Memoir

Going to Vietnam to Face My Father’s Ghost

He was a hometown hero who died at war days before I was born. He haunted my life, until I finally made the trip to see where he fell.

Going to Vietnam to Face My Father’s Ghost

They say babies can hear in the womb. If so, then I have heard my father’s voice. Deep and resonant. I have photos of him and my mother from that time, together for one last week in Los Angeles. They laughed and played in the pool, squinted from beach chairs holding hands, stood arm in arm. Some of the photos are torn in places, clipped at odd angles. Army personnel are instructed to remove all signs of combat before a soldier’s belongings are sent home. If I heard my father’s voice at that time, then I heard more clearly my mother’s laugh, full and carefree. I never heard her laugh like that again.

My father and I share the same name: Hugh. He died five days before I was born. It’s not easy to be born to a woman in mourning – you have a job to do. I believe I did it well. We were two against the world and I grew to know her adoring gaze as both a son and all that was left of my father. It would take 48 years for me to learn I couldn’t undo anyone’s past; nobody told me I didn’t have to.

My mother and father at the airport before he shipped out.

My mom remarried just before my fourth birthday. I had a new father. Soon I had a new brother and sister. I lived a happy childhood. But underneath the perfect family of five, white dog and half-acre plot on Millwood Lane laid a secret only my mom and I shared. I’d know it when I walked up the short walkway of my grandmother’s home, the house of my birth, the same walk Hugh had strolled as a teen, the same walk the two men in their finest military dress had strode somberly, at whom my mother had screamed, sobbing, to go away.

Bull, Hugh’s dad, who died when I was ten, was a grizzled ex-logger and machinist with massive forearms, who favored his corner armchair and white undershirts. Hugh’s mom, Maebelle, was a tough daughter of a farmer who spent her years as the wife of a drinking man. Their life was simple and small and hard. What I ended up in was entirely different.

We stayed in touch for a while with Hugh’s family but lost contact once my teen years hit. I adapted to a new life, and over time my past faded into a far-off story about a hometown hero lost, the adored son with the half-cocked grin, beloved athlete and student of Plymouth High. The youth I would come to know was affluent and pressured. I attended prep school, Duke University, went to Wall Street for my 20s, finally quitting it all to study art. The prevailing feeling I had at that point was one of not belonging. To any place.

Maebelle died when I was 31, and I was given two old suitcases of Hugh’s. They were a matching set, worn maroon leather and monogramed with his initials: H.S. He was the first in the family to go to college and the suitcases had been a gift from his parents to commemorate what a big deal that was.

Now they contained memories of his life. Military orders, old checkbooks, his letters home, a cracked Roy Smeck ukulele, funeral arrangements, stacks of newspaper spreads on the weekly local football results, and more carefully preserved clippings related to his death: “PHS Star Athlete Killed in Vietnam” and “Son Born to Slain Athlete.” I’d open them from time to time but couldn’t make sense of the contents. Somewhere along the line I realized my dad smelled like old paper.

Left, mom and dad in their cap and gowns with my grandmother in what would be my first home. Right, my folks as prom king and queen.

The suitcases stayed in basements and attics, untouched for years, sometimes moved from place to place with my other belongings. The older I got, the stranger it all seemed. The story of my birth, the small-town romance between the homecoming queen and captain of the football team, was like a fairy tale. The place I had come from and the place I knew growing up were so at odds that they almost negated each other’s existence.

By my mid-40s I was newly married, raising my own stepchildren. We moved three times in four years, and as I boxed and unboxed the spare belongings of my life and scrawled “Hugh – Books” or “Hugh – Art,” I started to question who the name referenced. Hugh. Was it his, or mine? I could feel a chain to an invisible past but couldn’t grasp hold of it, nor understand exactly what it was hooked onto.

Contents of my father’s suitcases, including the folded American flag.

A couple of Hugh’s old buddies died. Then his older sister. The blind spot within me grew and I felt pressure for resolution. I began searching out people who knew him, hoping somebody would recognize something in me I couldn’t see for myself. Time was running out.

I found two of his best friends from high school. One, a former track star, still lived in Michigan. I visited him and heard stories of the glory days, about drinking beer and racing cars out on Shelton Drive, fights behind the drive-thru. How my dad was “the greatest guy,” the hard-hitting fullback, the strongest kid he’d ever seen, loved by all. It was an impossible standard to live up to. Hugh’s other buddy was retired in Alabama, and his stories had less glory, more humanity, though he too revered my father. He and Hugh had worked odd jobs together; they cleaned chicken coops, built rock walls, took turns riding on the fender of the family car collecting bottles for gas money to go out cruising on the weekend.

Neither man gave me what I was looking for, though I wasn’t quite sure what that was. I must have wanted them to say, “Hey Hugh, you’re just like your old man,” but they didn’t say it. It was defeating, trying to connect with the myth of a man. I wondered what would he have thought of me. I attempted to rationalize the misconnection – Hugh was just a kid, really, these were high school stories and I was now twice his age. But deep down I feared there was little of him in me and he had become an irrelevant detail of my past.

Condolence letter from President Nixon.

The suitcases were all that were left to turn to. Most of the contents were related to the Army. I never thought of Hugh as a soldier – he didn’t want to go to war, worried he wouldn’t be a proper hero, and doubted privately that he would make it home – but I sat down anyway to carefully catalog each item in the suitcases.

There were a lot of references to his platoon. I tracked down a list of surviving members of D Company, who called themselves the Angry Skipper Association. I began contacting guys who would have served with Hugh during 1969, but didn’t expect to find much – he had only been in-country for seven weeks when he died. Most men didn’t return my calls. Finally, someone directed me to the man who’d been in charge when Hugh was killed.

When I went to Lytle, Texas, to meet Clyde “Sgt. B.” Bonnelycke, I was more excited than anxious. By now, I had given up hope someone was going to give me any great insight into Hugh as a man, or myself. I was content just to pass through the lives of men who had known him, as if I could catch some residual energy like an old stone from a campfire might still be warm to the touch.

Sgt. B.’s home was on a quiet roundabout suburb in the flats not far from San Antonio. He greeted me with a loose handshake. His wife was chatty and brought me in. We sat at the small kitchen table and I brought out incidence reports, letters, news clippings, anything that could trigger his memory.

He’d snatch things out of my hands, “Let me see that,” and tilt his chin back, peering through his reading glasses. But Sgt. B. couldn’t remember anything specific about Hugh. This bothered him. He was a man who fought to save his men, and now I showed up to find out about a father I never knew, and he couldn’t come up with details. He paced the kitchen, hallways, bedrooms and back, returning with gift after gift: Army pen, Marines pen, a Turkish rug he’d gotten while stationed in Germany, wall calendars from his native Hawaii, and one with cuddly pets, “For the kids, you know.”

Left, last letter from my father. Right, local news article announcing my birth.

I didn’t know what he had to tell me, if anything. He relayed war story after war story and I was happy listening; he earned two silver stars with the Marines before joining the Army. But all the while there seemed to be an answer he was looking for that was just out of reach.

Dusk set in. Finally, Sgt. B. pushed away from the kitchen table and snatched a small, framed map off the wall. A thick border snaked through it, “CAMBODIA” written above. The map was faded green and hard to read. He waved it in front of me and pointed to a small black line.

“Here, here, you see this little line here?”

I peered close to the frame.

“Right here,” he rapped the glass, “this bend in the river. See it? That’s where it happened. That’s where the RPG hit that goddamn tree.”

The official incidence report had said Hugh was injured by a claymore mine. But Sgt. B. was certain it was an RPG. I didn’t argue. When I left Lytle, he gave me a copy of the map. I stuffed it in my bag along with everything else he’d given me, but didn’t think I’d do anything with it.

Detail of the map given to me by Sgt. B.

Several months later I attended the annual reunion of the Angry Skipper guys in Herndon, Virginia. Former cops, truckers, real estate brokers, salesmen, and lawyers gathered at a windowless conference room at the Marriott Courtyard, and I heard stories of lost buddies and warm beer, weeks in the jungle, nine-inch centipedes, firefights and rain. None of them remembered Hugh but one man remembered the incident. It wasn’t Hugh’s injury he remembered, it was the call the platoon received announcing my birth: a boy born to a dead man. Joe Villa, second platoon sergeant, covered his face and cried.

Up to that point there had always been a part of the story I couldn’t accept. I hadn’t been sure if I fully believed Sgt. B., or the stacks of official military correspondence in the suitcases, the banal lists of personal effects, the browned telegrams, the letters from Nixon, the Army Chief of Staff, even a state senator from Pennsylvania, who clearly bore such a moral burden of the war that he hand-wrote condolence letters to the family of every fallen service member. But the way the Skipper guys at the reunion accepted me, some with hope, others with sorrow, confirmed indeed that it all had in fact happened.

I decided then I would go to the bend in the river, not knowing exactly why. I made light of the trip to people who asked.

“Yeah, it will probably all be Nike factories now.”

But a piece of me worried I might peel back a bandage that had been laid over old wounds, possibly tinkering with the building blocks of who I understood myself to be. Still, I felt I needed to go.

I arrived at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport on July 15, 2017, three days before Hugh had, 48 years prior. It was early in the monsoon season and I went to the Cu Chi region between Saigon and Tây Ninh where the Angry Skipper guys had humped through the jungle. Like most of my generation, I had grown up with the American mythology of the Vietnam War: napalm, burning bodies, fucked-up kids with M 16s, “Apocalypse Now.” What I found instead was peaceful and beatific. Bright rice paddies, the plowing farmer, stoic water buffalo – the only hint of danger was the grind of the daytime insects that dropped suddenly in the quiet.

Each day, I read Hugh’s letters and then biked out into the countryside. His words described much of what I saw. The letters were familiar territory – I admired his penmanship, imagined listening to his words, tried to identify with this stranger who occupied some place within me – but here I felt close to him for the first time. I began to separate the looming father from a young man who didn’t know much of the world beyond his small town. I was far more savvy now than he could have been then and I had a sudden urge to look out for him, a feeling I might have been able to protect him. I even came to the misjudged conclusion that if I had the opportunity to go back and serve with Hugh I would have taken it, to spend nights up pulling watch together and talking about life and back home, my mom, telling jokes, hearing to the croak of the frogs at dusk. Most importantly, to watch out for that RPG or tripwire that I might have been able to see coming.

A few days later, I found a ride north to the bend in the river, tucked deep in the Tây Ninh Province. During the war, Ho Chi Minh sent arms and supplies down through Laos and Cambodia and across the porous jungle around Tây Ninh, not far from Saigon. The Province became a hotspot for the Army. Helicopters ferried the platoons above the thick canopy, dropping the men into clearings to spend months living in the bush.

A young man named Minh drove me up. He had a boxy haircut and surprised eyes and didn’t look much older than fifteen. We had crouched by my bed and zoomed in on my computer, tracing the route on the map Sgt. B. had given me. My anticipation built around what I might find. The old map matched up quite well with the current road system. There were new roads, but the structure was there. One of the new roads ran directly to the bend in the river.

When we got in the car he said, “You father, bambambam?”

He nearly shouted certain words for emphasis.

“Yes.”

“You, bambambam?”

“No.”

My stomach gave a turn. The story had always been mine alone. When other people referenced it, I felt like a kid who had fallen and didn’t know he was hurt until he noticed the worried expressions on other people’s faces. Had something horrible happened to me? But Minh hadn’t meant anything by it and we didn’t talk about the war again.

We pulled out onto the road north and he flipped through Vietnamese club songs on the radio. I leafed through “A Pocket Guide to Vietnam,” also from the suitcases. It had been published by the Department of Defense in 1966 and was crinkled with water damage. I was now nervous about what I could discover in the jungle.

After an hour, we passed under a decorated archway. “Tây Ninh!” Minh said and gave me a thumbs up. I took a photo. We skirted Black Lady Mountain and continued toward Cambodia. Forty-five minutes later the river appeared on our right and we crossed at a low dam. Huge nets were slung between tall poles like dinosaurs wading in the shallows and the water was muddy and even.

The bend wasn’t far now. We crossed and headed back down river. The sky was stormy and we rode in silence. In just a few turns we were on the new dirt road headed to the water, just north of Landing Zone Ike, the dirt base where my father had slept the night before the ambush, just a few clicks from the place where Sgt. B. had knocked on the glass and said, “Here. Right here. That’s where it happened.”

We stopped where the dirt became soft. Cassava grew at the water’s edge. Behind it the jungle stretched anonymously. I passed through a rubber grove and found a worn path into the jungle and felt the uncertain space I had known my whole life.

The bend in the river where my father was mortally wounded; or where Sgt. B. told me the RPG “hit that tree.”

I walked deeper into the foliage and noticed the shape of the trees, the gaps of tall grass. A thin snake sped across the path and wind rustled the leaves. I heard the putt-putt of an old engine and the faint bass of a local pop song. It was a peaceful place. Still, it seemed almost gimmicky to be here, to be searching for such a big answer on this random spit of land. I’d had a good life, a good man who raised me. Maybe this was self-indulgent.

I’d always had the feeling I had let Hugh down somehow. Maybe by not having my own children, or by not being able to easily settle down, always searching. But I didn’t have those thoughts now and the past was far away. As I followed along a path he might have walked, I could almost imagine him as a young man alongside me. I eyed the trees halfheartedly for signs of battle, tripwires, but of course found nothing after so much time. I walked a little further, then it started to rain. It was a fine rain that doesn’t really make you wet. The real rain was not far behind, so I stopped.

I knew I was supposed to feel something, but the moment was almost too grand. Should I say a prayer? Apologize for his life cut short? I’d cried for him before, for my mom, even for myself, though I couldn’t be sure why. But standing there now, no emotion came. I was neutral and present. I saw Hugh from afar – not as a part of me, but as separate and distinct, and from that distance I could see that he was both my father and not my father, a hero to some and a forgettable man to others. I took a long look around. A woman who knew nothing about me had once told me Hugh’s spirit has stuck around to watch over me. I pictured it there with me now, his spirit spread out like an invisible vast horizon. I was much further into life than he could have imagined.

The real rain started and I ran back to the car. Rubber sap was collecting in the red dirt in places, milky white. Minh was sleeping with his feet up; a Vietnamese crooner sang on the radio. Minh sat up blearily and turned his hands up. I shrugged. The rain pelted the roof and blurred the windows. I rested for a moment, seeing if it would stop. Minh waited patiently. It was late in the day and we were hungry; I signaled that we should eat. Minh started the car and we rolled forward.

I watched the jungle slip by in the rain. I didn’t want to forget this place, like I didn’t want to forget Hugh. But part of me knew in order to find myself I would have to let him go.

Hugh and I share the same name. That used to burden me, the pressure to live for two, and maybe that is something I will never be fully rid of. But in glimpsing the jungle from afar as we drove away, the clearest sense I had of him was that he was a young man who never had a chance to fulfill his dreams. I didn’t see my father. And in that separation, I began to finally see the part of him that is in me.

For now, I have left him back at the bend in the river. I haven’t abandoned him, we will know each other again. But I am traveling a little lighter. I must keep moving forward. As myself.