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.
One time it was our family, but after a really bad scare, the news was good. My cousin Norman was in Vietnam, and for some reason, Mom knew there was a chance that he had been shot. I still remember the call that came two days later. I was sitting on the sofa when the phone rang and my mother rushed to answer. She listened for a few moments, and started to cry. “He’s alive!” she yelled, “He’s alive.” She later said his air mattress had been shot out from under him. I pictured him lying on one of those colorful rafts swimmers used on Lake Erie, and thought Vietnam must be one crazy place.
More than 2 million Americans served in Vietnam. Ohio lost 3,094 of them. The rest of our boys came home, but the ship never righted. Guys I’d known my entire life weren’t fun, or funny, anymore. No more teasing, no big brother reprimands to get out of the street and quit picking on the little ones. Sometimes I’d look at my friends’ older brothers sitting on their front porches and their stares would scare me. I’d look in their eyes and get goose bumps. It was as if they thought I was trying to start a fight just by smiling at them. I’d scamper off, full of questions my father warned me never to ask.
By 1978, I was a college junior and a journalism major on the same college campus where Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire at an anti-war protest in 1970, killing four students and wounding nine others. I spent most of my days at the student newspaper, The Daily Kent Stater, where a wall of windows overlooked Blanket Hill. Until I went to college, I thought everyone knew at least one person who’d fought in Vietnam. About six weeks into my freshman year, I stopped asking.
All this may explain why I was eager on that day in 1978 to read Herr’s ferocious account of his year in Vietnam, where he went (in le Carré’s phrase) “to the limit in order to make himself a part of the monstrosity he visited.” But I was scared, too. Not because I was a girl and we didn’t “do war.” No, I wanted to understand what had happened to the boys in my hometown, and why my childhood seemed so different from that of the kids who grew up in neighborhoods full of college deferments. Six pages in, I knew Herr had answers that would likely mess with my head for a long, long time.