When an inquisitive son pushes his reticent father to open up about the horrors of ’Nam, he unleashes a Pandora’s box of post-traumatic stress.
We knew there’d be a storm today. Perhaps another hurricane. Without a word said, we both decided to sit in our living room and just watch. This is not an uncommon event in our home, but one that’s grown more frequent as my father and I age, as his silence slowly cracks and my role in that silence feels increasingly dark. We all live in storms of varying strength and speed, with moments that bring intense pain, and at times, vital cleansing. In our case, my father’s internal storms nearly wrecked my family.
Right now we sit apart, silently watching the start of the external storm. Rain spatters, slowly tapping at an even pace as the day grows gray and the leaves whip outside our living room window, which is so large that it may as well be a wall unto itself. The scene is like some strange diorama, a mess of trees and a gravel driveway pelted with rain, rain, more rain. The tapping is heavy and chaotic, like gunfire. The wind howls around our house, long wails that rise and fade away, sounding something like ghosts fleeing past us.
I love how the sun showers create black clouds framed in gold, but before I can crack a smile, the rain takes my memory back to another storm. It was just like today, in this very room, just the two of us. He was fifty-three; I was thirteen. The power went out. I cursed life, furious that my video game had been interrupted. Then Dad said, “It’s like I’m back.”
I was high as hell and just as freaked out. “Back? What are you talking about?”
“’Nam. It was always wet. Months of just being cold and wet, in the jungle. No hot meals. Dreaming of the beach back home. It takes me back.”
I waited. He rarely spoke of the war without being pushed.
He didn’t answer.
How many years had he endured this? He had hell living inside his mind, but he never drank, or swore, or hit us. Just sat in his favorite chair, quiet and calm.
A distant rumble snaps me back to today.
My father looks right through the rain. I see his eyes, dead still, fixed on the bombarded window. I know by now that he’s seeing the past. While I see crap weather, he sees hot blood spraying the glass. He’s seventy now, and we know it will never stop.
A small thunderclap. Dad drops the memoir he’s been writing. It lays in his lap, half-finished. He stares through the window, looking past Long Island and into Vietnam’s monsoon season, seventy-three days of unending rain, rivers of mud, no sun, and no dry socks.
I can see it, too. Once, I ate it up like a vampire. When I was a young child in Brooklyn, for me, war had no veterans. War was scrambling around the public park, shouting “Bang! Bang! I got you, you’re dead!” and then fighting with Seth over whether he actually got shot or not.
War was abstract, perhaps scary, but always fun. Then one day, I was rolling around on the carpet, turning a table and couch into a secret mountain base for my army of plastic men, when Ron, my older half-brother, came to visit. He whispered to me, revealing a cool new secret about the father who had left his family and come to live with mine.
The secret was that our father was a vet.
“A vet? Like, an animal…like a dog doctor?” I asked Ron.
“No, you moron. A vet means veteran. Dad was a real soldier, in a real war. Not this stupid fake shit you play with,” he kicked my neon yellow pistol down the hall. “He never told you?”
“What war?” I was only five, but knew America hadn’t been in any wars in a long time.
“Oh, never mind, you’re too little anyway.”
Ron left smirking. I was left with a weird mix of jealousy, sadness, and awe. My father was never the same again, not in my eyes. From then on, when my friends had sleepovers, watching “G.I. Joe” or a VHS of “Predator” that I stole from Ron, I felt special. I felt better than my friends. My father used to be a soldier. And even better, a special one. A marine!
I’d parrot Ron’s words to my buddies: “What, you don’t know what a vet is, stupid?”
So when Ron spilled the beans, perhaps to prove that he was closer to our father than I was, he actually gave me quite a gift. It was potent ammunition for the oldest childhood war of all: My dad can beat up yours. Seth’s dad was a dentist. Mike’s was a construction worker. But Victor’s father was a veteran soldier! Like the ones fighting Cobra Commander, or hunting the Predator. Even if they didn’t want to come over next week, or if they reminded me that I was short, ugly, and didn’t have a Nintendo, it didn’t matter.
But why didn’t Dad tell me?
I had to ask.
I waited as long as I could. It was probably a week or two at most, but it felt like years. After all, how long can a little boy wait before asking his dad about his secret war hero past?
I remember that it was a weeknight; I know because Ronnie was at his mom’s house. Dad was in his favorite chair, the one that stayed in Brooklyn when we moved. He was still in his trench coat, home from his job as a defense lawyer, and I could tell he was exhausted. I was sitting on the floor beside him, making a fort out of Legos.
“You’re up late,” he said.
I was always up late. Mom was probably downstairs, yelling for me to come take a bath. I didn’t look up, and I don’t think I even asked. I just said it.
“You were in a war.”
He didn’t react. He just patted my hair and looked away. I started building again, making sure my toy fort was perfect.
“Yes, a long time ago. Before you were born.”
When I looked up he was still staring out the window, his face lit up by that strange orange light that covers the city at sunset. “Was it World War Two?”
He laughed. “No, Vietnam.”
“Were we the good guys?”
“I’m not sure,” he looked at me.
“Did you win?”
I couldn’t understand. My dad was a veteran, he was in a war, but we were the bad guys, and we lost? This wasn’t what war was.
“We didn’t lose. We didn’t win. It’s…we’ll talk about it later, okay?”
Later turned out to be quite a long time after that.
* * *
My last childhood memories of Brooklyn involve playing war and seeing war. One night, I dashed about the backyard, plastic grenade in hand, pow-pow-powing, while wearing a weird, itchy cloth harness with rusted metal straps—not one of my toys. Dad had put it on me, but then seemed like he wanted it off immediately. I ran away laughing and screaming, but he didn’t want to play with me.
“He’s going to ruin it,” he shouted up to my mom.
“Joe, it’s just a harness. It was your idea. He can’t do anything to it!”
“What is this?” I asked Dad while clicking on the plastic grenade. “Was this yours?”
The First Gulf War erupted right around the time my parents bought a summer home in Springs, East Hampton. The new house absorbed my mom while the war absorbed my dad. He sat in front of the T.V., still and silent as a statue. It was actually the first time I saw him watching television, just like me. You see, my father doesn’t normally indulge in media—not movies, not music, nothing.
Then he did something truly strange. He suddenly started bringing movies home. I really wanted to watch them with him, but he refused. Any protest made him the angriest I’d ever seen him—which was still just a raised voice and eyes of ice.
“Full Metal Jacket.” “The Deer Hunter.” “Platoon.” He swore he hated them, that they were trash. But I often caught him leaning all the way into the screen, watching them alone. I’d walk into the living room, and he would react as though I were his dad and had just caught him watching porn.
Within a couple years, we could only afford one home or the other. Brooklyn was the world to me and I loathed East Hampton. But my parents chose to move out to the “summer” home—to where it was freezing and full of trees, where there were no streetlights, where the brown drinking water growled in the pipes before spitting out like vomit, and worst of all, to where there were quiet, insect-filled nights and not a single friend in sight.
My father commuted to New York City, so I didn’t see him much. At ten years old, I wasn’t adapting well to life in a practically vacant little town. Neither was Mom. We all needed something. From ten to fifteen, still short, alone, and forever “the new kid” in town, I needed something that my peers would notice. So whenever a prospective new friend came over, I’d quickly bring up Vietnam and my awesome dad.
I’d share my father with them. That calm, quiet man sitting in the living room, he was once a killer—a total, badass survivor. New friends were all in awe of Vic’s awesome dad and the stories he gradually shared with us. Vic’s dad, who slit an enemy spy’s throat in the darkness, who dashed through a graveyard while laying down covering fire for his friend, who cut through the jungle as napalm flamed behind the soldiers he commanded, literally burning the air they breathed. He told us these tales with a detached reluctance. I was able to get him to talk, but he never bragged. He rarely seemed anything more than bored when regaling us with his memories. But I egged him on, pushing, creating cracks in his shields, just so I could be cool, so I could be badass by association.
But as I grew, so did my concept of war. I realized that my father hadn’t told me much in Brooklyn because he didn’t want me to think about Vietnam anymore than he did. Didn’t want me thinking of him constantly in fear, didn’t want me sharing his nightmares, watching his friends blown into chunks across minefields.
The silence began to make sense. He was still dealing with things I was only beginning to understand. So many media portrayals of Vietnam vets are of junkies, drunks, and bums. My father was nothing like them. But he suffered. Slowly, he let me know that he suffered.
I thought breaking his silence would help. I really did.
* * *
Outside, the rain becomes a downpour again. Lightning flashes across the window. Whatever trauma is reeling through his mind, he keeps it to himself. I recall the night that ’Nam lost any faint hint of glamour for me.
I was about sixteen. Past midnight. I was high and looking for some snacks. Creeping back to my room, I nearly had a panic attack. There was my father, sitting at the kitchen table, hands folded. He was always asleep by ten, awake by six, just like when he was in the Marines. But this time, all the lights were on. Mom was not around. He was clearly waiting for me, and I was busted.
“Uh, Dad, I was just…I didn’t eat dinner, so I…”
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’m good. Why are you up? Are you okay? Did something happen?”
“Vic, sit down. I want to tell you some things.”
I sat down and pushed my bag of chips and cookies to the side. His voice was soft and calm, the house dead silent, outside the roar of a dying hurricane was drifting away.
“Are there recruiters at your high school yet?”
“Yeah, they’re always in the main hallway. Navy, Army. Marines, like you. I don’t pay attention to them. Some of my friends do.”
“Any of them signing up?”
“Not anyone that I know.”
“You’re not going to.”
It was a command. No argument from me.
I don’t know why he chose that moment, or why it always happens during a storm, a hurricane, or just an endlessly gray day of rain—triggers, perhaps, snapping his subconscious to the forefront.
“You’ve always seemed amused by me being in the war. You should know better.”
“I do! Dad, I’m proud of you. I couldn’t handle everything you have.” I was getting sober fast, and couldn’t believe that after all this time, he didn’t think I understood how traumatic being a veteran was.
“I’m not always as calm as you think. It gets to me. A lot. I try not to tell your mom. I don’t want to worry her. My hearing is getting worse, it might be from surfing, but I think it’s damage from all the explosions and gunfire. I haven’t told her yet, but it’s getting tougher. I’m getting tired.”
Hearing him talk like this was a hell of a lot more shocking than finding him waiting for me. He started telling me the same stories I’d heard before, and I just listened. It took a while to understand that this time, he was not talking about Vietnam for my sake.
He said a lot that night. Told me about some new horrors, such as the time he beat the hell out of two of his fellow Marines who had taken an enemy “gook” and impaled her corpse through her vagina. I’d never even heard him say “vagina.” The stories got worse: the smell of people burning, recon pups gutted and thrown in the river, baby corpses rigged with mines. It was a lot to take in, sober or stoned.
But the most shocking revelation was not any one of the tales of friendly fire, covered-up murders, or the brutality at the core of frightened men. No, it was hearing that for the first ten years of my parents’ relationship, he never discussed the war with my mom.
Mom was eighteen when they met, Dad was thirty. He was fresh from being “in country,” recovering from the ravages of Agent Orange, the anti-war sentiments of the nation he had returned to, and the decay of his first marriage, of which I still know very little. The last thing he wanted to relive was his thirteen-month tour in hell. Instead, he focused on her, on his burgeoning career as a criminal defense attorney—anything but Vietnam. He had been drafted out of college and thrust into war. He didn’t want it to define him, so he never discussed it. Absolute silence. I’d like to think those ten years were truly quiet for him.
There was no way that either of us could have known that that night was the beginning of him making his post-traumatic stress disorder very vocally known. We didn’t suspect that this small hearing problem meant the silence would soon end. It came gradually: a whisper from Ron, naïve interrogations from his youngest son, and years later, an utter explosion, a thunderous, nonstop rant that nearly drove our family apart.
* * *
The Gulf War was nothing. After 9/11, when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, the symmetry of these wars and Vietnam made my father into a nearly unrecognizable man. He was no longer silent. All he would talk about was the current war. I was in college and he didn’t seem to care. Dinnertime was overtaken by blaringly loud political T.V. Now that his hearing had become bad, the television actually hurt my ears and my mom’s, and any attempt to communicate with Dad necessitated shouting. He constantly fought with my mom about nothing.
One day I tried to reconnect with him by helping him with one of his new tasks—putting up huge posters of the soldiers who’d recently died in the war around East Hampton. Our only time together was when I volunteered to assist with his activism. We planted fake graves along Montauk Highway representing the dead soldiers: Christian crosses, Jewish stars, and the Muslim star and crescent. It didn’t help our family. The relative peace at home became an unending torrent of shouting due to his rapid hearing loss and his obsession with war and politics. We confronted him, gently at first, many times, only to be met with a vicious denial that there was anything wrong with him. Nothing in our lives mattered, it was all about the war. It was clear to Mom and me that this was true PTSD, the hidden disease that Dad had so valiantly convinced us wasn’t there.
Still, I consider our family lucky, especially compared to others that have traumatized veterans for fathers and husbands. His sudden change did not involve drugs, drinking, or physical abuse. It was only endless, endless activism in favor of soldiers and against war. Rallies. Speeches. Demonstrations. But any attempt to communicate with him about problems at home was useless. I spent a night in tears, with my best friend watching, begging him to be my father again, because no one could talk to him about anything except the injustice of war and his outrage at George Bush.
Childhood Victor got what he always wanted. Did I push my father toward this break? Or was it inevitable?
* * *
The storm’s close now. The house is shaking. We’re not in danger, but it’s just enough. I go get Dad a soda, his one vice. I grab a beer for myself, then sit back at my end of the room.
To be clear, I couldn’t be more proud of how my father uses his trauma to help other vets, to spread his doctrine of non-violence, and expose the exploitation of minorities, the poor, and other well-intentioned young men and women. He has kept his activism, his marches, and his guest talks going, but has gotten some help since then. He visited the V.A., acknowledged his PTSD, sought counseling, and admitted his hearing was nearly gone. By the time he did, he was close to deaf, unable to communicate with my mother or me in any meaningful way.
The political ranting has subsided. For nearly a decade, I’d say ninety-five percent of his talk was war-related. Now, unless intense news triggers him, it rarely dominates him anymore.
As the storm ends, rays of light break through. We’re here, once again, together, for a brief moment of peace. And although no words are spoken, I believe I’m finally beginning to understand his own personal, quiet language—so soft it feels like silence, but it’s a whisper, a terrified gasp from the strongest man I’ve ever known.
He puts his hearing aids in and looks at me. “Where’s mom?”
“She called before. She said…”
“She’s still at work. They’re fine over there.”
“Yeah. Yeah!” I tend to repeat things now. “She’s tired.”
“I’m tired,” he says. His head dips. Can’t tell if he’s exhausted physically or emotionally.
Our family is strong and healing. So is my father. But it’s taken its toll. Thirteen months in Vietnam ate away at him until he just couldn’t contain it anymore. For fifty years he tried to, and I don’t know how he really feels even now because…well, I’ve never asked. I still admire him. He’s still my hero. But I still don’t ask. I don’t have the words.
“Vic?” he snaps either awake or out of the past.
“I just said…” I catch myself, sip my beer, and breath. “She’s fine, she’ll be home soon.”
My father picks up his memoir to proofread, but then puts it down. He slowly pushes himself up from his favorite chair and heads to the door.
“It stopped raining,” he says to the window.
“Yeah. I think it’s over.”
* * *
Victor Giannini has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Stony Brook Southampton. Silverthought Press published his novella, Scott Too, in December, 2012. His father, Joseph Giannini, has a memoir, Soft Targets, due from Post Traumatic Press in 2014.
Vanessa Davis is a cartoonist and illustrator living in Los Angeles. Her book, Make Me a Woman, was published by Drawn and Quarterly in 2012.