by Phil Rossi
All that remained from my father was a shoe box full of photographs and his dog tags from the Vietnam War. Some of the snapshots had curled edges and cellophane skin that began to shed. The rising fear the photos would disintegrate sooner than later, fueled the gulf between a deceased father and his teenage son.
Mixed in with the photos were handwritten letters from the fields and jungles of Vietnam. Notes of faded ink skated across slips of parched paper. That cardboard footlocker remained my most valuable possession.
After my father was killed in action, my mother had it with Vietnam and the vacant intimacy that was stored in dreams and mementos. The Gold Star and folded flag the military brass awarded the family stayed with my grandparents.
That meant the shoe box full of letters and photos was all mine. One of the snapshots was the last time Dad held me in his arms. He told Mom I’d plumped up and carried more like a Butterball turkey than a tyke. It’s all good, since he’s smiling as he handles me. I also know of his love because I’ve read the letters.
I don’t remember anything about Hawaii or my dad. I was only two years old when we joined him halfway between the suburbs and the DMZ. R&R from that shit storm called Vietnam.
In the photo, he’s wearing tiger camo pants and an olive T-shirt, with a pack of Marlboro cigarettes in his rolled-up shirt sleeve. The sun is bright, there’s palm trees in the background, and the photo has that bleached tint color pictures from the early seventies seem to have.
When I was old enough to have a wallet, it’s the picture I took from the collection to keep with me wherever I went, and now that I’m fourteen, it remains my number one photograph.
Two months after that photo was taken, my dad would be dead. A foot patrol on the Ho Chi Minh trail collided with a Viet Cong ambush. Outmanned and outgunned, my dad’s unit engaged, then succumbed.
At fourteen and being the big boy I am, I tell myself I’m okay with it. Nothing you forget, ‘cause you can’t and don’t want to.
Does it suck? Of course. Can’t tell you there’s anything more I want from this world than to see my father again. Every fourteen-year-old boy wants his dad.
On those lazy and lonely weekends, dreaming of the father and son stuff we could be doing instead of waiting for the rain to stop. Topping off an engine with motor oil, building a birdhouse, riding the waves in at the beach. Jonesing to write out a real Father’s Day card, instead of those stand-ins at therapy.
I stood behind the Howard Johnson’s hotel and diner in my official garb: Timberland work boots, camo pants, olive shirt. Dad’s dog tags I wore in lieu of a crucifix and a pack of Marlboros tucked in a rolled-up shirt sleeve.
Just like the military, bouncing from place to place with Mom. The two of us hopping from one garden apartment to the next. She didn’t like hanging around a single town too long.
For me, another hood, another school. More cops on fire watch, scoping out drugs, truancy, and other forms of juvenile comedy. New friends and pretty much else is the same. Supermarkets, gas stations, and corner stores with different banners and color schemes. A routine you get used to.
Washington, D.C. continued to populate my mind. The Vietnam Memorial Wall had just opened a few years back, and I remained the only one in my family who wanted to go and look at it. The drag of being a kid are times like that. Held hostage by rules and regs that fail to make any sense. Burning up inside to do something about it, and all this dreaming and desire gets you nowhere.
I didn’t dare bring up the Vietnam Wall to Mom, fearing her next nervous breakdown. My grandparents weren’t interested either. The gold star, folded flag, and bronze tablet at the cemetery was all they wanted from Southeast Asia.
It was 1985 and the Vietnam War remained a taboo subject. The wall was a downer, and most people wished the whole thing would shoo off already. The fighting might have stopped, but the country remained black and blue from the war’s fallout.
Being fourteen, I had no way of getting to D.C. myself, while Mack trucks whistled down the Jersey Turnpike. Maybe one day, I’d grow the stones to hop the fence and enter the truck depot where I could grub a ride with a cowboy or road mama lighting off for D.C.
Riding shotgun in the cab of a rig, as we hauled cargo and catapulted south. Sharing stories from the road, the landscape, and what it’s like being a loner. Trucking from state to state, seeing new things, meeting different folk.
A Greyhound bus ticket remained a small fortune for a teenager not old enough to bag real work, outside a paper route and helping out around the Howard Johnson’s. Carrying tools, mixing paint, and holding ladders for the maintenance men. Oddball jobs that don’t pay squat outside cigarettes, movie tickets, and lunch specials over at Sonny’s Pizza.
The memorial would have to wait until I bought my own wheels and drove down there myself. That was my new goal in life. To figure out a way to reach our capitol city.
I smudged a spent Marlboro and buried the box in the well of a cargo pocket. Mom waited tables at HoJo’s and it’s where I ate most of my meals.
I was smoking weed with Frank Bonelli when I first heard about the school trip to Washington, D.C.. Playing hooky and huffing Frank’s water bong in the garden apartment he shared with his mother and sister. A fortress of brick walls and stark rooms that looked like army barracks from the street.
Still the new kid, with no idea what Frank was talking about. The few times we hung out, we’d get high, oogle at stolen Hustler magazines, and play Dungeons & Dragons on Frank’s Intellivision game console.
“Are you going?” Frank asked as he flicked his Bic lighter. The water percolated as the smoke inside the bong morphed into a crystal ball. The freshman trip was a big deal and rite of passage in this new town I stumbled upon.
“They won’t ask me to go,” I said, as Frank exhaled and passed the bong.
“Why not?” Frank asked while I prepped my first hit.
“We can’t afford that,” I told him, as Frank started to laugh.
“No, stupid—it’s on the house,” Frank told me.
Up until then, the only Washington I’d ever been on was the boulevard and the bridge. The one I crossed with the recreation to a baseball game at Yankee Stadium. Frank claimed the bridge, street, and city are all named after the one and only George Washington. Check—I’m not a dimwit.
“Everything’s prepaid. The bus, hotel, meals, and admission to things. The only cash you need is spending money. You know, for moochie shit,” he said.
“Moochie shit?” I asked, dumbstruck over Frank’s expression.
“Coffee mugs, garden gnomes—that kinda stuff. Things you like, but don’t really need,” said Frank. That’s when I stared at the Kit-Cat clock on the Bonelli’s hung on the dining room wall. This chap clucked time with tick-tock eyes, a crooked tail, and a white bow tie.
“I guess. Are you goin’?” I asked.
“Nah. They won’t let me. I bet they have wicked head shops. That’s what I’d like to see, not the places they wanna go.” Watching Frank marvel and snapping pictures at the Lincoln Memorial did seem a bit farfetched.
Frank and his gang were on the high school’s no-go, when hell freezes over list. Hardcore punks who would defy the teachers, pick wallets, and shave eyebrows in the middle of the night. Who knew what other trouble they’d cause. Hocking the tires off the bus fleet came to mind.
I’d discovered a tribe of rebels in search of the sixties. Kids who didn’t fit in and surfed the outskirts. Boys equipped with tie-dye shirts, air guitars, and Jimi Hendrix headbands. All of us filtered and pooled together through Woodstock, Vietnam, and Section-8 housing.
Frank skipped my turn with the bong and snarfed another hit. Frank’s eyeballs rolled over and vanished in his head, while the rest of him sunk into the couch. So much for Intellivision.
As Frank blacked out, I bolted for HoJo’s and decided to get my act together. Still in disbelief over the signals bouncing around the pulp of my brain. I needed to find out more about this trip and where to get my boarding pass.
Toking weed made me a bonafide derelict, not a better student and candidate for the school trip. I made it a point to stop cutting class and picked up a paper route after school. Instead of hanging out with Frank and getting stoned, I pitched my best cub scout, hoping the high school bought the act.
I decided to keep it away from my mother as long as possible and certainly my grandparents. We didn’t visit that much, and I didn’t need any rough shot religion to hack the mission. All I kept telling myself, I had to go. You have to make this trip.
The buzz around campus started to build as the calendar closed in on liftoff. I learned to buckle down and hit the books with a bit more zest. On the bubble over my grades, the extra miles paid off. I managed to make the cut and received my invitation.
When the week-long excursion on the nation’s capitol arrived, I still couldn’t believe I’d be going. There’d be four boys to a room, and on us to huddle up. If you were lucky, you might get a few kids who were short and looking for stragglers. All the students I knew were from the complex and none of them were invited. The ones who were, didn’t care to go. A few lukewarm friends in random classes, with no leftovers to go buddy-buddy.
The day of the trip, we reported to the high school gym, a staging area for the launch. A teacher’s aide checked my name on her clipboard, and informed me of my bunk situation. I’d be holing up with three other misfits, in one of the reject rooms.
Mr. Hansen was an honors teacher who hawked the student list and acted as Mrs. Garcia’s hatchet man. Mrs. Garcia was the vice principal who always oversaw the voyage. Hansen didn’t like the kids from the projects, as he put it. A muckety-muck who looked down his nose at poor kids. He singled me out at the gym, getting in my face.
“I know your type. I didn’t want you making this trip,” Hansen said.
“It’s too late now.”
“We’ll see about that. One slip up, I’ll have you back on a bus so fast, your head will spin,” Hansen told me. Unoriginal, but I got the point.
My roommates were bigger hoots than the kids back home at the complex. Pillow fights and tag team wrestling matches, while hiding the soap, towels, and toilet paper on one other.
Outside the pranks, we hit the usual stops. The Smithsonian, Ford’s Theater, the White House, and Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. Then, the big day finally arrived. The Mall with the Washington Monument, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorials.
Stuck in a fog when I saw my personal promised land near a place called Constitutional Gardens. Sandwiched between the Reflecting Pool and Lincoln Memorial, a small patch of knolls and a tree line. So close, yet miles away. Brian Shannon noticed it too, and asked Hansen what the black granite and glass wall was, and when we were going to that side of the park.
“It’s not on the itinerary. Besides, there’s no reason for that place, and nothing worth seeing,” Mr. Hansen said. My stomach turned, as if I swallowed a blob of mercury. Hansen, you heartless SOB. It was your idea all along to scrub The Wall from our trip, wasn’t it?
Where we stood, you’d take Hansen’s word for it. A polished piece of slag. At this vantage point, a giant V in the grass. But I knew all along there was something there, nestled on the walls of that monument. I made it this far, only to be turned away at the rainbow’s edge.
That’s when I decided to show that hifalutin Hansen a thing or two, sneaking off for The Wall. The heck with these fuddy-duds and their hokey rules. Making us sit through countless tours, even a dinner theater where we had to get dressed up. I didn’t come down here for nothing.
A good hour or so before they did headcounts and marched us back to the buses. Plenty of time to honor my father’s sacrifice, trace his name with a lead pencil on a slip of stationary, and take a picture of his name on the wall. Stuff it, Hansen! In moments, I was further away and on the lam. I made it behind the lines of vision and blended in with other groups milling about.
A clear shot. I couldn’t believe how easy it went. In no time, I broke into a crisp walk, straight on and dead ahead.
That’s when I heard my name called out. A chaperone spotted the wrong turn and tailed me to the knolls. Snagged by the young lady, yanking me back to the reservation.
Later that night I stirred in bed, unable to sleep. Still in disbelief that I had caved and let them win. Business as usual, beaten by the man. I had no guts, and found something else to hate myself for.
Early to rise with a brand new scheme. Up and at ‘em, sneaking down the steps of the hotel’s firewall. I hit the sidewalk on the fly and bolted for a taxi stand across the street. Instead of silly trinkets from the gift shop, I’d gamble my life savings on the getaway skills of a city taxi driver.
Girls from my class watched me run past our buses already idling at the hotel entrance. In lieu of a good morning exchange, we shared confused looks, aware this was an escape and not a stroll. Let them tattle. Eat my smoke, Hansen!
I reached the taxi stand, stepping for the first heap in the lineup. When I asked the driver to take me to the Mall, he told me to hop in and we were off.
“What side of the Mall, chief?” he asked.
“The Vietnam Memorial Wall,” I answered. The driver cut the wheel, blasting through an intersection. Not one for conversation, the guy responded with his driving. And boy, did he.
The tires squealed some more, spitting us deeper into rush hour. Others in the roadway honked their horns and shouted profanities. All this, while I bounced in the back seat, searching for something to hold onto. The cabbie ignored every plea, as if they were dares to show his craft.
The cab’s ruckus came to a halt and we settled up. This time, I scrambled for the patch of elm trees without the watch dogs to can my dream. I conquered the empty grove unscathed, spilling out by the big V. I finally made it!
My head pulsed, as a tornado brewed and twisted my innards. I entered the memorial, giving me the illusion of a cavern. Walking in, as the wall around me rose. So did the tide inside my stomach, climbing up my throat to swim in my eyes.
I ran into a tour guide who asked if she could help. The lady carried a clipboard with leaflets stuck to it. I told her Dad’s name and the year he died. She paused to listen, scanned her list, and pointed out his location.
I found Dad’s section and waited for the storm inside me to calm down, afraid I’d split open and start bawling like a peewee. Instead, an uber-cool vibe took over. The dude on that wall was my father. I heard him through the letters and imagined him through the photos. Now I sensed him.
That’s when I reached out to touch the wall. My fingertips traced the letters of my father’s name. I closed my eyes, keeping my prints on the letters of his rank, first, and last name.
I placed the slip of paper over Dad’s mark and tilted a number 2 pencil to trace his impression on the wall. I watched his name come to life on the paper. A euphoric and peaceful feeling returned as I stepped back to admire his inscription.
I pointed my Kodak Instamatic camera and began snapping pictures of Dad’s name on the face of the wall. My biggest hope, the photos came out. In those days, you clicked and prayed. I shot most of the roll, hopeful for a few good ones. More souvenirs for the shoe box. New photos to go along with his letters of faded ink and old Polaroids.
Marooned in a daze while staring at his name. Feeling it was time to go, but I couldn’t force myself to move from the spot. Instead, I stepped closer to the wall. I tilted my head, closed my eyes, and pressed my cheek against my father’s name. I couldn’t recall how much time had passed, lost in the moment.
When I stepped from the memorial, Mr. Hansen and Mrs. Garcia were darting up the path. Hansen looked pissed to high heaven, ready to blast off through the clouds.
“You know, we took a chance on you. This is exactly why I didn’t want you making this trip,” Mr. Hansen said as we met on the walk. Mrs. Garcia seemed more disturbed than mad.
Hansen barked about the punishment in store once we got home. A child labor camp while pumping gas on weekends if left up to him. Mrs. Garcia wanted to see me alone and ordered Hansen back to the buses, or he’d be the one shoveling horse apples back in Mayberry.
Hansen huffed off and we moved to a vacant bench. Mrs. Garcia made it clear, I better have a solid alibi, or it was death row. At least I had a ride home.
I handed her the picture from Hawaii and removed the dog tags. Mrs. Garcia’s hands began to tremble as she held the slip of paper with the graphite impression of Dad’s rank and name.
“Had I known, I would have granted special permission,” Mrs. Garcia said.
“It’s not your fault Mrs. Garcia, it’s nobody’s business,” I said, thanking the woman for her humanity. The convoy of buses with all my classmates idled in the parking lot. My buddies already loaded my bags in the cargo pod, and I couldn’t wait to thank them.
“No, it’s not. Come on. Let’s go home,” she told me.
Thanks for your purchase and reading “Soldier In The Photograph”. I hope you enjoyed it. For more information, please visit my website: phil-rossi.com
Edited by Danica Page
Kindle conversion by Apoyo Corp.