Living Out Loud
May 11th, 2024

A Distant Dad

My father in Vietnam
My father in Vietnam

My dad is a typical baby boomer, born a couple years after World War II to a vet from that war. He grew up during the Eisenhower era and the buildup to the Vietnam War. Born and raised in the tiniest county in North Carolina, he went to segregated schools for 12 years and graduated high school in 1965. He was always the youngest in his class, with a birthday right on the cutoff date to enroll. Only 11 months younger than his older brother, they were always in the same grade and have had a lifelong rivalry that still goes on today. They mostly get along these days, but my uncle gets pretty annoyed with my dad.

He married my pregnant mom during the summer between his junior and senior years of high school when they were both barely 17. My brother was born less than two years later, making my parents teenage parents twice over. He joined the National Guard and applied for Officer Candidate School (OCS), and was accepted. He became a second lieutenant the day after his 19th birthday. Soon after, he signed up for active duty. He ended up serving two tours in Vietnam with stateside assignments in between. Between his first and second tours, he went to Army flight school and became a helicopter pilot, a role he had during the last year of active US involvement in the war. When he came home, there were less than 5,000 Americans left in the country, down from almost 800,000 at the peak of the war in 1968. Needless to say, he wasn't around much. I remember him being gone a lot.

By then, he was already divorced from my mom and paying a whopping $150 in child support for three kids, a number that stayed the same until my younger sister turned 18 in the late 80s. With the war over, the Army didn't need thousands of extra pilots, especially those without college degrees, so he was RIFFED (reduction in force). He had already remarried and had another kid on the way, and he started selling cars before getting a job as a civilian instructor pilot at the Army flight school at Ft. Rucker, Alabama. I lived with him for two years during this time because I didn't get along with my mom's new husband. I was in third and fourth grade.

In the early 80s, he was declared medically unfit to fly because of a blood-pressure issue. He left aviation for good. He had already divorced his second wife and met someone from his old hometown in North Carolina, so he moved back and married her. He had gotten a business degree by going to night school while he was still in Alabama, and he worked a few different jobs, managing a rest home and selling insurance before working in the defense industry. He traveled to US military bases around the world for a while, and then he moved to the Washington, DC suburbs to be closer to the Pentagon. I was an adult by then and would see him on holidays.

By the end of the decade, he was ready for another career change. He had gotten involved in different religious organizations and decided to become an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church. He got a master's in divinity from Union Theological Seminary and served at churches across Northern Virginia for the next 20+ years until he retired in the early 2000s and moved back to North Carolina. He bought a house on a golf course in Pinehurst. He rarely saw my kids, his grandkids, although when they were teenagers they spent a week with him and had a good time.

Now he lives back in his hometown. He's been married to his third wife for 42 years. She has dementia, and he takes care of her every day. He's getting less steady on his feet and uses a cane to walk. He's been a Republican his whole life and has unfortunately become like a caricature from Fox News. He left the Methodist church because it became too liberal for him. I talk to him to make sure he's okay, and I go see him every couple of months. We've never been close and can't really talk about anything political. He likes to tell stories about Vietnam, and I listen patiently. The two years he spent there were clearly the most important years of his life. He's been back twice as a civilian. My other siblings have similar relationships with him.

I know this short bio is pretty detached, and that's because we are pretty detached. It's a shame, really. I wish things had turned out differently.