June 17, 2007
I don't know the exact circumstances of the telegram, but it's arrival was, in a way, the beginning of my story. It arrived near the end November. I picture it being delivered by hand because that's how telegrams are delivered in the movies. I picture it arriving on a cold and blustery day. Grey. But I don't know any of those facts. I do know the message was a short, just a few sentences informing my dad he had been drafted and was expected to report for a physical within the week. The war in Vietnam was ramping up and the government was drafting foreign doctors in huge numbers. The choice for those doctors was simple: serve in Vietnam or have your green card revoked. My dad had been in New York for 3 years, his residency was almost over and he could have gone home, but he was committed to living in the US and he was dating a local girl from Queens, a nurse. He was 25, she was 20.
Within days of the telegram my parents-to-be made a series of decisions. They would get married right away. He would go to Vietnam, but they would try get pregnant before he left in case he didn't make it home. It was the logic of love. By March they were married and by April they were living in Fort Benning Georgia where my dad underwent basic training. Doctors were admitted as captains, and married captains were given small bungalow apartments. The doctors were housed together and as so many were foreign green card holders they were nicknamed by their country of origin, so there was the Jamaican, the Greek, the Russian, the Italian and so on. My parents neighbors were the Italians. The Italians already had one year old child and the wife was certain the men wouldn't return. "Don't get pregnant," she told my mother, "it's bad enough we're both going to be 20 year old widows."
The 8 weeks of basic training passed quickly. In the final week before the men were scheduled to fly to San Francisco for the ocean passage to Danang, the army scheduled a dance. My mom went out and bought a polka dot dress just for that night. Arriving at the dance she discovered her Italian neighbor was wearing the same dress. They were both horrified and amused. Although they wouldn't know until later, both women got pregnant that night.
A week later the men were boarding one of those big miltary prop planes and the women having said their goodbyes were standing on the wet tarmac watching propellers cut the rain. It was dark and gloomy despite the military band and the peppy voices on the loudspeakers and my mom, feeling desperate, wrote a quick note. After much pleading she managed to get one of the crewmen to carry it onboard. My mom loved telling the story of how a stonefaced airman finally broke formation to take her quickly take envelope...
A few days later my mom was on a plane to Mexico where she waited out my father's tour of duty and gave birth to me. When he arrived back from the war I was 4 months old. Today with my own four month old, and many years older than my dad was then, the moment I always wonder about was the one where the plane broke through the clouds and cleared the rain. It was then that he opened that envelope my mom had sent him. The paper inside read simply, "Te amo."