And time was like water, but I was the sea
I wouldn’t have noticed it passin’
Except for the turnin’ of night into day
And the turnin’ of day into cursin’.
—Townes Van Zandt, “Rake” (1969)
My grandfather was a pirate and sailed the Seven Seas for thirty-five years. He saw all the beauty and all the horror of the world. I learned to ask about the horror when I was older. But when I was a child, I asked: “Granddad, of all the water that you’ve seen in this world, which is your favorite, the most beautiful?”
It was a tie, he told me, between the cerulean Pacific around the Bikini Atoll and the turquoise Caribbean surrounding Cuba. He served the US Navy from World War II to Korea to Vietnam, passing more time on open ocean than land. You’re probably not allowed to say you were intimidated by your grandfather. But sometimes, I was afraid of him. Not because he was mean or cruel, but because he walked into a room and looked right through every person standing therein. He knew what everyone was good at and would be good for. If you didn’t know your purpose, he did.
Before he died, I had a dream: He and I walk along a cement dock. A frenzy of people run in all directions, but he and I, we float seamlessly through the melee, nearing a ship. A gray ship, against a gray sky. It’s an aircraft carrier that’s split asunder down the starboard and port. He turns to me and says, “We have to fix it.”
We board the fractured vessel and walk across the flight deck to the island. The panicked crowd swarms over the deck, yelling and crying, trampling one another. He pulls a lever on a control panel, a ridiculously simple gesture to remedy such a grand rift. But that’s that. The ship is joined.
Thunder roars and howls overhead, fills our chests. He grabs my shoulders, terrified, and tells me, in a dead-silent vacuum, just me and him, while the people scream in muted pandemonium. He says, “Good Lord, girl.” He always said “Lawd” in two syllables with that particular Southeast Virginia drawl that will be extinct when all of his generation dies, when we enter the Age of No Accents. He says, “Good Lawd, I thought they were bombing us.” I awakened.
It’s a strange and terrible thing, to see your 80 year-old grandfather break down and cry at the dinner table. It didn’t happen in his 60s. The 80s seemed to be when his mind softened and the ghosts got louder. You want to think everyone’s found peace at that point in life. Some haven’t.
He wasn’t supposed to leave Southeast Virginia. But Granddad didn’t buy the Myth of the South: the descendent of Jamestown frontiersmen, grandson of the last cotton and tobacco barons. Everyone was to stay and carry on the dark fairytale of grandiosity, even though there was nothing to hang on to. Granddad didn’t buy any of it because he was the son of a drunken, railroad stop master, who sold the leaning porch columns and stripped whitewashed walls of the rotted estate along with the family cemetery to the Greensville Correctional Center, to feed his whiskey fund. County workers stole buttons from uniforms when they exhumed the graves. My grandmother still speaks of it, how they desecrated the dead, “Can you believe? Stealing buttons from soldiers!”
Whatever fool took those buttons didn’t know what he was asking for, didn’t know what curse he might be carrying off to the pawn shop. I’d let those buttons lie in the ground.
Granddad was a boy tarpapering the roof of their railroad stop store alongside the Norfolk-to-Roanoke line of the Virginian Railway in ’41, perhaps wondering, “What exactly is this, this fix, this historical hiccup that I’ve inherited? What is it we’ve done?” As he slapped sheets on the roof, a State Representative in a three-piece suit pulled up to buy a cold Coca-Cola and hollered to him, “Son, do you want to study at the U.S. Naval Academy?” He did. They gave him a test and he passed and he went. He ate square meals and swabbed the decks and yessirred and yelled and they shipped him off.
So many stories he had, from a planet of oceans, from continents of ports. He told me a tale before I headed to Spain for a college semester, wanted me to find a particular bar. At some lost point in time between World War II and the Cuban Missile Crisis, he and his crew were on shore leave in Barcelona and took over a tavern, Los Caracoles. A drunken midshipman walked up to him and the Commodore seated at the bar, slapped the senior officer on the back, and proclaimed, before falling to the floor, “Tell you what, Commodore, I speak this shit like a hacienda!”
In ’54, he sailed to the Bikini Atoll, a chain of supposedly-American isles, floating in the Pacific like our long-lost apostrophe mark. For this cruise, he was second-in-command on a ship that would drop staff on various isles to monitor weapons testing, some mysterious concoction from Los Alamos. I have the musty certificate which reads “Joint Task Force Seven, Certificate of Achievement, for meritorious service in connection with energy tests at Eniwetok-Bikini, Operation Castle, 1954.” The rings of an official nuclear logo explode in the middle, like a petal-ed military flower with electron bees buzzing about the fringes.
The crew pushed against the edge of the deck to ogle topless islander women who waved with open, golden arms and long ebony hair grazing shallow water like sirens from a James Michener tale. Granddad said it took a good deal of yelling to pull the men in line. They anchored, dropped cargo nets off the side of the ship and climbed down to the water to swim. But they weren’t there to swim.
He told me about the guys who begged him not to leave them on the observation islands. He didn’t know until they arrived to their destination that they would drop them off with only their cold monitoring equipment for company, begging the senior officers: don’t leave me with the palm trees, the birds, the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world. But he had orders, always some albatross that dropped to the deck from the ranks up above, a pile of rotting feathers at his feet.
My grandmother is so proud of him, would show me photos of him standing in obeisance during change-in-command. He said nothing. My grandmother, not fond of traveling beyond the bounds of Virginia, stayed in D.C., or Norfolk, wherever they happened to station for his assignments. She worked as a librarian, raised children, attended DAR meetings and served iceberg-and-mayo crust-less sandwiches to fellow Navy wives. She carefully applied red lips and waved her auburn hair and waited for him to return, archiving his story in safe photos and news clippings that reveal little but time-lined events.
Granddad’s ship dropped their guys on the evacuated atoll and set sail to a safe viewing distance. Some miles out, when it was time to hit “Now”, the crew stood on the deck and looked back to the horizon whence they came, waiting for the fireworks of the South Pacific—a show for an audience of blue whales, shellfish, phyto-plankton, Bikinians, and this strange ship. All of them, witness to what rose between sun and moon.
He watched the orange-red tower lift from the Pacific skyline, the far-heard whisper over the sea. He saw a new planet held aloft by a monolithic pillar, wrapped in a fistful of vermilion dust rings, a red sky in morning that filled the whites of his eyes. He stood on the painted ocean, under the roaring wave that left a shimmering memorial from the water’s surface to the Saratoga.
Three islands turned to lithium dust with a reef-cracking Li-6 D display, soaring one hundred thousand feet into the atmosphere. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky but it rained, it rained metal-ash. It floated downwind, eastward, over the islands, ash smudging the foreheads of Pacific Islanders across the chain.
He called my grandmother when they reached Honolulu. “I now know the fear of God,” he told her. And then he cried. He never mentioned the radioactive coconuts, the Islander babies born as boneless marmalade for years to come, the fallout fish that today still hold nuclear scars in their bones. He didn’t mention that after the blast, he and his crew returned to the blast site, bobbed along in small boats and fished nuclear debris from the water. He never said he was sick for the next 60 years. There’s only so much a person can recall without turning to dust.
When he spoke, it was as if he were a critic for an haute cuisine publication, a military gourmand sent on the grandest food crusade of the world to sample the fares of far-off lands. He recounted the bouillabaisse of Marseille, the mechoui of Algeria, the ship slop, the dignitary dinners with Italian ministers, the feasts with Arabian sheiks, the markets, and the bars.
I found a letter he wrote to his mother, who sat back in Greensville County: “Mama, We stay busy, but I’m not sure we are accomplishing very much. The fighting continues and it doesn’t seem any nearer to a settlement. I understand there is quite a bit of debate going on back there concerning whether or not Congress should approve more money. But you wouldn’t believe. They say the French cuisine in Saigon is better than that in the good restaurants in Paris!”
But eventually, I knew: these were easy stories. He was busy because one of the SEAL convoys he was overseeing pushed upriver into Cambodia.
When I was 25 years old and he, 82, he called me to his desk. He opened a file drawer, pulled out a large manila envelope and handed it to me. It was labeled "Saigon—April 1975."
"You hang onto that, girl,” he ordered me, closed the drawer and turned away. He began to tell me something and didn’t, shaking his head as if some ghost said, “Stop.” This was one of two times I heard him voluntarily bring up the subject of Vietnam.
I thought his Vietnam story was folklore, something that we knew had happened “over there,” but hadn’t really happened because nobody wanted to talk about it, just fiction, like the wars taking place in this century. I didn’t think it was real because it wasn’t Apocalypse Now or The Things They Carried. I just thought of him as the man who took me fishing on red-brown Virginia farm ponds, who pulled box turtles from the slow water when they paddled by the boat, their legs kicking through air as he held them before me to poke and inspect.
They didn’t send him over for the Jungle War, but they called for a volunteer in ’74. After Korea, he was on special ops, chasing Russians, making mysterious deliveries, away for ten months or more at a time. He was assigned cushier jobs in his late 40s, captaining the USS Wright, the National Emergency Command Post Afloat, an aircraft carrier that hovered just offshore the Atlantic coastline and served as an ad hoc rescue and command center for President Johnson in the instance of attack on U.S. soil. They put him in the Pentagon after that.
It was never quite clear to any of us what he did behind those walls. He’s gone now and I’ll most likely never know. All I know is that they didn’t ask, “Who wants to go mop up the limping trainwreck in Vietnam?” The job was laid out and, contrary to most military assignments, a generous choice was offered: “Who will go? Who will go see what Peace with Honor looks like?” The room was silent. He raised his hand.
At 50, Granddad was an old man for that war, a war that mangled boys in swamps and rice paddies and mountainous jungles. He would be stationed on land for once, a fish out of water. He volunteered and he was assigned as Chief of the Navy Division in Ambassador Martin’s Defense Attaché. From the way things went, I’m not certain if he was sent off to advise or sent off to be advised by an administration better suited to planning cocktail parties and hosting diplomatic golf tournaments.
There was a thunderstorm when Saigon fell; it slowed down everything on land. He didn’t know, none of them knew, they’d have to evacuate all at once. He was consumed by the weather, always had to know which way the wind was blowing, used to ask me for the weather report for the next two hours. I wonder why he didn’t write about the thunderstorm in his final report.
I opened the envelope and leafed through the typewritten pages of his official summary of the month leading up to the Fall, carefully bulleted, language terrified of adjectives.
Shortly after the mass withdrawal from the Highlands began, it became readily apparent that a definite enemy threat existed to the coastal areas of Military Region I . . . the vivid forecast of a fast-developing disastrous situation.
Disastrous. There’s no reading between the lines, a military timeline summary, no panic here, no people crawling over the Embassy wall to be pushed back by Marines, no people piling onto sand-bagged riverboats, running toward the coast. There are no descriptions of South Vietnamese fingers clinging to helicopter skids to be found here. Just a watered-down recipe for a large-scale evacuation. There are no children.
He was ordered to coordinate the evacuation of orphans fathered by American GIs, all two, three thousand of them, numbers that nobody really knows. If the American-Vietnamese war babies stayed, everyone knew what would happen to them. Operation Babylift, this would be an unquestionably good deed, just one certain thing to come out of this, one thing to free themselves of this jungle curse. They slashed numbers on the backs of babies and toddlers with permanent marker, loaded their small bodies riddled with ear infections, scabies, into shoe boxes, onto planes by the dozens and shipped them out, off to the U.S., Australia and beyond for adoption.
The last cargo plane was loaded. Granddad called his secretary to the trailer that served as his office as the craft was readying for takeoff. The guards who stood at his office were killed by mortar on the steps the week before. Granddad opened the door to find the them dead on the doorstep. There was no one to stand guard now.
“Barbara, it’s time to go,” he said.
“I don’t want to go,” she said. “They haven’t cleared me to go.”
“It’s time to go, girl,” he said. “You run out there and get on that plane. Someone’s got to tend to those babies. They need you.”
So, she ran out there in her uniform skirt suit and boarded the plane. He watched the final orphan plane take off from Tan Son Nhat Airport on April fourth, lifting the babies and the woman out of harm’s way. The backend of the plane exploded, crashed down just over the dike into a rice paddy, shattered into pieces, a fleet of singed baby Moses-es bobbing in thick, reed-green water.
Leading up to the final days, Granddad asked the General if he’d like to reserve a seat on a plane heading out. The General said, “Saigon isn’t going to fall.”
“I didn’t ask if you think Saigon is going to hold or fall,” Granddad said. “I asked if you wanted a seat.”
The General reserved a seat and left the next day.
April twenty-ninth rolled around. One hundred and five degrees and rising. White Christmas played on the radio and nobody slow danced. He ran to-and-fro, barked orders, took orders, I’m not sure what he did. He would never say. The report never uses the word “I.” He never said and never will.
Everyone had to leave, get out, until there was only a begging crowd pulsing against the Embassy compound, panicking people on the ground looking up at the sky where helicopters swooped down behind the compound wall and picked up the fortunate, soldiers stripping their uniforms, throwing their guns in the streets and running for the countryside in their underwear before the North Vietnamese entered the city, the thunderstorm roiling overhead.
We played a game of cards once, Granddad, my brothers and I. He laid down an Ace of Hearts, and told us about his driver, his translator, Mr. Soo. Mr. Soo, who had taken him to the markets and helped him haggle for porcelain fu dogs, garden seats, the seats that sat in our living room, that I used to prop myself when I first learned to walk. Mr. Soo took Granddad home to lunch with his family.
Mr. Soo showed up outside the Embassy on April 29th with a suitcase and a little girl of two years old. Granddad saw the small driver at the gate and ran to him. Mr. Soo begged Granddad to put them on a helicopter. Granddad yelled through the cacophony, why, why didn’t you get here earlier? Mr. Soo begged him to take just the granddaughter, thrust the girl into my grandfather’s hands.
“But, y’all see, I had orders. I couldn’t take them,” he explained to us. He dropped his hand on the table and left the game.
Only so many seats, only so many. At the very end, Americans only. No room for everybody. Can’t slip everyone through the cracks. Even if they served the American cause.
Before he left, he gave his Vietnamese secretary his pistol. I'm not sure what he said to her. He never said and never will. The pistol was hers so that she was at liberty to make a choice—to shoot at the VC or to shoot herself.
Granddad climbed on a chopper and left, looked back at Mr. Soo, at the people reaching their arms toward choppers that would come for some of them but never all of them. He looked back at South falling to North, flew out to a ship where he and all who found themselves on that wayward vessel pushed Hueys from the deck to sea to make way for incoming refugees. They packed in like sardines and sailed together to the Philippines.
“Do you know what happened to those people, the ones we left behind?” he once asked me. I didn’t then. I do now. Those left behind--thousands of at-risk South Vietnamese--would be swallowed by some thing unnamed and never to be named because it would all be swept under the rug, because everyone was tired and bored and done thinking about this war.
He came home. Everybody had watched the news, the chopper atop the building, the small staircase, the people filed up the steps like ants. Everybody watched the news and nobody said a word to him. They shipped him to Norfolk and he trained specials forces on the Amphibious Base until he called it good.
I came to wish I could erase his memory for him. In my teens, I would sit and dream up ways to make it better. I always wanted to visit Vietnam and see if I could find Mr. Soo and his granddaughter. I wanted to come back and tell Granddad they were alive.
“Look, Granddad, here’s a picture of them both,” I’d say.
What is it we inherit from these people, this fix—the task to stumble toward the strange myth of their greatness, to shake ourselves of their darkness, their mistakes, to unearth their fear in new forms and new places? What is this fix, this metal in our damaged DNA? What have we learned from any of it?
“It’s always those who don’t want wars who end up fighting them,” was the most complete summary he ever offered me.
I last sat with him in October 2015, in a retirement home in Virginia Beach. He was 90, and I, 33. Scabs from skin cancer crusted his bald, spotted pate. The hair on his ears and from his nose grew with abandon. He drifted in and out of consciousness. He once stood six-feet-two and now stood five-feet-seven when he could stand. They gave him pills twice a day that sedated him and dulled the pain. He wet his pants and cried when the skin on his hands cracked with dryness. Blood pooled in his feet, which swelled so grossly that he couldn’t wear shoes, just bandages, a prisoner of war trapped in his own body.
As nurses yelled to one another in the corridor beyond his door, machinery beeped, and a man groaned next door, I asked him: “Granddad, of all the water you’ve seen in this world, which is your favorite, the most beautiful?”
He closes his eyes and lowers his heavy head toward his sternum, bobbing it back and forth in a gesture of vague recollection. I wonder if he’s fallen asleep. I wonder if he’s lasted so long on this Earth because he believes he has to suffer a minute for every person left behind. I wonder if he has to live until he forgets. I wonder when he goes, if the curse goes with him. Or if someone else has to carry it.
His bird-neck miraculously lifts the weight of his skull to look me in the face through dusty eyes behind smudged glasses and say: “I’d have to think on it a long, long time. But for now, for the life of me, honey chile, I can not recall.”