My father and I don't agree on almost anything politically, so we really don't discuss it much. I am not of a mind to change those of other people, especially those who I know will never be on the same wave as I am by way of life experience, generation, fundamental belief system or change in the weather.
It's usually a waste of time and I am a fan of harmony. My opinions and beliefs are my own and generally speaking I don't ask others to reject or change theirs, although understanding isn't a bad thing.
During the last election I did get involved in a conversation with him about John McCain. I had recently been to Hanoi and visited La Maison Centrale, aka the Hanoi Hilton, where McCain had been imprisoned. It helped me make sense of what I interpreted as the man's crazy eye and his random outbursts, because I felt antsy in there after ten minutes and couldn't imagine being trapped there for five years, much less under the watch of Vietnamese programmers who made me pretend we had an awesome time at Christmas dinner.
It still didn't make me any more interested in having him serve as my president, though. And I can't remember much of the content of this conversation with my father, but I think I must have asked him why in the world he would find him fit to serve? Why would he, a relatively apolitical person for most of my life, find the need to come out of voter hiding for this guy if that was what he was going to do?
"We served in the same war, Laurie."
That is all he said, and the way he looked and his tone shut me up. I knew that it was something I couldn't understand, a shared experience I have never and will never know and wasn't fit to judge. And although my father enlisted in the Navy and was on an aircraft carrier rather than a fighter pilot who ended up imprisoned for years like McCain, I can get the relationship. I may not agree, but I can understand.
Yesterday I went downtown to watch the Rolling Thunder motorcycle run. It's something I've wanted to do for years and in spite of it being hot as hell outside and no one within earshot being able or willing to go with me, I did it, and I am so, so grateful that I did. I believe in honoring holidays like this in the way that works for you, and this was it for me this year.
Walking towards the Mall I questioned my sanity. It was so incredibly hot I started to think in exaggerated terms that I was going to melt or die. But as soon as I hit Constitution Avenue and saw the bikes roaring down, and more to the point heard them, I began to weep and more or less quit complaining.
I was unprepared for how I felt.These were the first people I saw. I listened to them yell hello to the people on the bikes and I stood behind them and cried behind my sunglasses.
I am a liberal person who hates war who cries whenever I see an Honor Guard. My patriotic buttons can be easily pushed in spite of my open scrutiny of government and growing cynicism. I believe I am lucky to have been born here but I can separate a love of country quite easily from blind obedience and one of the easiest ways to piss me off is to equate my liberal views with some kind of scathing indictment of my Americanness or validity of my citizenship. I believe that it is wrong to tell anyone anything about how they are or what they believe about the place where they were born and where their family is rooted.
I know that freedom isn't free -- whatever that really means -- and I don't need anyone's rhetoric or stupid forwarded e-mail or Toby Keith's boot in my ass to accentuate the point, put it that way.
Anyway, somehow I happened in spite of the fact that I was raised in part by WWII vets, one grandfather in the Navy, one grandfather who had a "Once a Marine, always a Marine" license plate. My grandmother's only brother, my Uncle Joe McGrath, died in WWII, his remains never made it back and I think about him all of the time. I am fully aware of the impact that the travesty of Vietnam and our treatment of its veterans upon their return home -- or not -- had on my parents' generation, and therefore on mine.
Yesterday I felt the weight, there on the edge of the National Mall. I saw such pride in the people by the side of the road cheering and the people waving back from the motorcycles. I wanted the streets to be as packed as they are for a Redskins parade or St. Patrick's Day around here. I had images flash through my mind from my mom's old photo albums, the guys she knew who went over and died and the ones who came back but were forever altered for worse.
I talked to a Vietnamese-American guy named Mike, sitting there on a curb that burned my ass through my pants it was so hot, although I would have had to burst into flames to cut that conversation short. His dad was a Vietnamese Army veteran who ended up in an internment camp for ten years after the fall of Saigon. Mike, his mother and brother made it here, supposedly because his family had information that someone wanted.
He let me take his photo.
He told me I should have gone to Saigon, not Hanoi, which is what every Vietnamese person tells me when I say I went to Hanoi and not Saigon. He turned his nose up at the very mention of the North, the way people were treated, how the people in charge destroyed everyone's lives. He said he goes back but he will never stay. He listened to me babble on about how the Vietnamese don't seem to think of the war. After years of conflict with France, China, us, between North and South in-country, they live in the now. They have moved on.
It destroyed Saigon, though, he said. The effects will never not be felt, not really. He spoke with insight about the economy, and agreed with me that in general they are a good people with a beautiful culture. We talked about our fathers, on opposite sides of a losing proposition.
"So many die," he said. "My father die a few years later. He never recover."
But he would stay here, I said. Oh yes. This was his home, he had a wife and a child now, a little boy who ran around in circles in the heat, laughing.
Back walking through the heat of the day I transformed these thousands of gray-haired men in black leather vests and jeans in my mind into young guys in t-shirts and camo. I imagined every cliche, a guitar player busking For What It's Worth (Stop, children what's that sound?) instead of the Army Band covering Witchy Woman by the Lincoln Memorial, which was the only blight on the afternoon, I say with apologies to the Army Band.
I thought of how, on the shuttle from the airport into the thick Hanoi evening two years ago, I had watched signs go by in a language I had no prayer of understanding and imagined a young man from Kentucky or Nebraska or Arizona, landing in this country he'd never seen 40 years before. I could tell already that it was a landscape unlike any I had ever seen and could barely imagine from movies, and how surreal it would be to be sent there to kill or be killed, an overall sense of mission and liberation underscoring it but to kill or potentially be killed all the same.
I wondered why we didn't do better for them when they came home. I wondered and doubted if we were doing any better now for troops and vets from Afghanistan and Iraq.
I saw a grandfather in a POW/MIA vest lean down to his grandson in a stroller and tell him to wave as the bikes rode by.
I left the main road as motorcycles kept streaming down for hours and walked through the World War II Memorial on my way to the Wall. I cried again when I saw a young girl pushing an elderly veteran -- probably her great grandfather, it occurred to me -- through in a wheelchair, leaning down and shouting out the states into his ear as they passed the name of each engraved on one of the columns. "Connecticut. Indiana. Texas. New Jersey. Nebraska. Ohio." A tall bandanna'd motorcycle man leaned down and shook his hand, said "Thank you for your service, sir. I appreciate it." The man looked up, shielded his eyes, and told him where he'd served.
I missed my grandfathers intensely in that moment, both dead for 20-plus years, wished they could have seen this.
I ended up at the Wall, black granite engraved with thousands of names sloping down for some distance. I saw children and grandchildren and old buddies rubbing names onto paper with pencils.
There were cans of beer and letters from children never seen.
There were people whose t-shirts told you that they'd ridden from all over the country on the back of motorcycles to see this for the first or the fifth time. Some people had lists of names -- from their town, from their platoon, from who knows where.It is thousands of names of people who died in a very long war.