Through the Picture Tube
Five miles high on Vietnam Airlines flight 722 from Hong Kong to Hanoi sat Frank Walsh, watching reruns of his life on the TV of his mind. His ruggedly handsome youthful face was set off by his prematurely gray hair, and his hazel eyes were fixed on the back of the seat ahead. The last few days were a blur in his mind, but he was finally on his way to Vietnam, a country he had only seen through the prism of television war coverage. He was going to try to find out what had really happened to his friend, Darrel Johnson. On an apocalyptic day in 1969, American troops had slaughtered all the inhabitants of an ill-fated small village called Bien Lai – mostly women, children, and old men. Darrel was not only there, but was the only American killed. This unescapable reality hung like a dark cloud over his memory.
Frank's tall, angular body was crammed like a pretzel into the undersized economy class seats on Airbus 320. He tried unsuccessfully to stretch his lanky frame. "Why don't they have more room in these damn planes?" he muttered under his breath.
Vietnamese flight attendants swished gracefully along the aisles in their áo dàis, dispensing their hospitality with a distinctively oriental charm. Frank was too numb to notice and the last thing he needed was more airline hospitality. He was glutted and felt like a zombie after two days of non-stop flying which had whisked him halfway around the world. The air was stale and stank of smoke. Am I suffering from lack of sleep? Or too much coffee? he asked himself. Maybe it's the airline food and too many drinks. Ugh! Frank's stomach turned at the thought.
Staring blankly out the window, which was shaped like a small TV set, Frank saw a huge island passing underneath just as the stewardess breezed by. "What's that island, Miss?" he queried.
"Sir, that is Hainan," came the reply in a high pitched oriental voice. "We will be landing in Hanoi in two hours."
Frank's heart raced. He could hardly believe that his feet would soon be on Vietnamese soil.
It was August 22, 1995, the year of the Pig in Vietnam's lunar calendar, twenty-seven years to the day after he had left the United States to avoid the Vietnam War draft. In the dark of night on that day long ago, he had crossed over the Ambassador Bridge into Canada with all his worldly belongings crammed into a grey 1962 Volkswagen Beetle. Then, he was an idealistic young rebel, burning with a righteous indignation about the war and eager to embark on life's great adventure. Now he was a middle-aged English professor, who had taken his share of lumps, yet who still longed for something more.
From the time Frank had read Huckleberry Finn in Rosewood Public School, he had wanted to be a writer. And not just any writer. Frank wanted to write powerfully of his generation's hopes and fears, loves and hates. He wanted to show people the world as it was and challenge them to imagine it as it should be.
Before leaving the United States, Frank had written a short novel about life in his home town of Loganville, Illinois. He didn't know it at the time, but he loved Loganville and needed it more than he could have ever thought possible. The small manufacturing and agricultural supply town at the crossroads of two railways was Frank's Yoknapatawpha. Its location in a river valley at the fork of two rivers surrounded by seemingly endless miles of flat cornfields was his stage. Its elm-shaded brick streets, ante bellum mansions, vibrant redbud trees, classic courthouse square, and dominating grain elevators were his backdrops. The unique and colorful characters, both white and black, peopling Loganville were his cast. Some were heros, others were villains. Some were wise, others were fools. But most were in between. The way the town and its people came alive in the pages of his novel made you laugh and cry, but most of all it made you think.
Frank had a unique literary gift. But like a fragile poppy, it could not be transplanted. Once in Canada, and cut off from the fertile and tumultuous roots of his homeland, his muse fell deafeningly silent. Sure Frank could still write. But it was not the same. His writings became academic, detached from any identifiable place. The twilight zone without the unexpected twist.
Nothing had seemed to inspire Frank. The academic community at the University of Toronto where he taught was a far cry from Loganville. The people he encountered every day seemed like caricatures in comparison to the real people that inhabited Loganville. The environment that created Robertson Davies's Ontario Gothic was alien and barren for Frank.
Finding himself at a dead end, Frank had desperately searched his soul for something he could still do well. One of his colleagues had cynically suggested if he couldn't write anymore himself, he could always criticize those who could. So for lack of anything better to do, Frank had turned to literary criticism in scholarly journals. He had excelled in his new avocation, cranking out articles with a depressing regularity that impressed even his jaundiced colleagues in the English Department. But the academic acclaim his learned, footnote-riddled writings won had failed to satisfy him. In spite of professional success, he had been left empty and unfulfilled.
Dodging the draft had been the defining event in Frank's life. As a youth, he had not been afraid to put his future on the line and to refuse his government's summons to participate in what he considered an immoral war. True, he had gone instead to Canada, a place that, except on the coldest bleakest days of winter, was not a hardship posting by anyone's reckoning. Sure it would have been braver to have stayed and gone to jail in protest. But Frank was neither that heroic nor that stupid. He had known full well what happened to young prisoners in federal penitentiaries. And it wasn't the physical abuse that he had feared most. He had worried that he was not strong enough to keep his spark alive in the mind-numbing, soul-deadening environment of a prison. Frank was no Alexander Solzhenitsyn who could thrive in the gulag.
Though Vietnam War Veterans were not greeted with ticker tape parades upon their return to the States, draft dodgers were welcomed to Toronto with open arms. The summer of love had gone north and taken up residence in that previously staid and uptight city. Not long after his arrival, Frank was invited to parties at Rochdale College where marijuana smoke and the Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" filled the room. There her met long-haired hippie girls who used to hang out in the trendy coffee houses of Yorkville, and who flocked around draft dodgers and deserters like groupies to a minor rock star.
Faced with such unfair competition, some Canadian men used to pretend to be war resisters to pick up women. The phony deserters were the worst, brazenly parading around dressed like Che Guevara in the Sierra Maestra. The real McCoys, who usually came from working class families, were often slightly ashamed of what they had done, and made a point of not wearing their uniforms so as not to stick out, that is, unless they couldn't afford civilian clothes.
One afternoon shortly after Frank arrived in Toronto, there was a knock on his apartment door. Opening it, he was surprised to find a Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable standing in the hall. The Mountie was not wearing the traditional scarlet tunic and stetson, and looked like an ordinary policeman. Frank only knew he was in the RCMP by the insignia on his arm. "Sir, are you Frank Walsh?" he asked.
"Yes, I am, Constable," Frank said apprehensively. "What do you want?"
"Just routine," said the Mountie reassuringly. "We have to verify for the Americans that you're a resident of Canada."
"Yes, I am," said Frank nervously.
"Good," replied the Mountie smiling. "You know, I probably would have done the same thing myself if I'd been in your shoes."
"Thanks for your cooperation, sir. I'll be on my way now and won't trouble you any more," said the Mountie, putting on his hat.
"Good-bye, Constable," said a relieved Frank to the departing Mountie.
Canada is really different, Frank thought. The FBI hadn't been as polite when they'd visited his parents one night. Two agents in dark suits and closed-cropped hair had attempted to bully them into trying to get him to return.
"He'll get lonely and come home," one had said. " They all do," chimed in the other. "Then we'll get him. But it would be better for him if he turned himself in."
This visit disturbed Frank's parents very much. They telephoned him immediately afterwards tell him about it.
Although Frank was in Toronto for the heyday of the counterculture, he was not of it. Except for trying a joint, which, like Bill Clinton, he did not inhale, he avoided drugs. While he did not take advantage of his new found popularity as a draft dodger to join the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it did give him a new confidence in his relations with women. Thus bolstered, he met, at the university, a young Canadian girl with the lyrical name of Marilyn McDonough, with whom he fell head over heels in love. No flower child was she, but instead a bright and vivacious young brunette, fresh out of the Ontario Teacher's College. Although she wore plain clothes and a minimum of makeup to try to look more serious, her classic beauty only shone through more brightly for Frank.
Frank's mind now drifted back to his first full glimpse of her at her family cottage on Otter Lake in Haliburton. It was a warm August night and her parents had already returned to the city. They were standing on the dock together holding hands.
Out of the blue, his heart racing at the excitement of the prospect, Frank prodded, "I'll bet you're afraid to go skinny-dipping."
"Frank, really!" Marilyn exclaimed demurely.
"Come on," Frank urged. "Let's do it."
"Okay," Marilyn agreed, "but you turn your back and we'll both take off our clothes and jump off opposite sides of the dock."
After they both stripped with their backs to each other, Frank said, "Okay, on the count of three let's jump in. One. Two."
On the count of two, though, the devil got the better of Frank and he peaked around just in time to get a brief glimpse of her curvaceous and beautiful white body poised on the end of the dock illuminated by the moonlight.
"No fair. You cheated," she giggled as she dove off the dock. Frank quickly jumped in to join her in the ice-cold black water.
The swim was intoxicating. When they returned to the cottage, all wet and shivery, that was the first time they made love. Frank would never forget the intimacy and the closeness they felt.
Marilyn's father and mother were also teachers. Being long-time activists in the NDP, Canada's social democratic party, they had long championed a variety of left-wing social causes. Frank was welcomed with open arms and quickly added to their list.
Frank and Marilyn's marriage of 25 years had been a good one. She had helped to put him through graduate school in American literature by teaching in a local elementary school. Bearing them two children, a son and a daughter, she was a thoroughly modern woman who could balance both work and family responsibilities.
After Frank had been in Canada for seven years, he received a call at one o'clock in the morning from his mother. His father had had a massive heart attack and had died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. He was only 57 years old and had displayed no previous signs of cardiac illness and now he was dead. Rationally, Frank realized it must've been the two packs of Camel's his father smoked every day that did it. Emotionally, Frank was overwhelmed by a sympathetic pain in his own chest which seemed like it was going to explode. All night long it persisted as Marilyn held him in her arms comforting him. Frank had a hard time coming to terms with his father's death since he was unable to attend the funeral for fear of ending up in jail.
Marilyn helped Frank to get over his father's passing. She also nurtured and encouraged him as he almost effortlessly climbed the academic ladder in the University of Toronto's English Department. Frank put aside his dream to write and settled down in a nice split level in Don Mills where he and Marilyn raised their family happily together.
Then, one afternoon, everything had come tumbling down. Frank received a call at his office from the principal of Marilyn's school. "It's Marilyn," he said, "The janitor found her slumped over her desk. We called the ambulance, she's on her way to the General Hospital."
Frank had rushed out of the stone-turreted Victorian Gothic building that housed the University College English Department and ran across King's College Circle, taking the shortcut to Queen's Park between the Sigmond Samuel Library and the Medical School. Not bothering to wait for the traffic light at College Street, he dodged cars as he crossed the street, finally reaching the hospital all out of breath.
In the emergency room, an officious nurse curtly told Frank that Marilyn had been moved to intensive care. Frank ran over to the elevator and pushed the up button. While waiting for what seemed like hours but was really only seconds, he fidgeted with his hands. When the elevator door opened, he jumped in and pushed the button for the third floor. Again there was an intolerably long wait before the elevator started to move.
When the elevator finally reached the third floor, he dashed out and down the hallway following the signs to the intensive care ward. There he found Marilyn surrounded by a medical team and on life support systems and monitors. The sight of his wife with so many tubes and wires running into her body was more than he could stand.
When Frank raced up to the bed, the doctor took him aside, "She's gone into a coma. We're not sure what it is yet. But we have to stabilize her before we can let you see her. I'm sure you understand."
Feeling dejected and helpless, Frank trudged out to the waiting room. In spite of having been indoctrinated from childhood about proper male behavior, he broke down and cried. After all his tears were spent, he paced back and forth as the hours dragged by. Finally, the doctor came in and said that he could see Marilyn, but that he should know that she was still in a coma.
Trooping back into the intensive care ward, Frank went quietly up to Marilyn's bed. Taking her soft white hand in his own and rubbing it against his face, he pleaded tearfully, "Please don't leave me now. I need you so much. You have to get better. We have a life ahead of us."
There was no response. Frank sat on the chair beside the bed for an hour holding her hand until the doctor forced him to leave the room again so that the medical team could get back to work with another round of seemingly endless emergency procedures.
Back in the white and pastel-green waiting room, sitting on an uncomfortable couch made of chrome-plated steel tubes and plastic cushions, Frank mechanically thumbed through old Maclean's magazines and drank bad coffee while he waited anxiously for news. When it came, it confirmed his worst fear. Marilyn's heart had stopped beating. She was dead.
The autopsy revealed the cause of death as a ruptured aneurism. First it had struck her brain and then a piece had broken off and blocked one of the arteries in her heart, causing a cardiac arrest. The details didn't matter. What counted for Frank was that he was alone. He had long been resigned that his two grown children no longer needed him. Now he'd lost Marilyn. She had been his angel. His life was empty.
The funeral came and went. Family and friends had done what they could to relieve his hurt, but he was inconsolable. Was he grieving for Marilyn or himself? he wondered. There was a certain finality in seeing the coffin lowered into the ground. He instinctually reached down and picked up a handful of dirt which he threw on top . Frank was not a religious man, but somewhere deep down in his subconscious where his Presbyterian upbringing still held sway, a voice kept saying there must be more than this. Yet, he feared that maybe there wasn't.
Without Marilyn, Frank was not able to carry on as before climbing the academic ladder. He was rudderless. While he had kept teaching in the fall, his heart wasn't in it. And he was even less interested in preparing academic papers and attending conferences and seminars with his colleagues.
In an effort to escape the ivory-towered prison he had created for himself, Frank started spending more time at the campus pub drinking with his students after hours. It was more than just the alcohol and companionship he sought, although that certainly helped to alleviate his depression. Trying to recapture something of his lost youth, he wanted to see the world through fresh eyes, and needed to believe that all was still possible. He loved to participate in the students' no-holds-barred discussions of philosophy and religion. These were questions he had previously put aside as no longer relevant. But, of course, they still were. Nothing was more central to the human condition than moral choice.
Frank's thoughts kept returning to Vietnam. That was the one time he personally had been forced to make a moral choice. Yet he could not rid himself of the gnawing feeling that it had been too easy for him coming to Canada.
For Frank's African-American boyhood friend, Darrel Johnson, things had been much tougher. Darrel had been drafted and sent to Vietnam. What happened there was too awful to even think about. Still Frank could not put it out of his mind. He became obsessed with Darrel's fate. Vietnam was an integral part of his own past that he had never even seen. He hungered to know more.
The more Frank thought about Darrel and Vietnam, the more withdrawn and solitary he became. Instead of going out with his students or colleagues to socialize, he started to stay home and drink by himself. From beers, he progressed to Canadian Whiskey. Shot glasses turned into a bottle. The drinking began to interfere with his teaching. Night after night, he found himself glass in hand sitting on the recreation room chesterfield watching old movies about Vietnam on his VCR over and over again, cycling through Deerhunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, and Hamburger Hill. Several nights, he drank so much he passed out. Alcohol started to play tricks with his mind. Having seen so many Vietnam movies on the picture tube with their vivid images, sometimes he'd almost think he'd been there, kind of like Ronald Regan and World War II. Frank knew that this couldn't go on. He'd seen friends go down this route and become alcoholics. He knew what he had to do to regain control of his life, and he did it quickly. It took the form of two resolutions: first, no more hard booze; and second he was really going to go to Vietnam and try to exorcize his demons firsthand. That was his simple two step program.
Having made his decision, he notified the University that he was resigning at the end of the academic year because he needed some time to get his life together. The department head tried to convince him only to take a leave, but Frank was adamant. He needed a complete break. Nothing less would do.
When Frank called his children to inform them of his plans, he got a mixed response. His daughter, Linda, who was studying music at the Julliard School in New York was supportive, "Oh, Daddy that sounds really exciting. I wish I were going with you."
His son, Michael, who had graduated in computer science from the University of Waterloo and was working for Sun Microsystems in Mountain View, California was less encouraging, "You quit your job? Are you crazy? Don't you know how difficult it is for a man of your age to find another job? You need to get a hold of yourself, Dad, settle down. You haven't been right since Mom died." And Michael didn't know the half of it.
But it was too late for second thoughts, Frank's mind was already made up. Once school was out, he moved quickly to list his house with a realtor and sold or gave away most of his possessions. All those material possessions that he had worked so hard to acquire no longer mattered. Frank left Canada just as he had come, with nothing. Freed from the obligations of daily life and sporting a brand new Tilley's safari suit, his only indulgence, Frank was on his way to Vietnam to discover the truth about his buddy. It was the first real adventure of his sedentary life. The prospect filled him with excitement and anticipation, but also fear of what he might find out about Darrel and himself.