I read Stars and Stripes every day, even though Mom said, before she left us, that it was military propaganda horseshit. The POWs were coming home and that seemed pretty important because they were mentioned in every issue. On February 12, 1973, school closed early and we were packed into buses and driven out to the airfield. The Filipino sun was too hot, and we played sword fight with the little U.S. flags the teachers gave us to wave. Mom had not been gone very long, maybe a few weeks, and I hadn’t cried yet.
The POW’s were coming from Hanoi in Operation Homecoming. Families with younger kids joined the growing crowd of school children streaming from the buses. Sweat dribbled down my temples and the back of my neck into my damp smock top as I squinted at the sky.
We heard the first C-141 before we saw it and a cheer rolled through the crowds. The plane landed with smoking tires and taxied up, not far from the fence we were leaning on.
The belly opened and men hobbled down the ramp on crutches, while others were carried on stretchers. After saluting with bony hands, some fell to their knees to kiss the tarmac. I wondered what the hot pavement tasted like.
Up close I could see their skeletons trying to poke through their skin. One of them stepped up to the podium but I couldn’t hear anything because of the cheering until he said, “God bless America” at the end.
I felt the prick of tears even though Mom said there wasn’t much to be proud of, especially with Nixon in office. She told me villages of innocent people and babies had been burned alive by the Air Force. She didn’t exactly say Dad did it, but he was a squadron commander whose job it was to drop napalm. On villages.
Dad said those villages were full of the enemy and he’d was never happier than when he was dropping napalm.
Some of the POWs were tortured. A boy in my fifth grade class whispered the Gooks shoved bamboo shoots under a bunch of the guys’ fingernails and then bound their hands with rope, a form of Japanese torture from WWII. I strained to look at their hands but I couldn’t see any scars.
The grownups around us were crying and tears rolled down my sunburned cheeks because I missed Mom and because so many skinny men were crying hard in the hot sun, just like little kids.