My Father Did Bad Things. I Still Believe He Was a Good Man.
Pop’s letters from Vietnam remind me how fiercely he fought his demons
My father was a good man. I really think he was. But when I was growing up, he was also violent. Frightening. Depressed. Alcoholic, and not in a fun-at-parties way. Often mean. Sometimes racist, as liberal, left-voting white people can casually be. He could be — as even the people who loved him most acknowledged — an asshole.
But he could also be heroic, as he was for me and my little sister, who adored and feared him. Pop was certainly a larger-than-life figure for the kids in our neighborhood, who he would load into the back of his pickup and take to 7-Eleven for candy runs on payday. He was tender, funny, and good-hearted. He was also sad — pretty much all the time. He survived Vietnam, the death of his firstborn daughter, the early deaths of both of his parents, and the loss of his younger sister, all before he turned 30. He deserved better. For as long as I knew him, he battled depression, PTSD, and alcoholism. He died of cirrhosis at 47, when I was 21.
I really think he was a good person — or at least, he died trying to be.
He was young to have shot at so many people he was ordered to kill, young to have lost so many people he was trying to protect.
About 20 years after Pop’s death, I got my hands on something I’d never seen before — an envelope containing photos and letters he’d sent home as a Marine in Vietnam. Seeing my teenage father fall out of an envelope into my hands was fairly extraordinary.
I hope your sweet child is a girl then I can have a little niece to spoil rotten. If it is a boy and I get killed name him after me. If I don’t get killed you can call him what you want.
He is all 19 in these letters, trying on valor, toughness, cruelty, gallantry. He’s also clearly terrified and lonely. In the monotony and stress of living on base in a war zone, he’s obviously processing what’s happening to him, while filtering it through what he’d heard from other Marines in his platoon. It produces some startling effects: He shifts from valiant adoration of his new baby niece to ugliness about the “gooks” (his word — and not the first or last time I knew him to use it) that his platoon shot to literal pieces, without even a pause or a paragraph break.
We were mortared last nite boy was I scared but we came out all right. I killed another one he was trying to throw a hand grenade into the Liquid Oxygen plant so I shot him with my 45 it was not too good I shot 7 times and only hit him once at about 45 yds. I guess I was to [sic] nervous after I saw him I got sick. I haven’t gotten use to death yet I guess maybe I never will. I was embarrassed. Well enough of my problems. So Mikes getting to be a brat huh? Tell him to be good or his Uncle will get after him when he gets home.
Reading these letters from a 19-year-old at war feels especially poignant now, as we’re interrogating “toxic masculinity” and the pressures men feel to live up to (or reject) certain tropes of manhood — provider, hunter, gatherer, first-person shooter, groper of ingenues, emotionally unavailable clean-shaven jawline, and so on. Like women, men are taught to want certain things whether they like them or not. Unlike women, what men are taught to want is to walk hand in hand with violence. If, by the age of eight or nine, your son hasn’t used a game controller to shoot something, he’s a rare, sweet, darling bird indeed. If you can find me a movie poster on the subway where a guy isn’t holding a weapon I will personally give you $5.00. (I won’t. I’m kidding. I’m a writer.)
While you could argue that we’ve improved, somewhat, at raising girls to believe in themselves, we haven’t gotten better at raising boys to believe themselves capable of turning their backs on violence. Boys are capable of magic, love, daring acts of self-sacrifice, dreams, sweetness, collaboration, generosity, humility, and creating great works of art. Boys are also capable of shooting up schools, beating up their girlfriends, feeling up women whose bodies they do not see as equal to theirs, and repressing their female colleagues. Do boys believe in the good that they’re capable of, as much as they’re taught to believe in their power to do violence? If not, why aren’t we teaching them?
We were attacked last night we had a big fire-fight that lasted all night. I killed one of the V.C. for certain and may have wounded some more. It feels funny to know that you have taken somebody’s life. But I think God will forgive me.
Penny if your ever short of money just write and tell me I make about $200 a month here and I have no place to spend it. I know you might be a little short with the baby on the way so don’t hesitate to ask. I’d kind of like to help out with the baby anyhow since you might name him after me and dad (maybe?).
While my teenage father was at war, he was in a constant state of worry about his older sister Penny, who was back home with her toddler son and a new baby on the way, and his younger sister, Sandy, who was perpetually in trouble — and who would disappear from their lives altogether a few years later. In every letter, every single one, his love and concern for them is threaded throughout: Sandy had gotten mixed up with some guy and my father didn’t think he was good for her. Penny had a car that kept breaking down and my father wanted her to use his combat pay to get a new one. Penny had the flu and my father was worried. There was a blizzard and his sisters were in danger. Sandy was too young to get married, and too young to be talking about getting pregnant.
If he gets Sandy pregnant I will hunt him down wherever he is and kill him like a dog! And I’m not joking either I have killed men before one more isn’t going to hurt my conscience any more. Right now I’m shaking because if that bastard was here I’d strangle him with my bare hands.
Why would a young man in a war zone, fighting for his own life and his friends’, engaged in the most profound kind of test of himself and what he believed to be his own manhood, be in such a state of worry about his sisters back home? Because he was trying to be a good man. The things he describes in these letters, Jesus Christ, they make a stone want to weep. They make me want to write him back, across the years, to implore him to keep his head in the game: Kid, seriously, focus on staying alive, okay? You have to survive, you have to make it out of there.
We stole a little German Shepard puppy from the sentry dogs boy it’s cute and fun to play with a real tiger each night the guys my sector we take turns bringing it down to our holes at night. It’s our turn tomorrow. His name is “Rip” We had another one named “Tear” but it got killed yesterday. Too bad it was such a nice little dog. Don’t sweat it about the money Sis I said it was all right and I am glad to help out…
After he came back from the war, my father’s relationship with his sisters was not always easy. My father was the only son, and his Puerto Rican mother and Irish Catholic father held traditional expectations of the role he should play for his sisters: Knight. Defender. Intercessor. Sandy continued to veer in and out of trouble. Even with two little girls at home and an early punch-in at work in the morning, it was not unusual for my father to be called in the middle of the night to pick Sandy up someplace downtown — a party gone wrong, a bar where she’d been stranded, a fight. He always went.
One day Sandy disappeared, or ran off, and, from what I know, the family hasn’t heard from her since. I was very young. My father was very young then, too — still in his early twenties, fresh back from the war. He was young — only 23 — when my older sister died in an accident at the age of three. He was young to have shot at so many people he was ordered to kill, young to have lost so many people he was trying to protect. I’m in my forties now, and when I think about Pop’s life, it’s all I can think is: God, he was so young. That’s why hearing his 19-year-old voice in those letters home, before everything that came after, broke my heart for him all over again.
Was he a good man? I believe he was. But he was trained, and paid, to kill people he was taught to hate, and later in life he often hurt the people he loved most. He had a sickness — he had many sicknesses — that made him reach for violence as often as he reached for love. So what does it mean to be a good man, if he was?
You can be a good man in a bad place.
I believed then, and I still do — especially now that I’ve seen the teenager he was in his wartime letters home — that my father was a man who’d been given a disease. The disease came from all the toxins that finally took him — the ones in the culture, the ones he drank, the ones he carried with him home from war. But the man inside of him tried to fight that disease, and that man defended his sisters, adored his daughters, and respected and obeyed his mother (she was the five-foot-tall woman brandishing the rolling pin, standing on the kitchen table to get at your head — did I say men were the only violent ones?).
Just as important, Pop’s definition of being a good man meant supporting his wife and helping her build a successful career of her own. While my mother worked her way up from an entry-level job to an executive position in her field, Pop watched us after school, he made dinner, he got us dressed in the mornings when she needed to sleep in after a night shift. When taking the next big step in her career meant moving our family across the country, my mother had his full support — even though, for him, it meant starting over. My father took his role as my mother’s partner and equal seriously. His traditional upbringing, in a house full of tough women (who he nonetheless considered himself honor-bound to defend to the death), had prepared him well to partner with a feminist working mother — and to raise feminist daughters and future working mothers with her.
And this, finally, was the best of what my mother taught us about Pop, the way of seeing him that helped us understand and love the kind of good man he was. My mother always told me she never had a stronger supporter than him; she never met anyone who believed in her more, or wanted her success more. Not for his sake, but for hers — and for ours, too. Telling us these stories was part of how my mother helped her kids understand that we could love and honor him while still hating the disease that had him in its grip.
You can be a good man in a bad place. You can be a good man in a bad time. My dad showed me that part of how you demonstrate that you are a good man is by being good to the women in your life. Part of how we can love each other best is by understanding that, even when we’re fighting what’s worst inside us, we can still be good.