Trout Fisting In America #44 – Vietnam

I’m afraid that once I start writing this I won’t be able to stop.

I’d spent the first five episodes of this PBS special ‘Ken Burns Presents Vietnam Brought To You By The Bank Of America And A Generous Donation From David J. Koch’ waiting to see a vet who reminded me of my dad. Who knows, maybe he’d be in it? As I write this, my dad and I haven’t spoken in 15 years, but I was raised on Vietnam. After I became a teenager he started giving me endless books to read and taking me to see the glut of late-80’s Vietnam movies that crammed the theaters in the wake of Platoon’s box-office success.

My dad spent most of 1968 and part of 1969 on a mountain northeast of DaNang that the US forces named Monkey Mountain. The Vietnamese call it sơn trà, which translates as ‘painted tea.’ And if you want to know why the decade-plus US intervention over there was a failure, imagine how arriving in a country and renaming their mountain signifies not only that you’re a fucking asshole, but that your military isn’t there as liberators—they’re there as imperialist aggressors intent on VIetnam’s continued existence as a western colony. Which, at this point in Vietnam history, the Vietnamese people were really, really sensitive about colonialism. The US intervention, just like the past two decades of recent post-9/11 US interventions, was doomed from the start, and for pretty much the same reasons, i.e. it’s hard to win the hearts & minds of a native population when you’re dropping bombs that scatter their innocent hearts & minds all over the fucking ground.

But then sometimes itt seems like this country never learns anything. Or maybe they just don’t care. For a certain segment of the US population (wealthy, business-owning) Vietnam was a great war. They made shitloads of money without ever jeopardizing their own personal safety or the safety of their children. War, uh, what is it good for? It’s good for business motherfuckers. And don’t you ever forget it.

It wasn’t very good for my dad though. He’d already experienced plenty of trauma before setting foot in Vietnam—alcoholic & abusive father, poverty, etc.—but according to people who knew him before he went, Vietnam kind of broke him. After he got back, he spent the early 70’s telling my mom she was going to come home one day and find his brains blown out. The VA told my mom there wasn’t anything they could do. Their marriage didn’t last. When I was 13 I went to live with him after my mom pulled me out of school with no idea where we were going to live or when I was going back.

One of the most terrifying moments I’ve ever experienced inside a car is the ride home with my dad after going to see Hamburger Hill in the theater when I was 14. The movie isn’t anything special. Its plot, based on a real-life battle, revolves around an army platoon fighting to capture a hill. They take on heavy losses (hence the name—again, imposed by the US), but eventually triumph, only to be helicoptered out a week later. The story works pretty well as a metaphor for the war itself. (poorly defined goals, senseless death, etc.).

So we get out of the movie and my dad’s so pissed he can’t even speak. If I hadn’t followed him to the car, I’d have probably gotten left there, but I jump in and he peels out of the parking lot. My dad’s just slamming the car through stop signs and squealing tires. We’re near the San Diego coastline so there’s all these hills and every time. When he finally pulls into a parking space so we can get dinner, he just sits there squeezing the life out of the steering wheel and panting like someone who ran a marathon. He  doesn’t look at me, or acknowledge my presence in any way. I have, at this point in my life, already learned not to say anything to my dad when he gets like this, to be very careful not to do anything to provoke him.

He eventually gets himself under control and managed to say, in a voice coming from somewhere far away, ‘Let’s get some dinner.’

I don’t remember what we talked about after that.

So yeah, you bet your ass I was sitting there on the couch as the PBS series aired. And despite the fact that the series was seriously biased & seriously flawed, the footage was amazing, and the sad, slow inevitable tragedy as the US involvement began to unfold was moving & powerful & all those other critical pull-quote buzzwords. Still, I couldn’t get past how every veteran they interviewed appeared so calm & reasonable, like every soldier who came home went on to become a writer, or a teacher. These men had a healthy perspective on what they’d experienced, and they all aspired to a certain nobility, so much so that they almost seemed unaffected. None of these men bore any resemblance to the Vietnam vets I have known.

Then Ron Ferrizzi opened Epsiode 6, and my blood froze. There’s no video for me to post here so I’ll have to describe it. Ferrizzi has this handlebar moustache and these wild eyes and he’s talking about being a helicopter pilot, how you can float above everything and it makes you feel like god. Ferrizzi grew up in a blue-collar part of Philadelphia, so he doesn’t hold back as he talks. He describes how his job was to draw enemy fire, to ‘get shot at,’ in order for the enemy to reveal themselves and as you’re getting shot at you have to scream as loud as you can to cover up the sound of the bullets exploding all around you. He starts off telling the story calmly, deliberately, but become more animated as he continues. Then he starts jabbing with his fingers to get his point across the same way my dad used to jab his fingers into my chest to get his point across. A narrator interrupts to give us some information & statistics about Vietnam helicopters. The narrator pronounces the word ‘sorties’ with a weird emphasis on the second syllable, you can hear the click against his teeth as he clearly enunciates the ‘t’ in a way I’ve never heard before. Then the documentary returns to Ferrizzi, telling a story about returning to his base after being shot at and how there’s a woman standing there, a reporter, a ‘beautiful woman.’ Ferrizzi emphasizes that she has round eyes, which a strange illuminating detail he repeats twice that’s haunted me as much as anything else in his story. Ferrizzi knows it’s going to make people uncomfortable, b/c the unspoken corollary is that her eyes are unlike the Vietnamese, whose eyes aren’t round at all. And what the detail lacks in cultural sensitivity, it makes up for with it’s honesty. This is exactly what you would notice about the woman if you’d been in Vietnam too. But you weren’t, Ferrizzi was. And the man’s a damn good storyteller b/c what’s he’s doing w/that detail is establishing his authority, that he’s seen things you haven’t seen, and knows thing you’ll never know. So in his story, this (beautiful, round-eyed) reporter asks him what it was like out there, and I’m already flinching because I know that’s a really bad question to ask. The tone in Ferrizzi’s response is incredulous. It’s taunting. It’s terrifying.

How does it feel that a 50-caliber just opened up shooting a half-inch piece of lead at you?  (He claws intensely at his chin for a few seconds before continuing) When you…it’s hard to describe. It’s shitty. I mean, isn’t it…isn’t it apparent what it’s like? You want to know what it’s like. Go look at it.

He sounds like he might burst into hysterical laughter; he sounds like he might start weeping and never stop until he blows his head off. He continues.

Go out there. Go see the bodies. I was ready to whack her.  I wanted to blast her. I was ready to…whoa!

And then he begins shouting, lunging towards the camera as he screams.

You want to know what it’s like? Boom! (he mimics punching her to the ground) There it is! I’ll give it to you right now! You want to feel it? You want to see it? I’ll give it to you if that’s what you want! Is that what you want?

He leans back and laughs—except laughter isn’t the right word, it’s this desperate high-pitched cackle. Ferrizzi sounds like a ghost. I don’t want to tell you what it’s like because I don’t want to remember it. Calmer now. That’s the insanity it brings out. And just like that the switch is flipped and he’s normal again.

That’s what I grew up around. The documentary cuts away to its title, but I don’t think I breathed for a full minute. I could feel my blood pulsing between my ears.

Give a Vietnam vet long enough to talk and they’ll eventually contradict themselves. Every vet has conflicting feelings about the war—it was a horror show, an unjust & unnecessary war, but they’re proud to have served unlike those fucking college students & draft dodgers…you get the idea. My dad used to say he’d disown me if I ever joined the military while also threatening to send me to military school in order to ‘make a man out of me.’ Neither of those things happened. In the end he disowned me b/c I wasn’t paying my student loans.

Ferrizzi is by some distance the most compelling person in the whole fucking series. Even more so than Tim O’Brien, whose book The Things They Carried my dad gave me while I was in college—my dad said it would help me understand him. It took me five years before I got around to reading it, and by then my dad & I were no longer speaking. For what it’s worth, my dad was right about the book, and it’s definitely the best book I’ve ever read about Vietnam, but in the PBS series, Tim O’Brien—who was born within two months of my father, who wears a Red Sox hat just like my father—did not remind me of my father. Ron Ferrizzi reminded me of my father. And I guess the fact that I greeted every Ferrizzi appearance with excitement goes to show that it’s impossible for a son’s love for his father to be completely extinguished.

I’m not sure how I feel about this fact, especially as it concerns my son and I. He is three years old; we have had our share of conflicts, at times our own small interpersonal Vietnam. I, like Ferrizzi, am able to control my anger while still making everyone around me aware that my anger exists.

My wife’s busy finishing the last year of her PhD so I’ve been watching the series by myself, at night, after our son’s gone to bed. Sometimes she sits for a few minutes and watches w/me while she’s making something to eat. I give her my opinions about the show, what I think they’re getting right, what I think they’re getting wrong. But I’d watched the Ferrizzi episode in the afternoon, during our son’s nap, and so when my wife gets home from her class I can’t wait to tell her about Ferrizzi. My son and I are playing out in the front yard when she pulls up, and I rush over and tell her how I saw this guy on the show who reminded me of my dad. I start acting out Ferrizzi’s story, complete w/the bug eyes & the jabbing fingers, and suddenly 30 seconds in she puts up her hands and calmly asks me to stop.

‘You’re scaring your son,’ she says. Then looking over my shoulder she adds, ‘And it looks like our neighbors too.’ I have a confused look on my face so she continues, ‘I know you aren’t talking to me like that, but I’m not sure everyone else does.’ So I start smiling and laughing like an idiot, to let everyone around me—especially the neighbors and our son—know that I’m not actually angry. My wife tells me I’m a really good actor. Too good.

Later that night she comes downstairs to make a snack and I call her into the room. ‘Here, you’ve got to see this,’ I say as I load the Ferrizzi episode, the scene. She sits down next to me on the couch and watches the whole thing. When it’s over she says again how I’m a really good mimic, and how I really scared her earlier, and I’m suddenly starting to panic inside. I can feel it rising up in my chest. She doesn’t understand why I showed it to her. She isn’t understanding. That’s my father up there. That’s the person who haunts me, who screams at me in nightmares that leave me jittery & shaken well into the next day. I want her to see what I’ve seen, in the hope that she’ll better understand me—why I am the way I am, why everyday I struggle to be a good father to our son.

No matter how close you are to your partner, there are always going to be times when you fail to connect, when it seems impossible for you to understand each other. Right now is not a good time for that to happen. She tells me she has to go, that she has an assignment due in the morning for school. I say nothing as she leaves. I just sit there staring at the paused screen and thinking.

It occurs to me that maybe the fundamental difference between us as people, my wife & I, is that while I was watching the clip and thinking about the vet, she was thinking about the interviewer.

A week later I’m finally ready to watch the rest of the series. And as I watch Tim O’Brien struggle through his memories, I suddenly feel an urge to run upstairs and grab my copy of The Things They Carried and thrust it into my wife’s hands in a desperate attempt to maybe explain to her part of how I became the way I am, why this war is so important to me. And then I feel this chill; my internal temperature turns to frozen dust, the scrapings of ice from a freezer-burned package of vegetables. I think about my son sleeping upstairs. Would I one day be thrusting the book into his hands? Would he one day be telling his wife—or husband, or programmed AI silicon love robot—about Vietnam as a way of explaining who he is? Why he has nightmares about his father?

For christ’s sake, will there ever be a time when this war no longer affects us?

 

Trout Fisting In America appears here every Tuesday (lately on Friday too!). We’re going to keep going until we reach #50, or until the Trout begs for mercy. You can check out previous installments HERE.

About ScottCreney

Scott Creney lives in Athens, Georgia. He is the author of "Dear Al-Qaeda: Letters to the World’s Most Notorious Terror Organiztion".
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