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by Peter Lawson

A Son’s Perspective

I never served in the military, so I usually feel that I have no right to complain or whine about my life not being perfect. I feel guilty for not being grateful enough, because my life is easy and I have everything I need. It is embarrassing for me to write this because many people have had much worse experiences.

My father was a member of Force Recon in Vietnam. After returning to the United States, he was spit on and called “baby killer.” After six months of civilian life, he decided that he had had enough, so he re-enlisted in the Marine Corps, where he served for about 25 years more, eventually retiring as a regimental Sergeant Major. Back when he re-enlisted, he requested to be sent back to Vietnam. When asked why by his commanding officer, he replied “I have unfinished business in the jungle.” He was then told, “Guess where you’re not going.” But he didn’t want to stay in the United States, so he requested embassy security duty, and left for postings in Africa and the Middle East. This was before he met my mother.

My father was always angry. He was afraid of failure, real or perceived, and I guess he wanted to make sure that I didn’t fail and that I had the skills to survive. When I was growing up, he would become explosively angry sometimes when I would make a mistake: not putting something in the right place or not cleaning up after myself well enough. It infuriated him when I failed to follow the correct procedures he had established. For example, after eating, putting the glass square on the placemat, then standing up, pushing in the chair, picking up the glass and plate and carrying them to the sink. In that order. Perfectly. If I made a mistake, the best thing that could happen was I would have to conduct “drills,” repeating the process over and over again 50 times. In the worst case he would become enraged and hit me across the face. I had to always stand a certain way, walk a certain way, do everything a certain way in a non-stop effort to avoid his explosive anger.

Growing up, I always avoided math, because in math there are a lot of wrong answers. Once, when I was in second grade, my father was “helping me” with math. We were at Marine Corps Naval Air Station, Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. He would ask me a question. I didn’t know the answer. When I would reply with the wrong answer, he would hit me across the face. If I didn’t answer, or didn’t answer quickly enough, he would also hit me. I knew that I did not know the right answer, but I also knew that I had to say something. I knew I would be hit several times in the next few minutes and there was nothing I could do about it, so I just answered as best I could and waited for the next blow. I got out of that incident with a black eye. At school people asked me what happened. I said I fell off my bicycle.

I realize that in the jungle a mistake could cost you your life. One of my father’s friends was a Marine infantry officer who had been seriously wounded in Vietnam. His mistake was stepping off an APC onto a landmine. For the rest of his life he had three shards of Chi-com steel embedded in his brain. When I met him he worked as an armorer for the police near Worcester, Massachusetts. His apartment was filled with guns everywhere, and there was a large map of South Vietnam in the living room on the wall over the couch. My father’s friend was kind, I don’t think he hit his son. My father’s friend died when I was in college. He had many psychological problems associated with his injuries. He was depressed a lot. I think he may have shot himself. He wanted to be back in that jungle, too.

My father once told me that after Vietnam, the CIA tried to recruit him for something. I realized that they got to him too late. He had already met my mother, who refused to marry a “spook.” So, he got married and had me. But I think he made a mistake. I think he was weak. He really wanted to join the CIA and get back into the jungle, any jungle.

I don’t want to have kids. It is too restrictive, like the time I spent three weeks on the psych ward for cutting my arms with a razor blade when I was a teenager. I am back in school now studying math and science. It is difficult for me to be around the 18–21-year-old college students. I want to punch them hard when I see they are not paying attention to what is going on around them, when they have their faces in their phones instead of looking around. If they can’t be responsible for maintaining situational awareness, then they don’t deserve to live. I just have to take a deep breath, remind myself that they are not my problem, and keep going about my business. I am grateful that I am not like them. I am grateful that I know the importance of being aware of my surroundings, and that I don’t let my guard down. I feel happy that I know things they don’t. But it is probably the other way around. They probably understand things that I don’t understand.

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