I always try to mention book related events in the Houston area that are directly or indirectly tied to my job at Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School. One of our former teachers, DF Brown, will be in conversation with our current creative writing teacher, Mark Dostert, at Brazos Book Store this Saturday, May 6th, at 7 pm. Brown is a Vietnam Vet and author of Returning Fire, Assuming Blue, The Other Half of Everything, and The Ghost of a Person Passing in Front of the Flag, several poems from which won second place in The Iowa Review‘s Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award for Veterans writing contest.
Below is an article Mark wrote about Veteran’s Day in general and Mr. Bown in particular that appeared in The Houston Chronicle back in 2000:
Saying “Thanks” to Those Who Sacrificed is the Easy Part
by Mark Dostert
It snuck up on me again, and I felt bad. I might have missed it entirely had my car radio not been tuned to National Public Radio that Friday morning. Even so it took me yanking on a locked door at the post office the next morning to figure out that Veterans Day was actually on a Saturday. Then I remembered: It’s just like Christmas and falls where it falls, as opposed to Labor Day or Thanksgiving, which take place on specific days of the week. That’s right, Veterans Day – every Nov. 11.
Arriving at work, I left my teacher manuals and gradebook in my classroom and strolled down the hall to sign in at the front office. As I passed room No. 119, a colleague emerged.
“Happy Friday to you, Mark,” beamed the seventh-grade English teacher, who had been hunkered down at his desk grading essays since 6:30 a.m., as he does every day. He’s probably still used to waking up early from the time he spent in the military. Here was my chance.
“Mr. Brown, Happy Veterans Day. Thank you for your service to our country,” I offered.
“Well, thank you, Mark,” he said, a bit surprised, maybe expecting me to reassure him that our favorite day of the week had finally arrived. “I wish I could say it was my pleasure, but I’d be lying,” Mr. Brown continued, making his way down the hallway.
I’ll certainly take his word for it. I’m sure Mr. Brown would much rather have spent that year doing something else – such as working on the college degree he was four semesters into. But he followed orders. He put on a uniform, got on an airplane and risked his life for strangers in an even stranger land – all to serve the Stars and Stripes.
Once I interrupted his early-morning grading session, and he pulled out an anthology of poetry by Vietnam veterans, with his name listed among the contributors. His more recent verse has him canoeing down an Ozark river but finding the scenery much too reminiscent of jungles where he dodged gunfire 30 years ago. Writing poems has become an elixir for his combat fatigue, he says.
Giving up alcohol helped, too. He’s been sober and depression-free for 13 years. But you’d never know the man was downcast a day in his life, even though he saw seven of his mortar platoon comrades perish when North Vietnamese soldiers shot down their helicopter. Because the enemy was so near, the remainder of the platoon had to tiptoe its way to the downed aircraft, which had plunged into a rice paddy. Mr. Brown helped pull bodies from the wreckage. He still remembers those seven names.
He’s by far the friendliest person at our school, though. You can’t be within a mile of Mr. Brown without his calling your name and saying hello.
It grew even harder to imagine him depressed when I noticed a Polaroid snapshot on his bulletin board. Among many other pictures, it served as a writing prompt for his students. There he was, standing on a bluff near the South China Sea in 1969, somewhere between Phu Cat and Bong Son, grinning as if at a backyard barbecue. That’s what blew me away. How could he look so happy, despite the very real likelihood that any day might be his last? Service to our country with a smile.
I was almost 20 when our men went to the Persian Gulf. Mr. Brown was 20 in that photograph. Chances were slim, but I wondered what I would do should my country tell me to go. Did I have the guts to do what Mr. Brown did? Or would I flee to Canada or look for a loophole out?
I still can’t answer that question. I hope I never have to. But I’ve certainly mulled it over a time or two since Aug. 2, 1990. I do so every time our troops pack up and board those big green airplanes. Could I have mustered Mr. Brown’s smile under a blazing Saudi Arabian sun? Or in Somalia? Or in the Balkans?
I saw Mr. Brown that afternoon when school ended and wished him a good weekend. As he had said, it was Friday.
He bid me likewise, then added, “And thanks again for your regards this morning.”
It must have meant something. A day of guiding 13-year-olds through what he calls “verbs of thinking” hadn’t jarred our 9-hour-old dialogue from his memory.
“That’s the least I can do, Mr. Brown. You did the hard part,” I stammered.
Now I really felt bad. He was thanking me? I couldn’t let his courage and sacrifice go unrecognized. Aside from the parade downtown, I sure hope I wasn’t the only person who said “thank you” to Mr. Brown that weekend.
I’ve always liked this bumper sticker: “If you enjoy your freedom, thank a veteran.” No one has to tell me twice. That night, I called my uncle in California. He returned from Southeast Asia in 1967. Yes, indeed, I have the easy part. All I have to do is say “thanks.”