The Jungle Gliding Darkly By - Part II

Note: Fifty years ago this month, the man who would become my husband—Richard Lowell Hill—landed in the Republic of Vietnam. He was twenty-three years old, a college graduate who had been drafted into the army the year before. His experience in Vietnam launched a chain of events that would shape and change our lives. In memory of that fateful year—1968—I’ve decided to share excerpts here from my unpublished memoir and his Vietnam diary throughout the coming weeks.

 

2.

In the spring of 1967, Richard had just turned twenty-three and was about to graduate from Washington State University in Pullman with a degree in wildlife biology. His mother, who had raised Richard and his sister since their father’s death in 1954, had dictated early on that Richard had two career choices. He could follow in his father’s footsteps and become a physician or he could study veterinary medicine.

Richard probably would have chosen veterinary medicine regardless of his mother’s ultimatum. He was a passionate hunter and fisherman who had an instinctive gift for understanding and working with animals. Years later, when my relationship with Richard was still new, I marveled at his gentleness with song birds. He had a federal bird banding license back then and trapped juncos, chickadees, robins, and jays in specially designed traps. When he reached inside to remove a trapped bird, it was often in distress—shivering, squawking, sometimes pecking at Richard’s hand. He’d stroke the bird’s head and talk to it softly, then carry it inside to his kitchen table. By that time, the bird was usually calm, so calm it didn’t fight as Richard placed it onto a tiny scale or pried open a wing to measure it. Nor did most birds fight him as he gently wrapped a metal band around one of its legs before releasing it back into his garden. Maybe I fell in love with Richard because of this tenderness, his respect for all living things, his natural rapport with them. He seemed ideally suited to be a vet.

So in the spring of 1967, Richard waited for news. Would he be accepted into WSU’s School of Veterinary medicine? The school was very competitive, more competitive than med school. Finally, the letter arrived and Richard was accepted. “I was elated—and a little bit surprised,” he confessed.

But he didn’t celebrate.

 Already Richard didn’t trust life; happiness, he thought, was ephemeral, even fickle. He’d learned his lesson as a fourth-grader, the day his mom picked him up from school with news that his father—Dr. Lowell Hill—had died in a fire at his clinic. “You become not like the rest of the flock,” Richard explained to me later. “Almost a stigma. I was the kid with the dead dad.”

He also became the kid who didn’t believe in happy endings. Good news was sure to be followed by bad. Life was a trickster, who took joy in giving out small pieces of candy in one hand, then offering up poison in the other. Life was crushing and brutal, a lesson he’d learned from experience.

Richard’s instinct not to celebrate veterinary school proved to be dead-on. Two weeks after the acceptance letter from WSU arrived, Richard received a letter from Uncle Sam.

A draft notice.

Richard had taken an extra year to graduate from college, and was no longer considered a traditional, full time student. Furthermore, in the spring of 1967—before college deferments were amended by Congress later that year—"older men” were drafted first. At twenty-three, Richard was fair game. He was ordered to report for duty on July 27, 1967, at 6:30 a.m.

“I was devastated,” he told me during the last two weeks of his life. So was his mother. She wanted to go to the draft board. “She knew somebody who knew somebody,” he remembered. “It was a very dirty business. I said don’t bother.”

It wasn’t that Richard passively accepted his fate—he felt Vietnam “was stupid.” He just couldn’t accept the alternative—to flee to Canada. “I was an American and didn’t want to do that.”

What went unspoken: Richard’s deeply held feelings that flight to Canada was dishonorable, that if he was drafted, it was his duty to serve, no matter how he felt about the war. Responsibility and duty had been drilled into him as a child; they were more important to uphold than personal feelings, a pattern Richard repeated throughout his adult life.

 On his draft notice, Richard underlined three things: “Bring your Social Security Account Number Card; bring enough clean clothes for 3 days; bring enough money to last 1 month for personal purchases.” Personal responsibility…. Doing the right thing.

 Before he set off to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training, Richard spent a month in 1967 working for the U.S. Forest Service as an assistant surveyor and firefighter. I realize now that he never explained to me why he did this, why he didn’t spend that last month with his family. Did he want the experience? Did he think he needed the money? Or did he want to be alone with his decision to go to Vietnam, to escape his mother’s pressure to intervene with the draft board? Now it’s impossible to know.

In an ideal world, a more principled world, Richard wouldn’t have passed his Army physical. He was in great shape— an able athlete— but he was virtually blind. From the time he was a teenager on, he’d worn thick horn-rimmed glasses, the lenses so powerful that they distorted the shape of his eyes. One night years later when Richard and I lived in South Dakota, we awoke suddenly to tornado sirens. “Electricity’s out,” Richard mumbled, as he struggled to turn on a bedside light. I stumbled down the hall to Emily’s room, grabbed her from the crib, and stumbled again down the basement stairs. Hail pounded against the house, lightning flashed continuously. Thunder drowned out the sirens. But where was Richard? Minutes went by. And more minutes. I left Emily on the bed in the basement guest room and went upstairs. “Pam! Pam!” I heard him calling. “Where are you?” I found him groping around in the living room, our dog Heidi underfoot. “I can’t find my glasses,” he said. And without them, he couldn’t find the basement.

But in 1967, the U.S. Army just needed bodies— able-bodied or not. Richard shipped out to the Republic of Vietnam on March 1, 1968. “Left Ft Lewis on Seaboard International Airlines DC-8,” he wrote in his Vietnam diary. “Made stopovers at Anchorage, Alaska, and Tokyo, Japan.”

*****

In the fall of 1968, my high school Civics teacher in Springfield, Missouri, required us to identify a current international event, and track its coverage in the local newspaper by cutting out clippings, then putting them in a notebook.  Almost everybody chose the Vietnam War. Not out of passion, curiosity, or opposition to the war, but because it would be easy to find lots of clippings about Vietnam. Most kids in my class shared their parents’ belief that President Lyndon Johnson was doing all he could to bring the boys home.

But I was interested in something else that year, a subject that intrigued my Civics teacher so much she allowed me to focus on a national subject instead: police brutality. Why did I choose this? I don’t remember. My father had sided with the police during the violence that erupted in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention in August. Maybe I was quietly beginning to move away from Dad’s opinions, and by extension, his authority. Or perhaps I was haunted by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Clearly, there was something wrong with our country, a malignant and systemic disease. Or so it seemed that September. But after the flurry of headlines about police brutality in August, the Springfield News & Leader dropped the story, so I reluctantly jumped on the Vietnam bandwagon too.

 I wish I could say that this project enlightened me, that as I read and clipped newspaper article after newspaper article, my understanding of the war—its futility and brutality—deepened and motivated me to take a stand. But I was like most of my classmates that year: my life seemed completely untouched by Vietnam. It was too far away, too remote. A few years earlier, Dad had preached a funeral at a neighboring congregation in Bona, Missouri, for a young solider who’d been killed in action, but none of us knew him. I’m not even sure why Dad officiated. All I remember is that after the funeral, I sat in a farmhouse living room with faded wallpaper, balancing a plate of food on my lap, and listening to adults talk about the soldier’s widow. “She’s young enough to remarry.” “So pretty too.” “How sad that they had so little time together.” No one questioned the war, or why the soldier had died. He had served his country honorably. That was all that seemed to matter then.

By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I’d write an occasional letter to my friend Arlene’s brother, who’d enlisted and was in basic training. But we broke off our correspondence for some reason—probably because we had so little in common and so little to say to each other. I don’t remember now if he was even stationed in Vietnam. A few years later, I started wearing a POW bracelet for a missing serviceman. As the war dragged on, a few young men from church registered for the draft, but their numbers never came up. I privately supported anti-war presidential candidate George McGovern in 1972, the first time I voted for president. But by then, the war in Vietnam was an intellectual exercise. Important, yes—but still a distant, international event, much as it had been for me back in 1968.

From the time I was a little girl until well into high school, I used to daydream about the man I’d marry someday. Would he be someone I knew? Or someone who lived a world away, maybe in Abilene, Texas, or Los Angeles, California, or even London, England? What was he thinking at that moment? What was he doing? Did he ever imagine that the girl he was going to grow up and marry was thinking about him? Did he wonder about her? But these speculations never crossed my mind while I was cutting out those dreary newspaper clippings about another gunboat raid in the Mekong Delta, or when I wrote Arlene’s brother, or when I wore that POW bracelet for the first time. Nor did I imagine in 1968 that the man I was going to marry was already a man, killing rats in a hooch along the Cambodian border in the Republic of Vietnam.

Nor that in an unimaginable future, I’d share a bond with that nameless young widow from Bona, Missouri.

 

Holly Atkinson