When a loved one dies, distributing the big items (cars and houses) or the practical ones (dishes and furniture) seem to be straightforward, if not without conflict. The real problem seems to be what to do with the things that matter to the deceased: the carefully stored box of compasses of all sizes, the slide rule, the goggles, the meticulously kept records of flying hours.
Those were the items that stumped me. I knew they were intrinsic to the way my father had defined himself: as a fighter pilot. To throw them away was unthinkable, but the only meaning they had to me was that they meant so much to him. I was to find that this dilemma is the common reason for posthumous donations to archives.
My father’s illness was very public. I tried to hide it from the moment I graduated from high school. I knew he’d have rather gone down in his F-4 than to have endured the indignity, not to speak of the mental agony, of his illness. What then possessed me to donate what was left of him to a public archive? It was a long process.
Back then, almost forty years ago, the stigma of mental illness was pronounced, and the equipment we now have to peer inside the skull was perhaps in development, but not yet in use. Because his brain damage was invisible, he was diagnosed as an atypical paranoid schizophrenic. He’d survived the Vietnam War, but still ended up one of the uncounted casualties of the period, probably sustaining a traumatic brain injury when his fighter was sabotaged in Korea, exploding from the rear and killing five ground crew members and seriously burning his backseater. At the time, it seemed as though my father had only received superficial wounds. Time would show that his wounds were simply invisible, not superficial.
Thirteen years of hospitalization later, still deteriorating because the VA refused to treat him as the private physicians (who’d discovered the infarct in the basal ganglia) recommended, my father wandered off the campus of the hospital on a night when flash floods hit. He was missing for a month before a fisherman discovered his remains in a river a county away.
The things that defined him as a military man, a fighter pilot, a Wild Weasel, the things that represented the dream he’d had as a sixteen-year-old boy purchasing a Piper Cub out of money from three paper routes and every odd job he could find—those things remained, the things that defined the man before his illness.
These artifacts could not be trashed. So I did what most of us do: I carefully boxed them up and put them away, rearranging them periodically when I came across them. They looked worse every time I looked at them, and I realized I could never properly care for them, and that holding on to them would never bring me what I wanted: my father, alive and well. Then I remembered the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University.
I had found the answer, but discomfort found a home and grew in my gut as we got closer to the time of actually handing over the large plastic box of papers, pictures, film and possessions. I realized I feared abandoning my father. He’d been put in the VA Hospital for the final twelve years of his life for his and our safety, and that action had lodged unrecognized guilt. Now I was taking most of what little remained of him and handing it over to strangers. Again.
The feeling persisted even as I sat in the archive’s office and opened the box, showing his films and photos to Amy K. Mondt, the archivist. When she opened the first film canister, I almost gasped aloud, expecting the film to fragment into powder. She smelled it and said, “A little vinegary, but not bad.” She explained that, contrary to my assumptions, the film I had would last longer than any digital storage currently available—and that they would be able to digitalize the images without destroying the original film. These films would become available online—I would finally get to see what was in those canisters, something I’d almost lost hope of seeing.
Amy showed us the new home for my father’s effects. The roughly treated photos would be cossetted by plastic sleeves; the papers organized and put into temperature-controlled, acid-free boxes that would arrest the deterioration. We saw the boxes in which a doughnut dolly’s uniforms had been placed, and the records of 14,000 pro-Western refugees who had tried to leave Vietnam after being forcibly “retrained” in communist camps. We saw the Texas flag signed by US Marines and their Vietnamese allies during the siege of Khe Sanh.
My father’s place was here. Someday some scholar, I thought as I followed Amy through the archive, someone more versed in the nuances of Vietnam and its battles, may be able to use those papers and give my father his place in history. They do that now—look at the “ordinary” men and women upon which the day-to-day actions of a conflict fall, the ones who must execute the policies of their higher-ups.
My father’s life had meaning beyond the suffering he endured as part of his illness. I want his life, the life he worked so hard to accomplish, to be preserved, to have more than a corner of a closet. So I have given his things to a place where someone can appreciate them, where they reside next to those he sought to protect through close ground support, something he tried very hard to do well, to avoid friendly fire. My grandchildren and great-grandchildren will still be able to visit these things, all in one place, long after I’m gone.
And yet I was still unnerved after I left his things there. I began thinking about the drive to get to Lubbock, Texas, where the archive is. We’d passed through Big Spring, formerly host to Webb Air Force Base, where my father had been an instructor pilot and I’d spent the first five years of my life. It was there that my father had been called in to his superior’s office and told, “Well, Gough, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that you’ve got your fighter. The bad news is that it is in Vietnam.”
I grabbed a map. Big Spring was to the south of the archive. Snyder, where he had lived with his grandmother, was to the southeast. Muleshoe, where he was born on the family farm, and Clovis, New Mexico, where all his documents say he was born, were almost due west. To the north was Plainview, a place I remembered visiting between assignments to visit his aunts. I had, not by design, brought him home. The remains of his body may be in a National Cemetery, but the evidence of his life now sits squarely in the geography of his life, and I believe we are both at peace.
Note to Readers:
If you’d like to donate your loved one’s effects to an archive, there are archives that deal with almost every occupation, hobby and location imaginable. You can either Google the subject with which she was most affiliated along with the word “archive” or “collection,” or you can contact the local historical society or university library or archive. Even if they cannot use the documents, they can often help you find a home for them. Amy K. Mondt of the Vietnam Center and Archive says she had a potential donor whose papers were more about serving in Germany than Vietnam, but was able to find five potential archives in less than ten minutes by a simple posting on a list-serve available for professional archivists. She’s also obtained archives for their center using the same method. The Vietnam Center and Archive has almost 3000 collections from separate individuals and received 191 donations last year. They span almost all of the occupations of the war, although they have the most depth in collections from the Marines and the Army. They also collect oral histories from service members, which, as she says, tells you how it smelled and felt to be in the battles, things that can’t be gleaned from official reports. If you participated in the Vietnam War, consider talking to their oral historian. All I can offer is the record of my deceased father and there are not many accounts from his fellow pilots. If you survived, consider letting the rest of us know what it was like for those who did not.
Image from the Willard Suitcase Project