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Living Out Loud: : John's Back

Coming home from Vietnam

By Susan Burke Steege · January 19th, 2005 · Living Out Loud
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I was born in the summer of 1967. A few years after my birth, my Uncle John was drafted into the Army and served during the war in Vietnam. I know he was stationed there, because I remember my grandfather proudly showing us pictures of the red skies and the Asian Landscapes that came from overseas.

I heard my mother tell stories about her and him growing up together. They were the closest in age among four other siblings and the closest companions.

I knew John wasn't dead, but I didn't meet him until the summer before my wedding, when I was 24 years old.

After his time in the war, John returned to his hometown in Owensboro, Ky. for a short period of time and then simply left one day. No one knew where he went, although there were many rumors. When I asked about him, all my mother said was sometimes people see and do things during war that are hard to reconcile. Apparently, when John came home, he felt like he didn't fit in anymore. It was something no one talked about.

As I was growing up and read about the experiences men and women had when they were in Vietnam, and when I saw movies and documentaries, I was aware I had an uncle who served during that time. I often wondered about his experiences. I wondered where he was and what he was doing. His marked absence from his family and community became a part of everyday life.

So, like everybody else, I went on with my post-war life of the '80s and '90s and didn't think too much about John or the Vietnam War, which seemed to me to be a memory of the past.

Even as our flags adorned our gardens during Veterans Day or the Fourth of July, no one talked about John.

One summer afternoon, while making wedding plans, my mother's telephone rang. It was her sister, June.

"John's back," she said. "He's been living 30 miles away for the past 20 years. He's married and has a 7-year-old son."

I don't know why he decided to knock on his sister's door that day in Louisville, but he did. Shortly thereafter he drove to his parents' house and knocked on their door. He eventually called mom and the rest of his siblings.

He was home.

I met him for the first time when my grandparents had a wedding shower for me. I introduced the family to my fiancé and I was introduced to my Uncle John.

He was in his mid 40s when I met him, his dark hair starting to gray, but he was still very youthful looking. I liked him right away -- he had a nice smile, and he had a nice family. He looked a lot like my brother David.

Although genuinely friendly, there was uneasiness to him. He would often tremble as if he were cold. His eyes darted around nervously when I shook his hand, and I noticed his palms were sweaty.

"It's good to meet you, Susan," he said in a Southern drawl while he wiped his hands on his pants.

My grandfather stood back and smiled. The father and son sat together on lawn chairs most of the day, and I noticed their long slender limbs were the same -- arms crossed over each other, each holding a glass of lemonade.

While walking around during the wedding shower, I heard whispers of "Vietnam," "disappearance," "breakdown." But no one ever really talked about it. No one talked about anything, in fact. I don't know what John did in the war -- where he was stationed, what his rank was or what combat experience he had. I also don't know why he left in the first place and the reasons for his sudden return. People said it didn't matter.

During the fall of the following year, my grandfather died and I saw John and his family at the funeral. He was involved with the funeral arrangements, and he and my mother talked a little more than usual during that time. He occasionally would do fix-up work on her house after she had to move.

But after my grandfather's funeral, I never saw Uncle John again. It's not because of a suicide or another "breakdown" or any other monumental event He simply disappeared again.

I suppose he's still living in the same house he's been living in the past 35 years, 30 miles from his hometown, but I don't really know. Apparently, he felt like he couldn't fit in after all. Or, maybe, he was simply let go.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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