My father loves to tell stories. I’d heard over one hundred by the time I was ten years old, a new one each day. Every time the sun disappeared behind the cable lines and golden hills, we could expect a new set of stories to come to life, to make us feel excited about waking up in the morning, so we could have the chance to go on the adventures we’d always heard about. We never questioned the number of people my father seemed to know or why they all felt so comfortable sharing their stories with him. It wasn’t important. He told my sister and I that telling a story is an art. Through charismatic characters, the art is expressed, and the message is sent; stories are supposed to make us feel something and I always felt something after one of my father’s stories. I guess that means they were true art.
One of my favorite stories he told me was of an uncle. His name was James and he was born in 1949, “a proud baby boomer”. Of course, I didn’t know what a baby boomer was at the time. I’m sure I quickly hypothesized a reasonable definition; maybe he made a lot of noise as a child, had a lot of tantrums. Maybe we had something in common. It was always better to create my own missing pieces than to ask my father questions. He rarely knew the answer. This particular story happened to fall into my father’s impressively stocked genre of war tales. This story, however, did not involve the thrill of the frontlines that typically ended with a moral of how valuable life is.
James never made plans that were set more than two years into the future. He and all of his friends, and every boy in his high school, knew since they were sixteen years old what their future looked like. It was 1967 and the world was changing. The Civil Rights movement, counterculture, and the Vietnam War were just a few of the things plaguing young boys minds as they fell asleep at night. James would see the other boys he and his friends looked up to returning from Vietnam with parts missing—legs, eyes, memories, sanity.
When he graduated from high school, he knew he could buy some time and avoid the draft by enrolling in college, and it worked for a couple of years. One unfortunate day, however, his luck ran out. He was catching up on his reading of the Illiad, when he was called into the dean’s office. There were two men dressed in dark brown war attire when he entered. They had stoic looks on their faces, all-business, straight to the point kind of looks. James immediately knew that his time as a college student had expired and in less than a week he would be on his way to the frontlines of Vietnam.
The very next day as he was walking the streets of Oakland on his way to the Induction Center, he thought about everything he would do when he returned from Vietnam. He promised himself he’d do everything on the list, and he’d never broken a promise. The first thing he decided on was a visit to the aquarium in Monterey. He loved aquatic life. There was something so peaceful and calming about the water. He would never admit it in a million years, but he used to pretend to be a mermaid and tie his ankles together to practice getting around without legs. My father was the only person in the entire world who knew that.
Even though he wanted to live in the water, he never actually liked being in it. My father teased him endlessly about it. He didn’t like the beach, the swimming pool; he even had something personal against taking baths. Nevertheless, he could stare at an aquarium of fish for hours, as he always did.
The mere thought of the calm existence of these creatures almost made him forget what doors he was opening when he stepped into the silent building. Of course, the anxiety radiating from every man in line reminded him exactly why he was there. He took a seat next to a young man with a kind face and deep set eyes that harbored knowledge of things far beyond his years. The ticking of the clock grew louder and louder, the red seconds hand aggressively counting down the few minutes of freedom he had left.
“Excuse me sir.” His heart skipped a beat when he realized that it must be his turn. He was out of time.
“Pssst.” The voice came from his right, just inches from his ear, “Over here!”
“What?” James responded, flustered. The man with the wise eyes answered, “Ask to see the doctor.”
“Next!” called the secretary.
“That’s me,” said Wise Eyes with a farewell smile as he walked away.
When it was finally his turn James felt as though he had nothing to lose by asking the secretary this question. He was referred to the psychiatrist after his physical exam. James was nervous and fidgety. The doctor asked him a few questions and then he told him he could leave. As James opened the door to exit, the doctor said,
“Go home and hug your family, young man. You’re not going to Vietnam.”
The only reason he could think of for the exemption was that the psychiatrist was one of those hippie protestor people that were always trying to shut down the Induction Center. He thought of Wise Eyes and how if it weren’t for him, he would be packing his life away into a small suitcase, fighting back tears as he rushed to say his goodbyes to his family. Wise Eyes was his guardian angel.
My uncle is just one of the many characters in my father’s stories that I’ve always wanted to meet, along with Wise Eyes and countless others. I’ve come to learn that whenever an “uncle” is in a story, my father is most likely telling a story about himself. It has yet to be confirmed, but I am almost certain that he is an only child. Granted, a story is just that. It doesn’t have to be factually true as long as it’s honest, and my father is an honest man.