Thanksgiving 1967, Billy’s mom wrote a note and put it on the table next to her son’s picture. It read, “The vacant chair for Billy, our sailor boy.” Another note reads, “Thanksgiving to Huntleigh, 1967.”
These 35 mm slide images of Thanksgiving 1967 are such a treasure. I love them so much. I wonder if that is Billy’s mother or sister pictured below looking at his picture. The young man in the picture, possibly a younger brother, looks so sad.
I did not find a Huntleigh on the Virtual Vietnam Veterans Wall of Faces, so hopefully the beloved son made it back home from war.
The Parents of Vietnam Veterans
Most of the mothers and fathers of Vietnam veterans are gone now. They were members of the G.I. Generation, sometimes called the Greatest Generation, and were born between 1901 and 1924. I cannot imagine the agony they went through sending their sons off to fight in that horrible conflict. So many did not come home. They ended up in coffins and boxes buried in the cold earth. That is, if their remains even made it back to American soil.
Impact of Vietnam on Generation X
The Vietnam War had many implications for Generation X whose birth years are 1961 to 1981. Gen-Xers are the sons and daughters of two generations – the Silent Generation and Baby Boomers. And, many first-wave Xers are the sons and daughters of Vietnam Veterans. The impact of the war has been with these Xers all their lives as they lived with parents transformed by the realities of Vietnam. After all, studies show that catastrophic events change our body chemistry, and trauma can be passed from one generation to the next.
Favorite Vietnam Books, Movies
I am 51, and my entire career has been spent working for Baby Boomers who lived through the Vietnam Era and War. This includes both male and female bosses all of whom were impacted the tragedies of that horrible war. As a writer and longtime student of history, I have always been drawn to stories about the war. At times it has been an obsession of mine. In high school I wrote term papers on the war, and in college took entire classes devoted to the subject. Over the years I’ve read dozens of books and watched dozens of movies about the war. One of my favorites is Heaven and Earth starring Tommy Lee Jones. It is based on the amazing, award-winning short story When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip. I also recommend The Ten-Thousand Day War if you want to really learn about Vietnam.
Pictures of OKC’s Little Saigon
My interest in Vietnam began as a little girl. I had a 19-year-old cousin who served in the U.S. Army and fought in the war. A cousin who loved me. I wrote about him in 2012, when I was doing commentaries for KOSU. After the segment aired, a professor from Oklahoma State University wrote me a lovely note. It still means so much to me.
By the way, be sure to click on that link. I was taking a lot of beautiful pictures back in 2012, with my beloved Nikon D60, and the post features images of some aging South Vietnamese soldiers in their uniforms. Unfortunately, that old camera is broken now, and even though I replaced it with a Nikon D600, my picture-taking was never quite the same. The D60 became a part of me and it took me a lot of interesting places. I discovered a lot of life through its viewfinder, and I miss it very much. Upgrading is not always what it’s cracked up to be.
Back to the impact of the Vietnam War on Generation X.
During the years I worked in public affairs for a large military base, I got to know a lot of Vietnam Veterans, both officers, enlisted and civilians. They ran the United States Air Force back then, and did quite an amazing job. As a young college grad, I covered many of their retirement stories. Most writers found these assignments boring, but they became one of my favorite things to do because they were all Vietnam Veterans and I got to ask them all about the war.
One former enlistee, by then a high-ranking civilian, told me about bloated bodies in the River Saigon. His crude descriptions hosed my sentimentality. I learned there is nothing sentimental about war.
Another veteran told me he got his rear-end shot up so bad in Vietnam the scars doubled as suction cups every time he sat in the bathtub. And, still another said his first job out of high school was killing the Viet Cong,
I loved them all.
Vietnam Women’s Memorial
During my years as a journalist for the Air Force, I covered the traveling tour of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and interviewed female veterans of the war. They were all Baby Boomers, and most of them were nurses with the saddest stories to tell.
The traveling memorial was staged in the parking lot of the now-shuttered Heritage Park Mall in Midwest City, Oklahoma. Save for a few TV journalists, I was the youngest person there, surrounded by Boomers and Silents talking about the war. I craved their stories and envied their protests of lore.
A lot happened to me during the final years of America’s involvement in Vietnam. For starers, I was born (ha), about two months before Thanksgiving 1967, when Billy’s mom set the missing place for her sailor boy. Within 25 years, I was working with dozens of purple hearts. Now, it’s 2018, and 25 years have passed since that traveling exhibit rolled into town. The men who were retiring in the early 1990s, are now in their 70s and 80s. Some are dead. Life is so short, as we always say.
When I left the mall parking lot that day, I blared Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train on the cassette player in my old green Honda Accord. During that season of my life, I played that song over and over again thousands of times. It was just one of many Gen-X anthems that paid homage to the war within us. I’m not saying ours was hand grenades or landmines or war crimes. There were no bloated corpses in the Sông Sài Gòn, no Viet Cong.
No, we had none of that, even if terrorism in the 80s, 90s and beyond jacked us all up. All I’m saying is that for me, the tragedies that occurred within my family of origin, the tragedies that would eventually be considered universal to Generation X, made me insatiably curious about the suffering of others. Curious enough to ask aging master sergeants, colonels and even generals stupid questions for stories merely intended to announce retirement parties:
Tell me about Vietnam. What was it like there? What did you learn? What do you remember? What one word would you use to describe it?
Of course, I knew my questions were stupid, but in time, I got better (we always get better, right?), and I learned to ask:
Who did you love there? Who did you leave behind?
For you see, the face of destiny or luck or god that gives us war also gives us other kinds of pain: the loss of health and youth; the loss of loved ones or of love; the fear that we will end our days alone. Some people suffer in peace the way others suffer in war. The special gift of that suffering, I have learned, is how to be strong while we are weak, how to be brave when we are afraid, how to be wise in the midst of confusion, and how to let go of that which we can no longer hold. In this way, anger can teach us forgiveness, hate can teach us love, and war can teach us peace.”
–Le Ly Hayslip, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey from War to Peace