Remains: Non-Viewableby Young
This compelling narrative is the haunting story of a man coming to terms
When John Sacret Young's cousin, Doug was killed in Vietnam, Young learned that the remains of every Vietnam casualty fell into one of two official categories: Viewable or Non-Viewable. He also discovered that such categories applied to how his New England family faced its own history.
This compelling narrative is the haunting story of a man coming to terms with himself, with his family's past, with what he knows and will never know, and with his own future.
Remains: Non-Viewable traces the close-knit lives of four men in Young's family: his uncle George, his cousin Doug, his father, and the author himself. In lyrical yet pungent prose, it illustrates how their seemingly tranquil existence on the Massachusetts shore is affected over the years by war, alcoholism, fading friendships and shifting memories of events gone by.
Beautifully written and profoundly moving, Remains: Non-Viewable, a powerful and persuasive examination of fathers and sons, of war and remembrance, and of family and self.
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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By John Sacret Young
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2005 Sacret, Inc.
All rights reserved.
CALL UP A STORY: a writer makes them up and sets them down but it is what we all do to make shape of our days.
Some years ago I fell in love with Hawaii. I'd rent little houses on the beach on one of the islands, nothing fancy, a kitchen, a bed, an outdoor shower, and some ceiling fans. The water was warm and salutary. I would read and write, or try to write, and to think and decompress. It was funny to come six thousand miles to one ocean when I'd grown up on the edge of another, along Cape Cod Bay south of Duxbury but north of the two bridges, the Bourne and the Sagamore, in a part of Plymouth, Massachusetts, where my family still lived, at least some of them, some of the time.
In 1999 in Wailea Bay on the Big Island, a tiny, largely unpopulated and unknown beach tucked between two famous resorts, I found I hadn't brought any writing with me. For close to thirty years it is what I have done, write screenplays and books, and I had no idea what it meant or that in fact it wasn't an ending but a beginning, one that had been waiting for me — the pipe well laid — for decades.
While I was there a message passed from my mother through my wife, Jenny, whom I was separated from then, and through my office to me: my uncle George was ill. My uncle — Big George, we often called him — was a tall, bald, smiling man, long and lanky, six foot six, and the head of the family, as much as there can be one in a big and sprawling family A tremendously competitive athlete under the guise of his great grin, even if age had slowed him — he had had both his hips replaced — he still was up before seven every day as a matter of pride and New England principle. He was an Old Yankee.
The message was puzzling, for I knew he was sick. Six weeks before doctors had unearthed a stomach tumor, but it hadn't seemed a life-threatening emergency He wasn't rushed into surgery; in fact the operation was postponed while the recommended doctor, an acquaintance, scooted away for a vacation. That was early May. Now, mid-June, the operation had been performed and declared a success. Recovery, naturally at George's age, eighty-nine, would be slow and arduous. Now this message.
Communication within a large family can often become comedy, waylaid by malfunction or misinformation, ending up feeding on itself erroneously. I got on the phone to sort out what it meant. It was too late to reach my mother on the East Coast, so I called Jenny, and to my surprise she answered.
"Oh, it's you," she said.
"I got this message —"
"Well, it's true."
"Wait a minute. I haven't even said — what's true?"
"Your mother called me."
"Nice of her to call me."
"Why would she?"
"She knew she could reach me."
"Don't call me that."
"Time out. Please."
I could hear her take a deep breath, and she did what she could do, wend inside herself through our torturous history, much of it my fault, and find her ample generosity. She told me then what she had heard was simple and declarative. George wasn't sick; rather, he'd been taken off life support and wasn't expected to live through the night.
Sunset was soon to be. I walked down to the beach as the sun broke free of the clouds in its slide into the sea. Maui etched itself into sight in the distance and the epic shape of Haleakala sat along a section of the horizon like a splayed pyramid. The water ran through deepening shades and ceased to roil. The sun bloated and flattened into the shape of a mushroom cloud as it lanced the Pacific. In less than three minutes it was gone. The water lost any burnish and was calm. A parade of clouds remained, long and low and loosely in the gray shapes of battleships. They offered up a reminder that Pearl Harbor was not so far away.
Suddenly the last upslants of light pulled bright handkerchiefs out of a hat. They turned upside down the color spectrum. In afterglow the clouds gathered up a fever of hues — pink, watermelon, blood orange, and carnelian. The migrant shades held an aching, transient beauty. Thousands of miles away where my uncle lay it was six hours later, well into the night he wasn't supposed to live through.
THIRTY YEARS BEFORE, the week before Christmas in 1969, I had answered another phone call. I had returned home for the holidays after moving to California. It was Big George on the other end of the line.
"George," I said. "Is that you?" In my family we had long since dropped the use of "uncle" or "aunt."
"John?" he asked. "What are you doing home?"
"Snuck in for Christmas."
"Well, is your dad around?"
"No, both Dad and Mom are at some party or other."
"Maybe I can help. You want me to give them a message?"
He didn't respond and I thought that perhaps I'd lost the connection. I said his name and when he made a sound I lifted my voice and my attitude to meet the man where I was so used to experiencing him: always positive, up, even if falsely so, powerfully so. I chimed into the phone: "George, how are you?"
"Not so good."
"What is it?"
He started to speak, broke off, an unsteadiness to his tone.
"It's Doug," my uncle said. "He's been killed in Vietnam."
After I got off the phone I looked up the number where my parents were and called them. I could hear the murmurs and laughter that surround cocktails and sound not unlike the sea as I waited for my mother or father to come to the phone.
Christmas was a time of such get-togethers in our town and maybe every town. This particular one had a special flavor, the first party hosted by a family that was recovering from a tragedy of their own. Somewhere over a year before one of their two sons left a note to a girl he barely knew. He had fixated on her, pursued her futilely, and somehow felt spurned by her when her family sequestered her and shipped her out of town. He locked himself in the garage and turned on the motor of the family's Buick Riviera. The parents were away in Florida on a boat they had just bought, and Stevie wasn't discovered for three days. His brother, checking the house, came upon him.
By 1969 the casualty list in many families wasn't small. The decade that had started with such promise and new frontiers had been hijacked by assassinations and an undeclared war and a loss of center that split generations and suddenly, wrenchingly, was pushing its way into radical behavior, avowedly political, that would often collapse upon itself in subsequent years.
It was my mother who came to the phone. My parents left the party immediately, and as soon as they arrived home they set to helping call other members of the family. My father and George, two brothers born only fifteen months apart, were two of ten, and Doug, just over fifteen months younger than I am, was one of twenty-two first cousins we had on that side of the family.
George and Betty lived in West Hartford, Connecticut, then, and before the day was done my brother, Mason, and I flew down to be with them. Their oldest son, George Jr., had already arrived and their one daughter, Samantha, was living at home while her new husband, serving in Korea, waited to see whether he would go to Vietnam.
It was cold and getting colder by the time we reached the house. The forecast had changed from rain to snow, but the temperature was dropping faster than that. It was in the teens, and single digits were expected by morning; zero after that. We were there to wait. Doug was being shipped home. Da Nang to Dover, Delaware to West Hartford. The timetable of his arrival was not yet clear.
It had been a little after eleven o'clock that Sunday morning when the government sedan had pulled up in front of the house. George had already played a round of golf, knowing with the weather report it could be the last for the winter. He had shot a 77. For years he had been a scratch golfer and a local champion. His handicap had begun to rise, sneaking up to a six and now an eight, but it seemed to have found a solid resting place. After all, he was almost sixty.
Betty was talking on the new yellow wall phone in the kitchen that would still be there thirty years later. She was the one who answered the door. The officer asked for George and the three men went into the study and closed the door. Betty was left outside to wait. They didn't tell her. She didn't know what to do or where to go. She knew and yet had to wait to know. She sat in a straight-back chair in the hall and waited. The wait was terrible.
The two men had brought with them and left behind a telegram:
I MOST DEEPLY REGRET TO INFORM YOU ON BEHALF OF THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS THAT YOUR SON LANCE CORPORAL DOUGLAS W. YOUNG USMC WAS KILLED IN ACTION 20 DECEMBER. HE SUSTAINED A FATAL INJURY TO THE HEAD WHILE ON PATROL IN THE VICINITY OF DANANG REPUBLIC OF VIETNAM. I WISH TO ASSURE YOU OF MY HEARTFELT SYMPATHY AND THAT OF YOUR SON'S FELLOW MARINES AT THIS TIME OF HEARTACHE AND LOSS.
LEONARD F. CHAPMAN, JR. GENERAL USMC COMMANDANT OF THE MARINE CORPS
Quite quickly a follow-up one was delivered. It told no more of how Doug had died. I found it sitting on the desk in the small study that sat opposite to the living room. A yellow Western Union envelope opened, read, refolded, and placed back. I took it out and this is what it said:
THIS CONCERNS YOUR SON LANCE CORPORAL DOUGLAS W. YOUNG.
THE MARINE CORPS WILL RETURN YOUR LOVED ONE TO A PORT IN THE UNITED STATES BY FIRST AVAILABLE AIRLIFT. AT THE PORT REMAINS WILL BE PLACED IN A METAL CASKET AND DELIVERED BY MOST EXPEDITIOUS MEANS TO ANY FUNERAL DIRECTOR DESIGNATED BY THE NEXT OF KIN OR TO ANY NATIONAL CEMETERY IN WHICH THERE IS AVAILABLE GRAVE SPACE. YOU WILL BE ADVISED BY THE UNITED STATES PORT CONCERNING THE MOVEMENT AND ARRIVAL TIME. AT DESTINATION, FORMS ON WHICH TO CLAIM AUTHORIZED INTERMENT ALLOWANCE WILL ACCOMPANY REMAINS.
THIS ALLOWANCE MAY NOT EXCEED $75 IF CONSIGNMENT IS MADE DIRECTLY TO THE SUPERINTENDENT OF A NATIONAL CEMETERY. WHEN CONSIGNMENT IS MADE TO A FUNERAL DIRECTOR PRIOR TO INTERMENT IN A NATIONAL CEMETERY, THE MAXIMUM ALLOWANCE IS $250. IF BURIAL TAKES PLACE IN A CIVILIAN CEMETERY, THE MAXIMUM ALLOWANCE IS $500.
IT IS ALSO INCUMBENT UPON THE UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS TO MAKE CLEAR THAT ANY AND ALL EXPENSES IN EXCESS OF THESE AMOUNTS CANNOT AND WILL NOT BE COVERED.
DO NOT SET DATE OF FUNERAL UNTIL PORT AUTHORITIES NOTIFY YOU DATE AND SCHEDULED TIME OF ARRIVAL DESTINATION.
This telegram was not signed.CHAPTER 2
WHEN WE WERE YOUNG Doug and I were thrown together by several kinds of proximity.
Among so many cousins we were the closest in age, two boys barely a year apart. My brother, Mason, was the next older by almost two years, and that seemed a lot, and only more as we got older. Suddenly he and Doug's brother, George, a year and a half older still, sprouted in height ("a bunch" was the family expression) and dwarfed us. Suddenly they turned into teenagers. Suddenly they were driving and dating girls. Doug and I were left inches and licenses and tons of testosterone behind.
This was Plymouth, Massachusetts, hailed as "America's Home Town" since the Mayflower may or may not have landed on a jokingly small rock there that had cracked open like an egg at some point and been slapped back together. It took the town three hundred years to scrabble together twenty thousand people, but in the millennium now it was struggling with a population explosion.
A generation ago, when we were growing up, there had been another landing: Pilgrim Station, a nuclear power plant. The town had bought into its promise of prosperity, cheap energy, and a giant jack to the tax base. It didn't pan out, and the boondoggle it became stretched for decades. It was off-line more than on-, cropped up with lousy safety ratings, didn't hold back hikes in taxes until, finally, it was sold and at last shut down. But there it sat, a hazardous albatross. Plymouth's latest lightbulb was building golf courses. A sudden epidemic of them was eating up the low-lying landscape, eradicating cranberry bogs and wrapping around the ponds that spackled the county, the largest in square miles in Massachusetts. The tally of ponds in Plymouth was startling. There were three hundred and sixty-five of them, as many as the days in the year. From the air it could have been bayou country.
We lived south of the center of the town and within sight at the lowest of solstice and equinox tides of the several outcroppings of rock that stretched out from Manomet point called the Mary Anns. We used them as markers when fishing and their beautiful brute shapes were sharp with warning and augur. In a winter storm in 1928 we had often heard about and a plaque memorialized, a steamship, the Robert E. Lee, foundered on them and a boatswain and two surfmen from the Coast Guard station lost their lives.
While we were all in Plymouth, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, we seldom bathed, and went barefoot, except to play tennis or go to Fenway Park. The bottoms of our feet callused. Doug and I tested them on the narrow road that ran between the houses our parents at first rented and later owned. Noon on the hottest days put them to the fire. The road could have been a kiln. The blacktop made us dance. We did a cha-cha up the road then, trying not to let our feet touch down and vowing not to abandon the scorching surface. That would be to admit defeat. It was one more of our many contests, a youthful variation of Chicken. Once in a while the tar would melt and bubble like molten lava and carry a sweet heavy scent and stick to our feet. Licorice patches on the toughened soles. Still we didn't bathe; showers were for sissies. For us the only place to wash was in the ocean.
That was where we went every sunny afternoon. Soft sand ruled the beach above the high-tide line and before we were ten we played with boats there. Our toy ones left wakes in the soft sand that didn't last. At full or new moon the tide rolled up several extra feet and then pulled way out. The beach became immense for an hour or two. Those were game days on the sand flats — stickball, Fox and Geese, and Capture the Flag. There seemed little or nothing we couldn't turn into games.
Or we would build dams. Pools formed and the toy boats found safe harbor until the tide swept our handiwork away. Once or twice a summer we'd attempt a Hoover Dam to hold the incoming sea back, digging out wet sand and reinforcing the walls and making them higher still. Sometimes while on vacation my uncle George or my dad pitched in. With his huge hands, George scooped out great hunks and, if only for a while, would help stem the tide.
After age ten we sailed. We crewed on one Thistle or Puffin or mutt of a boat, fun grunt work, eager to hold the tiller and steer until my uncle bought one of the first Sailfish. For a few years they were everywhere, the hot ticket, their sails jiggering across the bay. They're no longer made now, though the next generation of innovation, the Sunfish, still exists. The Sailfish was little more than a flat plank wrapped in fiberglass, but it seemed revolutionary. We had taken a ride up to a Marblehead factory and watched this magical stuff, fiberglass, being manufactured and molded into Boston Whalers, the other rage of the day. Along the tour there were piles of samples the thickness of coins and the size of cupcakes. We snuck some under our shirts thinking we were very smart, and got payback when their unfinished underbellies rubbed our own bellies raw. The nylon-like fibers set right into the skin and fired up a nasty, itchy, ugly rash.
Along Cape Cod Bay a southwest wind comes up almost every afternoon. An easterly or northeasterly breeze tends to stitch the mornings with patterns of corduroy and lend the water a sapphirelike cast. By three o'clock the wind swings around. The water, never warm, takes on additional chill and changes color, altering to a rough roiled green that has no luster and little beauty and is often chopped by whitecaps. The wind can keep picking up until there are small craft warnings. It takes dusk to quiet it down again.
This was the time we set out each day. Quickly, we'd shake the rioting outboards loose. We'd tack the Sailfish out beyond the points of land that extended toward Provincetown, where the wind was stinging and the water was rougher still. We'd be soaked with spray, hiking out, laughing, and hanging on to the tiller and the sheet for our lives, waiting for and wanting the next gust.
We loved to gamble with capsizing. Sometimes we'd do it to each other; sometimes we'd do it together: let the simple plank of a boat heel higher and higher, holding too hard a close haul until we were sliding despite ourselves — or, even better, tossed despite ourselves, laughing and cursing into the drink.
The water sobered us up. It was freezing and, shivering, one of us would haul up onto the dagger board while the second hung on to what would have been the gunwale on a real boat and kicked. Together, using weight as leverage, using the water for traction and thrust, we'd draw the Sailfish upright again. The sail loosed itself from the bay, like an animal shaking itself off, flapping and showering water on us, rising and readying to catch the wind again.
Excerpted from Remains by John Sacret Young. Copyright © 2005 Sacret, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Meet the Author
John Sacret Young was co-creator, writer, and executive producer of China Beach, the landmark television series about Vietnam. He is the author of The Weather Tomorrow, a novel.
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