A Scene from Vietnam
Pasts and futures are braided together with maps. There are as many types of maps as there are stories, and perhaps my story will come in the form of a map. My dad was a cartographer in Vietnam. He had a mechanical 35mm film camera. Later, when I inherited his collection of photographs from the war, I realized the camera was more than just a souvenir. He had mentioned — in passing — the deafening roar of helicopters outside his tent, day and night. After a while, he said, you don’t notice them anymore. Based on the evidence he left behind, I imagine early in the morning he emerged from his tent — camera in tow — and leapt straight into the ‘copter to fly high above the battlefield. He photographed the terrain, developed the film, and used the images to draw maps for the Army. Satellite imagery of the Earth was still in its infancy in the early 1970s, so they had to make everything by hand. He didn’t keep many photos from the bird’s-eye view… maybe they became top secret government property.
Most of the photos my dad brought back to the U.S. pictured mundane life of soldiers at camp. A handful of guys sitting atop piles of sandbags with their Budweisers, flashing peace signs. Outdoor latrines — a pit surrounded by a curved sheet of corrugated steel; no door. There's a pic of my dad at 23 years old, sitting at a wood drafting table. Green pants, tan t-shirt — his gold wedding band glowed bright against dust-caked canvas partitions. Bent forward over his work, he looks over his shoulder with a smile — always framed by the strong, rectangular jawline that I knew so well. His skin was copper-brown, darkened by days spent in the sun. The man in this picture became my hero. But he was always just a kid trying not to get shot down.