Margot Carlson Delogne is the founder of the 2 Sides Project, a nonprofit that unites sons and daughters who lost fathers on both sides of the Vietnam War, and the producer of a documentary about the project that aired on PBS stations nationwide. She resides in Arizona and is working on a memoir.
My father, Air Force Capt. John W. Carlson, was killed in Vietnam in December 1966. He was 27 years old when he died and, since his crash site was never officially found, he is still classified as missing in action.
Every Memorial Day is a reminder that he is gone. While I can honor his service, I cannot easily preserve his memory, because I have no memories of my own.
I'm not alone. An estimated 20,000 children lost fathers on the American side of the Vietnam War. Some remember their dads, but their memories are now faint. Many more were either too young or not born when their fathers died. A handful, like me, may visit an empty grave because their fathers were never found.
I was two years old when my father died. The official report from that day said he had just dropped a bomb when his single-man jet suddenly rolled to the left, inverted and crashed. Death was deemed instantaneous, and no recovery attempts were made. The search for his crash site restarted only when the United States and Vietnam re-established relations in 1995. Despite the best efforts of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA), he remains one of the more than 1,500 missing from the war.
Over the years, I have grabbed at straws, looking for evidence of who he was. I would sometimes lie in bed and roll back time as far as I could, straining to remember something, anything about him. Nothing came. I began to create my own stories. A mental film of his death played over and over in my head. It goes like this: Realizing he's been hit, my father swears. Smoke swirls in the cockpit. He fixes on a picture of my sister Kim and me wedged into the side of the window. It flaps madly, edges aflame. He watches it all the way down.
Kim was lucky because she had something -- a single memory. In it, she is high on his shoulders as they walk to a parade on base. He explains the difference between two, to and too."You are two years old. We are walking to the parade. I ate too many Lorna Doones."
My mother knew him best but couldn't help. She was so deeply sunk in sorrow after losing her husband she couldn't share much of their six years together.
Not until my senior year in high school, when I went to live with my father's parents in Indiana, did I begin to find real clues. My grandparents were newly retired and living next to the campus of a military academy where my father spent his summers. They gradually opened up about what he was like. I clung to the simplest things Grandma said, like he didn't like the color yellow or his favorite lunch was a liverwurst and onion sandwich.
My bedroom was across from my grandparents'. Its springy bed, where I took naps as a child, was paired with a wooden dresser and gilded mirror, all furniture from my father's youth. I found his high school textbooks in the closet and saw his handwriting for the first time in the notes scribbled in the margins.
Sometimes, I caught my grandfather looking at me. His eyes would turn misty before he looked away. I never asked what he was thinking, but I had an idea. Newly surrounded by pictures of my father, I saw something I'd never noticed before. The square jaw, the full lips, the drooping eyes. I looked exactly like him.
Years later, Mom finally got the courage to look at the past. She opened storage boxes and showed us pictures of their courtship and first apartment in Chicago. She laughed as she pulled out his saber from The Citadel, the military college where he graduated, and talked about the night he used it to slay a mouse cowering in the oven. Mom made copies of the audio letters they exchanged during the brief six months my father was in Vietnam. It took me months to muster the courage to listen to them, and I wept when I first heard his voice. My cousins had the very same Chicago lilt.
Mom wrote to his Air Force colleagues to ask whether they could tell us more. Edd Barnes was the first to respond. He'd been stationed at the same base, Bien Hoa, just outside of Saigon. Edd had one of the morning missions on Dec. 7, my father an afternoon one.
I asked if I could visit.
"Sure," came his simple reply. "I'll tell you what I know."
Edd's summer house was in upstate New York. He stood in the door as I pulled into the driveway. I took in the buzz-cut hair, the straightforward gaze, the hint of a smile and wondered whether my father would have looked the same. We shook hands and chit-chatted for a while -- about the area, his home in Texas, his family -- and took a seat facing each other across the kitchen table.
Edd, like my father, volunteered to serve because he wanted to fly. He got his start in Chandler, Arizona, and moved to an air base in San Antonio. A year and a half later, the United States started rotating attack-fighting squadrons into South Vietnam. He remembered Dec. 7, 1966, very clearly.
"It was a beautiful day. Your father was flying about 30 miles from Saigon. He dropped his first bomb, then just went straight into the jungle at about a 30-degree angle, which is pretty steep. He never showed any indication that anything was wrong with the airplane."
"The report said he was loaded with fuel. So I guess ..."
Edd knew where I was headed. "The jungle floor was mush. You could drop a whole airplane in there and never find it. All I know is that they never recovered any part of the aircraft."
I asked what he thought had happened. Edd said that, somewhere in the delivery, Vietnamese soldiers with 50-caliber machine guns got him. "They sat in this little cage and moved it around with their feet or with the sighter in the back. They were deadly."
I could hear the screech as the cage yanked toward my father's plane, could see the man inside, the shadows from the cage criss-crossing his face.
"Do you think he knew he'd been shot?"
"I think they got a perfect line on him. If he'd been capable of pulling the aircraft up, he would have done it. It was instant, and I don't think there was anything he could do about it."
Edd said he took care of my father's things that day. He rolled up his socks, some underwear, an old pair of old shoes, and his wedding band. He sent it all to my mother with a note about what he knew.
"You can be proud of your father, Margot. He was really in his element. He loved to fly. He died doing what he loved."
On this Memorial Day, those of us left fatherless after the Vietnam War will strive to commemorate the men who served. I will look at the mementos I hold close, including my father's saber, which sits behind me as I work. In the moment of silence, I will summon his voice. He'll tell me to "keep your speed up and keep it turning," a greeting Edd said pilots often used.
The facts about how he died, and the bits and pieces from others about how he lived, will gather in my mind. They may be borrowed memories but, today, they are mine.
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