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Leaving My Dad's Private War Private

Tamara Keith

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Donn Keith, 1969
(Courtesy Donn Keith)
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Despite the slumping economy, dads are evidently recession-proof -- business experts expect that consumers will spend about $11 billion this Father's Day. That's considerably less than the $18 billion we spend on Mother's Day, but the gap between phone calls on Mother's Day and Father's Day is closing.

But the question is, what will children talk to their fathers about when they make that call on Sunday? This weekend, when reporter Tamara Keith goes to the San Francisco Bay Area to visit her dad, she's learned that there's one subject he definitely doesn't want to talk about: his experience in Vietnam.


When I was a little girl, my dad was the artistic director for a theater company in Hollywood. The actors and crew, dad included, were all war veterans who produced plays about war.

Growing up, I knew very little of dad's military history. All I know is that he enlisted in the Navy before he could be drafted and ended up in Vietnam in 1969-70. He was a Navy photojournalist who was shuttled in to all the "hot spots" to take pictures. He probably witnessed a lot, but he just doesn't talk about it.

Most of what my brother Donovan and I know about the war, we learned from the movies dad made us watch. Once a year, on Veterans Day, dad pulls out all the Vietnam films and we have a movie marathon -- "The Deer Hunter," "Platoon," "Apocalypse Now," "Full Metal Jacket."

"And then he'll get into analysis of various actors while we're watching," Donovan says. "So we don't know whether it's some part of his lived experience that he's trying to make us understand, or whether it's his trying to remember his friends that died in the war -- or any number of things really."

Fast forward a few years: Donovan is in college preparing to audition for a play. He needs a monologue, so he emails dad for help. A couple or days later, dad sends him one from a play called "Vietdamned." It's a dramatic battlefield scene, with a soldier raging as his friend dies in front of him.

A couple of days later, Donovan gets another email from dad that reads: "Congratulations on getting a part in the play, glad you liked the monologue. By the way, I wrote it."

This monologue brought back old questions about dad's time in Vietnam. Was this piece of fiction a window into our dad's war experience? Was he trying to tell us something? So I do something really uncomfortable: I go to dad and ask him about Vietnam, and the monologue.

"It's not a Rorschach test as to who I am as a person," dad says. "It was an academic exercise."

He is really good at answering without answering.

"In the monologue, the actor is losing a buddy on the battlefield," I say. "Did that happen to you? Did you have buddies? Was it real to you?"

"It was real to my experience, and you do lose people," he replied. "Buddies may be somebody you've known for five minutes"

"If that monologue is true if you lived that monologue, then that explains why when I was a kid you told me not to get too close to people," I say.

"That would be a really strong, valid assumption," Dad says.

Did he just tell me he lost a friend on the battlefield? It's not at all clear.

Whatever happened to dad in Vietnam, whatever he saw, it was bad. After the war, he didn't pick up a camera for a decade. And I have faint memories of visiting him in a mental ward at a Veteran's Administration hospital. "I was just not adjusting well to being back in the world, as they said," sad explains.

He had PTSD before they started calling it that. When I was really young, we lived in the flightpath of an airport, and dad told me that every plane overhead made him re-live a little bit of the war.

Then there was an alarm at a business near our house that would always go off in the middle of the night. "One night, I went out and shot the alarm with a rifle," dad confesses. "And it only took me two shots to kill the alarm -- that's how not totally connected to reality I was."

That's the closest dad has ever come to telling a real war story. And it happened in Los Angeles, not Vietnam. He has difficulty sharing more.

"I would like to be able to tell you what you want to hear, but I don't know what to tell you because there is no truth that comes out of a war," he says, "All there are are the stories that you agree with yourself to tell other people -- and those stories become the truth."

I guess I don't really need to know what happened to dad in Vietnam. And it's just not worth it, not worth stirring up those emotions. In some ways, maybe it's just better to know my dad as he now.

Comments

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  • By arlen whitaker

    From baton rouge, LA, 12/11/2010

    TAMARA KEITH FAMILY - PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE GET IN TOUCH WITH ME!!! THIS LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE THE DONN L. KEITH 111 THAT I KNEW AS A PHOTOGRAPHER MATE IN FALLON NEVADA IN 1968 AND 1969. HE WAS TRANSFERRED IN 1969. HIS SAID HIS DAD WAS POLICE CHIEF OF GLENDALE CA AND I THINK AN UNCLE THAT WAS IN THE RESTAURANT BUSINESS WHICH I THOUGHT DONN WOULD GO INTO AFTER HE FINISHED HIS MILITARY SERVICE. THE PHOTO IN 1997 LOOKS THE WAY I WOULD EXPECT HIM TO LOOK. EVEN THOUGH IT HAS BEEN 2 YEARS SINCE YOU WROTE THAT NOTE, TAMARA. KEITH FAMILY. OR AMERICAN PUBLIC RADIO PLEASE TRACK TAMARA DOWN AND GET ME IN TOUCH WITH TAMARA KEITH . ARLEN WHITAKER PHONE 225 293 9322. KEEP TRYING UNTIL YOU GET ME!

    By Frank Saunders

    From dublin, TX, 09/01/2010

    Would love to share some family history with you. Your grandfather Calvin came to see us ofter before his death.

    By Andre Sharp

    From San Francisco, CA, 09/08/2008

    I remember my father having night sweats, and remember them being referredt to as 'flashbacks'. He wouldn't talk about it either. 20 years after his death, my uncle told me he could never get him to talk about it either, "He wouldn't do it". I googled "dad,talk, vietnam" and found this article. Thanks, I'm not alone.

    By Janusz Duzinkiewicz

    From Michigan City, IN, 06/14/2008

    Your story seemed well-scripted, fictional and read by amateur actors. I really don't know if I can trust its veracity.

    By Kelly Moss

    From Carbondale, IL, 06/14/2008

    Thanks for sharing your story, Tamara. I have a friend whose father served in Vietnam and would never talk about it. In fact he would become angry if anyone even mentioned the word "War". My friend once confided in me that the only thing she ever learned about his experience in 'Nam was that he'd lost all of his front teeth from a grenade that detonated rather close to him. From the time that I spent at my friend's house, I can tell you that her father spent his time either angry or lost in his own thoughts. Once in the middle of the night I saw him sitting at the kitchen table crying. I crept back to bed as quietly as possible, hoping that he didn't see me.

    (Typo in 6th paragraph from end: "sad explains.")

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