Vignettes from the Domino Years

Robert Richards: Mr. President, would you mind commenting on the strategic importance of Indochina to the free world? I think there has been across the country some lack of understanding on just what it means to us. 

Eisenhower: You have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world. You have broader considerations that might follow, of what you would call the falling domino principle. You have a row of dominoes set up. You knock over the first one and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. You could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.

(From an April 1954 United States president Dwight Eisenhower press conference where he was asked, among other things, about the communist victory in Indochina.)

Soviet Russia is expansively stabbing westward, knifing into nations left empty by war. Already, an iron curtain had dropped around Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria.

(Allegedly from a 1950’s newscast)

You cannot save me
You can’t even save yourself
I cannot save you
I can’t even save myself
Save yourself
So just save yourself

Lyrics from “Save Yourself” by the industrial rock band “Stabbing Westward”

The Domino Years


Chin in hands, I kneel by the hide-a-bed in the front room (where I am never allowed to play) and watch her, sleeping. I am four years old. I turn and there is my sister in the doorway.

“Is mommy going to die?”

“Come away and leave her alone now, she’s tired.”

I know what “die” means. Not too many months before, I sit on the lap of first this, then that, sister, aunt, or cousin while they take turns filing past his coffin. I am not allowed to go see, but I catch a glimpse of my grandpa (a scary man with a severe grin who is dead of a tumor, allegedly brought on by too many head beatings by cops who caught him stumbling drunk). His lips are pressed, his skin ashen. They all say “He’s not here, Robbie. He’s gone to heaven.” They hope.  

But I see them put him in the ground and I know I will never see him again. So, when I ask “Is mommy going to die?” What I mean is “Is mommy going to go away and never come back?” And they don’t know.

I am shunted here and there and eventually she leaves that bed… but changed. She can’t sing. She can’t use her right side. She can’t stand crowds—ever again. But she does not go away forever. Not yet.


The phone rings and Cheryl answers. Mom’s at the top of the steps. Cheryl announces, upon hanging up: “Uncle Vernon died.” And mom sits down on the steps and cries and cries and cries. Her “retarded” brother (as we said back then), who was always fragile and whom she always protected. Gone now too, before things really got going.

And they hustle me off to school and her eyes are red when I get home at lunch. I don’t like to see her cry. It devastates her visage—her face just breaks apart. I am sad for a long time. 


They stand in the kitchen—all of them are smoking as they always do—Rod, Larry, Darryl, Dave. And they decide not to wait. They aren’t going to be forced to do anything they don’t really want to do. If Uncle Sam might come for them, then they are going to go on their terms.  

So, they decide to go together to enlist. I am not sure exactly what it means, but I know it means they are all going away—a brother, two cousins, and a “near cousin.” This is before the pictures and numbers show up every night on the TV. I think my dad is proud. I know he went to the big war (the good war), and I know it defines him in some way he never talks about. 

My brother Rod goes Air Force, Dave and Daryl to the Army, and Larry (the smartest of the bunch) goes to the Marines. And soon they are gone. I don’t know when they will be home. I will miss them.


Coletti answers the phone—it’s snowing, and school is delayed. She goes pale and turns the phone over to mom. It’s Terry—smarter than even Larry—with his long hair and “hippy” clothes. He’s gone. He took off for the border. He’s not going to let Uncle Sam come for him.  

I hear the shame in my mother’s voice—I will hear it years later, after the domino years—when my sister reveals that she is pregnant “out of wedlock.” These are things we do not talk about. These are our family’s shames.

For my dad, Terry is a traitor. No discussion.


Sitting on the floor by the TV—evening news. Dad watches and the images of planes and bombs and jungle places mix to form a confusing story of something bad happening far away. And every evening, the numbers. Hard to imagine what they mean, but what they represent are dead people. People who “fight for us” far away.  

I can see dad is angry—every day he watches, and he blames Johnson. I know he hates him, but I don’t know why. And later the Smothers Brothers are on, and they make fun of Johnson and everyone laughs. Everyone knows “it” is all his fault. Coming out of the kitchen, mom dries her hands on the dish towel and says that they should not be so disrespectful to the President.  Dad says he’s a scoundrel.


More bodies on TV and it finally hits me that one of them could be Larry, or Rod, or Daryl, or Dave. I don’t know where they are, but I know they are “over there” and now I know they might never come home. It seems so strange to hold that thought. Just like grandpa. Just like mom. They might go away, and I will never see them again. Except now I know that death is a thing that happens to everyone. It could happen to them. They could be a number on TV.


It’s Monday night and Bob Gibson is pitching. I know I can’t stay up to watch the whole thing but watch I will until I am forced to bed. His wind-up is merely the preliminary indication that a pitch will explode out of his hand and it is all controlled rage and he flings it home and they never seem to hit it—but he hits them sometimes.  

And… I. Love. Bob. Gibson.  

I ache when I think about him. And he and Lou Brock (his teammate) are the only black people I “know.”  


I am a lefty (Bob’s a righty), but I take the “mound” out by the barn door, and I hold that ball just like Bob. I wind up just like Bob. Every day is the 7th game of the World Series, and it’s always the bottom of the 9th, and there are always three batters who I (Bob) strike out every time. I sleep with my glove and more than anything else I want to be—I mean I want to really BE—Bob Gibson.


And now he IS coming home. Rod, my brother. Dar and I are in Diane’s room and we want to speak some words in another language. We don’t know much, but we know Rod is coming from a place where they do not speak English. We don’t know what they speak, but all of a sudden, I know that there are places where people speak words that I cannot understand. Diane knows a bit of Spanish, so we try that out and then Dad adds some German and we are in heaven.

He’s coming home! It has been a while.

And dad pulls out a chewing tobacco pouch (where did he get THAT? It turns out he has lots of “hidden things” from his war, but we only ever see bits and pieces) and pulls out some money from other places. There is so much and it looks so strange.  

Rod is coming home tonight! And we have new words and new money to welcome him home from a place we cannot imagine. Mom says it is only “leave” and it won’t last long. But at least he is coming home.

And it’s about 2:00 am and Cheryl wakes me up and says “he’s here!” I head to the kitchen and mom is there, and Diane is there, and Coletti is there, and Dar and I are there and there he is in UNIFORM! And he looks fine. And mom is hugging and crying (but not the bad kind).  

But it’s 2:00 am and Rod has on sunglasses…

His body is here but he isn’t. He hugs me but says little. So many questions. So few answers.

He stays for about five days. He talks about how green it is here (yeah, so what?), he talks about the food (oh my, THIS is home), but he doesn’t talk about where he’s been and what he’s seen. He doesn’t speak foreign words.  

Most of the time he sits outside and smokes. And then he’s gone.

And he never once takes off those sunglasses.  


I read the book over and over and over. “My Life” (as I recall), by Bob Gibson. It’s a “Scholastic Book” that I beg my mom to buy from the school book sale and I can hardly believe my luck. Bob Gibson! A whole book.

And I read it again.

Shock. Born in Omaha, Bob was sick with asthma. I ask mom what that means and am surprised that he overcame it to be the man he is.  

But the shock comes from elsewhere. Bob Gibson, my hero and one of the greatest men to walk the planet was not allowed to stay in the same hotel as his teammates when he was in the minors. 


Because he was black.

I ask my mom. And I ask my dad. And I ask my teacher. How is that possible? And they all answer that this is how it was (and my teacher wonders absently if it still is). And the reality explodes in my mind and for the first time ever I wonder at what justice means (though I do not have that word yet—I think of “fair”). If Bob Gibson could be treated this way, then truly awful things are possible.  

And I see the picture of the naked girl running far away (and I see her in my nightmares) and wonder if she is like Bob Gibson. 


He comes for the weekend. We don’t know him, but my sister Diane says he is far from home, so she offered to have him stay with a family as part of his “leave.” It is some special thing they do to provide a home for those who can’t make it all the way home.

I like him. Like Larry, he is a Marine. He catches me while I pitch in the back yard. I tell him about Bob Gibson. He’s nice. His eyes always look towards the fields. 

On Sunday we go to church, and I wonder. Is he a Christian? Is he saved? My mom asks him afterward and he smiles. She presses on. I feel embarrassed. And he says that he is okay.

We sit in the backyard after “dinner” (noon meal on Sunday), and he smokes. I think my sister likes him and wonder if he might stay and then marry her. I like him.

He says he needs to go for a drive. He leaves, and never returns. I feel a little sick. I cry.

I wonder if it was church that scared him away. Or didn’t he like my sister? Or didn’t he like me? Or was there something about being in a normal family doing normal things that was just too hard to bear. I don’t know. But for the first time I hate my church. I hate it for how it sends people to hell. These are nice people. Why do they have to go to hell.

I wish there was something I could do to make him come back and play with me. Later, I wonder if he will be a number on the news. 


Bobby gets shot and all my sisters cry. 

Martin gets shot and my dad says “good.”


And then they are all coming home. For good. And they stand in the kitchen and smoke. Then they head to the basement, and they fight. They wrestle and then Dave and Daryl box. No gloves. And they laugh a laugh of crazy men and there is blood, and it smells funny and I get scared, so I leave and go upstairs to watch Mod Squad.  

Mom yells down the steps saying, “You boys need to stop it.” But they just laugh and they sound crazy and I am still scared. A tooth comes out and there are deep cuts. They just laugh until they are rolling on the ground crying.

We all support Lt Calley—we even have signs “Justice for Lt. Calley” in our front yard. But I am confused, because it seems clear that lots of women and children WERE killed over there. Maybe that is just the way war is, but this time it seems like it was on purpose. But we stand by the country and the military because they keep us safe from communism. If we don’t support him they will know we are weak.


I am in the backseat of a Cobra Mustang. Dave is there and people I don’t know. We are taking a drive out north of Bowmansville and I feel lucky to be along with these big guys. And on that straight stretch just before we leave Lancaster and head into Berks on 625, they press the pedal to the floor and for the first time (but not the last) I am in a car on a back road going 100 miles per hour. And they laugh the same laugh as in the basement when they fought, and I get scared, again.

They don’t have to tell me not to tell my mom, but I know I can’t, and I won’t. But I never go with them again.

Afterward they stand outside and smoke and they drive away into the night. And later they crash that car (or another) and run away. No one gets hurt (how?) but the cops nab them, and Dave spends a little time in jail.

But they keep getting fast cars and they drive fast. Somehow I know they need speed like some people need a drug. 

And now when Dave, and Daryl, and Larry come around, I just stay away. They are all home, but they are not the people who left. And they never will be. Blood and speed and fighting and violence mark their days. Maybe until they die.

Rod is in California by now, and I know he may never come back.

No one talks about what happened over there.


I run as fast as I can from the house along the garden towards the end of the yard where the fields start, singing “California Here I Come.” I don’t know most of the lyrics, but if I could fly I would go to that place that may or may not exist—but it must, because Rod is there. And the idea of the place fills me with a yearning that I sometimes feel when I think about Bob Gibson.


I am in my bed, and it’s late. I beg Jesus to save me, to not let me go to hell; to let me be taken when all the other Christians (like my mom) are taken. I hear the radio preacher: “the goal of the Soviet Union is to plant the Soviet flag on Independence Square in Philadelphia by July 4, 1976.” And neither Philadelphia nor 1976 are that far away.  

The end of the world is coming, and I cry into my blanket begging Jesus to forgive my sins—of which there are so many, all of them secret. Like how I say bad words when no one is around, or how I think about drinking “liquor” and wonder what that would be like. No doubt, I will be left behind and then what? I don’t know.

All I know is that what is happening over there—and things are not going well—is the beginning of this end. It’s all going to fall down.


Then the Smothers Brothers sign off—apologizing to Johnson on the way out.

Then Rod comes home for a bit and argues with dad about Nixon. He laughs in dad’s face and says the man is a criminal while dad calls the Democrats communists. And Rod says the whole thing—the war—is just a joke. And when he leaves, I know he won’t come back this time. I wonder if dad and Rod hate each other because dad’s war was good and Rod’s war was bad.

Then the violence is everywhere—cities, campuses (they killed some people in Ohio), and in places I do not know—and I am afraid of black people (except Bob Gibson and Lou Brock) and hippies (except the Jesus People), and Dar says the fires in California are a sign of the end. I pray every night to be saved. Most nights I cry.

Then, mom and dad are going off to a reunion of all the sailors that were on dad’s ship. He comes home talking non-stop about all they did in the war. It’s like a flood gate has opened and now we know it was a good war. And we know that, unlike this one, everyone knew it was just and right and noble. Mom says the reunion involved a lot of drinking and lot of storytelling that she couldn’t follow. But she is glad dad went. He didn’t drink—and for some reason it is then that she tells me he used to. Drink that is. A lot. And she tells me that she told him, long before I was born, that he had to stop, or she would leave. And he did. And apparently Jesus and the Bible Fellowship Church helped.

Then mom sits me down after I do not get into a special program that allows 6th graders to go to the high school for special programs once per week. Ross and Bill got to go. I didn’t—though I took some tests to see if I should. And she tells me that “people like us” don’t get to do those things because they are for “well off” people. And we are not that. And she warns me, as she holds me by the shoulders that the world is not fair and that people like us—people like me—will have to work extra hard because the world is set up to benefit the “well off.” But, in my heart, I know Ross and Bill are just smarter than me (though I am not dumb).

And then they are all coming home, and I watch on TV as they arrive in California, at an air base. And everyone seems angry about the whole thing.

And we can’t save them and that they can’t save themselves. And they wander the streets for years, or they end up beating their wives (like Dave) or failing at marriage (like Rod and Larry). Or they drink themselves back to the hills from where my mom and dad migrated because, as my Uncle Ronnie says (some years later), the womenfolk had to get their men out of there or they would “die of drink.” 


The dominos never fall—but someone pounds the table and the dominos scatter all over the world. And every place they land there is devastation. Not always the devastation of a hot war, but myriad proxies that ALWAYS lay waste to villages where women and children die first.  

Dominos land first in South America, then spread to Africa—places like the Horn, Angola, Zaire. Then they circle back to Central America. And in every single place they land people die because that’s what happens with the dominos. They never “fall” one way or the other, they just get scattered around and the weak people die first, in large numbers. And all I see are dead children and their moms. And I wonder who does all the killing and maiming, and how they get the weapons to carry out those massacres. 

Epilogue: After the Domino Years


In a Land Rover traveling the 600 km between Kiffa and Nouakchott, along the “Road of Hope” (such a cruel name). It is just us two. Carla and me—”aid workers” dealing with malnutrition, high infant and child mortality rates, anemic moms, and lack of food and water in a place where the desert never ceases to advance.

We are children of the domino years and so we spend a long portion of that trek across the dunes asking ourselves: “How did those years affect us? What does it all mean to who we have become?” She has her father, I have my cousins and brothers, so it was all pretty close at hand.

Try as we might, we cannot put our finger on what those years did to us, what they made us become. In the end, we wonder if the guilt of it all is what has driven us to this place. We fight the urge to be saviors, but we wonder why we feel a burden to be just that.  

In the end, we just grow quiet as the brown haze dims the landscape of one more place the domino years touched in complex—if not direct—ways.


I push him through the halls of the Vets Hospital in Lebanon. It’s Saturday and we are literally (literally!) all alone in the corridors and the walkways outdoors. Dad is in hospice. I come from California to be with him in these final days.

I arrive on Thursday to a nascent spring in late May and drive out from Philly to see him. He is upright and lucid, and we talk about where he is, but not why.  

On Friday he is on his back, breathing difficult, clearly in discomfort. The doc comes in (a Colonel?) and I try to find a way to ask if they practice any form of euthanasia, because dad is going to die, and he is in so much pain now. And, of course, the doc will not answer that question. Oh, I don’t ask him straight out, but we all know what we are talking about here. He takes me aside and asks: 

“When are you going back to California?”  

And I say, “I have to leave Monday, early” (the election in which I will win a seat on the City Council in my hometown is next week). 

He says: “Your dad is not going to make it to Monday. We will make him comfortable.” 

And that is all I need to know.

On Saturday he seems a bit better, and they let me wrap him up on a white sheet (like a death shroud), and wheel him around the hospital grounds and hallways. We spend most of the afternoon—just us two—we have never done this, ever. He drifts in and out. Not much to say.

I reminisce about Bowmansville—not too far from where we are now. The people we knew. The place it was—the foundation of all those years. I mention Roy Wise, dad’s former boss, and wonder what happened to him. Suddenly dad is talking—a lot. Roy died just weeks ago; he tells me. I doubt this, figuring that dad is confused (I later learn it is true). And then he is off talking about random bits from life in those years.

And then he says, without reference to anything I can discern: “They all lied to us, you know.”

“They lied to us?” I prompt.

“Vietnam and all the rest. It was a lie, always lies. I hated that war so much. That is the way it always was.”

And that’s it. He stops as abruptly as he began. I push him around and then head back to his room without much more to say. He’s done talking.

Sunday I am with him mid-morning. He never wakes up. Rod came east and we are meeting at Dar’s house for one final gathering before we fly home. I leave the hospital and drive thirty minutes to Dar’s. I walk in and Dar puts a hand on my arm. “Dad just passed away.” And all I think is “The doctor really nailed it.” 

“They lied to us…” goes home to California with me.


Chin in hands, I sit on the end of her bed. A nursing home where she can rest. Decades have passed since she lost her singing voice, the use of her right side, and the ability to be in even small crowds. Now, over these past five years, she has lost everything else. Alzheimer’s. The end is near.

Except for not quite everything. Some memories stored in a part of her brain that Alzheimer’s has not touched remain. And they are vivid and detailed—and, at times, shocking. 

(Yes, she was “molested” by an uncle where she was sent to live in the depths of the Depression years. Yes, she was propositioned by the fundamentalist pastor who held so much sway over our lives—”just a little kiss” he begged.)

I sit there, minutes from leaving to head back to California, and I know she is going away and not coming back. She is not sure who I am or why I am there, but her memories wander to my birth—the birth of her “baby” Robbie—the last of her six. She describes a glorious spring day and the exhilaration of knowing this is her last child. The beauty of that moment when they gave me to her.

I say, “Mom, that’s me. I’m Robbie.”

She gives me that conspiratorial grin I have seen from time to time throughout my life. Her way of winking, though she is unable to wink. She is in on the joke.

“No, you’re not”, she chuckles. “He’s just a baby.”

Just a baby. Always a baby. Always her baby, born into a world that would change everything for everyone in such a short time.

At the very beginning of the domino years. 

Literacy encourages a culture to place more value on documentation and less on subjective experience… (T)he details we choose to remember are a reflection of our personalities.

Ted Chiang in Exhalation

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