Hero Mama: A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost in Vietnam -- and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together

Hero Mama: A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost in Vietnam -- and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together

4.6 3
by Karen Spears Zacharias

I don't remember Mama crying when Granny Ruth died, but the day after she was buried, Mama gathered together all the pillows in the house and went into the room where her mother's foot-pedaled sewing machine stood silent. Taking a pair of black-handled scissors, she cut open the tops of Granny's pillows. Aunt Blanche asked Mama what in Jehoshaphat's name did she


I don't remember Mama crying when Granny Ruth died, but the day after she was buried, Mama gathered together all the pillows in the house and went into the room where her mother's foot-pedaled sewing machine stood silent. Taking a pair of black-handled scissors, she cut open the tops of Granny's pillows. Aunt Blanche asked Mama what in Jehoshaphat's name did she think she was doing, cutting up all the pillows like that. Mama answered something about finding a crown inside one of those pillows Granny Ruth had fashioned from chicken feathers.

"Sometimes," she explained, "when a person sleeps on a pillow for a long time the feathers will mold together to make a crown ..."

It's the 1960s and nine-year-old Karen Spears is living in a trailer in middle Georgia. Her father, David Spears, was killed in the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam, and left behind three young children and a wife with a ninth-grade education. Hero Mama is the gritty, searing, and beautifully written story of what happened to this Southern family in the aftermath of a soldier's death.

At first the widow Spears appeared to fall apart — turning herself into a beer-guzzling, good-time girl, while her children responded in kind. Eventually she recognized how much her children needed her and, with mule-headed tenacity, she earned her nursing degree and bought the family a real home fashioned from bricks, rising above her own flaws to forge a better life for her kids. Now Karen Spears Zacharias pays tribute to this woman of guts and determination — her Hero Mama — who battled overwhelming adversity to pull her family up and make them proud of her, and of themselves.

Hero Mama is also the story of the South, where a young girl grew up against an emotionally charged landscape of racism and bigotry, where the daughter of a fallen soldier had to face the stigma of a war nobody wanted, and where a family in crisis pulled together to achieve its own version of the American dream. It is a triumphant tale of reconciliation between a daughter and her father, a daughter and her nation, and a daughter and the people of Vietnam. It is a story for any daughter who has loved her father — and for any daughter who has had to discover how deeply her mother really loves her.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In December 1965, David Spears said good-bye to his wife and three children and went to fight in Vietnam; he returned "in a cargo plane full of caskets" in July 1966. His family has never been the same. "He was the center of what made me feel safe," Zacharias, then in third grade, explains. Her mother cried nonstop and never spoke of her beloved again. There wasn't much time for grief, anyway. Spears's paltry life insurance money was soon gone, and Zacharias's mother was a high school dropout living in a cramped trailer home in Tennessee with three kids. She put herself through nursing school while working and raising those youngsters. Although Zacharias's brother struggled with drugs and the teenage Zacharias had to have an abortion before realizing getting pregnant wasn't the best way to find reliable love, they all turned out fine eventually. Readers may enjoy Zacharias's mom's trailer park smarts (a woman's best protection is "a good padded bra") and her colorful Southern-isms (her hungover brother was "sicker than a yard dog with scours"). But while Zacharias entertains, her main point-that a soldier's death brings pain and sorrow to many generations of his family-is a sad truth that Americans are beginning to relearn. Photos. Agent, Carole Bidnick. (On sale Jan. 18) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this intimate memoir, Zacharias, an award-winning journalist, celebrates her parents: father David Spears, who died in 1966 while serving in Vietnam, and mother Shelby Spears, who was left to raise three young children. The author remembers life growing up without a father, moving from one trailer park to another, as her mother tried as best she could to keep herself and her family together. Shelby is portrayed not as a saint but rather a real person with both flaws and assets. For comfort, she often turned to men and alcohol, yet she studied and worked long hours to put herself through nursing school in order to give her family a better life. As a child, Zacharias did not always think that Shelby made the best parenting decisions, yet Shelby was always willing to lend a hand to those in need, often taking in relatives who had nowhere else to go. Although her story is often grim and tear-inducing, the author celebrates her family and speaks with a genuine and true voice. Recommended for all public libraries.-Sarah Jent, Univ. of Louisville Lib., KY Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The daughter of a soldier killed in Vietnam graphically chronicles the permanent wounds his death inflicted on his family. While she honors all those who like her father served their country in that war, Zacharias is more intent on writing about the pain that war inflicts, not its inherent morality. In the summer of 1966, when she learned of her husband's death, Shelby Spears was living in a trailer in rural Tennessee with son Frankie, middle child Karen (the author, then a third-grader), and baby Linda. Shelby dropped out of tenth grade in 1953 to marry David, a career soldier who reached the rank of staff sergeant. She liked life as a military wife: she enjoyed being stationed in places like Germany and Hawaii; she found that other families on the bases were always supportive; and health services and schooling were readily available. After David's death, however, her own family was little help as she struggled with her grief and the problems of raising three children on her own. Zacharias describes moving to Georgia and living in a succession of dingy trailer courts while her mother completed high school, went on to nursing school, and finally earned enough to buy a house for the family. But her success came at considerable cost. Shelby had a number of affairs, often bringing strangers home at night. She left the children alone to fend for themselves while she worked or partied. And she never talked about their father, which hurt the most. Frank turned to drugs, and Karen, though a devout Christian, became pregnant in high school and had an abortion. The family survived, but it was a long and rough haul. They remained haunted by their father's death, which Zacharias hints may haveresulted from friendly fire. The author continues to be active in Vietnam veterans' affairs. Though the family's plight is overdetailed, the current war with Iraq gives their story particular relevance. Book-of-the-Month Club/Literary Guild featured alternate selection. Agent: Carole Bidnick/Bidnick & Co.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.21(d)

Read an Excerpt

Hero Mama
A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost in Vietnam--and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together

Chapter One

The Man in the Jeep

At first I never even noticed the jeep, what with trying to tie up the bulldog pup. Grandpa Harve was sitting in a mesh lawn chair nearby, his dead arm slung down between his legs. His good hand flicked a cigarette stub.

"Karen, you hold her," Mama instructed over my shoulder. "Frankie, tie that in a double knot." Daddy's best buddy, Dale Fearnow, had given us a prize bulldog as a gift that day. We were all gathered outside the trailer house trying to figure out where to keep such a creature in a yard that had no grass or fence.

We hadn't lived at Slaughters Trailer Court in Rogersville, Tennessee, very long. It was just a dirt hill with six trailers slapped upside it. One was ours, and one belonged to Uncle Woody, Mama's oldest brother. I'm sure given the situation Mama would have rather not lived in any place named Slaughters.

Folks often laugh when I tell them I grew up a trailer park victim. But when I drive through places like Slaughters, like Lake Forest or Crystal Valley, or any of the other trailer courts I once called home, I ache for the children who live there. And for the circumstances that led their mamas and daddies to make homes between cinder block foundations and dirt yards.

This was late July 1966. Just like any Southern summer, the days steamed and the nights stewed. I found myself missing the ocean breezes of Oahu, where we had last lived with Daddy. We'd left the island just a month before, shortly after I finished third grade.We had family in Rogersville,where both my parents had grown up.

"I knew the minute I saw that jeep," Mama told me later. "There aren't any military bases in East Tennessee."

I don't remember having any premonitions myself. I was used to seeing jeeps. We had lived near military bases all my life. Fort Benning. Fort Campbell. Schofield.

"Shelby Spears?" the soldier asked. He was clutching a white envelope. His fingers trembled.

"Yes?" Mama replied. Her whole face went taut as she clenched her jaw. She turned and handed the pup over to Brother Frankie. Little Linda hid behind Mama, rubbing her bare toes in the dirt. "Finish tying him up," Mama instructed.

Then, pulling down the silver handle of the trailer door, she stepped inside. The soldier followed.

I looked over at Grandpa Harve. His eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses. A white straw hat shielded his drooping head. Sister Linda followed the soldier. I followed her. Frankie followed me.

For years now, I have tried to remember what happened next. But it's as if somebody threw me up against a concrete wall so violently that my brain refuses to let any of it come back to me. I suppose the pain was so intense my body just can't endure it.

I recall only bits. Crying. Screaming. Hollering like a dog does when a chain is twisted too tightly about its neck.

Frankie was sitting cross-legged on the blue foam cushion that served as the trailer's built-in couch. He pounded the wall with his fists. "Those Charlies killed my Daddy!" he screamed. "Those Charlies killed my Daddy!"

Grasping Mama's hand, Linda buried her face in her thigh.

I was confused. Who was Charlie? Who was this soldier? Why was Mama crying? "What is it?" I asked. "What's happened?"

"Daddy's dead!" Frankie yelled back at me, punching the wall again. "They've kilt our daddy! I'm gonna kill them Charlies!"

I had never seen Mama cry before.

Not even that December night in Hawaii when Daddy left us.

Sister Linda was six years old and was already asleep when Daddy and Mama asked Frankie and me to come into the living room. "We need to talk," Daddy said.

He'd never asked us to talk before. Not officially, like he was calling together his troops or something. Mama sat real quiet beside him on the red vinyl couch. Frankie and I sat on the hardwood floor, dressed in our pajamas, ready for bed.

"Frank, Karen," Daddy said, "I believe you both are old enough now to understand some things."

I was thankful he recognized my maturity. After turning over a whole can of cooking oil on top of my head earlier that evening while helping Mama in the kitchen, I was feeling a bit insecure about my status as the family's oldest daughter. I was nine years old.

"You both know who President Johnson is?"

We nodded in unison.

Daddy continued, "There's a country that needs our help, South Vietnam. President Johnson has asked me to go."

"Where's Vietnam?" Frankie asked.

"Whadda you gonna do there?" I asked.

"It's in Southeast Asia.We'll be helping protect the country from communism."

Tears stung. Not because I understood what communism was, or that Daddy would be in any danger. Simply because my daddy would be leaving me.

"Frank, you're the man of the house now," Daddy said. "I need you to take care of your mama and sisters."

"Yes, sir," Frankie replied, his voice too steady for a boy of just eleven.

"Karen," Daddy said, looking directly at me, "you need to help Mama take care of Linda. Okay?"

I nodded.

I held my tears until after I hugged Mama and Daddy and climbed into bed. Scrunching myself between the cold wall and the edge of my mattress, I began to cry.

A few minutes later Daddy flipped on the light. On the bed next to mine, curled into a ball like a kitten, a sleeping Linda didn't even twitch. "Karen?"

"Yes, sir?" I said as I wiped my nose on the back of my forearm.

"Are you crying?"

Hero Mama
A Daughter Remembers the Father She Lost in Vietnam--and the Mother Who Held Her Family Together
. Copyright © by Karen Zacharias. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Karen Spears Zacharias's work has won dozens of writing awards. She has lectured at numerous Vietnam veterans' events; serves on the national advisory board of the Virtual Wall and the Orphans of War Foundation; is a contributing columnist for The Veteran, the magazine for the Vietnam Veterans of America; and is a member of Sons and Daughters in Touch, a national organization for adult children of servicemen killed in Vietnam. She lives in Oregon and Georgia.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >

Hero Mama 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
Karen Spears Zacharias does a wonderful job of telling what losing a father to war is like from a child's perspective. Her writing is brutally honest, and I admire her courage for tackling the subject this way. I also lost my father in Vietnam, and, like Karen, I know that my mother is a hero. And I think Karen is a hero for writing this book. If you want to understand the impact of war on families, particlarly on children and teenagers, read this book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Of course I was drawn to the book because of it's topic, I too lost my father in Vietnam. You do not hear that often because everyone thinks that they were all 'our boys/sons' yet there were men who where young fathers at the age of 18 to those in their 50's who were serving in their 3rd war. Karen's book brought me to tears as I relived my loss and also to tears of joy! It was hard for me to put the book down, I felt as if we were just sitting on the porch as she relayed to me the story of her life. Many people forget about the families and it is necessary for our country to not forget their sacrifices.