My grandmother Rowe is one hell of a gal. No one has loved me one tenth what she has. I was smothered by love and grew up not appreciating what I had. It's true what they say, "What comes easy or free is little valued." I have not even begun to pay the interest on this debt of love. I could write off this debt and let it go at that. I could take advantage of this bounty of love. I could, were it not for one thing. You see, I took Grandma to Nam.
First, let me tell you about my Grandmother Rowe. She is a first generation American whose parents emigrated from Germany. She had one child, a girl she named Betty. She pampered her only child. When Betty married my father, Mabel Rowe had a terrible time letting go. To hear my father tell it, is to learn about true mother-in-law hell. Even Mom had to eventually push her away to save the marriage. Shortly after that, a little boy was born. Do I really need to tell you who that kid was?
Well, you get the picture. All the love she had fell on me. I quickly became her whole reason for living, her world, her jewel, her shatze, her Sonny. My parents named me George Paul Hoffman III. Grandma Rowe had a fit. "This child is no third anything. He is unique, a rare gem, one of a kind, so bright and cheerful. He should be called Sonny."
Okay, maybe I'm taking a few liberties with the quote. I don't remember it word for word; I was only three days old. Anyway, that's the story that got handed down. The point is, this woman is nuts about me, always has been, everyone knows it. My sisters accept it, so does my mother. I am Grandma Rowe's favorite. To this day, she refuses to call me by my given name. At forty-three, I am still her Sonny.
When I was a young man, I hated the name Sonny. It sounded condescending and wimpy. I was eighteen and had been away from her for several years. It took a great deal of work, but I finally had everyone calling me George. I had pretty much buried Sonny when I brought some buddies to Norfolk on a three day pass from SF training at Ft. Bragg, NC. Grandma Rowe took them in, showered them with goodies, baked pies and cakes, and loved them up one side and down the other. Frank, David, and John R. just loved her to pieces. They were far from home and it was just what they needed. It would have all been perfect if she hadn't called me Sonny.
We returned to Ft. Bragg with bloated bellies. I returned with a handle superglued in place. The more I protested, the more glue got applied. Whether I liked it or not, as long as I wore a Green Beret, I'd wear the handle that went with it--Sonny.
I carried no bitterness towards Grandma. She tried to say George. It wasn't her fault. I knew it pained her to see me rejecting the name, but she never understood guy things. She knew poodles and roses and cookies and chocolate, but she did not see what was unmanly about Sonny.
When I got my orders for Vietnam, I made it a point to swing by Norfolk and embark from there. Grandma put on a good face and pampered me more than ever. She watched me pack my duffle bag as I talked on about how tough the Green Berets were, how tough I was. She stood by on the verge of tears, handing me rolled socks, T-shirts, shorts, and shaving kit. I stuffed them in the bag. I reached out to take Granddad's lucky pen knife and shoved it in the bag. And then, just as surely as if I had opened up her chest, I reached out, took her heart, and stuffed it in the bag.
No, I didn't need all of her. Most would be useless and in the way. Her back was weak, so she couldn't carry much ammo. Her orthopedic heels would slow us down in the mud. With no oven, even her cooking skills would be wasted. No, all I needed was her heart. That would come in handy. I stuffed it deep.
When it was time to board the C-141 for California, I had both grandmothers (Rowe and Hoffman) at the navy base to see me off. Their tears warmed my heart. I knew I'd be missed and mourned if lost. I swaggered out to the plane with that duffle bag carried balanced on my shoulder, Green Beret lit-up in the sun. I turned at the tailgate with dramatic bravado and waved, "I'm off to the war. Wish me luck, Grandmas."
Grandma Hoffman said, "Don't be a hero!" Grandma Rowe was silent. She could say nothing, only weep. The woman had no heart. I marched up the ramp thinking I was making the journey alone. I was wrong.
In Special Forces we had a saying, "Get them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow." Here's a better one: "Get them by the heart and everything follows." Yes, without realizing it, I took Grandma to Nam. I took other hearts as well. I took a little of my mother's, a little of my father's, half each from two sisters, and a great big chunk of a seventeen-year-old girl named Connie. I had a lot of bits and pieces, but I took one that was whole. I took Grandma to Nam.
Grandma Rowe was with me from the time I stepped off the plane at Cam Ranh Bay till the time I boarded that last freedom bird. She was with me on every mission. She slogged beside me through rice paddies, over mountains, through monsoon rains. She rode the slicks and carried body bags. The only thing that remained in Norfolk was a hollow shell of a little old lady, and it sat glued to a TV or radio. I narrated some of the action by mail. David Brinkley, Sam Donaldson, and Peter Arnett brought her the audio and visual.
Some things are too rough for sweet old ladies. I never took her to a steam and cream, a Tu Do street bar, no whore houses, not one of my R&R's', and no team parties. She never went fishing with Claymore mines, water skiing behind airboats, skin diving off Hon Tre island, body surfing at Vung Tau or China Beach. She did not get to stroll the Saigon Zoo and see the monkey house get tear gassed. (Monkeys go ape when they get tear gassed.) No, Grandma never had any fun in Vietnam.
The truth is, when I was not fighting the war--which was ninety-percent of the time--I was having the time of my life. A nineteen-year-old boy with a pocket full of green could find endless amusement in SE Asia. Sherman was right, war is hell--a hell of a party if you know where to look.
Unfortunately, Grandma never went to a party. At those times, I left her with Sam, Peter, or David to slug it out with the 1st Cav, or to burn a few villages with the Marines, or massacre a few hundred civilians with the Americal division. While I languished in the arms of a professional woman, Grandma carried body bags from a dustoff, wondering if I was in one. And while I never remember hearing a phone ring or the knock on a door, she lived in constant fear of either. Grandma would agree with Billy Sherman: War is hell, period.
I returned from the war, a little older, a little wiser. I was stronger and bigger. When I saw my grandmother, I could not believe the change. She had aged ten years, was shorter, weaker, totally exhausted. Her black hair now thin and gray. I returned her heart--battered, broken, and purple. I was just glad I had the good sense not to tell her about the sad deaths of Frank Celano, David Mixter, or John R. Jones. What I should have done was take my Combat Infantryman's Badge from my uniform, pin it to her dress, step back, and salute the real combat veteran.
One look at her made me realize how close I came to killing the most loving person I ever knew. There is no doubt in my mind, that had a bullet stopped my heart, it would have stopped hers as well. I feel pretty badly about that today. I volunteered to fight that war; she got drafted. Connie didn't fare much better. She missed out on the fun of high school senior year: no dates, no parties, no prom. My mother suffered, as did my father. My sisters also suffered through nineteen months of the Vietnam War. In a sense, we are all veterans of that war.
If you are a Vietnam veteran, think about the people you carried off to war. Think about the casualties that never set foot on SE Asia. We direct vets from vn have had, on average, twenty-five years in the spotlight. We have been nurtured and we have talked ourselves blue. We have PTSDed our asses off. Most have healed and those that haven't by now probably never will. Maybe it's time we stopped looking inward and started looking out. Maybe it's time we did the listening. Perhaps we can help those other vets heal.
Mabel Rowe is now eighty-four. She rarely ventures more than a few blocks from her home, but she made the pilgrimage to The Wall long before I did. She called and told me about her trip, praised The Wall, and told how it helped her heal. She, in fact, paved the way for me. Let us not forget the purpose of that wall. It is to heal a nation--a nation of Vietnam Veterans.
Continue to The Toughening