For What It’s Worth

I went out to the movies with my Dad last night. It was a rare and happy opportunity for both of us to get together and just be guys. Mom had gone to stay over night with one of her sisters and Action Girl had taken the kiddos up to her folk’s house for a mini-vacation. Dad had a conference to go to and I had work to do so we had stayed behind. That evening, we were left to entertain our selves.

I’m very close to my Father and the fact that with adulthood comes fewer chances to do things with him has been hard for me to take at times. We really are good friends. This was a great chance to play!

So, decided to go out and do something that our wives might not want to do. In this particular case, Action Girl was a little bummed by our choice since she was up for this particular adventure. Well… adventure might be pushing it. We went to the movies to see explosions and silliness. We went to see “Tropic Thunder”.

For those of you who might be living in a cave in the Antarctic, Tropic Thunder is a goofball movie about a bunch of goofballs trying to make a movie. As one of the characters puts it, “I’m the dude, playing the dude who looks like another dude”. Oh, yah! We’re talking about quality here. Funny in a lot of places and full of explosions. What more can you ask for in a “guy” movie!?

The quick and dirty backstory is that they are filming a movie about the Vietnam War, in Vietnam. It follows them as they wander off into the jungle and wind up being mistaken as U.S. drug enforcement agents by a local heroin processing gang. Hilarity ensues. So do fart jokes. Oh! And did I mention the explosions?

Here’s where this gets interesting for me. I have never been in the military. That’s something that I’ve always sort of regretted. I’m not sure why. My Dad, however, was. He was extremely lucky, being assigned to a unit that just completed a tour. Before the next deployment came around, things changed. The troops were being pulled out, not put in. Considering that he was trained as a combat platoon sergeant, it’s a minor miracle that he stayed State side for his entire time in the military. He did however train, live with and know a lot of guys who did go over. His best friend had joined the Marines, was a 30 cal. man, and somehow managed to make it through at least two tours, though it cost him dearly. He came home a very different person and it took years for him to put his life back together. Several of my Dad’s friends didn’t come home at all.

Tropic Thunder was about humor, but it was kind of uncomfortable at times to sit there next to my father, knowing that he was looking at the movie in a different way than the director intended. There were some moments of uneasiness for me as I watched. At one point as the uppity actors are being dumped into a jungle clearing by helicopter to “experience” what it was like to be In Country, the camera pans over a swampy area and catches the faded and wrecked tail section of an old huey, lost “for real”, during the war. I know it was a prop on a set, but it yanked me violently out of the show on the screen and bothered me deeply. Suddenly, it struck me like filming a comedy at an old death camp. It colored my view of the rest of the movie.

I was born too late to have understood what was happening in Vietnam when the war was in full swing, but it loomed large in my later childhood, none the less. Our dads were the vets who didn’t want to talk about it, or the protesters who felt that they could finally rest. Comic books didn’t touch the subject much. It was still a taboo subject at that point. I remember vividly, my Dad, the gentlest man I knew, dressed head to toe in olive drab, sergeant stripes on his shoulders, cap under his arm and those big black boots. I remember sitting on our steps and not wanting him to go away, even though I knew he’d be back soon. By the time I was old enough to understand, he was out.

They wanted him to stay, naturally, but he had had his fill and was eligible to leave. He hung his boots in the cellar and there they stayed for a long time. They were a fixture for most of my childhood. Eventually, they disappeared during a basement clean out.

The war of my generation was the first Gulf War. If I was going to go, that was the one that I would have been been part of. I was in college and not inclined to join George the First’s party in the sand. I’m too old for service now. Even if I asked to join, they wouldn’t take me. The interesting thing is that Vietnam is still the one that strikes home to me. It’s the one that I feel a strong personal connection to, even though the history buff in me tends to study the First and Second World Wars the most. I may find them fascinating, but they don’t resonate like Vietnam does. I’m not sure why. I don’t even read much about that war in south east Asia. It just feels too close.

Though all war is a horrible thing, Vietnam was a truly hideous war for all parties involved. It was the one where what it meant to be an American started to unravel and splinter. It changed our world view and changed the way we were viewed by the world. It was also the one that claimed the lives of so many of my Father’s friends. Years ago, just the two of us went to the memorial in Washington D.C. I stood back a bit as I watched him look for the names he knew and tried to both be there for him if he chose to point them out, yet distant enough for him to remember in peace. It was a hard moment for both of us.

So, the movie ended on a crechendo of explosions and foolishness. The good guys get away, the movie gets made and the bad guys get nothing. All is good in Hollywoodland. The two of us went out for fish and chips and split a side of muscles. We took advantage of the rare time alone and chatted about all sorts of stuff, but not the movie. I never really gave it another thought until this morning as I was racing around, being industrious. Suddenly, the little music box that lives in my head started playing Dusty Springfield and it stopped me cold. I went over to my computer and looked through my music list and started arranging. In a few minutes, I had built what is to me, the music of the Vietnam War. To be honest, it’s what you’d expect, but it’s made me think long and hard about it again. Memories that are not my own but personal enough to make my vision blurry.

I think I’ll go someday and see that far away place for my self. I don’t know what I’m looking for in the war zone of my Father’s generation, but I’d like to try to figure that out; wether to settle the dust in my mind or stir up the ghosts.

Either way, I think it will be an important moment.

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4 Responses

  1. I went to Vietnam last year. It’s a great place full of very nice people with a vibrant culture complete with beautiful scenery. When I was in Hanoi I found it easy to understand why the Vietnamese fought so hard and long for their country.

    The further south I travelled (I only went as far as Hue) the more the dark side of tourism became noticeable. Tours of battlefields and street hawkers selling the rusty and mud caked detritus of war.

    I even met a couple who went to My Lai, for what reasons I can’t even imagine.

    A few people I know were surprised that my wife and I didn’t visit things like the Vietcong tunnels or the old DMZ. To be honest I find all that stuff overwhelmingly sad and tragic.

    Sad and tragic is the perfect way to sum up war in general. It’s almost like moths to a flame as man kind goes. We all know it’s horrible but for some reason we keep going there.

    I don’t know if I would be inclined to see the tunnels or the DMZ. That’s not really what I’m looking for. For me, history takes place on quiet street corners or open fields, planted with crops. Most of the experience happens in my head, and I don’t really need a brochure to read or a tour guide for that.

    I’ve talked with people who’ve gone and they all say wonderful things about Vietnam. I really want to see it before it becomes homogenized completely with the rest of the world.
    -TP

  2. I took my boys out to see Tropical Thunder this weekend. Funny movie, I especially enjoyed seeing it poking fun at itself. There were too many layers of satire to deal with in one sitting; I will have to get the DVD when it comes out. I would love to see Robert Downy Jr. nominated for an Oscar.

    I do understand how you feel about Vietnam, I spent time in Egypt while in the armed forces, and movies that take place in the Middle East give me the willies, for example Iron Man or the Three Kings.

    -pf

    Yah, Downey Jr. was amazing. That’s for sure! I seriously think he might have a shot at an Oscar. The irony alone could power LA for a week.

    It’s interesting (and understandable) that you had that reaction to Iron Man. For me, that sort of rolled right off my back. I found the setting interesting but it didn’t bother me at all. Strange, when you consider that that’s where my friends and school mates went (and are going) to war.
    -TP

  3. I have to admit, Tom Cruise cracked me the hell up. Particularly at the end with his dancing. Of course, as much as I detest Ben Stiller and would be quite happy to never see another movie with his mug in it ever again, I only went to see Robert Downey Jr. Love him.

    As I said, he was worth it. If he doesn’t get some recognition out of this then there is some serious trouble at the Academy.
    -TP

  4. I was actually born two days before the fall of Saigon. But I know what you mean. All my firends who had fathers who were in the military, that’s the war they fought in. There were kids I knew that were a few years older than me whose fathers were killed in Vietnam and they never knew them. It’s the war that touched my generation (and yours) because it effected our parents so much.

    I was too young for Dessert Storm (sophmore). I had plans to join the navy after college as an officer, but with a daughter at 19 I decided it was better for me to be a dad. I have a particular conviction that soldiers shouldn’t have wives and children. It makes what they do that much harder.

    I know what you mean. At the very least, it’s brutal on the family. I can’t imagine leaving my kids for the length of a deployment. I don’t know how others do it, though my hat is off to them.
    -TP

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