Initially, I sought to write “The Great Novel of the United States Marine Corps.” I planned to base the tale on a real-life Marine family––my family––the “Remains” of Boston. But, as I embarked upon the symbolic excavation of the Remain family history, I unearthed a fascinating ancestral mosaic of myriad richness; so I have decided, instead, to tell my family’s authentic story. Seven Remains, over three generations, have “claimed the title of United States Marine;” each of them has fought in one or more of America’s twentieth-century wars––World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam.
In can remember, from my youth, my grandfather––Kenneth Remain––telling me his Marine Corps stories as I sat at his knee. As I grew in years and understanding, I came to realize that he was withholding contextual and relational details, thereby leaving gaping holes in his narrative. When I pressed him for those details, he bristled at my questions; in time, the storytelling ceased altogether. His secretiveness suggested to me that there might be skeletons in the Remain family cupboard . . . and, moreover, that the cupboard would remain forever locked.
. . . Twenty years later, though, Grandfather, fully on board with my literary mission and possessing an almost visceral need to tell his story in its entirety, unburdened himself––lock, stock, and smoking barrels. A beacon of “terminological exactitude,” he threw open the Remain family cupboard, revealing vivid and dramatic portals: to his childhood; to his days at Harvard College; and to his friendship with his college roommate, Lawrence Blakeslee––the scion of an old-money, Boston Brahmin family––whose own actions, as well as the actions of his descendants, were to have enormous repercussions upon three generations of Remains.
More specifically, Grandfather related how he and Lawrence had joined the Marines in 1917, and how they had served together at Belleau Wood, one of the most famous battles in Marine Corps history; he gave his account of how he had distinguished himself during that month-long engagement, and how he had earned the Medal of Honor; he told of how he had come to meet and marry my grandmother, KatyKay; and, he detailed how he had amassed the Remain family fortune in the years following the war. Grandfather also chronicled the early lives of his and my grandmother’s five children––including my father, Alfred; he revealed the circumstances and actions that had triggered the Remain–Blakeslee feud; he related the subsequent events that had caused the families to be at daggers drawn for more than five decades; he described the appalling and enduring impact this enmity had had on the progeny of both clans; and, he shared the letters he had received from his brother Robert, who had made a career of the Corps.
His saga is one of intellect and intrigue, abounding with individual triumph and fraught with human frailty. Moreover, Grandfather had set the stage for a tale of another war––WWII––and another generation of Remains, several of whom would cloak themselves in the mantle of Marine Corps heroism.
The inaugural words of this monumental work were penned on the first day of January in 1969––the literary first fruit of my New Year’s resolution to put to paper the collective memories of the Remain family. So much story to tell! As I wrote over the years, I was driven to distraction by the continuing conflagration in Vietnam that was, and still is, this Marine’s war. I found it difficult, at times, to give my full attention to my “war of words,” while the spirit of a war incarnate beat its drums daily at the door of my consciousness.
1969 brought massive anti-war demonstrations, the horror of the My Lai massacre, the exit strategy coined “Vietnamization,” and, the second highest American death toll by year. 1970 delivered the U.S. incursion into Cambodia, more anti-war protests, the shootings at Kent State, and, more than 6,000 additional American combat deaths. 1971 exploded politically when Daniel Ellsburg and The New York Times leaked the Pentagon Papers. 1972 promised hope with its peace talks, though punctuated by the U.S. bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, as well as the North Vietnamese “Easter Offensive.” 1973 offered peace with the signing of the cease-fire, the withdrawal of all American combat troops from Vietnam, and, the return of hundreds of American prisoners-of-war. 1974 portended doom as the North Vietnamese went back on the offensive. And, 1975 trumpeted Allied defeat as Quang Tri, Hue, Da Nang, and, lastly, Saigon fell to the Communists. I choked back tears as I watched the dramatic television footage of helicopters evacuating the last American personnel from the rooftop of the American Embassy.
This bitter end to the Vietnam War afforded me no closure. I have carried this war––or has it carried me?––since that day in 1968, when a “Freedom Bird” finally lifted me above the fray. The flight home succeeded in putting distance between Vietnam––both the country and the war––and my physical embodiment. But Vietnam would remain embedded within my psyche . . . perhaps forevermore!
It quickly became evident that my very being appears to be irrevocably tied to my wartime experiences, generating a complex emotional and psychological state that is, at best, intrusive, and, at worst, disabling. My matrix of emotions incorporates pride, grief, anxiety, guilt, and anger. I dealt with this phenomenon by burying myself, as best I could, in my writing. Literary entombment provided some succor, but not without collateral damage: it has cost me, among other things, my marriage and any semblance of a normal relationship with my children. Was it too high a price to pay? I can only answer that my sanity was at stake, and the cost to maintain it was not negotiable. Though I genuinely sought détente, I could not strike a balance between my familial obligations and the need to find myself in my words. I have reconciled myself to the belief that abandoning my writing in order to stay the marital course would have resulted in even more dire consequences for all involved. Simply put, I had no choice but to write!
At times, I wrote almost as if possessed by the prolific spirit of Shakespeare––the words flowing like the rising Mekong River in the monsoon season. Other times, I wrote not at all, the current of my thoughts and ideas dammed by events occurring more than 8,000 miles away.
Early on in the process, at the nadir of one of my darkest moments, I placed this sign over my writing table:
These words galvanized my sense of mission and my sense of identity. They carried me through lonely days, endless nights, and overlong years.