Vietnam” reports every night on the six o’clock news.

Anyway, I have not yet looked at the slides, much less the Burns documentary. Vietnam profoundly affected my family, and I have been burdened with the unpleasantness of it my entire life. Maybe later.

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