It’s a little late for Veteran’s Day, I know, but it’s just in time for the 60th birthday of my father, a Vietnam vet, who served in a combat unit from 1970-1972. He was there for two-and-a-half tours, was awarded a few medals, killed some Vietnamese, and watched some friends die. If I say it flippantly, it’s only because I’m incapable of effectively imagining the perverse relationship between the horrible and the mundane that war encourages, and so I say it like this. He tried to make a career out of the military after the war, until he got busted for smuggling, striking an officer, and generally not handling post-war military service very well. All of this happened in Germany, where he met my mom, who didn’t speak any English, at all, nor he German, and whom he married pretty soon after finding out that I had lodged myself somewhere in her uterus and was eating all the food, sleeping all day, making a mess of the place, and expressing no intention of moving out for a good nine months or so. That was 37 years ago.
About three years ago, while my dad and I were driving through the desert on our way to pick up a Mother’s Day present, he mentioned that it had been 37 years ago to the day that his helicopter went down in the A Shau Valley–mid-May, 1970. It was his first month in country. His chopper was flying low over a rice paddy, buzzing the local farmers, when it was punched in the nose by an RPG. The pilot was killed immediately, and the co-pilot, a lieutenant, fought for control of the wounded helicopter. My dad was fresh from Ranger school and knew what to do: as the copter came down in a semi-controlled spin, he was supposed to jump clear, just before impact. So gun in hand, heart rifling in his chest, the sky spinning around him like a rotor, that’s what he did.
The first thing he remembered after that was the silence. He thought it was strange that he couldn’t hear anything, and it took him a few seconds to realize he couldn’t breathe either, and a few seconds more to realize he was underwater. When he looked up, he could see the wreckage of the helicopter wavering above the water line, inches away. The crown of his head was in the air, but when he lunged for the surface, he couldn’t move. His eyes scuffed the water’s meniscus, but his nose and mouth were submerged, unable to reach the air. When his reason returned, he realized that his legs had been thrust into the mud of the paddy by the helicopter’s impact so deeply he had as much upward mobility as a stone. This was his spot, upright, ready for war, planted in some obscure rice patty in a corner of the world he ran away from his father to get to. That afternoon my dad told me, on our way to Costco, that he knew, as clearly as he had known anything in his life, and just as calmly, that he was going to die right there.
He looked up again, deciding that the last thing to see was the sky and not the mud that entombed him, as a hand broke the water and hauled him up. The co-pilot had seen my dad there, planted in the water, and even though they were still under enemy fire, he withdrew from cover and lifted my dad into the air. A stranger had saved my dad’s life, at risk to his own. It wasn’t the last time something like that would happen in Vietnam, with my dad playing both saved and savior, but that was the first. My dad said he’d sworn that he’d never forget that lieutenant’s name, but he had. It had been bothering him the last few months since he’d realized he’d forgotten, and that’s what had prompted the story. If he told the lieutenant’s story, maybe that would make up for the forgetting–talking about the hand coming down from the sky and dragging his life from the mud. It was a good story, but that’s not the reason I share it.
It’s easy enough to say that the story is an example of the bond of brothers in war, that the lieutenant and my dad simply wore the same uniform–but don’t we all? Aren’t we always relying on the invisible kindness of strangers to make our way in the world? It’s true that there is no shortage of calamity and meanness of spirit in the world, but if that were all, so much for you and me. I wouldn’t write, you wouldn’t read, and we’d have no reason to tell stories, because they’d always have the same ending. Surely the old Erector Sets are everywhere around us in ruin, and we assemble meanings on the fly, out of choice bits of science and sentimentality, or out of the too-rigid material of religious fundamentalism, but even amidst these ruins we are supported, two-by-two-by-two, by the obscure and often unaccounted kindnesses of our brothers and sisters. We are all strangers of a kind–to one another and ourselves. But we are constantly extending our hands, sparing a light, and occasionally playing the hero unsung–even if reluctantly. I’m around because almost 38 years ago two strangers decided to look after another stranger on the way, and another stranger lifted a stranger from the water, and another stranger shot down a helicopter that was undoubtedly coming to kill his brothers who were strangers, and a stranger helped a stranger for a stranger with a stranger on a narrow strip of earth that is lit from afar, adrift on a very strange and silent sea.