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Published on Wednesday, May 16, 2001
Bob Kerrey Reminds Me of My Uncle Sam
by Dennis Hans
 
The recent controversy over what Bob Kerrey did or did not do on an evening in Vietnam 32 years ago has led the usual suspects to suggest the United States government itself owes Vietnam an apology -- perhaps even reparations -- not just for that night, but for the entire war.

Poppycock. We no more owe Vietnam an apology than my own Uncle Sam owes me one.

In the 1960s, when I was a youngster, Uncle Sam was a squatter in my parents' ancestral home. Way back in 1954 Sam had been given a door key by Mr. French, who had seized the house from my forebearers many decades before.

In the first half of the 20th century, Mr. French was one mean live-in landlord. He charged steep rent and forced his tenants to work long hours on the very land Mr. French had stolen from them.

In 1945, after years of struggle, Grandpa, Grandma and their seven sons (one of whom would become my dad) finally drove Mr. French out. Uncle Sam, who controlled quite a few houses himself those days, was not amused. He encouraged Mr. French' thugs to retake the house. They broke into the two-story home and gunned down my grandma and two of her boys. They seized control of most of the first floor and used it as their base to attempt a total takeover.

By 1953 Sam was paying 75 percent of Mr. French's thugs' expenses. But the tide was turning in my ancestors' favor. In 1954 they trapped the thugs in a closet, and a desperate Mr. French proposed this peaceful resolution: The thugs would mind their manners if they could stay on the first floor two more years. They wouldn't bother Grandpa's three sons who now shared a bedroom on that floor, and after two years the thugs would leave. Family members would then elect a house leader.

Grandpa accepted the offer, knowing he'd win handily in 1956.

Sam pooh-poohed the pact -- particularly the election provision -- and set about to sabotage it. He replaced Mr. French's thugs with his own -- including several of Dad's cousins -- and annointed one of them top dog. Known as Mr. No, his first act was to declare that the family residence was in fact two distinct houses: Everyone on the first floor resided at 1700 Maple Street; Grandpa and his two remaining sons living upstairs were at 1702.

With strong support from Sam, Mr. No canceled the 1956 vote.

Dad had married Mom in 1953, and I was born in 1955. It wasn't long before I had a brother and sister, and the five of us lived on the first floor under Mr. No's thumb. If we even suggested a family reunion, his thugs would beat us with Sam's belts.

Sam wasn't content with just one floor, so he sent saboteurs disguised as salesmen up the stairs to persuade my uncles to rebel against Grandpa. They refused, and the family bond grew stronger.

Sam was a frequent visitor in the late 1950s, and in 1960 he moved in for good. In 1963 he heard rumors that Mr. No had put out peace feelers to Grandpa and even hinted at giving Sam the heave-ho. Sam beat Mr. No to the punch, but the thugs exceeded Sam's eviction order. They killed Mr. No.

Soon as Sam would settle on one thug as his new floor monitor, he'd change his mind. For the next several years he played musical thugs. To suggest reconciliation sufficed to seal a monitor's fate.

The mid-to-late 1960s was a tough time on the first floor, as Sam and his minions thrashed Mom, Dad, my little brother and sister and me on a nightly basis. Sam also invited his own sons into our home, and they pelted us with cherry bombs, poisoned our vegetable garden and shackled us in dog houses. Sam went ballistic -- shooting Roman candles up the stairs -- when he discovered Grandpa was sending supplies and an occasional son or grandson through the vent to help us survive.

Across town, by 1967 Sam's own home had become a house divided. With each passing year more of his kin demanded he bring himself and his boys back home. He nearly jumped at a 1972 peace offer, but concluded he'd get a better deal if he gave Grandpa one last beating. The Christmas mugging backfired; Grandpa stood his ground. In January 1973 Sam relented, agreeing to a phased withdrawal. By 1975 he and his boys were gone.

If we judge Uncle Sam by his actions, is it not clear he only wanted what was best for my family and me? I wouldn't dream of seeking an apology.

Dennis Hans is a freelance writer whose essays have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and TomPaine.com among other outlets. He can be reached at HANS_D@popmail.firn.edu

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