While our GI's are in Iraq, the supper table at the homes of their parents is a time of somber tones and hidden stress, even if only talking about the weather or the high school football game; a time of listening for a car pulling into the driveway; a time of wanting to watch the news but then again not; and a time of a certain amount of discomfort when thinking of trying to go to sleep at night.
At least that is the way I remember it at my parents' supper time while I was growing up in southern Middle Tennessee 1967-1971.
In 1967, my oldest brother John, a 1st Lt. in the Army, came by our home in Tennessee to say goodbye to our parents before leaving for duty in Vietnam. I remember John and my parents having many discussions about the logistics of him being away for a year: who would take care of his car, where his belongings would be stored, what to do if he did not come back, and of many other topics which I do not remember. What I remember most of those discussions was that they were in somber, matter-of-fact tones.
My father worked at the nearby Air Force base as a weapons engineer. Not long after John left the country, my father made the comment one night at dinner that he knew most of the Air Force personnel out at the base (some of whom were later killed in Vietnam during flight operations) and even knew the officers tasked with bringing the casualty news to local families.
That last point stuck with me for the next four years.
Before John had come home safely, the cycle started over again. At Christmas dinner in 1968, my #3 brother James announced to my parents that on his way home from college he had stopped in Nashville and joined the Marines. By late 1969, James was on patrols as a squad sergeant up near the DMV. Fortunately, James also made it home.
Nightly during those years, my parents and I would eat supper together and discuss the evening news as reported by Huntley and Brinkley. During those years, supper time was a somber, tension filled meal. We discussed the war and the politics. We discussed the student protests, the ministers condemning the war from pulpits, the racial riots, the campuses shutting down. I know my parents (both conservative, both Depression veterans and yet neither probably ever voted Republican in their lives) struggled with LBJ's inability to define Vietnam and make a decision about it. All the contradictions and uncertainties and blatant falsities of the time, however, did not damage my father's principles. I think back at those talks and realize the seriousness of the discussions and my father's insights shaped me into a life long political conservative.
I also better now remember now the tone of what underlay these talks: the parental angst, the stress, the reduced amount of humor (humor was an endearing trait of my father), and the lack of liveliness in our supper times. My mother, fatherless since her father (another Army 1st Lt.) was killed in the Argonne Forest in October, 1918, seldom flinched during the discussions. I now think she just internalized her stress and angst.
I remember lying in bed at night and hearing a car come up the street with dread. I knew the officers came to your home regardless of the time of day.
Even today when I hear a car coming down the road late at night, I wonder and then pray that it is not a pair of Air Force officers on their way to a neighbor's house.
Now when I meet parents and younger siblings of GI's who are over in the war zones, I can see in their faces that not much has changed in the 35 years since I sat at a GI's family supper table during war time.
- Write Sam Harper at firstname.lastname@example.org