The Father of All Things
A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam
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About the author
Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg, and a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine and The Virginia Quarterly Review. In 2006 he was awarded the Rome Fellowship by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and his work has been selected several times by the Best American Short Stories, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Science Writing series. He lives in Rome
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The Father of All Things is a riveting, haunting, and often hilarious account of a veteran and his son’s journey through Vietnam. As his father recounts his experiences as a soldier, including a near fatal injury, Tom Bissell weaves a larger history of the war and explores the controversies that still spark furious debate today. Blending history, memoir, and travelogue, The Father of All Things is a portrait of the war’s personal, political, and cultural impact from the perspective of the generation that grew up in the wake of the conflict. It is also a wise and revelatory book about the bond between fathers and sons.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Chapter One: The Fall
The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.
It would have been spring. The neighborhood yards still yellow and concrete hard, the side panels of the cars you pass on the way home from work spattered with arcing crusts of road salt, the big oaks and elms that loom along Lake Shore Drive throwing down long pale rows of shadow. These trees are covered with stony gray bark, their naked branches black lightning against a deepening indigo sky. Everywhere winter’s grim spell still holds.
A Midwestern spring at the Forty-sixth Parallel is a different sort of season than the spring one finds even five degrees lower, in Milwaukee, say, or Chicago. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula spring never truly arrives. It passes through for a few weeks, shrinks and smoothens the filthy fringes of snow that sit packed against the curbs, finishes with a fine icy sheen the misshapen islets of snow out in the yard that stubbornly refuse to melt, but spring does not arrive. It does not come. One receives only the suggestion of spring here, followed by a hot, windy summer. You are thinking of this as you circle around your huge yard (which takes up half the block), noting its lumpy archipelago of remaining snow, before finally pulling into the driveway. There is something exhausted about the way your station wagon’s engine sputters and dies. For a moment you sit there in the car looking at the remaining mounds of snow. On bright days, when the sunlight angles down on the ice crystals just right, the reflection can be difficult to look at. But on this cloudy late afternoon there is but little light. Your eyes ache anyway, the silvery imminence of evening hovering above you. Where is spring? you think, now standing in your driveway, gazing upon your house, its coldly reflective windows, its closed doors. Today you have left work early and driven the long way home. It is 5 p.m. on April 29, 1975.
The lights come on in the empty kitchen. You keep your hand on the circular plastic knob, fiddling with and turning the adjustor. Darker, lighter, darker. You cannot find the proper setting, going from break-room bright to dinner-party mild to opium-den dim at the speed of light. But what is the speed of darkness? The cabinetry is all chocolaty wood, the countertops a hard Formica blaze of orange, a room that seems dark even when it is blazingly illumed. At last (fuck it) you switch off the overhead light, the sound of your own heart more audible while you stand in charcoal shadow.
You stare at the kitchen table. Two ashtrays, one on each end of the table, form twin pyres of your wife Muff’s lipsticked butts. An empty baby bottle, its sides still cloudy with clinging breast milk. A tall red, white, and blue can of Budweiser, its top-popped aperture keyhole-shaped. You know it is urine warm and half full before you even touch it. Your live-in younger brother Paul’s, no doubt. (Muff claims to see Paul only when he is “drunk, sleeping, or hung over.” He is twenty-four. What can you do?) The lazy Susan and its cargo of gift-shop jetsam, souvenirs from trips you no longer remember: expensive glass salt and pepper shakers Muff had to have, the floral-patterned porcelain sugar dish, the toothpick holder shaped like a rotund little monk, the plastic tray freighted with a yellow slab of room-temperature margarine. A neatly planed pile of mail awaits you on the table’s corner. All of it adding up to life, one little corner in a seven-year repository of marriage. You do not even look through the mail.
When I asked you what this time was like, you said only, “I was a young guy, working hard. Always pissed off. Always.” You were a trust officer at the First National Bank, managing other people’s money. They save up here in the woods. From the millionaire widows living in fireplace-heated homes to the couples sitting on $700,000 portfolios while driving rusty Ford pickups, you were learning all about the strange camouflage and various neuroses of rural wealth. What made many of your customers’ mattress stuffing so frustrating was that you were broke. Every morning that you parked your used Chevy station wagon beside your boss’s long cream Cadillac reminded you of this. The Bissells, of course, were reputed around town to have money—how faces in Escanaba changed when the name Bissell came flying back at them!—but over the last seven years you had watched it all go up in the low fires of your various new responsibilities.
Broke. Such a hard, simple, declarative word. You dreamed of making $20,000 a year, three times and more your current salary. Twenty thousand dollars: the number itself was talismanic, as beautiful as a finish line. It would bandage these seven years of hemorrhaging marital wounds and keep them stanched forever. Because now things were not well. “Your mother,” you told me once, without bitterness, “wanted a better life.” Everything at this time felt to you cold and dead, as though your touch itself were warmth-draining, death-contagious. Every room of the house was dark and angry that spring, unwarmed and unloved, but there were few places for blame to gather. Nor was there any place to hide.
You walk through your family’s ancestral seven-bedroom house looking for your wife and sons, a journey of several minutes. To many visitors, the Bissell house, one of Escanaba’s biggest, always felt less like a home than a series of pastel caverns linked by massively arched throughways. You drift through the canary-wallpapered dining room (the chandelier so huge and gaudy it was vaguely embarrassing to pass beneath it), the green-carpeted living room (most of its antique furniture having not known human weight in years), and pass into the final and most spacious—the television room. The Bissell house’s placement on the littoral edge of town allows the television room’s four massive bay windows to look out onto Ludington Park, beyond which spans the seascape tundra of still-frozen Lake Michigan. Today the lake is a surface storm of twirling snow devils. As expected, here you find Muff and your sons. Your little sister Alicia is upstairs, in her room, listening to the Monkees (she still refuses to acknowledge that they did not play their instruments), while your brother Paul, you can guess, is out with friends, most likely attached to a keg hose.
Muff is watching television with your son Johno, who at five resembles nothing so much as a pudgy, thin-haired Buddha. Muff looks beautiful, of course. How could she not? She once bested her classmate Farrah Fawcett in a junior high beauty contest in Corpus Christi, Texas. The hair your wife has bleached platinum blond every week for the last decade achieves gravity-defying proportions, a hair-spray skyscraper. She wears slightly too much powder blue eye shadow that is carefully matched to the color of her thin turtleneck sweater. She holds Johno on her knee, lightly bouncing him—though he is too big for this—her long hard white fingernails mildly alarming whenever she pushes his hair across his forehead. She looks at you and nods hello, already expecting the worst.
At the room’s far edge, across a bay of orange carpet, almost swallowed by her recliner, Aunt Grace sits knitting. She is white-haired and thick-calved, wearing big nunnish brown shoes, a solid blue dress, and a red shawl so tasseled and incomplete-looking your initial thought is that she is knitting it upon her own shoulders. You know that amid the needles’ steady clicking Grace is waiting for the inevitable flare of discord between you and Muff, whereupon she will quietly stand to leave and, later in the evening, offer neutral comfort to you both. With age comes wisdom: the sort of bromide one hears all the time, even as less and less clear evidence seems to support it. Grace is welcome proof that—at least sometimes, in some people—with age comes wisdom. But Grace is not much help with what vexes you today. Her own husband, Herb, died of a heart attack in his forties, still wracked by the horrors of World War I’s battlefields. Herb never spoke of the war to Grace, and thus, in your mind, she never truly knew the man she loved. War, then. Always war. In regard to the war, your war, you could very much use some human wisdom right now. You are thirty-three years old, and the events of the last few weeks have not made much sense. Or rather, the events have made sense, but nothing else has.
Vietnam is a dream to you. It has been eight years since you took in its scents, felt its Asian sunlight on your white skin. The war comes to you now not as whole memory but in pieces and fragments as ragged and drifty as ash. Up half the night, turning in the wet-flannel heat, checking on sentries, checking on your gunner placements. Up early in the morning for patrols, still hot. Or sleeping all day for night patrols, hot again, these night patrols the worst, always the worst, feeling like four-hour-long panic attacks enacted within a nightmare. Your clothes rotting, your feet rotting. The ankle sores that never healed and remained as bright and wet as fresh raspberries. The sweat that was like another layer of clothing. Your smell, that deep swampy smell of your body. The mold you picked from between your toes and flicked lightheartedly at whoever was nearest. The smell of twenty Marines’ unwashed asses and unbrushed teeth all around you, the olfactory orchestra of the jungle itself, the warm, buttery smell of a cleaned M14, the firecracker stench of gunfire. You still smell it, sometimes, when you wake up sweating, Muff having been driven to the couch hours before by your kicking. You smell it when the remnant of the malaria banished to the depths of your cells catches you with a chill that almost takes you to your knees, when your limbs thrum with a ghostly soreness, when the shrapnel wound on your neck glows with a sudden inner fire.
You left Vietnam in late 1966, a time when the word “quagmire” was just abandoning Roget’s as its most natural habitat. The war then was still tenable, winnable—or so it was thought. But now it was la fin de la guerre, the real fin, not the “peace with honor” that extricated the Americans in 1973, only two years ago, but the final campaign. A headline you saw only seven days ago: HOPE THINS FOR MILLIONS ADRIFT ACROSS INDOCHINA. Your hope has thinned, too, and your very body aches of its thinning. You feel incomplete, as though within you some crucial girder of emotion has gone missing. That part of you is still in Vietnam. That part never left.
In late March 1975, the Saigon newspaper Chinh Luan published an article, now known as the “Fare Thee Well” dispatch, that had been written in the midst of fierce combat between the armies of North and South Vietnam as South Vietnam was unraveling. The author was the South Vietnamese war correspondent Nguyen Dinh Tu. Through “the outstanding initiative and very strong leadership of the United States,” Tu wrote, “the Paris Peace Agreement was signed on the 27th of January 1973 to international applause of our friends, especially in the United States, leading to ‘Peace with Honor’ in accord with the desires of former President Nixon, the present Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Congress, and the entire American people. The fact that these friends have been able to return to the warmth of their families is something for which I personally, with all my heart and soul, rejoice.” But Tu went on:
"Now, after two years of “Peace with Honor[,]” through the reports of newspapers, wire services, radio, and television all over the world, those friends are now observing the disintegration that is spreading daily across my homeland. Thousands of my country’s soldiers have continued to fall throughout the two years of “Peace with Honor.” Thousands of my people, including many children, have continued to die throughout these two years of “Peace with Honor.” Hundreds of thousands of my people are homeless, hungry, cold; and furthermore and even more important, without hope, without even the dream of a life worth living for these two years of “Peace with Honor,” and for the coming days, the coming months, and perhaps even the coming years. And everyone in Vietnam, including me, my friends, we now ask ourselves, how long will the “Peace with Honor” continue, and where will it lead? . . .[A]ll of my people, and I personally, have understood that our friends, especially our American friends, the American Congress and the American people . . . look upon the war in Vietnam from which they have drawn so far away, as if it were a nightmare that must be pushed completely away from their minds in order for them to live peacefully and happily in the warmth of their families. No one, in psychological terms or any other terms, can continue forever to retain the affection and assistance of the person next to them, be that a single person, a friendly country, or an ally in a desperate situation. The soldiers of my country, my people (please understand “people” here to mean the overwhelming majority, the poor, the war victims, and not the rich and fat minority in Saigon and a few other cities in Vietnam and in some foreign countries), and I myself, we understand all of this. . . . Out of a feeling of helplessness, because I cannot find any words of my own with which to express my deep gratitude and bid a respectful farewell to the allies, especially to the Americans in the United States Congress, in the United States government, to the American soldiers and the American people who cherish “Peace with Honor,” let me with a heart that is completely sincere quote a line of poetry from Lord Byron to send to all these friends:
FARE THEE WELL! AND IF FOREVER,
STILL, FOR EVER FARE THEE WELL."
From the Hardcover edition.
In the press
“Powerful. . .eloquent and in-depth. . . . The Father of All Things is a one-of-a-kind accomplishment.” —The Washington Post Book World“A fresh and comprehensive look at the Vietnam era. . . . Bissell’s powerful writing forces one to open one’s eyes and take in the enormity of the moral abyss.” —The San Francisco Chronicle “Beautifully written. . . .Tom Bissell is superb. His description of today’s Vietnam are breathtaking and deep.” —Los Angeles Times “Haunting . . . emotionally powerful. . . . Bissell brings a luminous prose style and, perhaps more important, a clear, fresh eye to events that many of us have allowed to slip into the infuriatingly painful past." —The New York Times Book Review
From the Trade Paperback edition.