Over 30 years ago we didn’t have ESPN, or MSBC, or cable TV and 24-hour news, though it wouldn’t have mattered much to me if we had. I didn’t watch TV; perhaps all those hours of cartoons during childhood made television news seem boring. Besides, I didn’t have time to sit still, much less in front of a box and even had I been so inclined, I doubt very much I’d watch whatever news was airing because it made my grandmother cry when she watched it—morning, noon, and night.
I was just hitting my teens, typically self-centered and somewhat detached from the ‘adult world’, I don’t remember what I even knew about war, about politics, about Vietnam… but I do remember when some of the boys started coming home, and I remember when some didn’t.
I remember the look of emptiness in their eyes… blank, vacant, as if they were absent from their bodies in some odd way. I remember the ones who returned in wheelchairs, dismembered bodies crammed awkwardly into uncomfortable and cumbersome contraptions into a world ill prepared for them, or them for it. I remember people staring… I remember I stared too. I remember being afraid, scared of something, yet I didn’t know what. But what I remember most was Jerry.
Jerry served in Vietnam. His sister, his twin Janie, was my friend. She was older than I was, had a job, and provided a safe haven of refuge for a somewhat wayward teenager like me who was fighting wars and battles of my own. It was really through Janie’s eyes that I saw Vietnam for the first time.
Growing up in Texas, the twins, Janie and Jerry, clung together and clawed their way through, and out, of the middle of a family of twelve and into the world side by side. Identical twins couldn’t have been closer than those two. They went to school together, played together, and fought a little too, yet held on to each other through the ups and downs of report cards and rejections, dates and disappointments, elation, divorce, illness, and even death. They were best friends.
As I remember it, from the first day I met Janie she talked about Jerry. Jerry this and Jerry that… you’d have thought she was talking about a new boyfriend or God, or anything besides just a plain ‘ole dumb brother, that is unless you looked into her eyes. Those cavernous blue eyes, echoing the words her mouth couldn’t utter, and the feelings she was unable to release—those dark daunting feelings—the kind that eat their way through you from the inside out. The kind that show up suddenly when a song comes on the radio that reminds you. The kind that rise up in the middle of a sleepless night when you feel too weak, too tired to hold them a moment longer and so you let out the fear, the rage, the unspeakable pain. Those are the stories Janie’s eyes told me when she talked about Jerry, and about Vietnam.
Afterwards she told me many other stories about Jerry. She showed me pictures of their childhood; two towheads turned brunette, plopped in the middle of a mud puddle back yard, white teeth peeping through mud covered heads—pictures of small faces behind gigantic pink ice-cream cones, pink dripping off their chins and down their t-shirts—pictures of the past. Memories anchored to feelings held on paper, and Janie’s attempt to preserve the past, clinging to it, almost as if to postpone the uncertainty of the future. Pictures of perfectly groomed children preparing for first communion. Pictures of birthdays, of holidays, of high-school graduation… two blonde heads with big smiles in the center of a mass of blue robes; pictures of college; and finally of Jerry’s farewell.
As that year passed Janie let out more and more of those dark feelings that wrenched her gut through the day and held her hostage in the dark hours of night. I remember the night she brought in the carved wooden box that sat on her dresser and held her precious mementos. It was a dark mahogany color, carved on the top and sides with roses. I watched her holding it with reverence, as if the contents were more precious than rubies. Her petite white hands carefully unwrapped envelopes postmarked from Vietnam, from places I’d never heard of before, from a world I didn’t know. Letters filled with words I didn’t understand… “Fires in the hole” or “Gooks in the wire”. She read those letters to me from Jerry, her twin, her brother, her best friend; words on paper that evoked a horror and repulsion in me I didn’t even know existed until then. And then she cried. I’d never seen anyone cry so hard, and for so long and in the years that followed I remembered I’d only seen her cry twice. That night was one of them, and when Jerry returned home three years later was the other.
The pain that followed I can’t speak of, it isn’t my story to tell, but anyone looking could read the tale in Janie’s eyes. Those blue eyes spoke volumes. They spoke of fear, anger, and of heart-crushing pain. They spoke to me when Janie wouldn’t… couldn’t… but they never again shed a tear. Something changed inside of Janie the day we met the plane and watched as Jerry came home. Many soldiers came home that day. We stood in absolute silence as the boys came off the plane. I couldn’t tell which one was Jerry. They all looked the same; caskets draped in red, white, and blue.
I remember afterwards leading Janie by the arm through the airport towards the car, gently pushing our way through other families who had come for their own reunion with their brothers, husbands, children, or fathers; families who were forever changed, altered in an indescribable way through their loss. I remember the melancholy that hung so heavy around me and in me, I could barely lift my feet to move through the throngs of people, women with faces still buried in their hands, red-faced men, and children clinging to the legs of their mother’s or siblings. Then I remember the shock that followed, and soon the repulsion, and finally the fear and anger that came as we exited the airport that day.
War protesters they called themselves. I didn’t understand then. I do understand now. I remember thinking, “Why were they screaming? Why were they here?” Waving homemade peace signs while at the same time inflicting acts of violence on these heart-broken families… screaming obscenities, waving fists in the air, spitting on the clothes, shoes, and even some faces of these grief-stricken people who, with heads bowed, made their way quietly through their sorrow to their cars. I don’t remember what happened next, but I do remember the look in Janie’s eyes…
That’s what I really know of Vietnam… the Vietnam I saw through Janie’s eyes.
In memory of Jerry C ~ August 1974
© CiCi Stewart ~ Written Winter 2000