Janet Sheridan: 40 years later
April 16, 2015
A shadow hovered over the United States in the early 60s. Its darkness lurked in the background as I married and graduated from college; it fell across the school where I taught fourth-grade children the intricacies of long division, comprehension skills of reading, and correct fingering for their flute-o-phones. Busy with my life, I didn't notice the shadow blacken, move closer, threaten. I didn't know it would envelope me.
An unkind wind scudded over mountaintops, rooflines, and icy streets on a February day in 1968 when my husband, Bill, walked into our apartment with the mail and his draft notice. A month later, at two o'clock in the morning, he joined other somber young men on a Greyhound bus and gave control of his life to the army. I cleaned out our apartment, tried not to think about the chilling what-ifs of death, and cried.
From Bill's departure that bleak night until he returned from Vietnam in November of 1969, the shadow engulfed me. Televised footage of the war combined with daily reports of its steadily increasing death toll made it impossible for me to pretend, even when he was home on leave after completing his training.
Bill arrived in Vietnam in September of 1968, the year 16,592 soldiers, most of them young men of 18 to 23, died there: boys on the verge of adulthood; drawn from our plains, mountains, coasts, deltas, and deserts; sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers; all of them loved.
Forty years ago on April 29 to 30 of 1975, a massive helicopter evacuation rescued 7,000 Americans and at-risk Vietnamese from Saigon, leaving 400 South Vietnamese allies behind. Bill and I watched the rescue play out on television: massed bodies, desperate hands stretched toward hovering helicopters, the slumped shoulders of those left behind, blank eyes staring out of blank faces.
Vietnam marked those of us who remember it, took a toll on our nation, in big ways and small. History details the big; and those of us old enough to understand experienced the small. I can only speak as someone who waited and worried for 14 months, a wife whose husband came home when so many died, who came home uninjured when so many lost limbs and health, who came home mentally sound — though altered — when so many came home plagued by mental demons.
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My experience was a jumble of stomach-gnawing worry when the flow of letters was interrupted, of watching anti-war protests that triggered my conflict over having a husband in a war that made less and less sense to me, of the horror of the nightly news during which I involuntarily scanned the faces of the weary and injured soldiers. I still tense when I hear a sound that usually accompanied those nightly broadcasts: the thumping whirr of a helicopter.
Our 14 long months of separation included a week together in Hawaii, which the army called R&R for rest and recreation. Even as I experienced the joy of our reunion, an inescapable thought intruded: in six days my husband would go back to a war-torn place he didn't talk about.
Shortly after Bill finally came home, we had finished a hike and were approaching our car when a vehicle backfired, the echo resounding in the deep, narrow canyon. Bill lunged, grabbed me, and forced me to the ground. Before I fully realized what had happened, he got up, extended a hand, said, "Crazy, huh, I thought they were onto us," and nothing else.
Many years later, the majority of my ninth-grade students viewed Vietnam as ancient history; some thought the United States had won, had saved Vietnam from communism. Most believed we would never again go to war, that never again would a toll be taken on our country in ways both large and small. I was not so certain.
Sheridan's book, "A Seasoned Life Lived in Small Towns," is available in Craig at Downtown Books and Steamboat Springs at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore. She also blogs at http://www.auntbeulah.com on Tuesdays.