Every good story I know starts at the very beginning, because like that white lady said in The Sound of Music, it’s a very good place to start. My story doesn’t start the day I was born, because that isn’t the very beginning. My story starts years before I was born.
In the 1950s, America decided it was a good idea to try to fight communism in tropical jungles on other side of the world. When JFK was president, he seemed to think we needed to help the Vietnamese, but that ultimately they would need to figure themselves out on their own. Once he died, Lyndon Johnson took office and became the guy who really made a big national issue out of it for us. President Johnson and his administration, in their infinite wisdom, tripled our military presence in Vietnam, basically upping the ante on some crazy idea of President Eisenhower’s from about ten years before. I don’t understand how anyone can like Ike.
Shouldn’t our presidents be given tests for common sense? I’m no military strategist, but I think the people in power from the late fifties through to the seventies were a bunch of paranoid white dudes. In the way that the PTA looks at marijuana as the gateway drug, those guys thought of ’Nam as the gateway to worldwide communism. They told the American people, who at first really bought into this shit, that if we let those communist Russians get stoned on Vietnam, they’d become addicted to takeover. Soon they’d be selling their crackhead philosophy all across Asia and into Europe. Then they’d hook up with their homey Castro in Cuba and have a huge commie cartel poisoning our free democratic minds in America. There’d go the whole damn neighborhood. The Russians were supposed to be some kind of new Hitler, and if we didn’t get that communism out of ’Nam, we’d be eating Kremlin Nuggets in McDonald’s over here in no time.
That was how they sold it. I still think it’s crazy. The Russians lived thousands of miles away, where it snowed and they drank vodka and ate potatoes and waited on line for toilet paper all day. They had their ideals, and Lenin and Marx were like their Biggie and Tupac, but I don’t think those guys gave a fuck about Vietnam, or at least not nearly as much as we thought they did. It would be like New York and L.A. fighting over Ohio in the East Coast/West Coast rap wars. Can you see that happening? What the hell could either side want with Ohio? A parking lot for their Bentleys?
In the end, our government sent eight million of our young men—that’s an entire generation—over to Southeast Asia to serve, and hundreds of thousands came back dead or wounded or too fucked up to live right. We don’t have much else to show for it, so if you ask me, everything about that war was just wrong. It wasn’t the kind of war we could win because there wasn’t anything really to fight for! You’d think that after that kind of a blow to America’s self-esteem, presidents would be more careful about invading places with complicated histories. Apparently, dudes from Texas whose fathers were president don’t learn lessons like that. Anyone who knows anything about Vietnam wouldn’t have wasted our country’s time and money and lives in Iraq because it’s the same kind of war, just this time in a desert. Listen, I wasn’t much of a student, but there’s one thing I took away from U.S. history class: An army of stuffy British redcoats couldn’t beat a bunch of hick farmers with holes in their boots because they were fighting in the farmers’ own backyards! Was Bush not a baseball fan? Doesn’t he know about the home-field advantage? You can’t ignore that shit! Ask any cop who’s tried to run down a crackhead in his own hood— nine out of ten times, the crackhead won’t get caught. He’s got the home/hood advantage.
Let me get back to my point, which is that my dad, Jimmy, was one of so many young men who went to Vietnam. He was drafted in 1965 and served four or five tours. Unlike a lot of his friends who went alongside him, he managed to make it back in one piece, physically at least. But just like other survivors, he was torn to pieces inside by what he’d seen and what he’d had to do to survive. My dad was taken from me when I was a teenager, so I didn’t get the chance to speak to him man to man about what he lived through, but I got a sense of it from the stories he told.
He tried to always end those stories with something cheerful, because that was the way he looked at life, but you could hear the hardship through it anyway. When my dad would tell me about hard days and sleepless nights in the jungle, he’d spend more time talking about his friends telling jokes and singing Motown songs to get through it together. But one time when I was in high school, he sat me down and really leveled with me. He told me that he’d been a helicopter gunner and that countless times he killed people that he didn’t know. He’d watch them fall to the ground hundreds of feet below him every time he pulled that trigger.
“It was war,” he said to me, without a smile on his face. “It was bloody.”
He got real quiet and I couldn’t think of anything to say. He was my hero, and I was just trying to picture him, not much older than I was at the time, in a helicopter above a jungle, leaning out the door shooting people every day, just to stay alive.
“I never told you who you’re named after, did I, Tray?”
That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. “No, Dad. You and Mom said you just liked the way it sounded.”
“Well, we did, but there’s more to it,” he said.
When my dad got on that army transport plane leaving America headed to Vietnam, he spent the next twenty-four hours or however long it took to get over there sitting next to an Irish guy named Tracy. They were the same age and came from very different backgrounds, but they became real close, considering the circumstances. They talked about all that they were leaving behind and all that they were going to face. They talked about being scared and how long they thought this war would go on. He said he knew that guy better after one day with him than he did members of his own family. They landed and got their assignments, and the next day my dad’s new friend Tracy was dead. He was all in pieces because he stepped on a land mine. He was going home in a body bag after one day in the shit.
“That taught me everything I needed to know about the war,” my dad said. “I never forgot that time I spent with him, because all that talking we did put me at ease. I figured that we’d be friends forever, but that’s how war is. And that’s how you got your name.”
I was sad to hear that story but glad too. Because let’s face it—Tracy Morgan? That’s an Irish female’s name. With a name like that, I should have red hair, blue eyes, and big titties. I should be in a green bikini on a float every March.
When I think of Vietnam or see it referenced in a movie or a script, the first image that comes to mind is my father in his field uniform, fighting in that jungle. As an older man, when I’ve been faced with challenges, I remember that at seventeen my father went to fight a war on the other side of the world. I look at my girlfriend, Taneisha, whose brother was sent to fight in Iraq. He left home at eighteen. I wonder what he was thinking about as he flew over there. I wonder if his experience was similar to my dad’s.
Taneisha told me that her brother slept as much as he could on his way to war. He didn’t want to think about it. He tried to avoid it by sleeping, but he couldn’t hide from it: On one of his first days there he saw a baby who had been shot in the head lying on the side of the road. Her brother is back home, thank God, but that is the kind of stuff that he can never forget. He had a hard time readjusting, but he got through it. He goes to church five days a week now.
When I was a kid I’d wake up at night and find my dad walking around the house, patrolling. I’d be on my way to the bathroom and I’d ask him, “Dad, are you all right?” And he’d just stare at me. I don’t even know if he knew I was there. He was just in his head, still patrolling, still in Vietnam. He couldn’t shake it. I used to break down crying about that, even as a young kid, because I knew at those moments that I’d never have my dad. I could never have my father in his entirety because a huge part of him was never going to be there.
My dad spent a good chunk of his youth in a strange land full of swamps, rice paddies, and mountains, watching villages get burned and children get killed and families get wiped out. He saw his friends from the neighborhood and the friends he made in the army gunned down before his eyes. Every day he fought to survive more than he fought an enemy he could identify. My father wasn’t a violent man. He was a musician. He went to Vietnam a boy and came back a man, a very different man than he would have become otherwise. He came back with memories and bad habits that he couldn’t shake for a long time. That is the heart and soul of my story, and that is where my very beginning is. It’s not a very good place to start. You hear me, Julie Andrews? I learned how to be a man from my father, and because of what his life had done to him, I learned a few other things too. I think I’m just now trying to unlearn some of those lessons or at least see them for what they are—the good, the bad, the all of it. All of the humanity of where I’m coming from has only just become clear to me.
What I’m saying is that my father picked up bad habits over there just like I picked up bad ...