Thursday, March 1, 2012

Shrapnel in the Heart

 'Dearest Eddie Lynn. I'd give anything to have you shell just one more pecan for me on Grandma's porch.

'Before he left he taught me how to drive his car. Then he left it to me to take care of, ''till he got back''. I've still got the car. I would rather have my big brother back.'

'The red roses you ordered for Mother's Day 1968 for me were just beautiful. It was as if in all finality you were thanking me and telling me of the love we shared together. The red paint on the big tree where you sprayed your hot rod engine is fading away. Dad will always cherish the railroad watch you left in his car. Your tools are just as you left them in the garage.'

 The 1980's was a time in which The Vietnam War reasserted itself in the national memory of America. Physically, men who had fought in the war were beginning to come to terms with what had happened, what they had lost, and what they had failed to acheive since, or were dealing with the effects of injuries sustained in or after the war without help from a government that had left them 'stranded'. Perhaps even more prevanlently, America was also dealing with the emotional effects of a war that took away the youths of thousands, and left a hole in the lives of many normal American families with the loss of a father, a brother, a husband, or a son.

Laura Palmer's 'Shrapnel in the Heart' is a chronicle of memory. Within, Palmer records over a hundred letters, poems and tributes left at the Vietnam War Memorial, and follows the stories that lie behind a few of them. The fact that the book was published in the 1980's shows how the Vietnam had repeated itself on the American people and the stories within show how the subject was unavoidable at the time. For example, Palmer follows the story of Donnie Mahowald - a 'brother-in-arms' in Vietnam but a man left stranded and alone when he returned to America in the 1980's. Long after returning from war and dealing with the emotional effects of losing his foster brother, when he was in his late 30's, in the 1980's, Donnie contracted cancer in his jaw due to exposure to Agent Orange. Half his jaw was removed and he was left with a hole in his jaw, and was unable to work due to his disability. The government refused to help as they believed 'if you take any number of people, a certain number are going to get cancer anyway', leaving Donnie, as his sister writes 'wounded, only not by the enemy'. There were men all over the country like this, injured and forgotten by their country, which was set on forgetting the unforgettable, and as Donnie's sister writes 'Does everyone just hope they'll all go away?'. Perhaps more than physically though, as Donnie's sister writes 'I never saw Donnie cry all through radiation...but he cried when he had to borrow money from me', the 1980's left a lot of men not only with injuries but perhaps a fate worse than cancer to many, emasculation.

On a slightly simpler, yet more emotional level however, for families and friends the 1980's saw memory merge with a horrifying realisation for many as they realised that what they had lost in the war. Sons and daughter's came of an age in which they could understand why they had never had a father - a generation of children whose father's were stolen. Letters with lines such as 'So many times I have wanted for you to put your arm around me, wipe a tear from my eye, or just laugh and tease me' - a generation deprived. Perhaps even more tragically mother's came to the hopeless realisation that they had lost something that could never be replaced - a son. 'Hearts broken forever' and memories. Memories left in minds, and in cherished watches on father's wrists, and in beloved teddy bears, left at 'the wall'.

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