BRAVO! supporter and creative writer Ruth Salter muses on her memories of the Vietnam War and its personal legacy.
I saw another one yesterday while taking a rare trip to the mall: that embroidered bar of yellow, red, and green, this time on the back of a gray-ponytailed biker cruising on the Interstate. The week before, it was on the hat of a panhandler standing quietly near the Vista Boulevard off-ramp. The Vietnam veteran’s service ribbon. Somewhere I read that the yellow and red reflect the flag of the Republic of Vietnam and that the green symbolizes the jungle (ever-present and primeval). On bumper stickers, on lapels, on flags—I’ve been noticing them my whole life.
At this point, you may be thinking I’m related to a Vietnam vet, but it’s not that simple. Although there are several veterans in my family, none of them served in that conflict. I was only in kindergarten in 1975 when it ended. So why does this war haunt me? For decades, why did I feel my insides twist with sharp grief when hearing or reading stories about Vietnam?
Last July, at a conference called The Healing Art of Writing, I had time to ponder my knee-jerk responses. On a tiny, tree-filled campus in Northern California, medical professionals, authors, and educators gathered to explore the wondrous fact that simply writing about life’s traumas, including war, can bring healing. The poetry writers like me were expected to write one new poem a day, to be shared in workshops. And the conference leader challenged us to tackle the subjects we’ve been avoiding, those that scared us most.
I wrote my first poem about Vietnam. Late at night in a perfectly silent dorm room, I finally recognized the seeds of dread and sorrow that the war had planted in me. Then I got to work, stitching together shelved memories from childhood—green-clad correspondents yelling news on TV while helicopters hovered in the background; whispered stories about a family friend, an Army medic who broke his back in a chopper crash, the only survivor; the silent, drawn faces of the boat children who joined my classmates in the middle of the school year; the disheveled men who appeared on street corners in their fatigues, begging for change; the piles of camouflage boots at the local military surplus store. There wasn’t room for all those images in that one poem, but I can write more.
The Vietnam War had snaked its green tentacles into my sunny California childhood, reaching all the way into my cozy living room through the TV screen. It taught me a little too early that we humans are capable of horrific violence, of unleashing the kind of agony that can ripple across oceans and across generations.
But Vietnam has also taught me compassion for the displaced and hurting, especially for those with invisible wounds. It has prodded me to encourage veterans to tell their own stories, whether aloud, on paper or through images. It has strengthened me into a willing listener. For these gifts, I am thankful.
My First War
I remember the whop whop of Hueys coming from the TV.
My hand hovering near the staticky glass, I fell
in love with their snub noses and window eyes.
The door gunners looked like my plastic Army men,
arms and legs frozen in readiness, helmets stuck tight.
It was a war without a compass. At least
in Korea you knew which side of a line you were on.
Nam smelled like rotten hell, but nobody talks about that.
Wrestled together with tweezers and orange-scented glue,
the scale models multiplied, cockeyed and sticky.
I hung the wrecks from the ceiling with fishing line,
lay beneath, tracking their slow twirls with the nightly breeze.
By the time we saw the green tracers…too late.
I sat on my helmet so I wouldn’t take one in the ass,
then the belly ripped open.
My favorite fit in my pocket.
Its tiny rotor twirled with my fingertip,
safe from the jungle rushing up to swallow it whole,
half a world away.
Ruth Salter teaches writing at Boise State University as well as local non-profits such as The Cabin Literary Center and the Women and Children’s Alliance. Her award-winning poetry has appeared in several periodicals and anthologies, most recently The Healing Art of Writing, University of California Press. She is currently laying the groundwork for a veterans writing group in the Boise area; please contact her at RuthSalter@BoiseState.edu if you would like to participate in or support this endeavor.