My Dad Went for a Walk
By JIM NICHOLS
It has happened so many times now that I have stopped thinking it is unusual. I will see or hear one snippet and, suddenly, a flood of other memories arises and stacks on top.
One of my favorite parts of the local newspaper is a section “Today in History.” Here appears a short list of notable events that occurred on that day sometime in the past. It goes back sometimes centuries and includes government issues, advances in science, crimes, sports, and even entertainment.
A recent column said that on that day in a distant previous year the 59th Academy Awards named “Platoon” as the best picture.
I was what one might call “Vietnam vulnerable.” Every young man my age was. In a convoluted way, I was spared first-hand involvement, but its images and impact were significant because of loved friends with different outcomes. My years of concern were paralleled by my parents. My mother was clearly anxious, and my father was quiet on the topic, thinking about war without speaking. Decades before on the day I was born my father was on a bomber base in Italy; we would see each other for the first time when I was 14 months old. He obviously had memories sitting in his head that I did not know.
Scientific meetings are highly scheduled with short paper presentations and longer major speeches available in a detailed time sheet. Attendees must choose what to attend, depending on their interests. As a young professional, I had been at such an out-of-town meeting for several days and found that the afternoon science agenda appeared uninteresting. I took the opportunity to walk to a nearby movie theater showing a film I had heard about. The film was “Platoon.” It was one of the early Vietnam War depictions and was, frankly, terrifying.
The experience connected to a time when I was visiting my home and parents. This was a house and neighborhood that I knew well. One knows one’s neighbors to different extents, of course; those closest in proximity become most familiar. However, sometimes there are other connections that link neighbors who are not necessarily immediately close in distance.
That boyhood house had some fine close neighbors. There were also a few several houses away and you had to walk a bit to get to their house. My dad was always a walker and knew the close and distant neighbors as well as neighborhood shops. It is a story for another time, but the first indications of the debilitating illness that would eventually take his earthly life occurred when he was walking in the neighborhood.
The family of concern here lived up the street several houses. Our two families had several connections including schools, church, and Boy Scouts. There were, I believe, two boys, one of them a friend to my sister and two years younger than I. He was not only Vietnam vulnerable; he was there.
On that day, my dad returned from his neighborhood walk. He seemed unusually somber and the father to son message I heard from him was concise. “While I was out, I saw something that I had never wanted to see—I heard no words, but I knew exactly what was happening. As I neared the house of our friends, a car pulled slowly down our street and parked in front of that house. The car was marked clearly as ‘official U.S. Government.’ Two men exited the car; both were in uniform and one had a white cross patch indicating he was a chaplain. They took just a couple of steps away from the car before one turned back to the car, opened the door, and retrieved some sort of satchel. Together they walked to the front door and rang the bell. The door opened and, after a moment, they entered. I turned and walked back down the street to our house.”
My dad went for a walk.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain