Growing up with a Vietnam Veteran as a Dad

dad during vietnam

I became aware of what being a veteran meant at a very young age.  Coming from a big military family, I enjoyed listening to all their stories.  Even if some were a bit embellished, and they were winking at me while telling them.  The picture above is my dad while in Japan getting ready to return from Vietnam.  My father was drafted right out of high school by the US Army, and sent to Vietnam with the other young men at the time.

His father would talk with me for hours about his time overseas during WWII, and I did many school papers on his experiences.  I would plop down on the couch beside him, and we would immediately get started with the personalized history lesson.  Note: It never really happened as the school history books claim…history books have definitely been whitewashed.

The following story happened when I was in the third grade.

I vividly remember Dad poking the fire in the stove one night.  I leaned down and tried to give him a hug while I cheerfully said, “Happy Veteran’s Day”.  This is the exact moment I knew the Vietnam War was different than the others.

He looked up at me, and his eyes had this wide intense and scary look to them.  He then barked, “Don’t ever say that to me”.  Of course, the light from the fire on his face made it even scarier.  The look in his eyes, well…it is hard to explain exactly how they came across.  At that young age, I saw my father look straight through me with a fiery vacant and piercing hate.  My Dad was not behind those ice blue daggers, and I instantly knew it.  We were inches apart, and I started crying as I got back up.  He returned his gaze to the fire, and didn’t come back to the present for quite a while.

My mother immediately told him that I didn’t know, and that I was trying to be sweet.  He never responded back to her.  She then told me about the Vietnam War, and also how Dad was treated once he returned home.  Of course, she came in my room and told me this, not in front of him.  I have been on the receiving end of that look since, but I also have tried to avoid situations where it would come out.  I would just leave the situation when it would return- even if I got in trouble by walking off.  I wouldn’t say Happy Veteran’s Day to him again until 2009.

I felt it was about time for me to try again.  My brother convinced him to go to the VA Hospital for old war  injuries, and he surprisingly likes our VA.  You read that correctly, he finally went to take care of injuries decades after the war.

I called Dad up in 2009, and told him, “I don’t care if you get mad at me, I am telling you Happy Veteran’s Day”.  I told him how much I loved him, and how proud I was of his service.  He didn’t understand why I thought he would get mad at me, and I recalled that night back in the 80’s.  He apologized, and said he has no recollection of me even saying that to him – much less his reaction.  Why would he remember?

That wasn’t my Dad who responded back to the younger me.  He thanked me, and apologized once again.  I am crying at this moment, and told him he had no reason to say he was sorry.  Just writing this, I am tearing up because it was such an emotional conversation for both of us.

Looking back, I clearly see symptoms of PTSD throughout his life.  Things that I thought were normal, later to find not the case.  I won’t go into detail for my father’s privacy.  I still do not talk about the war with him, but my brother (also a veteran) says that he has started opening up to him.  Which makes me happy.  My mom told me what she knew of his service, and just that is brutal.

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Dad worked as a search and rescue paramedic and fireman when he came home.  He also went back to racing stock cars.  The above picture is what he had at the head of his bunk while in the service.  Family photos….and Richard Petty, Ralph Earnhardt, and others dirt track racing.

dad in 77

He is definitely a wild mountain man, especially in his younger days.  As he has aged, he has become a wise mountain man.  Don’t get me wrong though, he still has the wild in him!  Maybe this is where I get my wild streak.

Growing up, my male friends would refer to him as Obi-Wan.  I think he secretly liked his nickname.  I wish I was able to get him to dress as Obi-Wan for Halloween.

Dad

I love my father immensely.  It amuses me to see the fear in his eyes when he was holding me in my baby pictures.  He had no idea what to do with raising a daughter.  He was a strict father and pretty old school when it came to gender roles.  I couldn’t date until I was 16, never have a boy in my room under his roof, cutting my hair was frowned upon, wasn’t allowed to work on the tobacco farm, I did the inside chores (my brother did outside chores), and we all worked in the garden.  I think he wanted what most parents want for their kids- to do better than they did in life.  He always encouraged my love for family history.

He has taught me to always remember how I was raised.  In fact, he told me many times during my wild days to, “act how I was raised”.  It makes me laugh now, because he was way wilder than I was…I think.  He also told me many times to “stay in your lane, and your lane only” while trying to teach me to drive.

For a father who was lost on what a daughter would be interested in doing, he did a great job of teaching me a wide spectrum of things.  I spent many days at the airport, just watching aircraft take off and land; he would explain how to do any job that he was working on at the time.  When I would visit him at the race shop, he would take me around and explain everything to me about what was being built and why.  He would bring me to the shop to watch them test the engines.  He would just load me into the car whenever he did something.  It was fine with me, because he did some pretty cool stuff! 

It makes me laugh because he is so dated in his thinking of gender roles for women.  When I graduated college, he didn’t understand why I didn’t get a secretary or elementary teaching job.  In his mind, that is what females should do for employment.  Those are great professions for those who want to have those as careers, but not for me.  Plus, I despise the term secretary.

He showed me a world of adventure, outdoors, and service-orientated careers, like firemen, medics, and policemen.  It is amusing to me that the daughter he raised is still expected to be the stereotypical southern woman.  It used to aggravate me, but not anymore.  He isn’t going to change in his thinking, and I’m not either….so I just find the humor in it.

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Happy Veteran’s Day to my wonderful father, who really did a superb job raising an independent and intelligent daughter.  I am just as proud of his military service, his accomplishments, and his crazy life experiences as he is in mine.  I think the best qualities of him include his desire to always be kind to people, and to take up for those who can’t do it for themselves.

His experiences in, and after, Vietnam shaped the rest of his life.  It shaped my life, too.  Having him as a father has given me a lot of patience with veterans.  I know everyone experiences war differently, and it also attaches to each soul differently.  Yet saying that, I find similarities.  I would see these men who were the same age as my own father in the long term Community Living Center at the VA Hospital.  Some were cranky, some still dirty old men, and some so quiet that I never heard them speak- and I was there everyday.

I had confidence interacting with them due to my father.  The silence, unexplained anger and hatred, extreme mood swings, walking the perimeter of the house/campsite for hours after dark, alcoholism and the act of hiding it, waking up in the night from nightmares, intensity… the list could go on and on, but I would watch Dad experience all of these. I was able to be a better caregiver for those men and women, because of my unconditional love and compassion for my father.  I am not claiming to understand any of it, because I don’t.  Hopefully, I am explaining this to where it makes sense.  I am fully aware my attempt to write about this is probably a jibber jabbering mess.

I am sorry that Dad had to go though those experiences.  The scars my father carries created something good within me, and I truly thank him for this.

Thank you for your service, Dad.

vietnam

Halloween

I dressed as a woman from the 1940’s in gray-scale makeup. My goal was to look like someone from a black and white photo.  The makeup ended up all over my dress, but mostly stayed put.  I went to the WVU Swing Club’s Halloween dance, and won third place in the costume contest. That was pretty cool.

My hair ended up falling pretty fast due to my Lindy Hopping everywhere. I even put a gray old lady rinse in my hair so it wouldn’to be too blonde in the pictures.

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This is the only picture I have where it looks like I achieved the goal of my costume. Nice photo bomb from the Pope in the background. The venue turned the lights up, and it messed with how my paint looked. All of the other photos have my costume looking like I am a vintage woman from the dead.

That could be a costume idea for next year though.

6. West Virginia – The ladies visiting

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This is after our excursion to Washington, DC, and we are in West Virginia.  I am actually leaving for work, and they are getting ready to head back to NC.  This is the second time they have visited me in WV since I have been here.  They don’t care for it too much.  They like living down by the beach, too.

They think the drive is too long, and it may be too long for them.  I think it takes them 8 hours to get up here, maybe more.  I don’t think it would take so long if they didn’t stop at every craft and fabric store they pass on way.  It is a given with them.

I’m usually the one who travels to see them.  I get in my “90’s concert in the car” mode, and jam away while I drive.

This will count for our visiting of WV, slowly filling up our 50-states map.  After the DC trip, I need a vacation for myself.

I found swing dancing

I have lived in WV for two years, maybe three (I have lost count), and it hasn’t been the easiest adjustment.

I knew only a few people when I came up, and missed my friends and family back in SC.  I also moved from less than a mile from the ocean in SC to WV.  Was it worth it?

As an adult, it is harder to find a new crew once you move.  All I did was go to work, and became withdrawn due to not having a social circle or my own friends.

It was suggested that I go on www.meetup.com to find groups that I would be interested in joining.  I found swing dancing classes 45 minutes away, and I went to my first class five months or so ago.  Started out going once a week, then added a second day, then added longer practices before and after classes, and now I am practicing on off days.  I didn’t realize how much I missed dancing.

lindy hop

I have been a dancer almost my entire life, up to about six years ago.  Just ballet alone-17 years of classes.  Even though this isn’t ballet (or any of my other previous type of dance classes), the challenges are the same.  It took me a while to get used to the non-structured ways of Lindy Hop compared to classical ballet.

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I have met other Lindy Hoppers who are just as quirky, nerdy, odd, intelligent, and socially different – and this eclectic ensemble is what I’ve been trying to find.  For the first time in years, I feel like my old self that I left down south.

I’m with the WVU Swing Dance Club, and the instructors are just adorable- proof in the photo!  I don’t know how other swing instructors are, but Amy and David are really good at teaching complete beginners like myself.  Of course they are also very talented dancers.

Amy and David

What else have I found since taking classes?

1. It is a huge stress reliever.  You can’t very well dance and be stressed at the same time.  Dancing makes you smile and laugh, even when you have no idea what you are doing.  The picture below is a Lindy-in-a-Day workshop we had, where we have a 3.5 hour practice to learn swingouts!  Focusing on learning something new helped mute the stress in my life, if only for the time of class.

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2. Keeps you moving and great exercise.  I have learned the hard way- I cannot go to the gym on Thursday and have three hour practice in the evening!  The legs don’t appreciate it just yet.  Other than feeling like my true self again, I am getting my dance body back.  Things definitely change with age, and swing dancing is a fun way to keep age from creeping up on me too much.  Ballet is also very good for keeping toned, and I didn’t appreciate it in my teens and 20’s as much as I should have.

3. No judgement of who you are or your ability to dance.  I have found the swing community to be accepting of everyone. All the so-called quirky odd ones and the outgoing introverts (like me!) seem to be drawn into the community.  It is a mess of every personality type, and it works beautifully.

A lot of people assume that I am shy or really quiet, and that would be an incorrect assumption.  I just carefully decide where I want to open up, and I don’t feel the need to hold court in social settings.  Swing dancers would love for everyone to learn to swing, and are just as accepting of your dance ability as they are you as a person.  It feels really nice to be able to be yourself, well..and to dance.

My instructors put videos on YouTube after our Tuesday night classes.  The videos go over what we learned in class, so you have something to refer to when trying to remember the steps in your living room.  These videos have been such a help, especially after working all day then trying to remember dance moves from earlier in the week.

4. New friends!  As I wrote above, finding friends as an adult is not the same as when you were younger.  I have always gone to swing dancing class without a partner.  I think most everyone in my classes come as a single entity.  We switch partners throughout the class, so it doesn’t matter if you came solo or with a partner.  I have met people through swing dancing, whom I am happy to have had the opportunity to meet.  You already have a common interest with people in your class- learning how to swing dance, and everyone started where you are at one point.  It is exciting to realize someone else is just as enthusiastic with moving the furniture and having dance practice for hours.   my

I found that I have other interests with my dance partners along with swing dancing.  Prior to starting swing, I found myself going though my days alone…exploring by myself because I didn’t know who would even want to join me on my field trips.  If you are new to an area, swing dancing is a very easy way to meet new people and to fill your calendar.

5. You don’t have to just sit and watch the dancers anymore!  With my new moves, I am always wanting to go and dance.  I used to watch swing dancers, and think how cool it would be to dance like them.  It doesn’t take long to learn, and you can be out there dancing away!  Not only did the above things happen when I found swing dancing, but my spare time is full of workshops, live bands, and road trips to dances.  I really wish I had started this earlier, as it has only improved my life. 12009745_887603427991823_4434469791378968374_n

Those are my few things that I have found changed in my world since starting to swing.  I suggest it to everyone.  I know the hardest part is going to the first practice, but I promise you will enjoy it.