Chapter Four: Karen Zacharias/After the Flag is Folded (formerly titled Hero Mama)

Karen Spears-Zacharias was nine when her father, Army Staff Sergeant David Spears, died in Vietnam in July, 1966, leaving behind one wife and three children: Linda (6), Karen (9), and Frankie (11). Zacharias' father was a career soldier who had already fought in Korea before he met Shelby on a blind date; she was 16 and he was 22. He had dropped out of school in the 8th grade, and she left 10th grade, pregnant, to marry him. The family moved frequently to locations as widely diverse as Eastern Tennessee and Hawaii. Born on a military base in Germany, Zacharias lived most of her life near or on military bases. Zacharias reports that her mother enjoyed being a proud military wife. All her friends were also military wives. They supported each other during deployments. Shelby Spears had never sought a career for herself, and was terrified that she might have to support her children alone. She depended on her husband and enjoyed being known, not by her own name, but as “Sgt. Spears’ wife” (18). She had given birth to her youngest child Linda and raised her alone while Spears was deployed for 15 months to Korea. She loved to dress the kids up and show them off on base at social events.
While Spears was deployed to Vietnam, his third deployment to a war zone, the family moved back to the couple’s home town of Rogersville, Tennessee, to a trailer in Slaughters Trailer Court, to await his return. Shelby's disabled father moved in with the family. Before he left, S/Sgt. Spears told his children they needed to be strong for their mother. He told his son Frankie that he was now the man of the house and to take care of his mother and two sisters (7). He gave similar directions to Zacharias. When she went to bed and cried, her father came into her room. Sitting beside her on her bed, he assuaged her fear that he would not come home. He promised that he would come back. Then he told her “But I need for you to stop your crying, Okay? It upsets Mama” (8). Zacharias remembers forcing herself to stop crying so she wouldn’t upset anyone
The first night after the notice of his death, Zacharias felt afraid when she tried to go to sleep. She was frightened by her mother’s crying (20). She had heard that her father's head might have been decapitated, and she feared the same thing might happen to her. She writes “With him gone, we were headless. It was as if somebody came into our home with a machete and in one swift slice decapitated our entire family” (15). She reflects:
It’s hard to explain what losing a father does to a family. Daddy’s death is the road marker we kids use to measure our life’s journey. Before his death, ours was a home filled with intimacy and devotion. After his death, it was filled with chaos and destruction. (14)
The family held special status in Rogersville because Spears was the town’s first decorated war hero since WWII. In 1966, the war protests had not consumed the attention of most people in that small town. Yet during the shopping trip for her funeral dress, Zacharias remembers feeling “something like embarrassment or shame” when the clerk stared at her and asked if it was her father who had died in Vietnam. She felt like “we’d all done something wrong for which Daddy had paid the price, and now the whole town of Rogersville was talking about us” (36). The lady then began talking about another tragedy she must have read about in the same newspaper, a car wreck. “Some folks treat tragedies like jokes. They get on a roll and start telling all the one-liners they know…” (36). Partly because of the clerk’s reaction, Zacharias hated that dress and felt ugly in it. Her experience at the local VFW, where the family attended a ceremony to receive Spear's Purple Heart, taught her that “there were a lot more reasons to be sad than proud when a daddy dies a war hero” (70). By feeling sad while others were expressing pride, her reaction closely mirrors that of Susan Hadler's in 1945.
Zacharias relates that she walked into the funeral parlor for the viewing of the body and saw some kind of a trunk. It had not occurred to her mother to explain to the kids what they were about to see. Zacharias felt frightened and confused, asking her mother repeatedly why the corpse was blue. When they got into the car, her mother turned and yelled at her, “Because he’s dead! She left off the ‘stupid’, although I heard it in her tone anyway” (42). Zacharias felt as cold as the corpse they had just seen. She rocked back and forth in the back seat of the car and hummed a hymn “Just as I am without one plea, but then thy blood was shed for me.” She claims that she still weeps for her father the way she did that day at the funeral home and that even today her mother is troubled by her tears (43). Zacharias was so impacted by viewing her father’s dead body and by conflicting stories about the way he died (the military gave a different version from eye-witnesses) that she devotes three chapters of her memoir to his funeral. At the funeral she remembered what her father had told her about not upsetting her mother with crying, so she wept quietly and tried to “swallow as much bitter water as I could” (59).
But Zacharias lived in private fear and guilt about her father's death. Newspaper reports of her father’s death stated that he had been killed by one of his own misfired shells. Zacharias had been raised a Southern Baptist and wondered if God was punishing the family for wrongdoing. She wondered if her father had done something wrong to deserve to die. She also wondered if she had done something wrong, and soon convinced herself that she was somehow at fault for her father’s death (21). She wanted to tell her mother that her father had died because she had been a bad girl, but feared that her mother would abandon her. She kept silent about her fears (26). She believed that God was teaching her a lesson (27). She also questioned whether an “omnipresent power… [orchestrated] who died and who didn’t in wars… (65).She became devoted to the Christian message of salvation out of fear she might never see her dad in the afterlife (69). She says "Being the daughter of a dead man made me feel dirty inside, as if I had done something so wrong, so nasty, so unforgivable that God's only recourse was to take my daddy away" (121). She wanted to "spit in God's face and tell him what a pathetic mess he'd made of things." She didn't realize then that "most of the mess had been manmade" (121).
But she found little solace among her extended family. Family taboos about older children expressing neediness impacted her feelings of loneliness. She writes that her little sister Linda was welcome to stay close to their mother, but that she and her brother were considered too old. Her aunt had made several critical remarks about another relative who allowed her son to sit in her lap long past the proper age. But Zacharias “longed for such comfort,” and when it was not given she “just pretended my hurt wasn’t as big as Linda’s because after all, I was the older sister” (23). However, her grandmother opened her arms and let her cry as long as she liked. She didn’t have to hide her grief or pretend she wasn’t hurt, and “unlike other folks throughout my life, Granny never ever told me I needed to get over my father’s death” (24). Yet by Thanksgiving of that year, when they went to Granny’s house, “Daddy’s death had been relegated to the list of things our families didn’t talk about anymore” (81). Her disabled grandfather (who also lived with the family in the trailer park) never spoke to her about any family matters at all. Her aunt refused to allow any war movies in her home, claiming she couldn't tolerate anything about war since her brother's death (124). Zacharias never discussed her sorrows with her own brother, "…the attitude of the day just didn't allow for such discussion, not even behind closed doors" (292). Zacharias speculates that her family was afraid to speak of her father’s death because they feared giving her too much information that might “shatter my soul and all that’ll be left of the girl they love will be dangerously jagged edges. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m afraid of the same thing myself” (49).
Zacharias also expressed discomfort with pity shown to her by well-meaning visitors. She didn’t understand why they were saying they were sorry, as if they had done something wrong (25). She claims she learned to not speak of her position because she did not want to be the “object of other people’s sympathy” (60). This is the same feeling expressed by many WWII orphans. Zacharias disliked the look in her teacher’s eyes when she was greeted with sympathy for her father’s death. Like so many others before her, she “didn’t like being singled out as the only girl in fifth grade whose father was killed in war. I didn’t want to be fatherless at all, but if I had to be, I didn’t want the other kids to know about it” (68). She made no friends at that Rogersville school. During her school years she remembers the kids saying only hurtful things. One classmate said to her, "It really bothers me that you don't have a daddy. I don't like being around you because of that" (121). She learned at an early age that the "death of soldiers in Vietnam didn't evoke much concern from others…nobody really seemed to care that [we] were growing up without a father…so we bore our sorrows in silence, to keep from offending anyone…" (121).
The family finally moved back to Columbus, Georgia to live near Fort Benning to receive services for which they still were eligible. However, this time they lived on the poor side of town. Zacharias' teenage years were impacted by living in 4 trailer parks in 5 years and by her mother’s struggles to develop a nursing career. In this civilian community so near a large military installation, silence and a hidden status settled in and enveloped the family. Zacharias relates its effects:
Mama accepted her assignment as the war hero’s widow with unwavering reserve. It was her duty, her obligation, and one she fulfilled with headstrong determination and very little emotion. There was never a moment in the days, weeks, or months following Daddy’s death when Mama sat us kids down and tried to explain anything to us, and it never occurred to us to ask. From the get-go, we did not discuss Daddy – not with Mama, not among ourselves. It was almost as if our entire history as a family of five had been erased from the chalkboard of our memory. But of course it hadn’t. Daddy’s absence was emblazoned across our hearts…It felt as though each one of us had been marked and marred for life. (69)
At her 6th grade promotion ceremony, Zacharias thought her mother "felt out of place among all those other mothers who had their husbands still" (273). That day was the first time her mother broke silence about her husband to tell Zacharias a story of how he used to dress his daughter up and take her around to show her off to his buddies on base. Zacharias writes that although her mother had quit saying his name once he died, Zacharias had always longed to hear stories about him but, "we couldn't bear to ask about the things that would surely stir her to sadness." As her mother spoke:
Tears, salty and hot, streamed down my cheeks. I didn't dare look at her or say anything. I didn't know what had caused Mama to lift the veil of silence that had shrouded her since the day Daddy died, but I didn't want to give her any reason to stop talking now. I had waited umpteen thousand days to hear Mama speak Daddy's name again. She could've told me a zillion stories of "Dave this" and "Dave that" and I would never have tired of them. (274)
Zacharias writes that she began using writing as a “tool to bring order to chaos” as soon as her father was buried when she wrote a letter to her teacher explaining her absence (19). After her mother began dating other men, she also began having recurring dreams of her father appearing at the front door and claiming his death had been a mistake. In her dream she had to tell her father that her mother is with another man. She wakes up feeling angry at her father for abandoning them and at her mother for her infidelity (109).
One of her mother's boyfriends, a military man from Fort Benning, proposed marriage, but Shelby did not want to give up her widow's benefits. Finances were a constant struggle for the family, although Zacharias' mother refused to acknowledge that in her later years. Her mother had grown up in a house with no running water, sharing one tub of stove-heated bathwater with her siblings. Zacharias writes that her mother vowed to "never again let herself be vulnerable – emotionally, mentally, or most important, financially. She would not be dependent on a man…she would take other lovers, but never again take another husband" (127).
As Zacharias grew into her teen years, she became more aware of the politics swirling around the war. The famous trial of the My Lai massacre was never even discussed at her high school. Although most of her classmates and teachers at Columbus High were civilians, they were very patriotic and loyal to the military community at Fort Benning. Although Lt. Calley, charged with murdering 102 Vietnamese civilians, was a respected citizen in Columbus (his hometown), it was taboo to discuss the situation:
Teachers weren't given any edict about avoiding discussion of the trial; it was just part of the constrained society in which we all lived. It was considered uncouth to discuss unpleasant topics. The trial that made…headlines was largely ignored at dinner tables and in civics classes. (191)
Zacharias' brother Frank had already been in serious trouble with the law and was in military school during this time. He told her that the teachers in his military community felt that Calley was being used as a scapegoat. But his classmates debated the subject hotly, accusing Calley of being a "bloodthirsty maniac." Frank never revealed to his peers that his father had fought in Vietnam since "the attitude was that all American soldiers were just like Calley." He was made to feel ashamed of his father's war experience (191-92).
Zacharias' memoir illustrates that regardless of civilian attitudes about the Vietnam War itself, attitudes toward the orphan were just as conflicted as those reported by the WWII orphans. Zacharias found solace during her teen years by becoming active in her local church, where she found supportive friends and adults. Her life was tumultuous – an abortion, frequent moves from one trailer park to another, but she writes lovingly of the church friends who opened their arms to her.


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