Two Hearts Purple
I owe my life to Lyndon Johnson and the Vietcong. My father was a Marine, serving in Vietnam in ’66. He met my mom while he was recovering in Boston. Everybody said he was lucky to make it back, back home alive. Many of the guys in his platoon were not lucky. I only have bits and pieces of his story, like the shrapnel still in his body, from a mine that killed a buddy of his. He doesn’t talk about the war. Still, I can’t help asking.
My parents hail from vastly different worlds, unlikely lovers. Had he remained in Billerica they may never have found one another. Family members on both sides saw the culture/class gap and tried to talk them out of it. My parents should have listened. They were horrible for each other, horrible to each other. They split up when I was five. I almost died–literally. I remember lying in an oxygen tent, struggling to breathe. My perception of them apart begins in that sterile environment, each visiting me separately, avoiding each other. One of my clearest memories is of my father giving me a small gift. He pinned a purple ribbon holding a heavy metal heart to my pajama top. There was an image of George Washington embossed in the heart, like a thick coin. I recognized him because there had been a cereal box contest I’d entered a few months before. Dad had helped me draw a picture of the first president from his likeness on the silver dollar.
“What is it, Dad?” I asked, rubbing my thumb over the image.
“It’s my purple heart,” he said. “It will make you better.”
Now it’s mine, his purple heart. I keep it in a small, green box that opens up like a clam, along with my own medals and ribbons, a Southwest Asia Service Medal, National Defense Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Sea Service Ribbon and Battle ‘E’, from what Dad refers to as “your little war,” and the rest of the world as Desert Storm. While the other awards may represent a more personal contribution to my country, his purple heart, mine for almost thirty years, feels much heavier, a more potent symbol, and an eerie heirloom.
Nobody had tried to talk me out of enlisting. In fact, both my parents had kind of pushed the idea. They believed the service would give me focus, instill the discipline and drive which I obviously lacked as an eighteen year-old with no college or job prospects. I don’t blame them. None of us expected a war to pop up, even though part of me actually had hoped for the chance, the opportunity, to serve my country, to test myself in combat. I got more than I, than we, expected.
A few years ago, while working for a television station in Los Angeles, I had a unique opportunity to travel with my father. Thanks to a successful year, the company held a gift raffle which included lavish gifts including DVD players, televisions and box seats to the Lakers. I won the grand prize, an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Hawaii. I wish I could say my father had been my first and only consideration for a travel partner. In the first weeks after my good fortune I mostly entertained the idea of inviting an alluring woman for a romantic getaway. Had I been in a relationship at the time, I surely would have brought my partner. I mean, what lover could forgive being overlooked for a week on the beach? Well, I was in a bit of a dating slump, and even if I did meet somebody in the weeks leading up to the trip, Hawaii is just too much romance pressure for a new relationship.
As fate would have it, the hotel I would be staying in was on Oahu, just a short drive away from Pearl Harbor. Years earlier the Navy decided to decommission my ship, the USS Missouri, and set it up as a floating museum there. The World War II era battleship, on which the Japanese signed the instrument of surrender in 1945, was permanently moored across from the Arizona Memorial. Since winning the trip I had entertained idea of reacquainting myself with my old duty station, to refresh my memory and hopefully provide a wealth of details for a novel I had been working on for several years about my two years at sea.
Once I had abandoned the hope for a tropical romance, the idea of sharing my past began to take form. My parents were the two most obvious candidates. Both lived in New England and neither had visited my ship, which had been berthed in Long Beach, California during my service. This led to the new dilemma of choosing between my mother and father. I knew each would relish both the island beauty and some exclusive time with me. I hadn’t seen either in over two years and most visits had been just a day or two.
I actually toyed with the idea of giving the trip away or raffling it off for charity, rather than making such a difficult decision. In the end, I chose my father, the more mysterious of the two. This week would be the longest time we had spent together since the divorce, when I was in kindergarten. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like the best opportunity I would ever have to get to know him. I knew my mother would be disappointed, but also believed she would not begrudge me the chance to grow closer to my father.
When I invited him I laid my cards on the table. I told him I was planning to spend a great deal of time on the ship, doing research and writing. I also told him I wanted to take him on a battleship tour, and that I was hoping he could open up more to me, specifically about his experiences in Vietnam. The idea of the ship tour delighted him and he was fine with giving me space to write. He said he would like to open up with me, but I could sense his trepidation. To date, most I had heard about his war experiences had been second-hand, from my mother and grandmother.
As it turns out, I would spend only one day aboard the Missouri during our week in Hawaii. Dad and I caught a tour bus from our Waikiki Beach hotel to Pearl Harbor. We started the day at the Arizona memorial, where we were both shaken by an intense documentary about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and genuinely moved by the experience of standing on the memorial, floating over the most famous of the destroyed battleships. Before the visit I had no idea over a thousand bodies had been left entombed after the bombing within the armored hull, where they remain to this day. If I was born two generations earlier I might very well have been one of them. My four previous visits to Hawaii, after all, had been as a battleship sailor.
It was not until this visit that I began to feel the historical weight of Pearl Harbor, intensified by my personal naval connection. Neither of us cried, but for the first time in my life I witnessed my father stripped of his usual Irish charm, serene, perhaps a bit raw. I am sure he too was imagining himself among the sailors on the Arizona on December 9, 1941. Or he might have been thinking of his father, who died when I was still in high school; he had been a chief petty officer in the Navy and had survived an attack that sunk one of the ships he served on in the Pacific during World War II.
I pointed out my ship in the distance as we waited on the memorial for an old liberty boat to bring us back to shore. After all these years I still consider the Missouri my ship. I think having served in combat and not spending time on any other ship during my enlistment increased the attachment. Once back on dry land, we didn’t rush over to the ship. Rather than catching the next shuttle, we meandered, touring a decommissioned submarine and viewing a series of outdoor exhibits. It was after noon by the time we finally boarded a shuttle for the short drive to the other side of the harbor. The van was crowded and we were seated near the back, on the side facing land, so we didn’t see the ship until we got out. Perhaps this further heightened the effect of scale.
“Jesus,” said Dad. Battleships have this effect on most people, especially the 9 massive guns with barrels thick enough for a small man to crawl through. I told my father that a “broadside,” firing all nine guns in unison, could clear one square mile of land. Each projectile weighed at least nineteen hundred pounds, approximately the weight of a Volkswagen Beetle.
We had to purchase tickets from a window in a small pavilion. They also sold mementos, USS Missouri ball caps, patches, posters and such. I entertained the idea of mentioning to the old man at the cash register that I was a Missouri veteran. Perhaps they offered a discount or would even let me in free–but I didn’t say a word.
My father and I joined a small group waiting for our designated tour guide. I expected a wizened old sea dog, a World War II or Korean War veteran. I was surprised when a woman introduced herself as our guide–women were still not permitted to serve aboard combatant ships during Desert Storm. The only women I had seen on the ship were visitors when we were in port, and they were only allowed above decks and in a few select, public areas, such as the cafeteria.
Our guide led us aboard via the forward brow, which felt wrong. As an enlisted man I had always entered the ship via the aft brow. Only officers used the forward brow, an apt symbol of the wide shipboard class division. I half expected a familiar Officer of the Deck to stop us to ask for a military id. As petty officer of the watch, I used to stand by the OOD with a forty-five-caliber handgun on my hip to discourage intruders. Now there were no officers or enlisted men in sight, nobody in uniform. Our guide brought us around the exterior of the ship, stopping at designated spots, by an open sixteen-inch gun turret, the forward bridge, beneath the signal flags. At each stop she rattled off facts and figures. I quietly added bits and pieces to her commentary, just loud enough for my dad to hear.
I remained another anonymous tourist until she brought us into CEC, Combat Engagement Center, my primary duty station during the war. The compartment barely resembled the room where I had spent most of my work time. Much of the equipment had been removed, the tomahawk and harpoon missile computers, the close-in weapons system controls and other tactical devices. The lighting certainly contributed to the strangeness–at sea, the combat hub of the ship had been bathed twenty four hours a day in a dim, blue light, just enough to illuminate the space without distracting too much from the radar scopes, computer readouts and glowing grease pencil boards (the ones you usually see covered in elaborate drawings and indecipherable data in old war movies).
My scope was one of the few remaining pieces of combat hardware. My job had been to sit for four to six hour stretches monitoring signals gathered from each of the ship’s three search radars. I showed my father the heavy dial I had used to switch between them. I explained the small target designation panel that rested above the scope. Two wheels on either side enabled me to navigate a cursor, a pinpoint of white light on the round screen. If an enemy aircraft or ship were picked up by radar, I would note its trajectory, place the cursor in its immediate path, and press one of the four TDS buttons to designate the target.
“It’s kind of like that old video game Missile Command,” I said, “only instead of defending six cities I would just be defending one battleship.”
Fire control technicians are forever having to correct people who confuse us with firefighters. A stock reply to this is “Fire controlmen don’t put out fires, we start them.” I never actually fired the guns. My job was just to designate targets. My system was like the brain that tells the arm where to aim. Other guys took over from there, locking their smaller band radars onto the target, training around the guns and, in theory, blowing it out of the sky.
I reminded my father most of the small Iraqi air force had been destroyed in the first hours of the war and they had no navy to speak of. We did not identify even one enemy aircraft in our vicinity. With so small a threat from the enemy, I had spent much of my CEC time helping coordinate the firing of the sixteen-inch guns, which had bombarded the Kuwaiti shore with hundreds of rounds in an effort to drive out Iraqi troops.
Perhaps I was too animated in CEC, or my narration too loud. The tour guide asked how I became so knowledgeable. My father, beaming, told her I had served on “the Mighty Mo” during the Gulf War. She was noticeably impressed, as were our fellow tourists. I had never seen my Dad look so proud. For the rest of the battleship tour, I became a minor celebrity, sharing the spotlight with our guide. She was warmly deferential, alternating memorized anecdotes with questions to me, asking for confirmation or further information.
The tour ended with a flurry of handshakes, pats on the back and a few hugs. Many thanked me for sharing some of my experiences and for having “served our country.” I believe I pulled off the patriotic role expected of me by the strangers and by my father. I don’t think any caught my undercurrent of shame for having played a small role in a war I do not believe was necessary.
The guide left us for another group. She explained we were free to roam any areas of the ship that were not roped or sealed-off. I was disappointed to find the berthing compartment where I had slept was off limits. My father got the general impression of overcrowded confinement from the representative compartments that were open, but it wasn’t the same as seeing my actual bed.
Some of the ship’s spaces were being renovated to resemble their condition during World War II and others to the Korean War era so visitors might get a better idea of the differing maritime living conditions through the life of the ship. While the project felt somehow wrong to me, it was nowhere near as distasteful as plans the historical society had been formulating for CEC. We were told they were hoping to raise enough money to convert my old duty station into a simulated combat experience, some sort of fully immersive virtual reality game. The tour guide had suggested I might volunteer my services as a consultant on the project. I said I would think about it, but knew I had no intention of participating in anything that might further glorify the combat experience.
I have almost no recollection of guiding my father through the rest of the open spaces. Those memories have been overshadowed by our intense conversation sitting for hours on the hard plastic chairs of the mess decks. Hanging out with Dad in my old dining room proved to be one of the most surreal experiences of our day, perhaps because the space, unlike CEC, looked exactly as I had remembered it. Our chat started with military meal anecdotes. The common denominator of crappy food served as a bridge from Desert Storm to the Vietnam War. For the first time in my life, my father spoke freely, and at length, about his days as a marine in combat. The stories were more potent for his casual delivery and the occasional indulgence of gallows humor.
When you grow up mostly apart from a parent, finding even small similarities between you can feel like a revelation, particularly where, like in my case, physical resemblances are evasive. I had one such epiphany when I was sixteen or seventeen. I had avoided my dad for a few years in middle teens out of a nebulous resentment, childhood abandonment reverberations mixed with more generalized teen angst. On a weekend visit, shortly after announcing a truce, Dad mentioned his aversion to long sleeves, how he almost always needs to scrunch or roll the up to feel comfortable. I have exactly the same wrist claustrophobia. This seemingly subtle detail had made me feel so much closer to him, as if confirmation that he was really my father.
Aside from inadequate rations, there were few similarities between our wartime experiences. The intensity of his combat encounters, the friends killed right before his eyes, his own injuries, were totally alien to me. He had patrolled the jungle for days on end, dodging bullets, feeling for mines, blasting anything in his path, while I floated on an air-conditioned ship miles away from the enemy. He was the war veteran, I was just a veteran.
We left the ship, together, just in time to catch our bus back to Waikiki, to tropical drinks and beach walks and our familiar, more conventional conversational territory. Neither Vietnam nor Desert Storm was mentioned again on that trip or since. It feels now as if the Missouri was a neutral territory where we could say anything. Perhaps we were inspired by the Missouri motto, “Show me.”
My father received not one, but two purple hearts. I have since added my grandfather’s dog tags, along with my own, to the small box in which my father’s and my medals reside. I am torn about passing it on to my niece or nephew, not wanting to risk glorifying our military service. But I do feel a responsibility to tell my story, and my father’s story, and his father’s. I wonder if this motivation, this need for atonement will ever pass… It has been over two decades since I was discharged, dangerously ill after my time in the Persian Gulf. I feel like I carry not only my own, but also my father’s experience, and his father’s, not just in my mind, but in my very body. And sometimes, when thinking about all of this, I still find myself struggling to breathe.