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Home Front Terror
I worked as a secretary in the Physics Department at the
University of Oregon both before and after I was married in
January of 1972. I had graduated from the university two
years before, at age 20, but by the time I was 22 and
married and then pregnant I felt oh, so much older than the
others around me. Even the other secretaries who were
married had lives that had little to do with mine.
They went to work, came home, watched the news, ate supper
and went to bed--without much idea of the gut-wrenching fear
the war inspired in those of us who had a loved one in it.
Some people protested the war, some people ignored it, some
worried in an abstract way about it and others were so upset
by the constant replaying of war scenes on the news that
they turned their TVs off in disgust. But I think you had
to have someone there to feel real home-front terror. I
felt it and it seemed all the more terrible to me because
those waiting suffered it behind closed doors, on the
life-as-usual streets of Hometown, USA.
Perhaps people have learned or perhaps they're just ashamed
of how they acted then but now there's support for the
troops. Starting with the Gulf War, many among those who
say they don't support the idea of war still make a point of
saying they support the troops. That wasn't so in 1972.
Then men in uniform were still called baby killers to their
faces. No one is called that now, at least not in public.
The day his plane left for Vietnam, the war came to me like
a seed on the wind, settling in the rich, newly turned soil
of my fear. Reading Steven's letters and watching the
nightly news, I found myself immersed in the world of war
and some of its accompanying horror. It had been a distant
war only a few months ago, but now my husband, the father of
the baby I was soon to be told I was carrying, had gone to
join it, and so it gathered force every day, moving ever
closer, until a land thousands of miles away, a land of
jungles and rice paddies I would never see, became as
loathsome to me as if it had been in some more direct way my
own awful fate.
I'd write to Steven at night after my shower before climbing
into bed. It was easy to find things to write about at the
end of the day--the day's events, if nothing else. In his
letters, he was very careful to keep things from me. It was
as though he thought that if he told me too much, no matter
how selective he might try to be about what he chose to say,
he might slip and tell me something he really did not want
me to know. His letters were usually short and in them he
wrote almost exclusively of ordinary, everyday matters,
things he thought we still had in common, I suppose: the
thin and fragile framework of our life together or what very
little there was left of it.
Steven had arrived in Vietnam June 5th. His birthday was
not for another month but I gave him his birthday gift a few
weeks early, shortly after he arrived; I wrote to him that
he was going to be a father. Many years later I was told
that he jumped up when he read the news in my letter,
grinning, and whooping and telling everyone. We had talked a
long time about whether or not to start a family before he
left and after much deliberation decided to try. Like most
soldiers he was convinced he would come home again and we
would go on with our lives. I wasn't that certain and in
the back of my mind I thought, just in case, just in case
something happens to him, I wanted his child. I was 22 and
he turned 23 that July; I was working and saving every
penny and so was he. We would manage.
The days dragged by so painfully, each one marked off with a
black X in the small pocket diary I always carried, that I
was surprised when the summer, a whole season, was gone and
fall had arrived. Yet all around me the world went on as
usual. As odd as it seems, I felt as though I were the only
person who knew how much had really changed, the only person
who knew that nothing would ever be the same again. I
watched life go on as though I were looking through plate
glass showcases in a living museum.
Even though I was so much like the women all around in me in
so many ways, especially the married women with children, my
thoughts and feelings ran in different directions. It wasn't
just the so-called rightness or wrongness of the war in
Vietnam; it was the circumstances of our lives. They had
lives grounded in the here and now and they were tied
realistically, or so they thought then, to a future. They
were sure of what they were and where they were going. They
had staked out their claims for life. I was only marking
time in a no-man's land, certain of nothing. That was an
important difference between me and the others. Not all the
difference, but it was enough difference to really matter.
That September dragged on hot and dry. In Vietnam, the
rains had started. It would rain two hours every
afternoon--horrible, drenching, dispirited rains. The
monsoons would come in October or November.
On television, the battles raged on. I watched closely,
looking carefully at the faces of the soldiers. Each young
man belonged to someone who cared. They belonged to one
another, if to no one else. I had learned that from my
husband's letters. I felt that I was made up of
strings--loose and frayed and weak--and that somewhere
inside of me, a hand was holding all those strings together,
all in a bunch. And the hand was not my hand. I didn't
know whose hand it was that was holding my life together.
And I didn't know how much longer it was going to hold on.
My hope, my courage, my spirit died a little every day.
When the man you love is at war, life becomes a minefield
and you are forever--even in your dreams--walking point. I
wish now I had put an ad in the newspaper: "Wanted: Other
military wives to talk to". There must have others like me
in a town of 100,000. I couldn't have been the only
one--thought that's what it felt like. But if there were
other waiting wives, as surely there were, they were not
obvious. Like me, they must have decided to keep to
Now it was October and in Vietnam the really bad rains, the
long-dreaded monsoons, had finally come while I lived in a
world of bright sunny fall days interrupted by a few misty
showers. But then our Oregon rains began and I woke in the
night to the sound of a soft rain falling, dropping off the
leaves of the ivy that climbed by my window. I was warm and
dry and comfortable in a clean bed. I awoke and heard the
rain and thought of my husband and others over there and my
chest ached so painfully I thought I knew what it must be
like to have your heart break--not from loneliness, not even
from loss, but from the feeling that some sort of horrible
injustice was being committed, that things somehow were not
fair. And strangely--and it surprised me then--I did not
blame the NVA or the Viet Cong. Those were not my enemies.
I did not blame Nixon and the politicians. All that came
later. My enemies were in the classrooms at the university;
they passed me in the aisles of the stores downtown, perhaps
they were even asleep in the houses of my own neighborhood.
For the first time since my husband left, I cried.