Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Letter Home

Dear Folks:

It's time for my second "Away From Home at Thanksgiving" letter. Only one more such letter to write, the one next year. Three in a row are enough.

Again, Uncle Sam fed me a nice turkey dinner with all the trimmings. Table cloths, cloth napkins, real plates (not trays) and fresh fruit displays were on the table for the first time this year, only to be put away for Christmas.

But tablecloths and fresh fruit do not a Thanksgiving make. It takes a certain type of surrounding, call it "home," or "family," or even "good friends."

No matter where you are in the world, no matter what the decorations, Thanksgiving just isn't Thanksgiving with 300 men eating as fast as they can to make room for another 300 men, with the Beatles for background music.

Perhaps there'll come a time when it'll no longer be necessary for soldiers and sailors to experience such an empty holiday as this, in which men are being maimed or are dying, in which others are being thankful that they have been spared again for yet one more day - all so that their families at home can stuff themselves on this bountiful harvest.

I'm thinking of my class at the Signal School, with most of my buddies now in Vietnam, knowing that some of them might leave their lives there. I'm very fortunate being here in Germany, and yet in a way I envy those who went to Vietnam. I am needed here, but I'm second in importance to the others when you consider what they're doing for you. As much as they hate it, as much as I hate it, we are all proud that we became Uncle Sam's fighting men, that we have done something for our country besides parade around with silly signs in our hands.

I am thinking of my child, which is yet unborn. I'm looking forward to Nancy's coming, and thinking how fortunate I am that I will be able to be present when my son (of course it will be a son!) arrives next April. The others will miss the memories of their wives' morning sickness, the trip to the hospital, their children's first cries. They'll miss the bitter-sweet pleasure of two o'clock feedings, colics and teething. The baptism will belong to the past, along with the first steps, the first words, the first haircuts. And some will die, and their children will never know them, in order that these children might enjoy the bountiful harvest for many more years to come. And yet I envy them, that they are doing so much for their country, while I am doing so little.

We said "good-bye," but we'll say "hello" again. Thousands like us, with families like ours, said "good-bye" for all eternity. They have sacrificed their all that you and I and our families and most of the world might give thanks for a good harvest. Others, perhaps, are giving thanks for merely being alive but are wishing at the same time that they were dead and released from their troubles.

Pray for those men who are there. They are the ones who need the prayers of 10,000 people. I am not worthy of the prayers of ten.

I come to the end of this letter giving thanks that my last year was as wonderful as it was. May the next year be half as good to me, to my family and friends, as it will be to those who will be able to leave Vietnam for good after serving their tour with death. Perhaps - hopefully but improbably - we may ALL come home to enjoy Thanksgiving next year.

Your loving son,

* * *

Letter home written by Edmund Downing from Heidelberg, West Germany, November 1967. My father. The unborn child he mentions is me, and Nancy is my mother. The letter appeared in the Los Gatos Times Observer, and I have posted it here without edit of content.

I find it interesting that he is so self-effacing about his worthiness, considering his job had to do with coded transmissions and therefore he could not go within 10km of East Germany. I do not find it surprising that he was able to reconcile a hatred of the political situation in Vietnam with a love of country and willingness to serve. I was brought up a pacifist, and we never had guns or any facsimiles of guns in the house. I remember it was a major issue when I bought my first G.I. Joe with my own birthday money, and it came with a little rifle.

My father usually voted Democrat or Libertarian, and was very socially progressive. When the Iraq war began, he shook his head and muttered, "God help them," and I never had the guts to ask who he was talking about - our soldiers, their soldiers, the administration or the innocent civilians caught in the middle. Knowing my father, my money is on "all of the above."

I just found the newspaper article in one of the boxes. Thought I'd share some words that haven't been seen in almost four decades, and which seem to have particular relevance at this point in our cyclical history.

1 comment:

Ali said...

What a powerful letter.

And yes, I think it seems unfreakingbelievable that we seem to be repeating the cycle so soon.

During the Vietnam war Australia introduced a conscription ballot to force young men to become part of the army. I still remember the fear we all held inside us when my loved eldest brother,a natural pacifist, became old enough to be included in this ballot. I remain thankful that his life was not ruined, as many others were, by this terrible war.

Death before old age is a terrible thing. War is full of death before it's time, yet sadly I think it will always be with us.