In the fall of 1978, I was racing through Kent State University’s campus bookstore when a thin book, propped in a section where it didn’t belong, stopped me in my tracks. The cover was the color of a brown paper bag, with a one-word title in headline type at the top: Dispatches. A single blurb, by John le Carré, appeared beneath the title: “The best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.”
In our time. It had to be about Vietnam. I looked at the bottom for the author’s name: Michael Herr. Never heard of him. I turned to the first chapter, called “Breathing In,” and started to read its italicized beginning:
There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I’d lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. That map was a marvel, especially now that it wasn’t real anymore.
I deposited my notebooks on the floor, let my purse slide off my shoulder to join them.
If dead ground could come back and haunt you the way dead people do, they’d have been able to mark my map current and burn the ones they’d been using since ’64, but count on it, nothing like that was going to happen. It was late ’67 now, even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much anymore; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind. We knew that the uses of most information were flexible, different pieces of ground told different stories to different people. We also knew that for years now there had been no country here but the war.
I don’t remember how much I read before I bought Dispatches. Fellow asthmatics will likely understand why, more than thirty years later, I can still easily remember shorter and shorter breaths, working myself up to a low-grade wheeze by the time I came to the non-italicized text on the fourth page: “A couple of rounds fired off in the dark a kilometer away and the Elephant would be there kneeling on my chest, sending me down into my boots for a breath.”
The image of that elephant forces a palm to my chest even now, reminding me to breathe. Perhaps that is where I stopped reading in 1978, and decided to take the book home, where I wouldn’t be surrounded by strangers.
Issues that push and pull at us in equal measure are the ones most likely to haunt us. Vietnam was, and is, one of those ghosts for me—because of my roots, not my politics. Ohio, where I grew up, ranked fifth in the number of war casualties in Vietnam. Twenty-six of the servicemen who died came from my home county of Ashtabula, which was full of farmers who hoped to hand off the land to their sons, and working-class boys hoping to graduate from high school and follow their dads into factories that produced rubber, steel, and automobiles. But hope took a holiday in neighborhoods like ours during the war. By the late 1960s, it seemed you couldn’t drive three blocks in any direction without passing the house of a boy who had gone to Vietnam. Neighbors would take over potluck and beer the night before these boys boarded the first flights of their lives. They left full of brag and bravado, but so many of them came home spent, and eerily old.
As the war progressed, our small town shifted incrementally, like a ship that slowly starts to tilt with an uneven load. First, we knew one boy who left. Then we knew another. Soon, Mom was writing notes to other mothers every week, it seemed, filling them with words of encouragement or sympathy in her careful backhand script. I was in the middle phase of a child’s life—too young to know everything, too old to know nothing at all. I would be sitting in school with twenty other fifth-graders, and suddenly a classmate would be called into the hall. The assumption was always that another family had gotten bad news from the war.