I remember so vividly the first time I saw my father cry. I was seven, and my family was on the last day of a trip to Washington D.C.
We had seen the major sites in the city and had saved the one my parents must have known would be the most difficult for them for last: the Vietnam Wall.
As I walked down the pathway, I held my father’s hand and became aware of stiffening in his body. I looked up to see tears trickling down his face, and I heard him mutter, “So young, they were all so young.”
My father is not part of the generation that went to Vietnam. He is part of the generation that can vividly remember World War II as defining its childhood but was too young to be drafted into the Korean conflict and too old to be part of the Vietnam War.
But as a lifelong educator, he has seen many generations grow up and define themselves against the background of world politics. And, as an extraordinary teacher, he had the compassion to truly care about his students.
While I was attending the school in which my father taught, it was remarkable to see the number of students he had taught five, 10, even 30 years before, contact him to update him on their lives and share their academic and personal triumphs.
But on that day in D.C., I realized there were holes in one generation my father had taught. He had been a young teacher when the Vietnam War escalated, and he saw many of the students he had taken through the hero journey schema of Moby Dick or War and Peace go off to their own journeys, only to find little heroism there.
Many of the fresh, young faces he had looked upon while reading Ahab’s final speech to the crew of the Peqoud or Henry V’s speech to his troops at Agincourt, went off to their own battle and never came back.
Tragically, there was no eloquence in their charges and dying; there was no medieval kingdom to defend or great symbol of universal evil to slay; there was only a conflict that most did not support in a foreign land in which the enemy was ambiguous and the motives for warfare hazy at best.
My father cried for the young men that day that had never gotten the chance to finish their journeys, young men who were only one step removed from childhood and the life of notebooks and pencils.
The political and military morass in Iraq seems scarily evocative of the Vietnam War. Though ostensibly, the military conflict was “over” last May, a secretive enemy that is difficult to distinguish is still targeting our soldiers.
Each day, and with each American soldier or Iraqi killed, fresh political and cultural resentment and anger is brought to the surface.
Seeing the faces of soldiers who sacrificed their lives for this country is wrenching for me. I often think of what my father and mother must have felt during the Vietnam War, watching the nightly news: Is this the day I see one of my students carried on a stretcher past television cameras?
Now I’m the young teacher in a classroom of fresh faces; I teach sophomore and senior-level English classes.
I gaze out on the young men and women in my room, and as I read them Sir Lucan’s grief upon the death of King Arthur with a passion they are perhaps unaware exists in me, I have another less pleasant thought in my mind.
I hope and pray everyday that the personal hero journeys of the faces I see are not cut short by a sniper’s rifle in Baghdad or an RPG strike in Tikrit. I hope and pray I never have to stand at a memorial to this war with my little girl, crying for the lives and journeys that might have been.
Quincey Vierling is a teacher at East Lake High School in Tarpon Springs and a former Oracle music editor.