The Lost Father
April 21, 2004
By Karen Spears Zacharias
HERMISTON, Ore. As the daughter of a soldier killed in action, I'm worried sick about this generation of war-torn families. I read the growing casualty list from Iraq and think about the number of children who are being left fatherless or motherless. I consider the fourth grader who stands alone at recess trying to recall her father's voice; the weeping bride who walks the aisle alone, wishing with every step that her father was there to escort her; and all those babies not yet born, their memories not yet formed.
I keep a photo of my father on my desk. In it, he's wearing combat boots, Army greens and a grin so sweet it makes my heart drip with sorrow.
He was always the picture-perfect father. On days off, he'd pack the car with fishing gear, while my mother prepared picnic lunches of potted-meat and pimento-cheese sandwiches. My siblings and I learned how to bait a hook before we knew how to tie our shoes. We fished off the muddy banks of Georgia's Chattahoochee River and off the porous rock of Oahu's North Shore.
Besides fishing, my father relished Pet milk poured over fresh peaches, banana pudding with vanilla wafers, black coffee and speeding through the pineapple fields on a moped he'd restored, with my sister, Linda, perched between his legs and me clinging to him from behind.
"Do it again, Daddy!" Linda and I would shout as he revved the engine.
It didn't matter to Daddy what we were doing, as long as we were together, having fun. It's as if, somehow, he knew those moments wouldn't last.
I can remember what my father smelled like sweat and sun-dried T-shirts but I can no longer recall the timbre of his voice or the warmth of his embrace. Photos and memories are all I have left of him.
He went away in December 1965. "President Johnson has asked me to go to South Vietnam," he said.
"What are you going to do there?" I asked.
"Help fight communism," he replied.
I retreated to my room in tears. Only nine at the time, I didn't know that South Vietnam was half a world away and I sure to heck didn't know what communism was. I didn't even understand that my father would be in any danger. I cried simply because he was going away and I was afraid he would never come back. "I'll come back, I promise," Daddy said, wiping my tears as he sat on the edge of my bed.
Daddy kept his promise. He did come back: in a silver coffin, draped with a red-white-and-blue flag.
My mother still has the flag, folded and tucked neatly into a small wooden box, along with the half-dozen shiny golden medals awarded my dead father. His name David P. Spears is etched in black granite on Panel 9E at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.
The sacrifices didn't stop when the war ended. My mother sold the moped and tossed out the fishing poles. She gave away all Daddy's T-shirts and his Army boots. At 14, my brother, Frankie, burned Daddy's footlocker and all its contents. "Mama told me to," Frankie said. "Everything in it was covered in blood."
My parents fell in love as kids. They expected to grow old together. But only Mama has grown old. She eats her soup beans and cornbread alone and remembers with heartache the man who enticed her to laugh on sunny days.
I'm troubled by the nightmares that surely await this generation of battle-scarred children. I know they will grow up longing for just one more embrace. And like me, they are doomed to spend their lifetimes asking, wasn't there any better way?
Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of the forthcoming "Hero Mama."
To read all of the Medal of Honor citations issued for actions in the Vietnam War: Go Here
To see an index page of digital photos: Go Here
© 2004 by Neil Mishalov