Taylor & Shelly Issue 5

Taylor & Shelly Issue 5

I had the idea for a holiday-themed issue of the zine for a few weeks but I was having trouble writing it.

I’d asked my mom to send me some Christmas memories from her childhood. I figured it would be something light and sweet. But what she ended up sending me presented a fun creative challenge.

She said, “I have many fond Christmas memories, but in retrospect, one Christmas memory stands out because of its historic significance – Christmas of 1965. The November 1965 draft call was the largest since the Korean War. My brother, Dick, was drafted at 22 years of age. He was stationed in Hawaii before being shipped out to Vietnam in December of 1965.”

My uncle Dick doesn’t talk about his time in Vietnam. On top of that, this was a much more somber tone than I had for my own story. I needed to think about what this experience must have been like for my uncle and for my tween mom. I also had to find a memory of my own that reflected the emotional complexity of hers and would juxtapose in an interesting way. 

I was also working with less information than I had for my own story. My mom remembers not fully grasping the gravity of the situation when Dick was drafted. And since Dick doesn’t talk about his experience, I didn’t have those details either.

I remembered The Things They Carried, the incredible book by Tim O’Brien about his time in Vietnam, and I read a few articles about soldiers sending and receiving taped messages during the war. My mom said my uncle Greg had borrowed an old reel-to-reel recorder from his high school so they could make the tape for Dick, so I googled 1960s reel-to-reel players and sent some possible options to my mom to see if it matched her memory.

I also researched the weather in Hawaii in November and looked at the wide swath of ocean between those islands and Vietnam on Google maps.

My first few drafts were lumbering along and I was getting bored! I had to take my own advice and start as late in the action as I could. Although I don’t know what really happened, I could imagine a few feasible scenes. Once I had some sensory details, it all seemed to fall into place.

“Even a map cannot show you the way back to a place that no longer exists.” – Sandra M. Castillo, “Christmas, 1970.”

At a US army base in Hawaii, Shelly’s older brother Dick holds an open reel tape in his hands. It’s the end of November 1965 and he’s been drafted into the Vietnam War at 22 years old. The label on the tape reads, “For Dick. Merry Christmas.”

The war is escalating. In March, 3,500 US marines were the first combat troops to arrive in Vietnam, joining about 23,000 US military personnel. In July, President Johnson announced that the draft induction would go from 17,000 to 35,000 a month.

Dick loads the tape onto the reel-to-reel player and pulls on a pair of headphones. He flips a few switches and turns some knobs before the sound of his family meets his ears.
Shelly’s bright voice is in the foreground as she and Dick’s other siblings wish him a merry Christmas – Steve, Greg, John, Holly and Cami and their mom and stepdad all shouting like they’re straining their cheer across a great distance. 

Someone whispers authoritatively before everyone erupts into “Deck the Halls.” Outside, Dick watches the rain come down in undulating sheets, the wind whipping the palm trees, their fronds blown back like a dog with its head out the car window.
He’d moved out of the family home when he was 18. Shelly was nine. She pushed a baby buggy down the hall as he loaded his things into the back of his car. Now she’s 13, in her last year at St. Clare’s Catholic School. He hears her voice come through again, “we love you!” and then all the voices disappear, replaced by a steady, galloping static. He switches it off.

In December, Dick’s ship leaves for Vietnam. It takes them 30 days to get there. What does December 25th look like – were they in the Philippine Sea? By the time he arrives in January 1966, there are 184,314 US military personnel in South Vietnam.

And as the months go by, how does he measure the passage of time? Seven thousand miles away, Shelly is finishing her last year of junior high. With just two outfits other than her Catholic school uniform, she teaches herself to sew. In the fall, she starts at the
newly-built high school near her house. None of her other siblings go there. She is untethered to her past, able to reinvent herself anew. In the bathroom between classes, an older girl shows her how to put on makeup. 

Opposition to the war builds. Protesters fill the streets while, a world away, Dick wades through water the color of chocolate milk. Is the tape still in his rucksack among the can opener, pocket knife, bug repellent and rations? A talisman, a warm hand on his shoulder? Or is its weight too much?

When he comes home, he
keeps his stories to himself.

When I was seven, my dad showed up for Christmas. He even put a present under the tree for me – a new bike without training wheels. I didn’t know how to ride a bike without them. He said he would teach me.

I put on my coat over my pajamas and pulled my boots onto my bare feet. We walked out into the chilly stillness, my dad holding the bike in one hand. He put it down on the sidewalk and I climbed onto the seat. He started to push me and I strained with pointed toes towards the pedals.

We gained speed, passing dark houses – the only sound was the thwacking of my dad’s shoes as he quickened his pace and the sticky rhythm of new rubber on the cold sidewalk. I wrapped my fingers tighter around the handlebars and felt him let go. I clenched my teeth and drew ice cold air through my nose, my legs pumping and my feet swatting at the pedals. If I just moved fast enough, I could outrun the sidewalk leaping to meet my face. I could show my dad that I could do it. I could have this moment I’d seen play out with the neighbourhood kids – riding to the end of the sidewalk, coming to a graceful stop, getting off and running into dad’s arms.

I hadn’t seen my dad in six months and wasn’t supposed to for six more. My brother and I visited him every summer, taking the plane by ourselves to California. He’d meet us at the airport in sunglasses, shorts and flip flops and we’d climb into his convertible and follow neat rows of palm trees through heat mirages all the way to his apartment. He’d take us to swimming pools and amusement parks but when we tested him by hiding his credit cards and throwing his shoes
off the balcony, he’d go for long drives without us. We’d put ourselves to bed, taking our mom’s picture from our suitcase and crying silently in the pitch dark.

The cold seeped through my clothes and singed my skin. I raised my head and let it fall. The helmet’s plastic scratched against the sidewalk. That’s when my dad stepped into view, the bright sky casting him in silhouette. 

“Are you just gonna give up?” he asked.

“Just as snow makes the less than impeccable classical, stroking the merely drab or passing, quickly or slowly, so we can count only on its leaving, teaching liquidity to what seems solid.” – Alice Fulton, “Where are the stars pristine.”