Rediscovering the Brother I Lost in Vietnam
Publication Year: 2009
Finding Pete is one of the great, untold true stories of an escalating war and a young man caught in its sights. This personalized account of a critical moment in U.S. history is the moving story of an altruistic youth who personifies what America lost in Vietnam. It is also a portrait of a family's struggle with loss, a mother's damaging grief, and, most of all, a sister's quest to solve a mystery and recover the connection with her brother. Includes a reader's guide.
Published by: Wesleyan University Press
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On November 12, 1965, two days before one of the first major battles of the war in Vietnam, my only brother, Pete, was killed there. I had just turned fifteen. Pete’s death was widely reported, but it so traumatized my family that we didn’t discuss what had happened to him. Before long, we stopped talking about him at all. Between July 1963—when my brother arrived in Southeast Asia as a civilian volunteer with a little-known nongovernmental organization called...
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“This is a good map,” my Vietnamese guide says. “We can find this place. We will make a ceremony.” I have just shown him a map with an X where Pete, my brother, was killed. Before I left home I had exchanged e-mails with a Vietnam veteran whose Web site included old maps of Southeast Asia. He had helped me pinpoint the military coordinates I obtained from the National Archives and Records Administration: Vietnam ws 820 036. One map of the Lower Mekong Delta was...
ONE: The Brunt of It
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Every morning before high school, my sister Holly and I put on our makeup and fixed our hair leaning over two maroon sinks in front of a large mirror in the bathroom. Holly was two years older, and I tried to copy the way she teased and combed her hair and applied liquid eyeliner in a straight line. As a sophomore I was just learning these skills, and in Oklahoma City and our crowd they were important. Outside our little enclave was a hallway and a black telephone, the only...
TWO: “Kiss the Sisses Good-bye”
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Late in the afternoon of June 2, 1963, through the viewfinder of his movie camera, my father slowly panned across the lawn behind Olin Library on the campus of Wesleyan University. He also took in the brownstone chapel covered with ivy, families strolling on the sidewalk behind College Row, and rows of chairs set up for the evening’s one hundred thirty-first commencement exercises. Dad had received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Boston University, but he had begun his undergraduate studies here. He had lots of...
THREE: Sand between My Toes
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Ask anyone what Oklahoma City is like and the first thing they will say is, it’s flat. If they appreciate the place, they might add that you can see for miles and the sunsets are spectacular. The city is situated on a broad plain. It receives only about thirty-two inches of rain a year, making its skies among the sunniest of those in any U.S. city. Flying weather is often ideal. In an average year, Oklahoma City has three hundred fifty good days for flying. Although it’s the bright blue skies and intense coral sundowns...
FOUR: “Just Heard over the Radio”
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As his language class in My Tho came to a close, Pete found out more about his work assignment in Phan Rang. He would be teaching English and assisting with hamlet self-help projects, such as digging wells. He would be a contact in the field for the “prov rep,” or provincial representative, assigned to the area. The prov reps represented the U.S. Office of Rural Affairs. They controlled the purse strings, he noted in his journal. The job would allow for some imagination. Pete looked forward to “lots of living in the villages,” he wrote, and even wearing native dress. He would do...
FIVE: “A Peaceful Sleep Forever”
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Kim Nguyen stepped out of a taxi in front of the ivs house in Saigon and smoothed the long panels of her ao dai—the fitted tunic with slacks underneath worn by Vietnamese women of all ages. Kim was eighteen, with straight black hair cut short. Her father, who held a high position with the post office, had sent Kim to a good school. One day a notice went up on the bulletin board there. Someone was looking for a secretary who could speak English and take shorthand. Kim...
SIX: Mr. Tall American
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It was a new year, 1964, and a new president occupied the White House. In his State of the Union address on January 8, Lyndon Johnson urged members of Congress to carry forward the plans and programs of John Kennedy, “not because of our sorrow or sympathy, but because they are right.” In the same speech, he declared the War on Poverty. Three days later, a fifteen-year-old figure skater named Peggy Fleming won a place on the U.S. Olympic team. On January 8, the musical Hello, Dolly! opened at the St. James Theater...
SEVEN: Never “Very Good at the ‘Why’”
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The recurring dreams began eight or nine years after Pete was gone. I was living in western New York State and working for the Corning Museum of Glass. After college, I had not known what to do next and I had very little ambition, so when a friend from high school asked me to marry him, I had said yes. He took a job as an engineer with Corning Glass Works, which in those days did not employ married couples in professional-level positions. I volunteered as a docent at the museum until, a few weeks later, I was offered a menial job on...
EIGHT: “At War in Another Year”
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Bangkok is a dream world—telephones, television, transportation, skyscrapers, ice cream and coffee shops, banks—egad.” Pete was writing from Thailand, where he had flown in May 1964 for a week of vacation. He stayed in a guesthouse run by Christian missionaries. It was inexpensive, quiet, and peaceful. “Didn’t realize how much I’d relaxed,” he wrote, “until a helicopter flew over the house and I tensed up suddenly like one of Pavlov’s dogs.” He liked the familial atmosphere and civility of the guesthouse. “I never was overly religious, particularly as regards the ritual, but it’s so nice to have...
NINE: Trip to Vietnam
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Although by now many years have passed since the day I was held for questioning in Vietnam, I can still picture the policemen in the small room where eight of us sat crowded around a desk. One of them was round faced and wide eyed, like a Cambodian friend of mine back home in California. Another, the highest ranking of the three, had a thin face and narrow eyes. I thought I would never forget any of them, but time has erased the third man’s visage from my memory. The policeman with viper’s eyes meticulously copied the information...
TEN: “A Promise Is a Promise”
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In early November 1964, a deadly typhoon struck three northern provinces in South Vietnam. Pete was transferred temporarily to one of them, Quang Ngai, to assist with flood relief. His assignment was to coordinate the volunteer efforts of Vietnamese youth. He rode his motorcycle as far as Nha Trang to catch a flight to the disaster area. As he boarded the Air Force C-123, he learned that Vietcong had surrounded the city. He hadn’t noticed as he drove through town. Hoping his letters didn’t sound too melodramatic, he admitted to Margo that...
ELEVEN: “An Open Question”
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I don’t know if you remember me,” the voice on the phone began, “but I knew your brother, Pete.” It was August 2000. The woman had just asked if she was speaking with Jill. Her name had been Sue Patterson, she said. I hadn’t seen Sue since I was twelve years old, but of course I remembered the pretty nursing student my brother dated during his Wesleyan years. She visited my family one summer at Round Hill Farm. The next year, she came to Pete’s graduation wearing a blue...
TWELVE: “Too Much Talk about Danger”
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Saigon is awash with green uniforms,” Pete wrote to Margo when he returned to Vietnam in July 1965. After an absence of just two months, he was surprised to see the Pearl of the Orient so changed. American military vehicles now strangled the flow of traffic. Jets and helicopters churned up the gray skies. It was a little depressing. He had come back by way of Europe. He and Cis had arranged to meet in Paris, but the plan fell apart. She was traveling with a friend whose morning...
THIRTEEN: Pete’s Long-Lost Letters Surface
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Three years after Sue Patterson called and offered me her scrapbooks with Pete’s letters, I stood inside a highway gift shop in southern Massachusetts, waiting for her. It was All Souls’ Day, November 2, 2003. I had spent the previous two days in Vermont, visiting my daughter at college. Sue and I hadn’t spoken since August 2000, but knowing I would be coming east for Parents’ Weekend, I had written to ask if we could meet. A woman about sixty years old with penetrating blue eyes stepped out of a car. I recognized her at once as Sue. Indoors, where we talked and drank...
FOURTEEN: Darkening Skies
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In my hands was Pete’s last letter, the one Margo received a few days after his death. Written sometime early in November 1965, it began, “This job grows on me, although I can’t think of any specific reason why.” An old man had expressed approval of his work with youth, and Pete felt good about it. He had been lending a hand to a high school friendship club from the city of Can Tho. The students were young and new to construction work, but they built a road in the hamlet of An Quoi. Their inspiration...
FIFTEEN: “Here Come Blue Eyes!”
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Shall we start with champagne?” From the moment Margo suggested that we begin our weekend in Manhattan with lunch at Jean Georges, I loved her. The Veuve Clicquot sealed it. When it came to appreciating good wine and food, Margo was more like a sister than my own sisters. During long walks and pauses on park benches, we talked more about our families and ourselves. I could see why Pete said she was easy to talk to. I had to...
SIXTEEN: “A Wind-Blurred Far Away”
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Carey Coulter wasn’t supposed to be on an airplane bound for Phu Quoc on the morning of November 12, 1965, but he was. What choice did he have? The school for refugees there needed supplies. If he didn’t show up, the Special Forces guys wouldn’t be happy. Pete wouldn’t be happy, though, with this last-minute change of plans. But wasn’t it the job of an IVS education volunteer to help schools in refugee compounds? And wouldn’t his team leader approve of his taking...
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Some people say that to write a book you have to have faith in yourself. I relied instead on my friends’ faith in me. There from the beginning were Robin Kline and Bill Summers, Sandra Day, Antonia Allegra, and others in my “Umbrian family,” along with Lois and Jack Chambers. My mentor Patty Johnston and Bill and Caryn Reading stayed close at every turn. There were many. Thank you to these individuals who helped with the book in specific ways: My two sisters, who encouraged me to tell our family’s personal...
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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Page Count: 324
Publication Year: 2009