My dad attracted a lot of attention when I was growing up. Wherever we went, kids pointed and tugged on their moms’ and dads’ sleeves.
“What happened to that man’s legs?”
“It’s not polite to stare,” their parents would whisper, loud enough for me to hear, and tug them in the opposite direction.
When I was a child myself, I took little notice of these occurrences. Having a dad with no legs was as normal to me as having a dad with legs was to the kids who stared and pointed. I remember staring back at them being drug away like they were in trouble, and wondering what the big deal was.
Yeah, so what? My dad stepped on a landmine in Vietnam and lost his legs. That’s the one-line story my dad told me. And that’s the one-line story I told others, if they asked.
I can’t remember what, if anything, dad said to these people in those early years, or if he ever got the chance to say anything at all. I do remember feeling his annoyance and frustration, but I had no idea at the time what it all meant. I knew only the one-line story and accepted it as normal.
I know now that dad was not only learning to live life without legs and process the horrors he’d seen in Vietnam, but he was also dealing with America’s anger over this controversial war. Dad called the 1970s the decade of his “Great Unsettling.” I was born in ’71.
Sadly, instead of being thanked and treated as men no less courageous than those who fought World War II, many Americans shamed and blamed them for our government’s decisions. Dad was drafted, and as a patriot, he went to serve his country in Vietnam just as his uncles went to Europe a generation earlier. Dad’s injuries were like having a giant “X” painted on him. He was a visual reminder of Vietnam whenever he rolled out the door of our house.
Fortunately, the culture changed with the two wars in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan. People still stared and reprimanded their kids for being rude, but whether they agreed with the wars or not, Americans started to thank veterans—of all wars—for their military service and sacrifice. This was sometimes uncomfortable for dad, but it was mostly a welcome change.
I thought of my dad, the attention he attracted, and how it shifted in the four decades he lived after coming home from Vietnam, when I heard a Memorial Day story on NPR about photographer David Jay. He takes pictures of injured vets from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—men and women with injuries like my dad’s—for a project he calls Unknown Soldier.
“I take these pictures so that we can look; we can see what we’re not supposed to see. And we need to see them because we created them,” Jay told NPR reporter Elizabeth Blair. “You can imagine how many times each of these men and women have heard a parent tell their child, ‘Don’t look. Don’t stare at him. That’s rude,’ ”
Yeah, I can imagine.
Dad never stopped attracting attention. If he and a newspaper photographer were in the same place, no matter what the event, dad often wound up in the paper the next day. His image was compelling. He knew it. He grumbled about it. But he grew to accept it, mostly.
In his later years, dad would stop parents from pulling their kids away, call them over to him, and answer their questions. He cared deeply about children and the future. He didn’t want to scare them, but he wanted to leave an impression about the human cost of war. Just like Jay.
Most of dad’s conversations with kids he encountered went more or less like this:
“Where did your legs go?”
“My legs broke off in a war,” dad would explain.
“How did they break?”
“I stepped on a bomb and they broke off. Sometimes bad things happen in wars.”
“Will my legs break off, too?” some kids wondered. Dad would reassure them they wouldn’t.
“Does it hurt?”
“No, it doesn’t hurt,” he would lie.
“Will your legs grow back?”
“How do you put your pants on?”
“One leg at a time, just like you.”
If their parents hadn’t taken them away at this point, some kids would start playing with parts of his wheelchair and dad would gently redirect their hands. Some would ask if they could go for a ride and dad would explain that his chair was not a toy.
Dad welcomed the innocent curiosity of children and the chance to interact with them. He wasn’t as forthcoming with adults, but he slowly began to fill in more details of his one-line story. He was the keynote speaker at a local Memorial Day event. He spoke at his church. He wrote letters to the editor recounting his war experience and about the importance of taking time to talk to children what veterans have done for them, and for all of us.
The pictures in Jay’s Unknown Soldier collection that affected me the most were those of the veterans with their children.
As an infant and toddler, I rode on dad’s lap when we went places. As I grew into a walker, I held onto the armrest of his wheelchair because he needed his hands for maneuvering his wheels.
I think of holding my dad’s armrest in the same way other daughters think back on holding their dad’s hand. I hope that’s what my children remember about him, too. Grandpa gently placing one of their hands on his armrest, and the two of them going out into the world together.
Jay’s Unknown Soldier pictures are part of the Library of Congress’ collection on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Dad’s pictures and my memories are part of my collection. I knew that soldier, and I loved him.
Note: Dad died of a heart attack in September 2011. His heart disease was declared by the Veteran’s Administration to be a direct result of the combat injuries that confined him to a wheelchair for 42 years.