The Return Trip 2000 – 10

Dear Larry:
I wanted to tell you how much we enjoyed your daily reports from Vietnam. Your colorful descriptions and photos were insightful, poignant, and really first rate. I especially liked your epilogue. Your comrades who were unable to make the trip were well served. I sincerely hope you will consider publishing the piece, if it's not too personal.

Larry, I'm attaching a greatly flawed, unedited essay I wrote out after you and I went to see Saving Private Ryan last year. Until now, I wasn't sure I would ever show it to you. But Perhaps you will accept some of its shallow weaknesses in light of its intent.


Saving Private Ryan: The Road not Taken

As Oscar night approached, I re-read Stephen Hunter's fine review (Style, July 24, 1998) of Steven Spielberg's epochal movie Saving Private Ryan. I also read Tom Brokaw's paean to The Greatest Generation, many who fought and died in Europe and Asia or trudged home to resume their lives and lead the country into peacetime prosperity.

My Uncle George was one of those returnees. A Marine who fought three years in the Pacific, he sometimes cried in his sleep for months after coming back, according to my mother. In the early '50's, he ran a small town real estate business in my grandparents' house where I lived. When I was in the fifth grade, he did something I'll never forget.

Two farm boys, probably 17 or 18, were fistfighting on the street in front of our house. The bigger boy had pinned the other and was pounding his head against the curb. My uncle quietly took off his jacket, ran out of the office, and pulled the guy off by the scruff of his neck. The strapping youth made a move toward my uncle. But Uncle George crouched into a defensive position and stared directly into the boy's eyes. "Don't mess with me," he said. "I'm a Marine!" The kid backed away like he'd been struck by lightning. Calm restored, the boys walked off in different directions. My uncle quietly straightened his tie, walked back into the office, and sat down at his desk as if nothing had happened. I saw the whole thing. As a young boy, it was the greatest thing I had ever seen. It still ranks right up there after 40 some years.

My uncle was a product of his generation, complete with its mindsets and prejudices. But like Mr. Brokaw's heroes, he had paid his dues. He worked hard, had a strong sense of honor, and lived to see his children and grandchildren grow and prosper. Uncle George died in a nursing home in 1998. During his final battle with Altzheimer's, he probably no longer recalled our conversation at the time I was graduating from college in 1966, just as things were boiling over in a place called Vietnam.

My worried mother had called him. And he called me. To my surprise, his only comments were, "You don't want to go over there. Second lieutenants are a dime a dozen. You'll just be cannon fodder." But having grown up in Small Town, USA, filled with WW II veterans groups and flag-strewn parades down Main Street, I was in a torment between my patriotic duty and a feeling that we had no business killing or being killed in what was essentially a civil war. Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway were whispering things in my head about a man's need to be "tested." And a Marine Corps recruiter had proffered, "We're the best! I can get you into our officer training program within six weeks."

In the end, I skipped the Marine Corps physical, and later the draft, parlaying a college deferment into a teaching position where I sat out the war for the next four years. And as both the war and anti-war sentiment escalated into the late '60s and early '70s, I took some ephemeral comfort in having opted for what I thought was the moral high ground - a position which served me reasonably well for many years. That is, until I saw Saving Private Ryan with a friend who happened to serve as a second lieutenant in Vietnam. Spielberg's film and Brokaw's book seemed to be saying the same thing: "Are we worthy of them?" These were average men who forfeited their civilian identities and, in Stephen Hunter's words, were "willing not only to die for their country but kill for it," under the most terrifying and inhumane conditions. As my friend and I left the theater, I recalled something he said years before (he never talked much about his Vietnam experience): that one of the worst things was overcoming the "inconsolable fear." Or another time, after a day in the field, how everyone agreed that "no one would ever be able to describe to people back home what it was like here."

As traffic whizzed passed us on the street, my friend and I talked briefly about the film. Then he held out his hand and said good-bye. As he walked away, I thought how utterly courageous he and tens of thousands of other young men my age had been some 30 years ago, as they fought and died without their nation's full support in an unpopular war half a world away. Or limped home unheralded to the sound of jeers. There would be no joyous '40s-style celebrations by a grateful nation, as Tom Brokaw recounts in his book. Or a Normandy hero like actor Charles Durning standing on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on the Fourth of July tearfully remembering their bravery. Like their fathers and uncles, these young men of my generation had also sought to re-build their lives. But for many, the trip home was met by years of nagging self-doubt about what began as duty and sacrifice to country. Today, a new generation of young men, obsessed with job offers, stock options, and BMWs can hardly remember Vietnam, let alone the men who fought there.

So, as Private Ryan and his buddies enjoy their Oscars and we cheer them again at the box office, I will take a moment to think of my friend. Arguably, some will say, the road I took was the rationally correct one. But for many reasons, some which defy any rational contemplation, the road not taken - the road my friend took - was also the right one.

Richard W. Stinson
© 1999