My Father’s Notebook: The Enlistment Question

My Father’s Notebook: The Enlistment Question

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know that I was the daughter of a Vietnam Veteran, nor a time when I wasn’t very proud of my Dad for his service. I had so many questions about Vietnam and what Dad experienced there, but never seemed to get answers for them. Sometimes I would ask my questions, and Dad would respond with a brief answer and a look of sadness that left me wishing I hadn’t asked.

One question, in particular, had lingered in my mind for as long as I could remember. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in college that the opportunity to ask it finally arose. My assignment was to learn more about my family members and then give a speech on my family history. I jumped at the chance to ask Dad the question I most wanted to have answered, “Why did you join the Army knowing you’d probably have to go to Vietnam?”

He paused a moment and then he looked at me and said, “I was young and stupid.” Even though I knew there was so much more to it, I just couldn’t push further. I was too overcome with the desire to protect him from the pain that was so clearly written on his face. Would he have shared more with me then, had I asked? Was I even ready to hear the answers then?

I know now, some twenty years later, why Dad made what seemed to me an impossible decision and one that stood in such contradiction to his gentle nature. And, as it turns out, the reason was far more in line with his nature than I ever imagined. He did it for his family.

Even from a young age, Dad was a caregiver and a protector of those he loved. At five years old he took responsibility for his little sister, the youngest of 9 kids, who he called “Bevie-pie.” By high school he was working on the Dobbs’ farm. He lived and worked with the Dobbs family during the week, doing chores on the farm before riding the bus in to school, then riding back for more chores after school. He never shied away from work.

As his high school graduation neared, so did his wedding to Mom. Dad set about planning his future. His father was very ill, and he felt it his duty and his honor to help support his mother and sister. With his family to support and a new life with his bride-to-be about to start, continuing his education just wasn’t an option financially. My grandfather, Mom’s father, offered Dad their family farm. But Dad knew firsthand the long hours and the stress of farm life, and he didn’t want that for himself or for his family. He also knew factory life was not for him. So as his father’s health deteriorated, he began considering the military.

Dad’s family was not new to military service. His grandfather, Hans, served in the Norwegian army before emigrating from Norway to the United States. His father, Jasper, served in the U.S. Army in the World War I era. Two of his older brothers, Bob & Ron, also served in the military. And, even if he didn’t chose to continue on to a career in the military, it would still provide him financial assistance to continue his education while still supporting his family.

So, with his parents signing to give their permission, Dad signed enlistment papers in 1968. It was a year of many changes. In April, his father, Jasper, passed away. Dad graduated from Colfax High School in May. One week later, on June 1st, my parents were married. Two short weeks later, Dad left for Basic Training in Kentucky.

Dad joined the Army for the same reason he did everything else in his life—he did it for his family. Though he likely made the choice with a certain innocence and naiveté, knowing he took on such an incredible responsibility to make a better life for those he loved makes me even more proud of him. Yes, Dad was young, but I disagree with him on one point: he was far from stupid. At 18, he made the best decision he could have. And in the end, his service allowed him to go on to school and to become an excavator, which he truly loved. And through it all, he took care of his family–of all of us. For this we could not be more thankful nor more proud.

Three generations of Johnsons in the military:  At left,  Hans Johnson, Glen’s grandfather, served in the Norwegian army prior to immigrating to the United States.  At center, Jasper Johnson, Glen’s father,  served in the U.S. Army in the World War I era.  Glen, right, served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971.

Glen worked on the Dobbs’ family’s dairy farm during high school.  His bride-to-be’s father offered the young couple his farm, but he knew firsthand the long hours and stress of farm life, and he didn’t want that for himself or his family.

My Father’s Notebook: A Daughter’s Journey to Learn about her Dad’s Service in Vietnam

Tracey is a proud Daughter of a Vietnam Veteran who recently lost her father to a tragic accident in August of 2011. She is now going to blog for our organization and some of her writing will be reflections of her father and his service. Read her BIO on our Author’s Page here.

My Father’s Notebook: A Daughter’s Journey to Learn about her Dad’s Service in Vietnam

My husband, Bob, and I attended the Vietnam Veteran’s Day Banquet for the first time this year (Learn more here). We came in honor of my father, Glen Johnson, a Vietnam Veteran. But this was more than a banquet to me; it was a new path on my journey of understanding and of healing about my Dad and his experiences in Vietnam. This journey had begun the day Dad passed away, and it started with a simple notebook.

Sitting at our table at the banquet that night were three lovely couples. We were fully entertained by their stories: we heard of some close calls and serious injuries; we heard how the army “went to the wall,” but the marines “went through the wall;” and we heard about living with the diabetes brought on by exposure to Agent Orange. In the few hours we were there, I had heard nearly as much about Vietnam from these new friends as I had from Dad in all my 40 years.

Dad left Vietnam more than 42 years ago. But Vietnam never left him. He returned home with the deep scars that couldn’t be seen, both from the war and from the harsh reception that accompanied his return in 1969. He poured himself into his work and caring for his family, running his own excavating business for decades. A gentle soul, he would do anything and everything for a friend in need and never ask for anything in return.

My mother, my four brothers and sisters, and I all knew he was a veteran. We had heard the story about how he had left behind my mom, Sally—his bride of only two weeks—to go off to basic training. My sister, Shelley, would be born while Dad was half a world away. And yet we knew nearly nothing about this year of his life. Perhaps it was the way he would respond to our inquiries with as few words as possible, if he answered at all. Perhaps it was the sorrowful look that would wash over him at the mere mention of that far away land that told us this was something he would not, he could not talk about.

So we waited for Dad to tell us in his own time. But we ran out of time. On August 10, 2011, the semi Dad was driving smashed into the Lowery Tunnel in Minneapolis. We would learn Dad was probably gone before the impact. We gathered together to lean on one another, to make it through this tragedy as a family. And that night, after the neighbors and friends and extended family left us to the barbecues and casseroles and to our grief, we would open Dad’s notebook and read for the first time Dad’s memories of Vietnam.

This plain, ordinary notebook had lived upon my parents’ refrigerator for nearly three years. That night I read Dad’s words as he shared the sights, sounds, and feelings he experienced the first three months of his year-long tour of service in Vietnam. Dad’s description of his experiences were so vivid, I initially thought the journal was from 1968.

Then Mom shared the story of Dad’s notebook:
On a cold day in December of 2008, as I was heading out the door to go to work, he asked me for a notebook. I got him one and asked what he was going to do. He said, “I think that Dan [Dad’s therapist at the VA] is right, maybe it will help if it is written down.”

I gave him the notebook, kissed him goodbye and went to work. When I got home about 8 hours later he was still sitting in the same spot. I noticed he had written a few things, and we talked about it for a while. I asked him if he wanted me to read it, and he said no, not until it was done. So he closed the notebook, and gave it a new home on the top of the refrigerator.

This was a journey towards healing that did not come easily. Every fall when he was not working I would see him with the notebook many times. Sometimes he seemed to get a lot written, other times only a few words, with sheets of paper crumbled and tossed. Today his notebook looks like it could have been from 1969—very worn, but a good friend that didn’t judge the words he struggled to make himself write down. That journey came to an end at 6:27 a.m. on August 10, 2011, having not finished telling his story.

So today, Dad’s journey of healing is done and his spirit is at peace. My journey, and that of my whole family, has just begun. We’ve begun a search, some 40 years in the making, to learn more about the rest of Dad’s time in Vietnam. We began searching through records and, more importantly, searching for the men who shared Dad’s life for that difficult year. Amazingly, we have to date located four men who served alongside Dad. We’re looking to learn more about this year of life that so changed Dad but ultimately made him the man that he was. We’re looking for information, for answers to some of the questions that have gone unanswered all our lives. We’re looking to honor Dad’s service and sacrifice. We’re looking for healing, because Dad’s story is also our story.

In this blog, I would like to share some of Dad’s story and mine. This is a journey of healing for me, as we look to find more information. I hope I can draw from Dad’s sincerity and wit. If even one person finds hope, healing, or comfort from our story, then I know I am honoring his memory and truly thanking all those who have loved and supported and helped my Dad.