08 February 2010

A Civilian in Chapel Hill

UNC - Chapel Hill Mid '60's
Sunchon Street, Ft Bragg, NC March 1966

Central Highlands, South Vietnam Summer 1966

I remember my father coming home but rarely his leaving. Except once.

We took him to Pope Air Force Base. A short drive from our quarters on Bragg. I remember he kissed my two sisters goodbye. He kissed my mother goodbye. And he turned to me, poked my chest with his finger and said, "You screw up once while I'm gone and I'll come back and kick your ass. You got that?" I nodded and he turned and walked away to Vietnam. I watched him swagger to a C 130 with a duffel bag on his shoulder and his green beret cocked at an angle.

Had he not come home -- That would've been my last memory of him.

I'm not sure any eight year old would understand him. I did. A little. I expected to be treated like a man when he said goodbye to me. We had spent a lot of time with each other the year before he left. Racing slot cars at the Hay Hobby Shop. Racing his Berkley at local sports car events. Taking his dare and eating a sardine that he told me was raw fish. He was never a chatty Cathy but we had our moments. Now he was gone and I felt an ease settle over our house on Sunchon Street.

The move to Chapel Hill took the ease I felt and put it on an island in the Caribbean with palm trees, coconut drinks and ocean breezes. Everything about Ft Bragg disappeared and I saw that civilian life was not the pawn shops, strip joints, car lots and bars and I saw on the other side of the main gate. The University of North Carolina looked like a giant officer's club and Carolina blue became my favorite color. I went into the record shops downtown where my mother picked out the latest Herb Albert and Tijuana Brass album and I picked up Beatle's 45s with the yellow and red Capitol label.

I was enrolled in my first Catholic school in June but had three months of summer when we moved into a house in the country. Older grad students and faculty lived in the same small houses tucked away in the woods with long drive ways and a concrete storm pipe at the beginning of each. By the end of the summer I had crawled through every one.

There was an art class I attended with my sister. A student lived in an apartment in an old house on campus and gave classes in the back yard. We sat around a subject and plopped water colors on the spongy paper while the sun looked down on us. Color was everywhere. In the red brick of the campus buildings, the white of clap board houses and the green of pines everywhere.

And in 1966, there was khaki and madras as well. High water trousers, white socks and crew cuts were still in vogue although longer hair was growing in popularity with the Beatles. There was also talk of the Rolling Stones but they were associated with hoodlums and communists. Nasty types who certainly didn't bathe and most likely shop lifted.

Our next door neighbor was in dental school. He was married and had a little boy who liked to drop rocks on toads and poke a wasp nest with a stick. The future dentist also had a Mustang convertible and a color tv where we all watched Cinderella. I thought it was a terrible waste of color.

Farther up the street were a Canadian couple who had a white Volvo 1800 and a West Highland Terrier named Donald Bane. He was getting his doctorate and she had her masters. He had something to do with English lit and I remember they were always laughing... a trait I still associate with most Canadians today.

Behind us was a preacher going to Duke for his doctorate in something biblical. I never remember him laughing but his son and daughter were good friends and I told my first story on their door stoop. It was about the secret life of their cat. Gerald, the son believed every word. The next day he told me his father said I had made it all up. I admitted I had and his sister asked me to make up another story. I did but it wasn't anywhere near as funny.

The drama teacher who had a parcel of kids and knew the writer Paul Green personally was the coolest dad. With longish hair turning grey at the the temples, he was a writer, an actor and looked like a cross between Peter Lawford and Johnny Carson. My mother only allowed tv on weekends and I remember Friday nights where all the parents got together for a party (except the preacher) and all of us kids were put in a house with a baby sitter, the Monkees on tv and a dozen hot dogs from a nearby drive in.

I wonder if it wasn't too much too soon. I was a successful story teller. I had access to fancy cars, actors and color tv. I lived a Town and Country life. Campus book stores and record shops. Swinging on a massive vine in the woods. Pondering colors and shapes as I painted.

I also started an annoying habit of forgetting what was most important. It was the summer I never thought about my father but the nuns were about to change that.


Tin-tin's phred/dad said...

RE: Summer in the highlands photo.
I don't remember the date, but I do definitely remember that day. One of my medics hung a thermometer in the tree. It measured almost 130 degrees. Hottest day I've ever experienced (and I've been in Death Valley, CA in Summer). Read, slept and drank a lot of beer. No NVA activity either. Too hot for them also. What was it General Sherman said? "War is heck -- gosh darn it."

Tin-tin's phred/dad said...

HA! You almost slipped one by me.
You referred to me as picking up my bag and "swaggering" out to my C-130.
I'll remind you, once again, that common airborne troops swagger, but that elite airborne men (e.g., Special Forces and Rangers) do NOT swagger. They "walk with confidence."
It takes a lot of practice. You may, as a youngster, have seen me learn how to do it.

ELS said...

How on earth could I have missed this?? I was there - colours, storm drains, short trousers. Love it, you know that though.

Come and sit on my doorstep and tell me stories. I'll keep my dad quiet.

Tintin, as you may know, I have just been introduced to dirty martinis. This is the literary equivalent - a culture shock, slight bitterness, great depth, bite and interest.

Please keep writing. If only for the three of us!!


tintin said...

Dad, You noted the temp on the back of the pic although who could ever forget a day like that.

As for the swaggering, I never remember you not.

ELS - You just want those prints. I'm giving up brussel sprouts for Lent. I do it every year.

ELS said...

Dammit, am I that transparent?

Am giving up booze. God help my family.

I mean it though.

M.Lane said...

What a fine post. Happy Memorial Day to you and your Dad.


tintin said...

M. Thank you very much. The same to you and your family.