Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Late Night Memories

Watching the news as a young girl, American soldiers dying in the Vietnam jungles and rice patties, the networks brought the war into our living rooms. Along with the twangy little girl selling Shake n' Bake, and the plop, plop, fizz, fizz of Alka Selzer, we were also dished out a daily ration of sensational conflict.

Except at my house, my mother refused to allow TV watching during dinner. As much as the war fascinated me, it scared Mother to death. Boys with whom I’d grown up, attended my school and church—just three or four years older than myself—were coming back to the states broken, busted up, or in body bags.

One night after his late shift, Dad arrived home tired and moaning loud enough for me to hear. “I want to relax tonight, clear my head, and fall asleep to the TV. Shultzie's son. They're bringing him home. Tomorrow. The guys at the shop took up a collection.”

I peeked around the corner. Mom had positioned herself at the end of the couch, rubbing Daddy's back. “Want your usual?” Mom asked.

“Uh-huh.” I heard her tip-toe to the Zenith, which sat next to my bedroom. Mom had a habit of fiddling with the knobs on the TV longer than necessary, searching for a late night Western movie for Dad to watch. Preferably one with John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart. I had curled up on the floor, just inside my room in time to watch Dad toe off one shoe and then the other and groan with delight. He’d stood on his feet all day at the Plant 5 Chemical Division of the Akron-based Goodyear Tire and Rubber company. A job that over time, broke him physically.

It wasn’t supposed to do that. We were decendants from a long line of West Virginia coal-miners. My dad escaped the mines hauling his family north, hoping to add years to his life. In reality, he’d traded one abusive job for another.

“What you doin’ up, Sissy?” He'd caught sight of a corner of my pajamas.

I crawled out on hands and knees. “Just wanna kiss you goodnight, Daddy.” Reaching where he lay, I hugged him. He hugged me back, then pointed to the kitchen.

“There’s a candy bar in my lunch bucket, don’t let yer mama see.”



"What happened to Mr. Schultz's son?"

I could see it in my dad's eyes. He was thankful for his three girls. "He died for his country, darlin'."

"In Vietnam?"

"In Nam," he nodded. "Get on to bed. Eat that candy bar tomorrow."

“Okay, Daddy ... g'night.”

“‘Night, darlin’.”

Dad brought himself home, every night. He was faithful to his wife and his children—that was worth all the candy bars in the world to me. But I remember thinking about Mr. Schultz and his three sons. Then I prayed my childish prayer for all the sons there. In that awful place torn by war. I looked back to see my dad sprawl across our L-shaped couch. I recognized Jimmy Stewart's voice on the TV. Though the sound was turned low, the music and words soothed me, along with the glow from that late night movie.

I heard my mom walk in. I knew she was carrying a tray of heated-up leftovers. Their nightime ritual of chit-chat was interruped as Walter Cronkite broke in to report the latest casualties from a place called Khe Sanh. A Marine base had been hit. A shattering barrage of shells, mortars and rockets had slammed into the base. Eighteen Marines were killed instantly, forty were wounded. I heard Dad’s heavy sigh and my mother's bleak response, “When will it end?”

Now and again I think of those nights, waiting for the sound of that front door to open, and my mother's heavy footsteps from somewhere in the house padding down the hall to greet him. The sounds of their voices, the dull gray light from the old TV set, and the smell of leftovers, I felt safe. Even in the midst of war.

Now late at night, watching my husband sleep, I turn the TV volume down and flip through hundreds of channels. A war overseas still rages. I think tonight, I’ll flip to the cowboy channel. Maybe I’ll find an old favorite of Daddy’s. The Man From Laramie. Jimmy Stewart just puts me to sleep.

Blessings to you and yours.

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