Arlington or No Arlington: That is the Question, Or At Least One of Them
A veteran I met once named Bob, a former Mike Force Commander in Viet Nam, says he adored my father who was an enlisted man under his command, called me this week. “I know your dad wanted to be buried at Arlington,” he said out of the blue. “If your family is interested, the military can make that happen because of his Medal of Honor. They can move his body from New Jersey to D. C. I’ve already spoken to the nearby Deputy Commander at Fort Leavenworth.”
I paused and jotted down the details while the past churned up as fast as I could put the phone down. Why was Bob thinking of this so many decades after my father was killed in Viet Nam? Was it his continual loy- alty to a friend who did not survive the war? A feeling he owes my father something? His last act of love for a comrade? Or was it his allegiance to the military? I called my sisters and brother right away to leave the ques- tion in their laps, to see what they thought. The heaviness of the war’s return filled all four of us, though it’s been a long time since our father’s body arrived back to the states in a black body bag, years since he was buried in a family plot next to his father and grandparents in northern New Jersey. His death and that war were suddenly there again and could not be denied.
I didn’t want to deal with this.
I recalled that funeral day when I was seventeen as if yesterday. The fog, the drizzle, the cold, the bugle blown in the distance, the rifles salut- ing in the air, the soldiers on “funeral detail” who had flown all the way from Viet Nam for the occasion but would return as soon as ceremonies were over. I recalled the casseroles that my father’s cousins brought to my grandmother’s green and yellow house on New Street, my mother smoking one cigarette after another as she sat on the couch unable to move. I recalled familiar soldiers standing in the corner near my grandmother’s antique plant stand talking about my father—One hell of a soldier! I recall Reverend Highberger putting his hand on my grandmother’s shoul- der under a canopy at the gravesite, him repeating the Lord’s Prayer, and my Uncle Bob—my father’s only sibling—bending his head into his wool dress coat and sobbing. I remembered the undertaker refusing to let my grandmother see the body. “You don’t want to see this, Luella,” he said.
All this to say, when the former soldier called we had a language to link us. My dad was there again with the pull of the military as palatable as ever. It was my grandmother who insisted he be buried in a family plot. She would have nothing to do with Arlington way back when her first- born son was killed in action. I thought such questions were gone. Now they had returned. My sisters ask, who has ultimate say over his body? Is it the military, his family, or his fellow soldiers?
When Bob called me in previous times, he talked about how my fa- ther told him in Viet Nam to go home and make something of himself— get a Ph.D. “My dad, the one who dropped out of high school told you that?” I asked. Bob left the military after his final tour in Viet Nam, and by the time he got to Fort Bragg from Saigon he was told that my father had been killed in action. Surely he knew it was just a matter of time be- cause it was a statistic that kept getting repeated day after day. Bob was profoundly saddened, he said. In fact, to this day he carries a picture of my father in his wallet. “He was a character,” he repeats each time he calls. “And so smart. He taught me a great deal.” He says he owes his Ph.D. and career to my father who was older, had seen the Second World War when he was just 17, and then the Cold War in Europe where my father trans- lated Czech messages coming across the Iron Curtain and prepared for the Third World War.
Over the phone Bob reminds me again of the time he accompanied my father to the Bien Hoa PX to buy pearls for my 17th birthday. “Your father wasn’t allowed in the PX anymore because he would buy a case of whiskey and drink it all,” he said. “That’s why I went with him.” I picture officer and enlisted man walking in the door of a place filled with familiar American items a soldier might need or want for his family oceans away. Immediately I remember that green velvet box inside a yellow cardboard box arriving to the housing project I lived in with my mother and three siblings as we waited for his return. I can still feel the magic of opening such precious cargo that came from a place I could not begin to imagine. “I can hardly believe you are becoming a young lady,” my father wrote in red ink on the box. “And every young lady deserves pearls.” I wore them to the prom that month. The last gift. The last communication.
With Bob’s call, everything else returned in a rush like the details written down for military files, for the ceremony at the White House of his posthumously awarded Medal of Honor, or the Hall of Heroes pho- tographs in the Pentagon going back to the Civil War. Gathered details sum up what I can only tiptoe across because even to this day they are un- imaginable. Especially when someone asks, So what happened? How did your father die? “Crossing a river near the Cambodian border,” I always begin, “with a prisoner under his command.” When the prisoner grabbed a grenade off my father’s belt and attempted to throw it at the rest of the group, my father threw his body on the prisoner. You can imagine what happened next. The tattoos on my father’s arms were what identified him later. Nothing I want to talk about further, except to say eventually he was awarded the Medal of Honor. Nixon and the White House. His name on the wall in D.C., 17 E, five names down.
A long time ago.
But what wasn’t written down in the formal papers was the grief of family, the weight of carrying around the dead, or how easily the country forgets. What was left out was what war does to family, how my young mother was never the same again even with cards and letters stored in her nightstand drawer until the day of her death twenty years later.
I’m not sure how I remember this or even if it’s true, but I think my father said he wanted to be buried at Arlington or else on a funeral pyre in Viet Nam like the Buddhists he admired. But my grandmother wanted neither. My mother who by then was recently divorced from him, didn’t have a say. So it was he is buried in New Jersey in a family plot bought by my great grandparents. The cemetery also holds the bodies of soldiers going back to the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, soldiers whose names have been forgotten. I wonder if it matters where he is buried. Where is his spirit and would he care anymore? Earth to earth. ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I go through the day with these thoughts on my shoul- ders, the pressure of decision, and the past swimming through big holes.
Many years ago, a Boy Scout troop noticed my father’s burial stone and contacted a local military unit who now hold a ceremonial service by his grave every Memorial Day. They decorate the grave with flag and wreath on the day my grandmother used to refer to as “Decoration Day.” My sister who lives in New Jersey attends and plants red geraniums just like my grandmother did before she died at the age of 102. Back when she insisted he be buried near her family, I didn’t fully understand. I was so used to our lives as military, and because of that I expected Arlington. But now as a mother of two sons like her, I appreciate her need to be close by; in other words, to have him back home after decades of leaving to fight America’s wars. When she was buried next to him decades after his death, I watched the dirt from his grave mix with the dirt around her cas- ket. Mother and son.
So now after all these years we are asked to decide again, Arlington or New Jersey? The energy—big energy—awakens and my sisters and I cannot decide. We lean one way because maybe it was his wish. We lean the other because it’s too late and what’s done is done. One sister insists he is New Jersey’s son with a park in Ramsey holding a bust of him. A hometown street is named after him. His name is on the New Jersey Viet Nam memorial. Beyond this, what is the issue? Another sister says she will agree with anything we decide, though maybe he belongs with his military tribe. “More people will notice his grave there long after we are gone,” she says. Our brother insists Arlington would be best, but he too will go along with anything we decide.
A feeling of loneliness comes over me when I picture his grave in some corner of Arlington. Perhaps with a small wreath or a flag on it just like all the others. “Oh, here’s someone who received the Medal of Honor,” I can almost hear strangers saying as they roam the mowed hills of our national cemetery. The truth is I want to put the war down, want to close the final door on those sorrowful years. But it seems impossible suddenly. My writing, calls from strangers, and new wars—no way to for- get. One minute I think he belongs there in D.C., and the next minute I cannot go against my grandmother’s wishes, a woman who cared for us often in his absence. Either way, he is gone. The troops have returned home. The Black Wall details the names of the dead.
A kind of loyalty exists in the military, the kind I keep running into with phone calls and letters out of the blue. Caretaking remains after the horrors of war. Even all these years later, soldiers seek me out to talk about my father. I’ve written a memoir about him. I’ve been to Viet Nam with a grassroots organization called Sons and Daughters in Touch. I’ve awoken in the night with leftover grief, sorrow for that 17-year-old los- ing her father and unable to talk about it, and sorrow for that father who surely knew loneliness himself, so far from his family, so filled with the craziness of war that he had to drink that much. The color gray—not black nor white, neither hero or looser—crowds my nights sometime even now when I’m older than my father ever was.
My son is now the age my father was when he was killed. The number stands out as if a blinking light. Now I understand how young forty-two is. I call him to ask what he thinks. “He gave his mother so much trouble by leaving her so she should have the last say,” he says with confidence. “I think you should let his body remain where he is.” A doctor friend insists we should consider my father’s wishes. A nephew says he could see both ways. All the while as I listen to others’ opinions, I picture a case of hand grenades under my father’s cot. His red, white and blue Mike Force scarf around his neck. What the French called terra rouge under his jungle boots. That Song Be River and the chirping of birds. People he would die for. Did die for. It’s armed forces competing with family. The rest between two notes as the poet Rumi wrote. What do I owe my father? What does he owe us?
Call it a painting we are not done with yet. With every phone call I’m back at the easel wondering what to add or subtract. In one way my father no longer exists, though he is very much alive in the painting of him at Fort Bragg’s Hosking Field House, on the black wall in D.C., in my books, and in the memories of soldiers still alive who embrace the grieving. And yet. And yet.
What I’m sure of is that my father would be proud of his four chil- dren. In spite of what comes home from war, in spite of poverty and grief, we all became something. Which is to say, we have lives. Children. Homes. We have all gotten on that train, as Frederick Douglass said once about courage, and headed forward. It could have been otherwise. We are left with what he taught us: disciple, love and the poetry he read to us as children. We are left with the insurance money he arranged before his fi- nal tour of duty so that we could all attend college. In spite of alcohol and absence and the tug of war, we always knew he loved us dearly. No small task in the world he inhabited.
But is digging up his grave and sending his bones to Arlington just another military experience taking over our lives? Would another MOH stone speak to passers-by of patriotism? I can still see his Charlie Chap- lin style civilian clothes, a Rudyard Kipling book in his pocket, his blond hair in a military buzz cut. A man who loved his family but struggled with home life as he cleaned his weapons at the kitchen table. I could go on and on. The discrepancies abound. A carved Buddha around his neck, an AK47 across his chest. There is no place to put such a man. Not New Jer- sey. Not Arlington. Then again, what does it matter?
Why am I struggling so much? How could one body hold so much power? “We’re military, Honey,” my mother used to say when I com- plained of moving again. Is giving my father’s body over to the military another return to that way of life? I wonder what she would say now.
Weeks after many family conversations and thoughts, I finally call Bob after dragging my feet. It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon and I’ve just finished watching the movie Summer of Soul—a documentary about a music festival in Harlem and life in America in 1969—with friends in upstate New York, a documentary about a music festival in Harlem and life in America in 1969. All I can envision is that year I went to the White House, that college year I tried so hard to tiptoe around the war protes- tors, the grief I carried in silence. When the film is over, I reluctantly pick up the phone to settle the question once and for all. I lean into the wall in another room as I stare out the window to the red maple trees with their falling leaves in the distance. Bob says he understands. “It’s what the fam- ily wants,” he says. He knows it must have been a tough decision. “We will stay in touch.”
“War lasts a long time,” I say into the phone just before we hang up, as if seeking assurance.
“Yes, it does,” he says with a tender yet confident pause.
For a moment the truth lies in the space between us.
When I hang up I burst into tears as if it were 1967 again, the year of his death. What I am carrying, what I have always carried since the war, releases off my chest and I cannot stop crying. I recognize there is no right answer, no way to say Arlington or New Jersey. Still, I feel as if I have let someone down—maybe Bob or my father or the tribe of the military or my family. That teenager I once was suddenly cannot stop crying.
The documentary I’ve just watched from that summer of soul brings back time. The music questioned our country’s psyche, divided us and brought us together all at the same time with songs like Bad Moon Rising, Everyday people. What’s Going On? With that the war returned for me and added to the weight of that final answer I gave Bob. Though the word final is clearly not the right word. The dictionary defines final as ir- revocable, conclusive, last and indisputable. The decision of Arlington or New Jersey is none of these.
Gail Hosking is the author of the memoir Snake’s Daughter: The Roads in and out of War (University of Iowa Press) and a book of poems Retrieval (Main Street Rag Press). She holds an MFA from Bennington Writing Seminars and taught at Rochester Institute of Technology for 15 years. Her poems and essays have been widely published in such places as Lillith, Consequence Magazine, Reed Magazine, Upstreet, Waxwing, South Dakota Review, Collateral, and The Florida Review. Several pieces have been anthologized. Two of her essays were considered “most notable” in Best American Essays and she’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.