writer attempting real life in the middle of everybody else's vacation

Thinking inside the box

on January 30, 2013

(This post breaks my length rule for blog posts: KEEP IT UNDER 700 WORDS, OR ELSE READERS WILL HANG UP ON YOU. So, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.)

This week I went back into the box. When my dad died in 2007, his belongings literally fit into a suitcase. Luckily, his mom (long dead) and my mom (long divorced from him) saved a few other things. So in addition to his ashes and his last pack of Kool Filter Kings, I have a 40-quart bin filled with his letters from Vietnam, a few cassette tapes he made there (he was lucky–those machines were expensive then), and some photos, cards, and other items I have yet to make sense of.

the box

I’ve been in there before, but I get overwhelmed. It’s not grief that overtakes me, but a sense of confusion about what, if anything, I’m supposed to do with the information. A bunch of things came together to cause my reentry, this time. First, I went to the Key West Literary Seminar a couple of weeks ago and it was a (beautiful, wonderful) festival of research nerds.

Some of the biographers and memoirists at the seminar hit a little close to home, like Alexandra Styron. She shared her process and read from her memoir about her dad, William Styron. He wrote a few things. Like, ahem, SOPHIE’S CHOICE. My dad wasn’t among the greatest American novelists of the twentieth century, but he was a monumental asshole sometimes, so I felt her.

In addition to the lit seminar and having time on my hands because I’ve turned my manuscript over to readers, I listened to a Fresh Air interview with Nick Turse on NPR. Turse wrote a book called KILL ANYTHING THAT MOVES, basically exposing previously hidden civilian atrocities during the Vietnam War that occurred because of horrible U.S. policy. It reminded me about the times my dad said there were some things he wanted to tell me about the war. He never did, of course. And I don’t know if he meant things that had happened to him, or things that he’d done or felt he had no choice in. Maybe a little of everything.

I found a disturbing photo, once, that has since disappeared. Maybe I threw it out, myself, to erase it from his history, just in case–I honestly can’t remember. Maybe I ought to have simply asked him about it when he was alive. Maybe he could’ve told me how it was nothing. Because maybe it was nothing.

But whatever happened there in Vietnam when he was a kid literally ate him alive, and finally killed him at age 57. I’ll never know, though, because even if I strategically (and selfishly) asked him about those things when he was hammered out of his mind, he mostly talked around the subject.

The box is already closed again. I shuffled some letters around, read just one more, and thought, again, about how I could listen to the tapes without ruining them. I’ve never heard them.

And then, in the bottom of the box, I found a disorganized, crushed mess of about 30 sticky notes I’d forgotten about. They were from the one time he did talk, sort-of, about the war and gave me a little family history, and his Key West history, too. I remember feeling like he was rambling. Jumping subject to subject. One family member to another, decades apart. But as I organized the notes, I saw some common themes, like fear and love and war. Oh, and humor. My dad was funny, if nothing else. Finding the humor in life earned him an extra ten years, at least. I’m positive about that.

(The rest of this post is just a summary of some parts of the notes I took that day.)

Per my notes, my dad told me that my great-grandfather, John Kooi (then VanderKooi) was born in Amsterdam and was sent with other siblings to the U.S. by their mother, a prostitute who’d saved enough to send her kids for a better life. I’d heard that before and it’s not my favorite family story. I hope it’s a lie.

But John didn’t speak English. And because of the language barrier, he was overwhelmed and kept going AWOL during his involuntary military service during WWI. Eventually, he was dishonorably discharged and couldn’t find work. Out of desperation, he started trapping animals. Then, during the depression, the price of fur soared (I have no idea if this makes any sense—it’s just what he said) and John made a shit ton of money as a trapper.

With his money, John bought up cheap properties in Muskegon, Michigan. He married Mattie Burgess, an apparent saint, and they had four girls and one boy. The boy was my grandpa, Charles Kooi. Wyck (my dad) said Charles (his dad) was always afraid of John, even as an adult, although Wyck didn’t know why. He was nice enough to the grandkids.

Ironically, the only photo I have of John Kooi is one of him in his military uniform.

My other great-grandpa (my dad’s maternal grandpa), Carlton Woodruff, couldn’t serve in the military because he only had one arm. He lost the other one after a hunting accident with his wife Hazel’s brother, Ralph. Ralph allegedly tripped over a log and shot Carlton in the upper arm. Later, Ralph went out on a boat, jumped into the water, and drowned. It was ruled a suicide.

Wyck said his dad, Charles, went to the Great Lakes Naval Academy at 16 but got kicked out for lying about his age. When he turned 17, they let him back in with his mother’s permission. Charles served as a fireman on a minesweeper in both Okinawa and Guam. The minesweepers found the mines in the water and cleared the way for the battleships.

Charles had a Navy tattoo (I remember it, too). When Wyck left for boot camp, my grandma Ruth cried and hugged him. But Charles simply shook his hand and said, “Son, don’t come back with a tattoo.” He didn’t.

Charles married one-armed Carlton Woodruff’s daughter, Ruth Alice Woodruff—another saint. My dad said she was creative and loved to paint on the porch. She liked to write, too (I have a poem she wrote–Lament–apparently about missing her brother who was away at war). Ruth also liked to work—especially at her job designing window displays for Sears. Charles hated that she liked to work because he could take care of her just fine.

I don’t care if my dad and whiskey were making all this up about my grandma Ruth. I like the image he gave me of her.

My dad was a mamma’s boy. No question. He blamed himself (and God, he said) for her death from cancer at age 49. He’d enlisted in the Army at 18 (he wasn’t drafted–he was very clear about that).  Wyck was convinced that his mom had made some kind of deal with God, or the devil, that if he was supposed to die in the jungle in Vietnam, to trade her life for his.

Once, he said, they were pinned down for three days with no hope for survival. Of an 11-man squad, only three remained. He sat there, lying against a tree near his buddy who’d had his head blown off, and wept. He said he wasn’t sad for himself by that point. He’d accepted that he was going to die—there was no more wondering about that. It was his mother he was weeping for, because he knew that when she got word of his death, it would kill her.

Posed, obviously. But still.

Posed, obviously. But still.

He had no idea why he lived. He was the machine gunner—the point man, I guess. He earned that spot for nothing other than being the tallest kid in the unit. He said the life expectancy for the machine gunner, when fired upon first, was about ten seconds.

He was an 18-year-old boy. I think about that now, more than ever, because my son is the same age.

When Wyck got home from Vietnam, he was physically unscathed except for having permanently lost hearing in one ear. He felt lucky, though, and told me I should’ve seen the guy next to him who was closer to the grenade. I have yet to meet a war vet without a “You shoulda seen the guy next to me” story.

My dad bought a new car, but he couldn’t get insurance because vets like him were too big a risk. Unstable. So his dad got the insurance in his name. Charles looked out for Wyck for the rest of his life. I think he knew things would never really be okay again for his son.

This poster is folded in the box. On the back, somebody, maybe my dad, wrote, "PEACE, LOVE" in really bad bubble letters.

This poster is folded in the box. On the back, somebody, maybe my dad, wrote, “PEACE, LOVE” in really bad bubble letters.

Wyck made his way to Key West after he and my mom split in the late 1970s. He worked as the first mate on lots of boats on the original Charter Boat Row, Garrison Bight. In the ’70s and ’80s, he said that he took work smuggling Cubans into the U.S. because Cuban kids were beaten with boards and starved to death by the government. (I suspect it had as much to do with the fact that Cuban-Americans pay a lot of money to get their family members over here.)

When he got back from one of these trips, the Coast Guard was looking for him. So, he said, he snuck under the dock and swam from Mallory Square down to the Half Shell Raw Bar area.

Then, he said, he ran to a strip club (apparently a safe place that he knew well) and called a cab. When he got home, he took 7,000 very wet dollars out of his pocket, put on dry clothes, and went to the airport where he paid $500 for a one-way ticket home to Michigan. When he got home, he said, he was arrested for evasion of child support, although my mom hadn’t pressed for it (she’d given up long before then). He noted the irony of buying the ticket home with money he’d made “saving kids.”

He went back to Key West soon after.

He always went back to Key West. Vets love Key West. It’s the end of the road. Hard to get any farther (and further) away from reality without leaving the country. I mean, look at our homeless vet population here. My dad would’ve been among them if he hadn’t lived illegally in a trailer in my driveway on Big Pine Key for the final years of his life. It’s not right.

Wyck asked me to promise that my kids wouldn’t join the military. He felt that our family had put in its time and that his grandkids don’t need to go. I couldn’t make promises about my kids when they’re adults, but said I’d pass on his wishes.

I hate that my dad died believing, like most of us, that living as free people will somehow always depend on the gruesome sacrifice of human lives, generation after generation.

Why? I close the box with that question every time.


22 responses to “Thinking inside the box

  1. Didn’t hang up. Great stories. Great writing. Particularly like the penultimate paragraph.

  2. Rick Boettger says:

    I’m in tears. Best thing you’ve ever written. I’ve got a similarly intense, different specifics family story, but I’ve never had the guts.

    • Awe, Rick. Not true, but very sweet of you to say. YOU know I’m short a filter or two. Hey, if my family’s warts help somebody else feel less like an oddball, that’s good enough for me. We’ve all got warts (ew, but you get it).

  3. Lisa says:

    Sophie’s Choice. Greatest novel ever. And the author a fellow sufferer of depression. So honestly shared in Darkness Visible. Thank you for sharing your history with us. I did not hang up.

    • Oh good! Thanks, Lisa.

      You know, Styron’s daughter is something special in her own right. So smart and articulate and no whining or self-pity about her dad. On her dad–I wonder if female writers, even today, who are abusive and neglectful of their children would get such a pass, no matter how talented. Depression aside, that sort of bugged me as I listened at the seminar. This string of drunken jerks who are revered. Know who I revere more? The wives and kids who were left to keep the actual shit together at home.

  4. Ish Nieves says:

    Rhonda, great story. Thanks for sharing.

  5. What a legacy, Rhonda. Riveting reading.Can’t even imagine what stories you’ll uncover when you’re finally able to really go through that box. Thanks for breaking your 700-words-or-under rule. Look forward to hearing more.

    I heard Styron’s wife on public radio today. She’s publishing (just published?) his letters. Fascinating. The interview’s here, if you’re interested.

    • Sweet! Thanks, Ruth. Alex said her mom is supportive of the memoir, too. She was apprehensive at first, but when friends and family assured her that they all actually already knew what was going on, she was okay with it. Another thing Alex said was that her dad was a wonderful friend to others–something she didn’t really get until she researched (for the book) after his death. I’m guessing the letters support that side of him.

  6. pattu pawlak says:

    Your story kept my interest and I was married to a vietnam vet, which ended in disaster, and pretty much ended up like your dad…but my ex choice of drug is pot and can’t relate to people very well. He is still living. I know the war did this to your dad and my ex. They just are not the same when they come back. Keep your dads letters…its history, and maybe years down the road..it will make some sense. Your dad was sick from the war and I am sorry you never got to know your true dad.

    • Thanks, Patty. I saw him in there and I’ve heard lots of cool stories from people who knew him his whole life. Sometimes I wonder how different he might’ve been had he not gone,but I don’t dwell on it (well, except for today, maybe). He was who he was. And hey, if he hadn’t run away to Key West, I probably wouldn’t have, either. I’m thankful he led me here, however unwittingly!

  7. Elaine says:

    Keep writing. You have a real gift.

  8. Elaine says:

    We all have dark parts of our history. We all have stories about those we love that are so difficult to talk about. It’s freeing to finally be able to verbalize what has been tearing at our souls for so long. We are living the “good life” while realizing that our ancestors paved the way for us. Freedom isn’t free.

  9. linseman says:

    Really love this story,just wanted to share something about my Dad and W.W.II. He told me when I went to him to marry your childrens Grandfather,that “he would sign anything to keep Norm the Grandfather from going to the military”. At that time if a man got married he would be exempt for a short time from getting drafted. My Dad told several horrid stories about the war. I thank God every day that my father signed for me to marry your childrens Papa!

  10. Donna Hoff-Grambau says:

    Kudos Rhonda, you captured the angst of a recent generation of men lost to war. The stories are all heart rending, the potential for love, lost amidst the trauma, the memories………..

  11. Maureen Bramlage says:

    Hi, Rhonda, If you care to know what you missed about Viet Nam, please see Oliver Stone’s “Platoon”. Unfortunately, the horrific travesties of our troops against the Vietnames aren’t all shown. I was shown a photo by a returning vet back then of a row of heads of village men on bamboo pikes. Yes, I realize they couldn’t tell enemies from friends in those villages, but the killings, the way of the killings, and these disgusting displays were the order of the day. Our young American boys, in an evil , unjustifiable war.

    Maureen PS. Are you related to Ron Saunders, or his sister who lives, I think on Patterson almost at 11th?


  12. Meg Cauchy says:

    I have worked with a lot of Vietnam vets and I have asked them all this question… were you scared? Because I cannot imagine being in that situation and functioning. All of them answered similarly… nope…just did my job. Except for one who said “every second of every day.” I can’t imagine how what those kids saw and had to do wouldn’t affect them forever. Beautiful piece Rhonda.

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