Forty years ago today, I remember playing with my Barbies on the braided rug of our living room with our little black and white TV blaring in the background. I was oblivious to whatever was on the screen, so the reports that Saigon had fallen and the Vietnam War was over must not have come during afternoon cartoons. Mom left the living room, stood at the kitchen sink, and sobbed. The newscaster’s announcement was less real to me than whatever drama was unfolding in front of me with the dolls, but the sound of Mom crying was different and distressing enough to halt my play.
I followed her into the kitchen and asked what was wrong, and because we are not the sort of women who can beautifully and coherently talk while crying, the only words I remember her eeking out were that the war was over. Though I think of myself even now as a child who had always secretly been an adult, the richness of her sobs momentarily had me convinced that the Vietcong would soon be coming to Indiana because we’d lost the war. I was terrified. I can’t remember how she comforted me: if I was a nuisance interrupting her grief or a welcome distraction. I only remember the sobs and the confusion I felt; surely the war being over was a good thing, so why the tears?
My father wasn’t in the military. None any of my uncles went to Vietnam. Though there may have been Vietnamese refugees who ended up in my hometown, none were at my school. I can’t say the war affected my life, but it was the background noise of the first eight years of it. My mother lost high school friends and one of her best friends lost her fiancé. I can still remember standing near his grave, kicking clods of dirt with my canvas shoes, not entirely understanding the level of adult sadness on such a beautiful day with flags snapping in the breeze. It was no more real to me than my GI Joe doll with the missing foot, who had, in my mind, been to Vietnam; he perpetually wore fatigues because he was too muscle-y to fit into Ken’s leisure suits–a good guy but so world-weary only the lesser Barbies with missing limbs or brown hair would date him.
So no, it didn’t influence me directly, and I’m not entirely sure why I spent a portion of this morning weeping over forty-year-old news footage of people clamoring onto helicopters, remembering something I didn’t understand when it was unfolding live. But it did give a melancholy flavor to my Gen X childhood, perhaps a weird obsession with China Beach when it aired twenty-five years later, a distrust of military actions, a strange mix of both respect for and wariness of the men my mother’s age who wore bandanas and fatigue jackets and looked down and out.
The catalyst for today’s tears was an on-the-scene interview with a man who had tried but failed to help his college friend and family—a friend he’d met at Washington State University—escape Saigon in those last hours. He was reduced to tears. The reporter tried to suggest that maybe his friend would be okay, but the man stood there, choking back sobs and shaking his head saying, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” I tried this afternoon to figure out some magic way to use Google that would answer the question of whether that man’s friend survived or not; I failed.
It’s the same melancholy I felt talking to my old students returning from the Gulf or from Afghanistan, trying to make sense of the lives they were now supposed to assimilate back into. How I feel when I talk to Hudge about her military career and the affects, both positive and negative, it had on her life. How I feel when I think about the non-military personnel in faraway places just living their lives, trying to get by, while men with money and power–and some with questionable ideals–make decisions that will affect whether those people’s homes will become a battle zone.
I wish now–my Barbies packed away lo these many decades–that my over-read, over-reflective brain could make sense of such events. See some pattern, some unanticipated benefit, some reason for pain and suffering so I could say something wise about the disruption of lives that might have been otherwise lived, so I could feel more positive when my cousins’ sons consider joining up, feel more hopeful when they ship out.
But I don’t know. I don’t know.