With one sip left in my nightcap, I was thinking of fixing another to extend the beautiful evening when the phone rang. In the deepest of Southern accents, a man asked if I was the James Joyce who wrote the book about flying helicopters in Vietnam. He’d read a review of it in the newspaper. I told him I was.
“I flew choppers there, too,” he said. “Do you got time to talk to me? Am ah botherin’ you? Should ah call back ‘nother time?”
I said I’d be happy to talk to him and asked the standard Vietnam questions: What years were you there, and what unit did you serve with?
In no time we discovered we had mutual acquaintances, had very similar experiences, and had even served in the same battalion although at different times. A camaraderie was swiftly established. He’d had two tours in Vietnam, had been shot down three times, and could count 40 friends who’d been killed there. He went from story to story, obviously needing to talk. I simply listened. Then there was a long pause, and when he spoke again it was barely above a whisper.
“You ever been to that wall?” (Knowing he meant The Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.), I told him that I had. Another long pause.
“Did you break down?” he asked quietly.
“Yes,” I said “I did.”
Another pause. “I figure I would, too, so I ain’t gonna go see it. Ah don’t want ma wife to see me cryun.”
Soon after this we hung up. He said he was going to buy my book. I asked him to call me after he’d read it. I went into the house, fixed that second nightcap, returned to the porch, and thought about our conversation. I no longer heard the owl, the insects, or the rain. I lost a lot of friends in Vietnam, too. I started cryun.
Veryl had been told by my ex-wife that I was a Vietnam veteran. Early in my personal analysis she asked about it: “Did your experiences in Vietnam affect you in any way?”
“No, not at all,” I said.
“Surely it changed your life at least a little,” she countered.
“I don’t think so,” I countered back. “I was only there a year. I wasn’t a hero or a coward. I just did my job and came home.”
“But you flew helicopters — you must have seen some terrible things,” she persisted.
“Thousands of guys flew helicopters. The guys that got the worst of it were the infantry soldiers on the ground.” I said, and meant it.
“OK,” she said, obviously not believing me. “But it’s hard to imagine the war didn’t have some impact on you. Maybe we’ll come back to it.”
We never did get back to it.
Three decades later we had a Joyce family reunion at our house. On that same front porch my nephews from California started asking me questions about my time in Vietnam. I was happy to answer them. I was not like many vets who won’t, or can’t, talk about their time in combat. I told them story after story, but then got to one I couldn’t finish. This had never happened. My eyes filled with tears and my throat constricted and I had to excuse myself. I went into the house and poured a double Scotch.
Part of my job as a helicopter pilot was flying troops (20-year-old kids) into battle. It was a godawful time for them and for us pilots. Seeing the fresh eager faces of my nephews reminded me of those troops, and those memories flooded my eyes. So yes, Veryl, my Vietnam experiences did have an impact on me. A whole book’s worth, but it took unexpected tears that finally got it out of me — 35 years later. No one is completely psychoanalyzed.
Crying, even in this enlightened age of psychological awareness, is still a problem for many men. It is a blatant showing of emotions, which they consider to be in the female realm of personality. Because females are the “weaker sex” crying is, therefore, a sign of weakness in these men’s minds. When I was growing up the crying issue was clearly explained to me by my two-fisted, Irish father. He left no confusion in my mind. He stated, often, the way it was supposed to be: “Women cry outside and men cry inside,” and that settled that. After the age of 7 or so, I recall crying only two other times. The first time was at age 12 when my grandfather died and the other time was at age 29 when my father died. Sorry, Dad, I couldn’t help it.
I wasn’t a crier on the outside until I found myself in psychoanalysis and then the tears flowed freely, especially at the beginning. Early on in my analysis it became painfully clear that our marriage was over. I cried for myself, of course, but I cried for the dead marriage, also. It had had its own life and identity. I cried for lost hopes, dreams, plottings and plannings that would never come to be. And I cried for the past. Much of it had just become a lie. But the greatest pain came from knowing I would soon lose my boys, who were ages 6 and 7 at the time. When the divorce was final they would be accompanying their mother back to Florida. I would remain in Colorado to finish my training.
Our last night together as a family, so to speak, was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We went out to dinner and then it was time for good-bye. The next day they’d be leaving. I kissed the boys and climbed into my pickup truck to return to Durango, a four-hour drive. I was not out of the restaurant parking lot before a scream of anguish came out of me. And then another scream, and another, as the finality of what was happening sank in. Tears gushed from my eyes and the screams kept coming and this scream/cry continued as I drove across the New Mexico desert. I could not contain it and could barely see the road through the tears. After an hour I stopped in the beat-up little town of Cuba, near the Apache Reservation. I composed myself long enough to check into a run-down motel, then found a liquor store and bought a quart of vodka. I returned to the room and drank the whole thing, all the while weeping in disbelief. It was the worst goddamned night of my life.
When I entered psychoanalysis and my marriage fell apart I made up for all the crying I didn’t do as a teen and young adult. I’ve been pretty good at crying ever since. Now I have to tell on myself. After the divorce I continued my personal psychoanalysis and was seeing patients under supervision when my boys came to visit the following summer. We were driving down Durango’s Main Street when I asked where they wanted to go for lunch. Jim said, “McDonalds.” Walter said, “Burger King.” I said, “Well, we’re not going to both and McDonald’s is closer so we’ll go there.” Walter started crying, which really pissed me off. I said, “Shut up, damn it. Boys don’t cry!” A second later I could have cut my tongue out. All that analysis and training and I was still under the influence of my dad! Concepts learned early are very difficult to eradicate.
I apologized to Walter, we went to both places, and I, Mr. Shrink the Expert, demonstrated I was less than astute as a parent and still had work to do as a patient. I should not have given my sons an option. Of course, they’d say different places. I shouldn’t have yelled at Walter and certainly shouldn’t have told him not to cry. I also should not have given in, and gone to both places. And I should not have told Jim to wipe that smug look off his face, before I smacked it off.This is getting embarrassing. Let’s get out of this story.
Typical patients in psychotherapy are between 30 and 45 years of age and most of them (I’d guess 75 percent) are women. Women are generally good at crying and are usually easier to treat because they are closer to their emotions than men and are not, therefore, afraid of them. Women’s biological make-up is more circular than that of guys and so, too, is their psychological make-up. Their intellects and emotions touch more often, hanging around together like friends. We men, on the other hand, are linear in nature and like to keep our emotions behind us as we stridently go forth. To get men to stop and wait for their feelings to catch up presents a challenge to the therapist.
Psychotherapy must be a combination of thought and feeling with neither, alone, contributing much to eventual well-being. They must be integrated so when a memory gives up a sad time from the past, or life is currently wretched, the patient should intellectually know it, emotionally feel it – and cry. It is good for him and no shrink’s office is without a box of Kleenex. It is a tool of our trade. We can write off the purchase on our income tax.
I had a patient we’ll call “Grady.” He was a huge man, 6’5” tall and almost 300 pounds. He came to see me because he had suddenly found himself a single parent — the father of two girls ages 2 and 6. His wife had run off with another woman. He wanted to “do right by” his daughters in his new-found role. Grady knew they would be “fucked up” by their mother leaving. He came for advice, not psychoanalysis, he said.
I asked him some details about his failed marriage, and he took much of the blame. He worked as a sales representative and his job kept him away from home for weeks at a time. He was full of remorse. He was also terribly embarrassed by his wife’s departure with a woman. “How did I turn her into a queer?” he wanted to know.
“You didn’t,” I told him.
As we talked it became clear that his main fear, and the reason he came to see me, was that he would “Raise my girls to be lesbian.” I told him we’d work to be sure that didn’t happen, but for now we’d concentrate on him.
“How are you coping with your guilt and hurt?” I asked.
He smiled and said, “I drink a lot.”
“Have you been able to cry about it?” I asked.
“Fuck no, I don’t cry.”
“Because men don’t cry.”
“That’s bullshit,” I said. “Your life is a disaster, you have every reason to cry.”
He looked at me like I’d just said the most profound thing he’d ever heard. His eyes welled up, he put his hands to his face and began to sob. “Go for it, Grady,” I said softly. “It’s OK.”
He cried for five minutes or so and when he finished he gave me an embarrassed smile. “That’s the first time I cried since I was a kid,” he said wiping his eyes. “Thanks for telling me it was OK.”
I’ve heard people say (I’ve said it myself) that they are afraid to cry because once they start they may not be able to stop. This is an honest fear, albeit neurotic. No one can cry forever, so go for it man ... and take your time.
Waynesville resident Jim Joyce’s memoir, Use Eagles if Necessary, is being published in weekly installments in The Smoky Mountain News. Each week we begin a chapter in our print edition and then put the entire chapter on our Web site. The book can be purchased at rockpublishing.com/eagles.htm, and may be ordered through bookstores.