September of 1995. I was 5-years-old with a swimming pool, a german shepherd, two braids and my first loose tooth. I went to my first day of kindergarten in a specially bought purple dress with large flowers and white sandals that shone against the summer tan I’d gotten by way of the aforementioned pool.
I had two older sisters, a mom, and a dad. And don’t forget the german shepherd.
And then I didn’t. I had two older sisters and a mom, and still the german shepherd. Still the swimming pool and the plum tree in the front yard that we would grab to snack on as we cannonballed back into the water with purple juice dripping down our arms. I had twin cherry beds, and a giant panda bear that I slept with, and a Red Ryder bb gun that I used to shoot the light pole. But no dad.
And that was it.
Death and its permanency and separation is a thing you can’t comprehend when you’re 5. And I think that’s probably a blessing. In fact, I know it is.
And so one day I had a dad and then I didn’t. We had funerals and visits and a lot of casseroles. We had sad looks and long hugs and friends that couldn’t make eye contact. But no dad.
And I think we did okay. Each in our own way, charting our own course, but I think we did okay.
Because when you’re 5–you don’t say goodbye, because you don’t know what it means to do so.
It’s weird then, isn’t it, that I’m saying goodbye, and maybe hello, and maybe nothing at all, all these 25 years later? When the swimming pool has been taken down, and the plum tree mowed over–the german shepherd passed on, and my big sisters are further away than across the hall.
People take shape in our realities and in our visions. My dad was a vision colored slightly by imagination.
I don’t remember his hands, or his laugh, or his smell. I don’t know if I remember his face from in person or a photograph. “Did this really happen or did I dream it?” Most of the time, I dreamed it. Did my fingernail biting come from him? My obsessive personality? My love to organize? Who can say?
It’s hard to miss a dream. You can’t say goodbye to a vision.
And since he never took shape as a real man — life did as life does and moved on.
Today, I went through my grandmother’s mementos–photographs and letters and slides that aren’t even a thing now, but somehow I’m going to need to find a slide projector. And I fully expected to miss every inch of who she was. Because she was my solid reality. I can tell you exactly how her hands felt like paper and how she smelled like the perfect mix of Estee Lauder perfume and Suave aerosol hairspray.
I didn’t expect to be introduced to a father I thought I’d sufficiently grieved 25 years ago.
Because as his mother, she hoarded every memory, snapped every photograph, saved every birthday greeting and summer camp postcard.
And I’m wondering why she never brought them out.
We spent nearly every moment together. We talked over everything. There were no secrets, no grudges. Was the pain of seeing his slightly crooked “r” in the note written when he was 10-years-old just too painful? It’s too late to ask.
So I’m left piecing together what I can from newspaper articles, commendations, and baby pictures of a towhead who looks shockingly like the grandson he’ll never know.
So please humor me, if you will, this rambling I don’t know what journeying toward something that may not exist–to someone that surely did.
From what I can tell–there were two of him. The man (boy) he was in September of 1968, working at IBM, and the man he became in A-Shau Valley, Vietnam doing things that earned him the Purple Heart and Bronze Star that I have in a box in the basement. For “heroism in ground combat in the Republic of Vietnam.”
“Sgt Stevens ran to the wounded man’s side despite the heavy volume of enemy fire. He returned fire on the enemy positions while the medical aidman administered first aid to the wounded. Sgt Stevens then carried the wounded to safety amidst heavy enemy arms and rocket propelled grenade fire. Sgt Stevens’ personal bravery and devotion to duty were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit upon himself, his unit, and the United States Army.”
Oh. So that’s my dad, huh?
The Louisville Times did a story following him to the reveal of the Vietnam Wall in 1982.
“We’re just trying to find some meaning,” said Bob Stevens, a former reconnaissance team sergeant and now a counselor at the Lexington Disabled Veterans Outreach Center. Some people have been finding each other, but to this point I haven’t. Yesterday, Stevens found two people he knew. Their names were on the wall. “This guy died in the first firefight I was in,” Stevens said as took a picture of the name. “I carried him 500 yards to a chopper. I got a bronze star, but he didn’t make it.” Pointing to the second name, Stevens said: “I found out about Ed here about a month after I got home. He was my closest friend there. I’ve got pictures of us eating with the same spoon. This is a once in a lifetime experience,” Stevens said. “Many of these guys were just 19 years old and at an important stage in their development. They lost their youth and innocence in Vietnam, and some of us want to go back and find it.”
That was 8 years before I entered the picture and only 13 before he passed. I’d like to think that journey toward his lost youth and innocence in the jungle came to an end in 1995, because I’m not certain he’d found what he was looking for before then.
“We’re just trying to find some meaning,” he’d said. Did he? Find meaning, I mean. In marriage? In fatherhood? Or did his meaning only come when finally his two souls became one. In her journal, Grandma wrote: “When I say my son returned from Vietnam, that is false. Bobby did not return–a part of him will always be back in those jungles. He was a prisoner to the war that he was still fighting and could never find his way out home. I lost my son in Vietnam, too. There should be a monument next to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington with the names of the ones who did return. These men are also the casualties of this conflict.”
“Bobby was a fine and brave soldier with many medals and commendations for his years in Vietnam. I, as a mother, cannot say how proud I am of him and what a brave soldier he was to the very end. In the hospital, they told him his condition, which was very bad, and he took it bravely, writing to me “no life support,” and he went home to be with our Lord. One of the last things he wrote not long before he died was “peace.” He finally was going to find peace after twenty-six years.
Maybe what I found in these old, 1977 McAlpin’s shoe boxes wasn’t a need to say goodbye, at all, it was a way to say hello. I finally was going to find a peace I didn’t know I needed after twenty-five years.
And may I just say, God Bless the American soldier–may he find his peace on this side or the other.