By Brendan McDermott, Megan Sheets and Yili Liu
JEFFERSON CITY – There had always been trouble with Katie Leigh’s dad.
Her mom had married a good and kind man, but he came back from the Vietnam War changed. His daughter would hear him in the hallway, having conversations with people who weren’t there. Once, he kidnapped her and hid her in a well.
When Leigh’s mom finally had enough, she moved herself and Leigh to Missouri, away from her father in Nebraska.
Still, the troubles continued.
One night when she was 15, Leigh went to her mom and said, “Mom, I wish he was dead. I just wish he was dead.”
The mom made a final effort to rebuild the family: Buy a ticket to Kansas City, she told the dad, and I will help you.
He accepted the offer.
Jon R. Jones was on his way to Kansas City the next day when he was murdered.
“He was on his way to try to get better,” Leigh said. “He was going to try to make things right. He was going to try to see if we could try to build some kind of family unity back. And it never happened.”
Leigh was born in 1975, four years after her dad returned from Vietnam, but as she grew up, it often seemed like Jones never came home.
“It was like he was a zombie,” Leigh said. “He had no idea that he was not in ‘Nam. When he was running or walking down the hallway you could hear him talking about certain things and you knew that that was not normal conversation.”
When she was in fourth grade, Leigh watched as her dad held a gun to her mom’s head.
“She told me to run, to go back to my room, in that stern motherly voice like you knew to get to your room.
“I was so scared I hid in my closet, and I shut the door. Alls (sic) I could do was just pray that my mom was going to be alive. And I just remember it seemed like forever in that closet.
“We had a big huge door of wood with glass in it, and I heard a bang, and I was just like, oh no.
“I just stayed in my closet, and I was terrified. I was just like, shaking, and I’ll never forget the joy when my mom opened the door.”
This was one of the last times Leigh saw her dad. After a few years in court, Leigh and her mom moved to Missouri, away from life with her dad.
The shadow of Vietnam shaped Leigh’s entire childhood. She was never able to talk about it.
“It was hushed,” she said. “They weren’t allowed to wear their uniforms proudly. When they came home, that all got pushed away.”
In school, they skipped over the Vietnam War so quickly that Leigh “ached.”
“I was lucky if they maybe gave 10 minutes to the Vietnam War,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wait a second, my dad was just as important as all of those other dads that lost their lives.’”
The culture of suppression surrounding the war meant that many veterans did not receive comprehensive medical treatment, specifically for exposure to Agent Orange, a carcinogenic herbicide used to clear brush in the war.
Leigh’s mom had five miscarriages, all boys. She named each of them. She counted their fingers and toes. She buried them in the field behind their house. As a result, the Jones family name will die with Leigh.
“They didn’t want nothing to do with me,” Leigh said.
Estranged from the paternal side of her family, Leigh felt like an adopted child, desperate to know her heritage.
“I was really frustrated,” she said. “Being 15, trying to figure out your family trees, trying to find out everything you really don’t know, and half of it’s gone, all because you weren’t a boy.”
After her dad’s death, Leigh tracked down his war medals, birth and death certificates and the rocking chair that he held her in when she was a baby.
“I will not let go of my rocking chair. I rocked my daughter in that rocking chair,” Leigh said. “Those are those little bitty pieces that God gives to you.”
Leigh uses her family experiences in raising her own daughter, who was born out of a gang rape.
“She has her own missing pieces,” Leigh said. “When she get’s older she’s going to have to try to find her half of her heritage just like I was trying to find my half.”
Leigh doesn’t have many items from her own childhood, so she holds onto “every little thing” from her daughter’s.
“I have a whole room full, crates, buckets,” she said. “I don’t want to get rid of things because I know how I felt when I tried to put the pieces of my childhood together.”
Today, Leigh works for MU Extension’s master gardeners program in Jefferson City.
“I love being able to work with my hands,” she said. “I’ve been told that is something I got from my dad.”
Leigh strings together memories and research to build an image of the man her dad was before the war.
“It’s kind of like beading a pearl necklace together,” she said. “You have to be thankful for the bits and pieces that you do get, and you treasure those in your heart because that’s something nobody can take.”
Emily Rackers is supervising editor. Judd Slivka is faculty editor.----------Posted on January 5, 2016 by admin in Student Work