Letters from Dad
The year 1972 was big for me, for two reasons. That year I turned 12 and entered sixth grade. More importantly, though, my father spent the entire year in Vietnam. He had often been away for maneuvers or short deployments of up to a month or so. He had even done an earlier long tour in Vietnam, although I was much younger then and hadn’t noticed his absence too deeply. But this time, my dad would be at war for one of my most formative years.
What a hole my father’s absence left in my life and the life of my mother and brother. I have many sad memories from that year. We lived in constant fear for my father’s life, a fear made far more real by the fact that numerous friends’ fathers had already died in Vietnam.
But not all the memories are sad. One of the most powerful memories is the thrill of the letter I would receive from my father almost every week. He and my mother wrote mostly every day, and our family would make a cassette recording to send to Dad every weekend. (What a difference the Internet must make for war families today!)
Recalling my personal letters from Dad practically brings me to tears even now. He would begin simply by telling me about his life. Not big military issues, but “neat stuff” that happened or that he saw. Then he would talk to me about my life, writing things like this:
… I heard you had a great baseball game and made a great catch. Your mother told me how exciting it was when you won. How I wish I could have been there, but I can see you making that catch in my mind… .
Do you see what he was doing? My dad was telling me that I was his boy and that his heart was fully engaged with me, even from halfway around the world. I knew he meant it because those letters merely carried on the same close relationship we had shared before he deployed. But make no mistake—there were rebukes, too, for I was a 12-year-old boy temporarily without a father in the home:
… was very displeased to hear that you have been talking back to your mother lately. You know that while I am serving our country, I count on you to be an obedient son …
My father’s letters discussed everything in my life: school, church, sports, and home life, the details having been faithfully related to him by my mother. In the midst of a life-and-death war zone, with all the weighty responsibilities of a senior Army officer, my father was truly absorbed in my life. And I knew it. So when he said to me, in effect, “My son, give me your heart,” he had already given every bit of his heart to me, his boy. I couldn’t possibly help giving my heart back to him.
I was close to my father until the day he entered heaven. I had the privilege of being at his side reading psalms aloud to him as he departed from this life. When he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, my brother and I gave a eulogy explaining what a privilege and blessing it had been to be the son of this fine man. I will never forget meeting with many of his old Army friends afterward. One of them, a general I had known well while growing up, looked me in the eye and said, “I would give anything to have my son speak at my funeral the way you spoke about Dave today.” I didn’t have the heart to respond honestly, because I knew him and I knew his son. His child would never speak about him the way I had spoken of Dad, because he had not given his heart to his son, and his son’s heart was bitterly estranged from him. There was no point in me telling the general this, but I pray I never forget it when it comes to my own children.
This excerpt is from Richard Phillips’ The Masculine Mandate.