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Veterans’ Daughters

by Daniel Buckman

It was a veteran’s daughter who read my first attempts at fiction, written in spiral binders at Fort Bragg, and mailed in letters to her Dekalb, Illinois’ dorm room. She talked to me about my writing through one of fifty payphones outside the First Brigade snack bar from her university in the Northern Illinois cornfields. Another veteran’s daughter made me take a classics’ class at University of Illinois because the professor spent the quarter on The Iliad and The Odyssey, telling me how the books helped her dad change when her mom almost divorced him. One veteran’s granddaughter, 2nd Marines WW II, read the typed attempts at my first novels and told me I wasn’t worth my jump wings and other things if I stopped trying to write books. Marine veteran’s daughters keep their fathers’ “devil-dog” attitude about the Marine Corps. As a young veteran, I discovered by the second date that their fathers had been Army or Marine infantryman somewhere in the world. These young women knew me before I knew them and were analyzing deeper parts of me before I knew their middle name. I was also very tired and finding myself more nostalgic for the army I couldn’t wait to leave. They ignored my confusion, treated me like a 22 year-old guy, made me dance, and spend many library study dates with them where I heard the college degree completion rap twelve different and wonderful ways.

If luck let me date these beautiful young women long enough to meet their fathers, the infantry veteran wanted to meet me yesterday after hearing that I was a 82nd Airborne Division grunt going to University of Illinois on the GI Bill. Every father received me like a platoon sergeant, flashed me a true “thousand-mile stare,” told me where they served in Vietnam, and repeated three times where their daughter is never to be taken, what time she is to be home, and if we wanted to stay up all night talking and watching movies, we were free to do that in his basement; they patrolled the house every hour all night. I said “yes sir,” and they joke-asked if the army had started “sirring” buck sergeants twenty years discharged. Then we drank cold cans of Budweiser in a garage of a Southwest or Northwest Side bungalow. I was asked by every father how a fool could jump from a perfectly good airplane. The Tet Offensive usually came up by beer three and stayed until there was no more cans left in the garage fridge.

These veteran’s daughters were tough and alert young women. They loved their fathers and watched them struggle with the residue of military experience as girls. They helped their dads to bed when they became too numb to walk and their mother was exhausted, trying to convince herself that she was finished while chain smoking Virginia Slims in the backyard of a Northwest Side Bungalow.

They all had plans and set the curve at Illinois. They wanted to backpack in Europe with you and fought like hell if you tried to pay more than half. They read Russian novels for real, recited passages from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice,  knew the history on the royal lines of Europe, Russia included, and ran a faster 10K than you did. Their optimism and energy were infectious. Their academic goals were never distorted by their tears, which fell whenever they thought of the sacrifices their fathers made as combat infantrymen and union carpenters so they could be in college and traveling a Europe they would never see. They drove me towards my dreams after coming home exhausted and half-homesick for Fort Bragg and my platoon, a feeling I never foresaw when I was ninety days away from discharge.

VetDaugthers ImgThey were the daughters of Vietnam War soldiers and Marines who read Simone De Beauvoir and George Sand, volunteered to tutor in neighborhoods that sent their fathers into rages when they found out by my tip—and then not speak to either of us for a week while they continued to tutor. They never let my exhaustion win, the fact that I missed old, close friends because I never found new ones to replace them when I hardly considered this to be a future issue when I left Fort Bragg. They kept me meeting people. They got mad for two weeks—the ‘I don’t know you’ mad—when they caught me drinking Budweiser pitchers at the Stillery on Chicago’s Taylor Street with Outfit foot soldiers who overlooked my student status because Rocco Infelise, the Cicero boss, served with the 101st Airborne Division in WW II and came around Tuesday nights and liked making fun of the 82d Airborne Division and that was me.  They had no fear of walking into the bar and reminding me I had a chemistry test in the morning before ignoring me for two weeks.  They got everything about me and never let my excuses work, and taught me to understand the most delicate memories and emotions they carried, which taught me about love.  The Outfit guys sat quiet while these young women lectured me about not giving up and becoming frustrated like every veteran in their family.  Then the Outfit guys told me not to be a moron and go find her while Rocco Inflise, visiting from Cicero, waved me out the door and said, “They 82nd has a problem getting scattered whenever they jump. The CO wants you to go home and assemble and stay away from the 101st.”  I begged them for fourteen days to speak a word before they appeared with an expectation that I confess to being a jackass for drinking beer with Outfit guys.

Without veterans’ daughters, I doubt I would have learned that women are the lone reason men amount to anything and why many men want to hold them down because this fact slaughters the cowboy ‘”Murican” mythology that still runs our collective narrative.

The veteran’s daughter that shamed me from the Stillery back to library became my wife. Rebecca was a girl from the Western Illinois cornfields who looked like Audrey Hepburn and pulled a 36 on her ACT the same year her relay team placed second in state. She was accepted with 50% scholarships to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Rebecca’s father, “Pappy,” was the guy who strung the platoons of infantry companies together with land-line wire when they still had to crank field phones with the 2nd Infantry Division in Korea. He raised five kids in a VA Loan house by climbing country telephone poles in Illinois winters to fix frozen transformers for 38 years at GTE. In Korea, Pappy broke out of the Pusan Perimeter with the Ninth Infantry Regiment and chased the North Koreans to the Yalu River where divisions of Chinese were forming to deal with the Americans in human waves. In Bureau County, Illinois, after Korea, Pappy climbed his telephone poles, ran Little League Baseball, and got two sons college football scholarships. He could only send Rebecca, his quiet, brown-eyed daughter who studied French since sixth grade and he drove to Joliet every Saturday after sixty hours of climbing poles with Davey Miller, a USMC veteran of Korea and the Chosin Resevoir, so she could take advanced math classes at a Catholic school. She got into University of Illinois on a full academic scholarship. Harvard and Yale weren’t accessible to veteran’s daughters, and I believe Rebecca not going to Harvard hurt Pappy deeper than it did her. Veteran’s daughters learn to accept inequity and keep probing until the gatekeepers are asleep. Without them, a veteran would never learn that the cliché of making lemonade out of lemons is true. She understood the radical maturity her father gained in Korea and understood how that came into conflict with civilization. She took a BS in Psychology and a BA in Art History so she could learn more about her father.

I spent our first date listening to her talk for hours about Pappy instead of her two years in England, her Scottish boyfriend that she almost married, or her trips to Europe and Mexico with her college girlfriends. She didn’t ramble about a future girl’s trip planned to Spain, her advancing career in health care consulting, her addiction to “MASH,” or her cats her cats, which she loved. This young woman had even dated doctors, but she hated it. Instead she loved talking about her veteran father with me over Heineken and Thai food. I fell in love.  I remember sitting across the table from Audrey Hepburn, her eyes like wet, brown silk, realizing right then that I was having dinner with my wife—my buddies wanted to know the 411, and I told them that I had met my wife. They thought I was joking about some unexpected hot sex, but after hearing that I was lucky to get a soft kiss after five dates they thought I was crazy.

We made love after two months and read and talked about what we read and shuttled our cats about the city like children depending who was hosting for the weekend. One morning after and running, I came back and found her reading early, shitty drafts of The Names of Rivers on my couch. She walked across my apartment when I opened the door, sweaty to my Nikes from a humid Chicago run. Her long hair, Scots Irish and Cherokee black, was wet on my shirt she had picked from my closet. She kissed me and said that we have to move into together, sublet our future two bedroom to visiting medical students, and move to Paris for six months on savings. I could write and she could get better with her French before graduate school. Pappy never said a word, which scared me, and seemed happy that Becky was going to speak all the French she studied since sixth grade and come back to be a teacher. The man knew upon our first meeting that I loved his daughter and I would never return fire in a Chicago street fight with her beside me because her safety was my first priority.

Within a month, I was slack-jawed, writing in a one bedroom apartment on Rue Monsieur le Prince with this beautiful woman who was giving up doctors for me, having dinner nightly at The Polidor across the street, where Flaubert wrote and Rebecca tutored the owner’s children in English, and spending it all with a girl from the cornfields with brown eyes that trapped Frenchman by the second, became fluent in two weeks, spent hours alone at Musee D’Orsay, and never would tell me about her favorite painting of the day unless I guessed in five tries. In the shopwindow lights of Boulevard Saint Michel, we walked to the Seine nights and mocked ourselves for going through the outdoor bookstall. We refused to let our university professor’s post-modern cool ruin this time in Paris even if we were playing dress up. We looked across the rooftops and jagged chimneys of the Latin Quartier at night and scanned the windows for Rebecca’s beloved cats posing over Rue Monsieur le Prince.  I let Hemingways’s A Movebale Feast become our guidebook, as clichéd as that sounded then and sounds today, and lived with a woman who showed me how to smile with her love.

I had two novels published inside the next two years with the wonderful Akashic Books like Rebecca had promised me when I let my stupidity about writing frustrate me to anger in Paris herself, and published two more with Saint Martin’s/Picador. My wife went to graduate school in accounting at Illinois, but dropped all the business nonsense to become a second grade CPS teacher until the mayor changed that for many fine women. She got mad when I tried romantic muse poetry on her, which she was for me, and said she just told me what a common reader who doesn’t write would say.

She was a grunt’s daughter, and like all grunt’s daughters, she carries a “bullshit detector” in her eyes that are reading your mind “Lima Charlie” before you even open your mouth and have their name clear.  Without Rebecca and millions of other veteran’s daughters who are unafraid to return the world’s fire with their veteran boyfriends or husbands, millions of male veterans would have experienced the absolute, real-life destruction of the soldier’s dream of love, home, and family.  Veteran’s daughters convinced me to educate myself, get a job that pay, and love them while taking in Europe. They convinced me to live. They are the most pragmatic feminists that I have met.  They have a deeper understanding of history’s unspeakable fascination with war and the masculine ritual of military service than us guys who served in the infantry divisions.  Daughters love their fathers and their fathers were combat veterans so they learned how to love surly grunts without knowing they were learning anything because they knew that their sheep dog father climbed from his rabbit hole whenever PTS would let him imagine his brown-eyed daughter smiling and saying “Bonjour, Papa” in a track suit she saved her allowance to buy.