As we honor our war veterans today, we at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution are delighted to bring you an exclusive excerpt from Christal Presley’s moving account of her father, a Vietnam vet suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. - Ken Foskett, Assistant managing editor
Growing up in Honaker, Va., Christal Presley lived in fear of her father’s moods and rages. Delmer Ray Presley suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of combat duty in Vietnam before Christal was born. After she left home at age 18, Christal rarely spoke to her father. But in 2009, the Atlanta transplant took steps to heal their relationship by proposing a 30-day project: She and her father would talk about the war and its effects on their family over the phone or in person every day for 30 days. In truth, she thought he’d say no, but he surprised her by agreeing to the project. Her book, “Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace from Wartime PTSD” (HCI books), is the story of those 30 days.
I force myself to make the first call.
“You’re still doing the project with me, aren’t you?” I ask when my dad picks up the phone. I bite my lip. Knowing how difficult this is going to be suddenly feels overwhelming. “It’ll just be asking some questions, Dad,” I say, trying to keep my voice light but hearing it tremble in spite of myself.
“Questions about what?” he wants to know. He sounds suspicious.
“Questions about the war. About Vietnam.”
That unspeakable word is a cancer in my throat when I say it. It’s the word my mother and I only whispered, if we ever dared to speak it at all.
“I don’t want to talk about the war,” he snaps. “I don’t know anything about a war.”
I feel as if I’ve just been slapped in the face.
Even though I had initially hoped — and assumed — that he’d refuse to talk to me, when he’d said yes, I got my hopes up. Now they are dashed again, and I am flooded with memories of all the sudden, unexplained mood swings he had when I was growing up and of how frightening they were to me.
All I can do is hang up the phone.
* * *
I remember the first time I was afraid of my father. I was 5, home from school and tucked away in my sofa-cushion wolf den watching “Tom & Jerry” reruns. We lived in a trailer, in a trailer park called New Garden Estates in Honaker, Va.
I know that my dad and my life had once been different, and my mother has the pictures to prove there was some normalcy even after everything changed. But I can’t remember much about those times. “Your father used to hold you,” she says, as she points to the pictures of my father and me that she has arranged in a scrapbook.
On that day when I was 5, my father came home from work, his eyes wild and his face unshaven. He was a welder who worked on mining equipment and came home with his clothes black and thick with grit. On this day, he collapsed into the rocking chair in the corner and struggled to untie his boots, his hands trembled and his breathing was labored.
“Daddy?” I whispered.
He did not respond; he didn’t even acknowledge I was there.
Something was wrong. This was not my father. Everything about this man seemed unfamiliar to me, from his countenance to his actions. It was as if some supernatural force had invaded my father’s body and made him act strange. My mom came in and helped him back to the kitchen. I hid behind the sofa, knees pressed into the shag carpet and held my breath as I tried to hear their frantic whispers. At some point, when no one was looking, I escaped to my bedroom and hid in the closet. I did not come out for dinner. I remember clutching the plastic toy Glow Worm my father had bought me for my birthday that year and peering through the slats of my closet door.
Back then I had not yet heard of Vietnam, did not yet realize that a war in which I’d never fought would shape the course of my life. This was the moment it all came undone, and after which it would never go back to normal.
I was a seriously disturbed child, but no one saw it, and if they did, no one mentioned it. In elementary school, I changed my classmates’ answers on tests so that they would not score 100s. Once I stole my neighbor’s photograph of a family outing at the beach, cut their heads out of the picture, replaced them with cutouts of my parents and me, and then took the picture to school.
“We went to the beach this weekend,” I told everyone, including my teachers, while flashing the picture in their faces. “Just my mother, my father and me.”
Their eyes grew large as they stared blankly at the clumsily doctored picture, cocking their heads to the side in confusion. They nodded, then looked away as fast as they could.
I also faked being sick whenever I could, often holding the thermometer next to the heater to raise the temperature just enough to make it seem like I had a fever. I ate poison ivy and stapled the back of my hand to see what would happen.
When one of my teachers finally called my mother because she said she was “worried” about me, my mother took me into my bedroom where, crying and holding her Bible, she warned that unless I was a “good girl,” I would never get to heaven.
“We won’t ever tell your father what you’ve done,” she said in a whisper, shaking her head. “He couldn’t handle it. It might make him even sicker.”
I tried hard to stay off everyone’s radar after that, especially because I feared I really would make my father’s condition worse if he found out what I’d been doing. But by trying to remain unnoticed, I also felt invisible, as if I were in the world but not of it.
Everyone else was unpredictable; I could not trust anyone but myself.
When I was 7, my father tried to teach me to play the guitar. I remember sitting on his lap, our arms intertwined, as he pressed my fingers against the strings. I had never realized his hands were so calloused. It was the first time I recall his touching me in a loving way, even though I’m sure there must have been many others before then.
“This is C,” he said. “Remember C.”
“C,” I repeated, although I knew I’d never remember anything except the roughness of his hands.
“Someday you’ll be able to tell people you took guitar lessons from the best in the world,” he said.
“Ralph Stanley asked me to play with him once,” my father said. I could feel his breath against my neck. “Turned him down.”
I nodded again.
“Know why I turned him down?” my father prodded.
“Why didn’t you play with Ralph Stanley, Dad?”
“Because I am the best in the world, and the best in the world doesn’t play with just anyone… . This is D,” he continued, pressing my fingers against the thick wires and holding them there. “Could have made it in Nashville,” he muttered under his breath, more to himself than to me. “Could have been famous.”
My fingers stung when I pulled them away. They had dents in the tips the exact width of the guitar strings. No one had said that learning the guitar was going to hurt.
My father paled, his face gray, as he examined the rawness of my fingers. With a look that was part frown and part fear, he pushed me softly from his lap. I slid to the floor in a heap. I was sure I had done something wrong. Looking back, it’s more likely that he was afraid he had hurt me.
He never gave me another guitar lesson after that, no matter how much I begged.
Four days into the project, Christal met her parents in Knoxville so she could bring her mother back for a visit to Atlanta. Over lunch, her father starts to open up.
“How did you find out you had to go to the war?” I ask. “Did you get a letter in the mail?”
“I got the letter when I was 18 — almost 19,” he says. “That was in 1967. When they did my physical, they told me I was flatfooted and color-blind, said I had been that way my whole life. I didn’t know, but it didn’t seem to bother them. ‘We got you, boy,’ they told me. ‘Don’t play dumb. You ain’t goin’ nowhere.’ I guess they was gonna send me over there no matter what was wrong with me.
“By the time I got to Vietnam, it was April of 1969,” my father says. “It was after the Tet Offensive, the worst time to be drafted.”
“What is the Tet Offensive?” I ask. It’s embarrassing to be so ignorant, but I really have no idea.
“A bunch of North Vietnamese broke into the citadel in Hue, took it over. This was on Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Nobody ever thought that would happen. They flew the Communist flag. America saw right then and there this wasn’t going to be a fast war. The American people went berserk, turned against their own. They stopped supporting the war, hated us soldiers like devils. They’d thought America would swoop in, quickly help the South win the war, and then get right back out. But it didn’t happen. We soldiers, though, we weren’t doing anything wrong. We were just following orders.”
I don’t know what to say. I am so surprised to be hearing my father talk this way that I am at a loss for words.
Asked about Agent Orange, he says, “I just knew it killed the plants.” They came down in planes and sprayed it all over everything like crop dusters. I didn’t even know until 10 years later that the stuff was called Agent Orange or what harm it could do. That big mass didn’t come on my lungs until a few years after that.”
He’d had part of one lobe of his right lung removed when I was in college. He’d also had several surgeries to remove cysts from his fingers, which luckily didn’t seem to have any effect on his ability to play the guitar. The doctors had said both conditions might have been caused by Agent Orange.
“Once it’s in your body, it stays with you,” my mother had explained to me when he was having one of his surgeries. “It never leaves.”
Like the war, I added silently.
My father grins. “Dumbness comes from Agent Orange, too. That’s one reason I’m like this.”
Then, suddenly, his eyes appear tired. He looks wrinkled and old, his skin loose around the sides of his cheeks. It’s been a long time since I really looked at him up close, and it upsets me to see how much he’s aged while I’ve been trying to distance myself from him.
“All those doctors wanted to dope me up, put me on all kinds of drugs, but I told those suckers — told them that my guitar does more for me than any drug I’ve ever had.”
* * *
When I was growing up, I hated going out to eat with my father. It never failed. Someone always dropped a plate or a spoon and sent him into a frenzy, his eyes wild and crazy. He’d let out a yell, leap a foot in the air, and right there in the restaurant, be ready to fight. Afterward, his hands would shake so badly he could barely eat his food. My mother and I knew not to speak to him then, but I knew that everyone else in the restaurant was staring at him and whispering about us. Every time that happened, I just wanted to curl up in a little ball and become invisible. After one of those episodes, he’d drive like a madman on the way home. Traffic lights and stop signs were only suggestions. “So stupid,” he’d say to my mother and me under his breath, mashing his foot down hard on the gas pedal. “You’re both so stupid. You ain’t got the sense God gave a goose.”
“If you could give any advice to families of veterans, Dad, what would you tell them?”
“I don’t know,” he says.
“You have to know something, Dad.”
His voice quivers. I am pressing his limit. “They need to find a group to get in and get counseling,” he says.
“Why do you think they need counseling?” I am not letting up now. I need to hear him say that he values counseling as a way to help people sort out their problems.
“Either that, or go jump off a cliff,” he says indifferently.
I cringe at the very idea that my father can mention suicide so casually.
“They need to go to counseling before those veterans get back from the war,” he says. “So they know what to expect.”
“What should they expect, Dad?” I need to know.
“War changes a person.”
“It just changes people. You … it … it just changes people. I can’t explain it.”
“Do you think it changes families?”
“It changes everything.”
* * *
There are lots of things I have inherited from my father: his eyes, his wrinkled forehead, his nervous energy. We are both hyperaware of our surroundings, of people’s body language, of verbal and nonverbal cues. We stand back and skim the crowd, look for exits before we enter a room, and are never first or last because it is safer to be in the middle. We are private, reserved. We do not trust easily. My father got that way from being in Vietnam, and I got it from being around him.
“What could Mom and I have done differently?” I ask tentatively. “What could we have done to make things better for you — to have better supported you back then?
“You could have took me out back and shot me,” he says matter-of-factly. “That would have solved your problems. Put a little poison in my coffee.”
He did not answer the question. Not the way I wanted. But I don’t want to press him right now. I decide to drop it for the moment and move on.
“What do you think can be done, Dad? For the families of veterans?” I have to know. I have to find out.
“You can’t back up and undo what happened in Vietnam,” he says.
“No one is being drafted now. That’s why they’re supporting troops. It was the college students who didn’t want to be drafted who were protesting the war. When they did get a draft notice, they would go to Canada. Then, when we came back from Vietnam, all those ones that went to Canada were pardoned. I think they ought to have took their citizenship away from them if they weren’t willing to fight.”
His voice is still calm. Strong.
“What could Mom and I have done to make things easier?” I ask again. This time he doesn’t sidestep the answer.
“Nothing,” he says. “It was all my fault. My problems. I just tried to keep it balled up inside of me. When you come out of the military now, they tell you there is help. They tell you to call this number if you have problems. There’s help. We didn’t have nothing. We didn’t know what to do. The VA didn’t even want us. You’d sit there all day. That was the government. They don’t do it now, but they did it then. They had the impression that if they turned their back on us, we’d go away. Lots of those boys went home and shot themselves or got drunk and drove a car off the cliff.”
“Did you play your guitar a lot when you got back?”
“I got into it gradually,” he says. “I found out that it was helping me. Then I started to play all the time.”
“What do you think it is about the guitar that helps you?” I ask.
“It’s just soothing. I don’t know. It just helps me. It helps me when I play and drive my neighbors wild. Gets your mind off stuff,” he says.
The project comes to an end when Christal drives to her parents’ house in Virginia to spend the Christmas holidays with them.
On the way to my parents’ house for Christmas, I chew on the sides of my fingernails as I approach John Douglas Wayside in Abingdon, Va. This is where the flashbacks usually come, on this dark, windy road that curves up and down a mountain.
My whole adult life, I have had flashbacks when I have driven through this place of darkness. I would see my father grab his gun and leave for the river, my arms wrapped so tightly around his legs he would have to shake me free. I would see myself curled into a ball, lying on my bed, my back to the world while he was gone. And I would recall, a dream I’d had in which my father was walking alone at night through the jungles of Vietnam carrying his gun. I was trying to follow him.
“Daddy!” I screamed. “Stop! Wait up for me! Don’t go!”
In the dream, he always turned. He was standing on top of a hillside looking down into the valley below. I ran as fast as I could. He had heard me!
He waited for a moment, staring into the darkness, then shook his head in disbelief.
“Daddy!” I cried. “It’s me!”
He slung his gun over his shoulder and took off into the darkness, like the devil himself was after him.
Now, I am expecting those flashbacks to come. I brace myself for the jolt and make it to the other side of the mountain. The moon is overhead now, reflecting off the snow and making the whole world glow. I am here. I am home.
The flashbacks don’t come. Instead, I remember something else from a very long time ago.
It is 1983. I am 5 and in kindergarten. I am an angel in a play, wearing white tights and a light blue dress. On my head is a golden halo made from Christmas tinsel. Hand in hand with my classmates on stage, I sing “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings,” and “Away in a Manger.”
My father is there with my mother. He is watching, smiling with everything in him from the audience below. He claps after each song and stands at the end when everyone else does. My eyes are only on him.
Afterward, I push through the crowd to find him. This is before I am scared, before he shakes with anger, before his eyes are wild. Before the war comes to stay. He picks me up that day, holding me close to his chest. I wrap my arms and legs around him, and grin from ear to ear.
This is my father — the man who drives with his knees, the one who gives piggyback rides through the woods, the one who built my sandbox, the one who eats my mud pies, the father who hangs his old Army hammock in the trees for me to play in.
There was a time before, a time I thought I’d lost.
It’s coming back.
* * *
The familiar wind chimes on the porch clink against one another, sounding their approval as my parents and I walk through the snow to the cabin. It is my first night home. We will open presents tonight. We have decided not to wait for Christmas — or even Christmas Eve.
My father has strung lights all over the cabin and arranged my mother’s new nativity scene up in the front. She points it all out to me, like a child herself again.
“Look what your father did,” she says. “He did it all himself.”
My father lights the candles he has put throughout the cabin and rearranges the presents on the stairs. He stacks them one way, then another, and lines them up in rows. My mother and I sit and watch him. We are not sure what to do with ourselves. This will take some getting used to for all of us. We will have to learn how to be together this way.
We will. I know we will. I smile when I think about how far we have come.
After we open our presents and the night is quiet again, my father reaches inside his jacket and hands me a card. I open it. There is glitter that flakes off in my hands. Inside I’m amazed to find three 100 dollar bills. He’s signed it “Love, Daddy” with a lopsided heart he has drawn himself. “You are my world,” it says.
I know exactly what I’m going to do with that money. I’m going to use it to buy my own guitar. And I’m going to learn to play it, so that the two of us can play together.
He winks at me and smiles, then pulls another present from behind his chair.
It is a cap. “Daughter of a Vietnam Veteran,” it reads.
Christal Presley, excerpts from “Thirty Days with My Father: Finding Peace From Wartime PTSD.” Copyright 2012 by Christal Presley. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company Inc., on behalf of the publisher, Health Communications Inc., www.hcibooks.com.
About the writer
Christal Presley grew up in Honaker, Va., and lives in Atlanta, where she is an instructional mentor teacher with Atlanta Public Schools. She is the founder of United Children of Veterans, a website that provides resources about PTSD in children of war veterans. In her spare time, you can find Christal playing with her dogs, tending to her chickens and gardening. Christal still talks to her father often and their relationship continues to grow. For information go to www.christalpresley.com.
Christal Presley reads and signs copies of “Thirty Days with My Father,” 7:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at HodgePodge Coffee & Gallery, 720 Moreland Ave., Atlanta, 678- 609-3747; and 7 p.m. Nov. 16, at Barnes & Noble, 120 Perimeter Center West, Dunwoody, 770-396-1200.
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Coming next week: A once-powerful politician tries to come back after attempted suicide.