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Special Issue: America

Untitled (Protest)

An Essay from Birdtalk

Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington, DC. Photo credit: Alamy

BY Richard Prince

In Other Insights


Untitled Protest

We moved to Weymouth Mass. when I was ten. A couple of towns over from Braintree, my first home in the Americas after my family moved up from Panama. The house was on the water. Not a beach. It was more a large bay, greasy and filled with flotsam. The bay led to the Weymouth Navel shipyard. This beach is where I would start beach combing. Finding stuff. Things that washed up and were free. Claiming.
Big tankers would pass by and every once in awhile a new cruiser or destroyer would sail by… to where, I didn’t know. I didn’t care. Maybe Vietnam. I wasn’t interested in anything military. I didn’t have any of the discipline it took to be a soldier. Following orders, being controlled, wasn’t for me. And even though I was only ten, I had already associated, “in the service”, with disappointment, depression, being bullied and crapped on. Like I said. I was ten. What did I know?

Let me explain…

Back in Braintree, (before Weymouth)… my backyard neighbor was a woman named Mrs. McBride. I think her first name was Helen. Mrs. McBride lost her oldest son in Vietnam. The loss was in 1958, 1959? Way before we were suppose to be over there in what would become an undeclared war. Who knows why he was there. Secret stuff. Something to do with the French. Something to do with “special forces”. Part of a small liaison nosing around a foreign country, keeping tabs on communists and dominos. I was way to young to understand a death like that. Except what I did understand was the change Mrs. McBride underwent. The way she stopped talking. The way she stopped saying hello and asking me over. It was like a body snatcher invaded her body and the snatcher made her sit down in her closed-in porch and stare all day at her garden… a garden that was once full of all kinds of things to eat, but now, was quietly turning into a pile of weeds. 

My age didn’t get the losing part. I got the zombie part but I didn’t get the losing.

As long as I had known Mrs. McBride her son was someone she adored and talked about with beaming pride. I’m not sure if I even met him. All I knew about him was “hanky talk”. To me she was the milk and cookie lady. Someone who was kind and treated me like a relative. After her son died she closed down and walked around in her sleeping clothes and slippers. I knew she’d never be the same and never forgive whatever made him disappear. She called his disappearance, “missing in action”. 

She would never get rid of the grief. She was done with life and hated that she had to go on living. For a parent, out living your children makes you give up. You get dark and collect dust. 

Maybe twenty years later? (1980?) I was in Washington D.C. and visited the Vietnam War Memorial. It was emotional. Complicated. I was in front of a slab of granite that had all the names of the dead soldiers who died in Vietnam etched into its surface. This was a war that I resisted and protested and denounced. I was standing in front of that huge blackish headstone and I started to cry. I’m not sure what took over. The feelings were overwhelming. I balled uncontrollably and felt like all these names were alive, right next to me, and were calling out to me saying “hey man, no biggie… wake us when it’s over. We’re all together now, still dialing it in… bad ass motherfuckers.” 

I started to look for the name Peter McBride. Born? Died? 1959? It wasn’t there. There were other McBride’s. Fifteen of them. And two Peter’s. But none off them with the right birth and death dates. This kind of absence was a different motherfucker. They left him off. He wasn’t included. He was erased. In government speak “redacted”. He should have been there and his exclusion was more than “regulated”, it was embarrassing. 

I’m not sure I’m capable of writing about what remains. What I can say is that when I think about the missing of Peter McBride I sometimes feel a little like his mother. I feel blank. Invaded. Hopeless. Other times I feel pissed off. I’m pissed that there was nothing there. No memory. He wasn’t part of anything and every thing that happened to him was forgotten and covered up and stupid. It’s the way things are. Peter McBride’s history is a fairytale. Fucked up, top secret, and classified. His life, like all the rest of the carved names, meaningless. A shallow grave. There’s no point in making any sense of it. War, truce, treaty. It’ll just keep happening again and again. Forever. Maybe that’s why I was crying. What’s set in stone is deader than a door nail. Or better, I’ll leave to Shakespeare… “I pray more that I may never eat grass again.”
Mrs. McBride was the one who died in Vietnam. And her name wasn’t on the Vietnam Memorial either.

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