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Worse Than Real Life

“Where’s your father?” my mother says. The kitchen smells of roast beef like it does most Sundays and my mother is stirring the gravy as if she had something against it.

I know where my father is and so does she. He’s down at the Legion or over at the VFW drinking beer and playing cribbage with his buddies. Every Sunday it’s the same thing. Daddy drives us to church and then heads over to one or the other of his clubs. We have our big meal around 1:00. It’s the only time in the whole week we all eat together and Mama’s always worried Daddy won’t get home in time to carve the beef. Sometimes she calls the clubs, first one, then the other, looking for him. They always say he’s just left.

When he gets home my mother is red-faced and tight-lipped, but Daddy acts like nothing’s wrong. He takes out his long sharpening steel and slides it back and forth along the blade of his carving knife making the steel sing. When he’s finished slicing, he brings the roast to the table. I get the rarest cut. Grammy and Grampy get the end pieces because they like it well done. Mama serves the mashed potatoes and peas and carrots. Through the meal her anger hangs over the table like a storm cloud and Daddy’s voice is too loud. My grandparents cast glances at each other. I clean my plate and ask to be excused.

Memories of those childhood Sunday dinners come to mind as my husband and I listen to a program on public radio. It’s Veteran’s Day and Michel Martin is interviewing Tom Frame, a Vietnam vet, and his daughter, Kara, about an article she’d written about her dad’s PTSD and how it shaped her family.

Tom Frame had a name for the havoc his years in Vietnam wreaked on his body and mind, but when my dad came back from Europe at the end of World War II, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder had yet to enter the national lexicon. Returning soldiers didn’t have access to counseling. No one talked about the emotional toll those five years in the infantry took on boys like my dad. He enlisted when he was seventeen, a small-town kid who’d never been anywhere. He returned five years later a man in his early twenties, dragging around the horrors he’d experienced like a ball and chain.

My dad never talked to me much about the war, but even as a kid I knew it had marked him. I knew because I heard him call out in his sleep: No! Stop! Watch out! I knew because his hands shook when he lit a cigarette or poured V-8 juice into a glass. I knew because he’d once told me that no writer could ever make up a story that was worse than real life.

Kara said that her father’s PTSD manifested primarily as anger, hot, bright, and sudden. My father drank. Dad was a foreman on construction sites, but when he was out of work he spent entire days at the VFW. Returning home in the late afternoon flushed and swaying like a pine in a heavy wind, he’d retreat to his room, emerging the following morning wobbly and grey and distant as the dark side of the moon.

When my father worked out of town, he found welcome and a quick meal at local VFW’s and Legions. Driving home together after a day of skiing, he’d often stop at one of these familiar clubs while I waited in the car. As the temperature dropped, I’d stare out at the dumpsters and the faded bunting over the windows and wish he’d hurry up. He never did.

I always equated my dad’s devotion to his clubs to his need to drink. He went to the VFW and the Legion because it was more fun to drink with his pals than to drink at home under the watchful eyes of his wife and in-laws. But when Sergeant Frame talked about his connection to other vets and the reunions he organized with his surviving soldiers, I realized the clubs might have offered my dad more than a place to drink.

Tom Frame said he thinks about the men who fought and died alongside him in Vietnam every day. He lives with the trauma of leaving the dead on the battlefield and wondering if they had, indeed, all been dead when the helicopter lifted the living to safety. And he talked about what, ultimately, helped him live with his trauma.

What saved Tom Frame was talking to other vets. It didn’t matter where they’d served or how old they were or what particular horrors they’d witnessed. What mattered is that they shared a common language and a deep understanding of how those experiences lived in them and changed them and caused them to act in ways that were incomprehensible to their wives and children.

That’s when I start to cry. Struck by the truth of Tom Frame’s words, I experience a seismic shift in perspective. I picture my father at the VFW, bellied up to the bar with other vets, sharing the stories he never told me about the demons that haunted his dreams or landing at Normandy beach and all the guys who got left there. I imagine him sympathizing with a buddy’s story about a lost comrade and shaking his head at having made it out alive.

My husband hands me a tissue. I wipe my eyes, but the tears keep coming. Tom and Kara’s story has shed new light on the dark place my father has always been for me. I experience a palpable sense of his presence as though my dad’s letting me know I finally got it right. I’m warmed by our mutual understanding and know, in that moment, the redemptive power of forgiveness.

After sixty years of thinking of the clubs as places that robbed me of my dad’s company and contributed to his alcoholism, I finally realize that knocking back beers over the cribbage board was my dad’s way of blunting the edges of his brokenness. The banter with his cronies was his talk therapy. Unlike Tom Frame, my dad never attended a reunion with his soldiers, never joined a formal support group.

Instead, he was a lifelong member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars

and the American Legion. Where he belonged.

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