Memories of growing up during a war

I was born during a curfew. I grew up in a war zone. Over the last couple weeks I’ve been having flashback memories from my childhood. We lived in the central highlands of Vietnam, in a town called Kontum, not far from the border or Laos and Cambodia. We lived near a US military airport and compound which we always called MAC-V. So military conflict was part of the context for daily life. Just the way things were. My siblings and I had a bullet shell collection. My mom sometimes kept flowers in a brass mortar shell. My parents were linguists working with indigenous peoples who were in the process of being displaced by the war. There were visitors and stories, adults making decisions or talking in a certain tone of voice. There were sometimes flares and gunshots at night, the whir of Chinook and helicopter blades.

When I was around 4 or 5 my parents moved into a French-style colonial house with a central enclosed patio. It had a large area for guests and travelers. It had a front yard with a barbed wire fence, fruit and coffee trees, a well and water tower. My dad built built a cement-walled bunker under the house with steep steps going down from a wooden trapdoor.

Some of my earliest memories, either real or imagined, came from that bunker. For some reason I remember the light down there as a beautiful emerald green. I remember a cylindrical kerosene heater with pretty blue flames. My dad had been in ROTC and part of a reserve unit, so he knew enough to make a guessing game of estimating the distance and counting down to the boom of mortars. For some reason, having a shaking boom correctly predicted for you by a voice you love counters any surge of fear. I remember hand-shadow games on the wall. Or getting to pee into an empty NIDO powdered milk can—what greater thrill could you imagine for a little boy? Most of all I remember long hours of my family reading fantasies and fairy tales. Listening to stories is perhaps the formative memory of my childhood.

I know we can all feel the world getting a shaking these days. I suspect there will now be a break between a pre- and post-carona world and our pre- and post-carona lives. Yet my flashback memories remind me how significant the little things are. My mom pinning laundry. My puppy and a paper birthday hat. The bright scent of coffee blossoms or taste of ripe coffee cherries. The fact that I remember these better than artillery booms reminds me to make room in my life these days for the small things. I’m painting the ceiling of my entryway a twilight blue and a woman at our local hardware store spent a half hour on the phone helping me choose the right finish. What a kind gift from a stranger. And we made a special trip to the store today for cake flour. Tomorrow my daughter and I will bake a lemon birthday cake for my sister. One of my daily joys now is going for a walk around dinner time. Never before have I seen so many apartment lights on or smelled so many wonderful things being cooked in our neighborhood. It has a completely different feel. Even in a great shaking there are joys.

And I just finished the fourth Ursala K Le Guin’s EarthSea book, Tehanu. It also grapples with fear—and in my opinion is the best of the four. Thank God for good books and the miracle of an app to read them to you on your walk at dinner time. I’m trying to be realistic. I don’t want to think about the coming tragedies for the worlds refugee camps when the virus rages through them. The suffering will be terrible. More than anyone else in the world, I think they need our help right now. But I’m grateful for the invitations coming from many places, like Le Guin, to live fearlessly and learn who we are apart from power. I know that fearlessly doesn't mean recklessly. But living full of fear is not really living at all.

With Beautiful Day we are pressing on. Our newest employee, Britta, has been a joy. We have a terrific group of college interns continuing to advance our social media. If you have time to follow us and encourage them by sharing their work, you can find us on Facebook and Instagram. This week, with our kitchen shut down, we did a lot of planning, cleaning, and applying for grants. On Sunday we will look at a new kitchen. Our online store is still open. We’re still shipping almost daily and dare you to just try and run us out of inventory. We are eager to get back into production both for the sake of our employees and trainees, and as a way to keep reminding everyone about the plight of the displaced, especially during this time. Working safely in this environment will be a great new challenge, but we feel like we can contribute to the quality and safety of people’s lives better by continuing the work while taking precautions. We’re holding the future lightly. And we continue to be the recipients of tremendous generosity and encouragement, so we’re doing our best to pay that forward as best we can.

And for my next book: I’ve convinced my wife to take A Public Space's #TolstoyTogether challenge and read War and Peace. Want to join us?


Written by Keith Cooper

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