“Sittin’ on the Dock” of the Vietnam War
As a junior literary journalism student, I took a literary journalism workshop on the art of reconstruction with Professor Barry Siegel.
Every real-estate agent will tell you it’s all about location, location, location. In journalism, the most agonizing concept is story idea, story idea, story idea. The beginning stages of any workshop centers around contemplating story ideas: what events could we recreate? What did we have a desire to know more about? But most importantly, what event would tell a great story. We think globally, emotionally and academically, but the area we are always told to shy away from is locally — stories about friends and family are strictly forbidden. Adopting a story idea is painstaking: we wander the halls of history discerning a good idea from a bad, but also whether we could care about topic enough to pursue it for eight weeks and write 3,000 words. I brainstormed a few ideas one about reconstructing the Seneca Falls convention; this was the type of story idea we all liked — interesting, with rich historical context and a lot of documentation to sift through. There was something that didn’t sit right with me, I guess you could say it didn’t sit close to me. I couldn’t feel personally invested in a story that, besides being a woman and appreciating my right to vote, I was preparing myself to spend an extensive amount of time on a topic I couldn’t relate.
At the time, I was house sitting for one of my father’s oldest friends, a Marine Corps fighter pilot named Bill Titterudt. He had printed out some old photos of my father while on tour in Vietnam. The photographs are grainy, camo-colored and cracking, but when I looked at the photos and looked for my father, I realized I couldn’t even begin to identify this Italian man with thick black hair, opaque blue eyes and army fatigues as my father.
One morning Dean Andrea was helicoptered from Da Nang to An Hoi to identify the body of a Marine who had been killed. He was told the Marine was from his platoon, but Dean had never seen the kid before. He thought of this “task” as the Marine Corps’ way of issuing him a break from combat, so he looked to meet an old friend stationed in An Hoi. They went for dinner at the Gunfighter Club, a restaurant and bar built by the Air Force, ran by enlisted men and south Vietnamese. Dean wasn’t very hungry. He was malnourished and dehydrated, but it wasn’t water he craved. They began to drink and around 2 a.m., the liquor greased his mind and he let slip all the fear and fatigue. There was a karaoke band playing American songs, and Otis Redding’s voice came through the speakers. He was singing about sittin on the dock of the bay, look like nothin’ is gonna change. Everyone stood up to sing; there probably wasn’t a Marine in that bar that didn’t know “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding. They all sang together because Otis helped them drift back to the world. Being in Vietnam wasn’t the world, it was freakin’ hell.
Dean knew the war was pointless — the hypocrisy, the twisted efforts of killing for freedom. There were so many dead. His men were alive though and he would remain their captain until their tour finished and they drifted back to the world too. The United States was losing the war, but Dean was winning his own victory. In the early hours of the morning in the Gunfighter’s Club, Dean sang because his brothers sang, because the esprit de Corps would never let him down, and he would never compromise them. Captain Andrea, United States Marine Corps, Second Battalion Fifth Marines had a purpose. He had a job, and he was good at his job.
I sent an email to my professor saying I wanted to reconstruct my father’s one-year tour from March of ‘69 to January of ‘71. My professor hesitated — he wasn’t overly inclined to hard and fast rules but he worried about the obstacle/issues I might face writing about my father. I was worried because my father had never willingly opened the dialogue about his time as a captain in the Marine Corps during the most unpopular war the United States has been involved in. I was worried that he wouldn’t probe those memories — that he would be angry with me for asking. Most of the war memorandum we read, or documentaries and movies we watch relate the traumas of war (think Saving Private Ryan, Jarhead, Dispatches), and I was worried there was a reason he had never spoken of his Marine Corps past. I was worried that I would have to watch my father relive the worst experience of his life.
I felt compelled to understand, though, because I knew more about the Seneca Falls Convention than I did about my own father’s Vietnam tour. I felt compelled to risk my father’s cold shoulder and a failed story because I remember being young and seeing the scars on his left side from when he was shot and breaking into his Marine Corps box to hold his Purple Heart medals and read from the description under his Bronze Star. The only stories I got were in his AP US History class, where as a beloved history teacher, he offered us first-hand information for our academic benefit. He never flinched or inflected — he was matter-of-fact. The Vietnam war was an enigma and my father was the leader of this mystery.
I proceeded with caution, never fully revealing that he was the subject of my reconstruction; because of this, he recounted with an ineffable nonchalance. I found difficulty getting him to unravel his experience, to help me envision the flooded rice paddies of south Vietnam and the crumbling infrastructure of Hue City. There were moments of intense emotion when he submerged into his own narration and told me things he now professes he never told anyone: about losing his radio operator on Christmas Eve while the RO was offering him fruitcake. He described working side-by-side with his men, cultivating a relationship of equality and respect for each Marine’s differences. He told me about the hell of Vietnam; the story of moving from the frying pan to the fire — the impoverished cities and an unwinnable war. With every memory he recounted, I didn’t see the traumas of a forgotten past. I saw the integral development of my father, the Marine. I could see that man from the pictures: the young Marine playing cards on top of boxes or laying in the bush of the An Hoa Basin. I began to see my father; the hard-nosed man from the south Bronx who never thought much of Christmas; the commanding leader standing equal to you, unafraid to fail with you; the impassioned history teacher with a strict sense of justice; the nurturing father who never took shortcuts cheering and guiding me through swim meets, essays, projects, break-ups and dissolved friendships. I began to weave together the complex threads of his story and for the first time I began to understand who he really was.
Dean Andrea: Captain of the 2/5 Marine Gulf & Echo Company, my father, my best friend and my own living relic of history.