The War at Home

The Vietnam War wreaked havoc on lives across America as well as on the battlefield, tearing apart parents and children and husbands and wives—including one military family in El Paso that would never be the same.
Terry Allen, Jr., with his father in Colorado Springs in 1945.

IN FROM THE ABOVE-NINETY heat of the El Paso sun on a mid-June afternoon in 1967, Genevieve Coonly picked up her ringing telephone and shrieked with surprise as soon as she heard the first words from the caller. "Hello, Bebe." It was the unmistakable voice of Terry Allen, Jr., who was not only her nephew-in-law but also one of her and her husband Bill's closest friends. What was he doing home? It had been only a few months since family and friends had gathered in Hart Ponder's back yard for the farewell party when Terry left for Vietnam, and now he was back even though he had been scheduled to be gone for at least a year. Bill Coonly jokingly accused his wife of "getting out the fatted calf for the favorite son" as she prepared a luncheon feast for their surprise visitor, who had asked if he could stop by to talk. But as soon as he arrived, it was obvious that he was in no mood to eat heartily or laugh about old times.

He had come home from Vietnam, Terry Allen said, because his wife, Jean Ponder Allen, the daughter of Bebe's sister, had written him a letter announcing that she was disillusioned with him and the military and the war and had left him for another man. This other man, literally a clown—Terry had heard that he was a rodeo clown who had appeared on a show produced by the local television station where Jean worked—had moved into the Allen house with Jean and his three little girls while he was fighting for his country on the other side of the world. Terry hoped to save the marriage but was unsure about the prospects. He thought that his mother and father, who also lived in El Paso, were unaware of the situation, so he did not want to stay with them. The Coonlys invited him to sleep in a guest bedroom at their house while he tried to work things out with Jean, and they lent him one of their old cars for the week, a pink Cadillac.

The sudden way his life had veered off track left Terry disoriented. Not so long ago it had seemed that things were perfect, he said. His mother's family, the Robinsons, and Jean's family, the Ponders, had known one another for decades, two branches of the El Paso establishment with former mayors on both sides. The fact that Jean was thirteen years younger had never given him reason for concern. How could it, when there was a twenty-year gap in the ages of his own parents, the retired general and Mary Frances, who had precisely the sort of marriage he sought to emulate? His life had followed a straight and clear path from childhood, but now here he was, out of place in his hometown, confused and lost. The first time he got behind the wheel of the pink Caddy, he drove through the streets until he ran out of gas.

TERRY DE LA MESA ALLEN, JR.,certainly had some choice in the life he would live, but the moments of doubt were rare. Imagine being a boy of thirteen in El Paso, and it is just before Christmas 1942, the war is on, and day after day you and your friends read and hear about the heroic deeds of American GIs fighting in North Africa against the Vichy French and the Nazis and in the Pacific against the Japanese, and you run around the neighborhood near Fort Bliss pretending to be soldiers. And then a letter arrives like the one that came from Major General Terry de la Mesa Allen, Sr., postmarked December 8.

"My dear Sonny," the old man began, using the loving nickname he called his namesake and only child, whose picture he carried with him in a leather pocket case. He was enclosing a $20 money order for a Christmas present, which he would have preferred to pick out himself but found impossible to do, given where he was and what he was doing, which was in North Africa commanding the First Infantry Division. But he had another present for his son that would be delivered specially by a staff officer heading back to the States on emergency leave. It was a flag of the Big Red One, as the infantry division was called, that his assault units had carried when they landed in Algeria, perhaps "the first American flag to be landed on the shores." Later, that same flag was "carried on a Tommy gun" by a soldier in General Allen's Jeep until it was retired from service and "marked and embroidered by some of the French nuns in a nearby convent."

The war relic was an expression of a father's love but also served as a reminder of his expectations, and it was that combination that defined the bond between the two Terry Allens from the time of the son's birth, on April 13, 1929. It was not intimidation or fear of being a disappointment but deep affection and constant tutelage that funneled the son down the narrow chute of his family's military tradition.

The soldier's life went back another generation to Samuel E. Allen, a West Point graduate who served 42 years as an artillery officer in the regular Army and who was married to Conchita Alvarez de la Mesa, of Brooklyn, the daughter of a Spanish colonel who came to the U.S. to fight for the Union during the Civil War. Samuel Allen was said to be unassuming and conventional, traits that never came to mind at the mention of his son, Terry, who began his career as a hell-raiser at West Point, where he earned his first wild nickname, "Tear Around the Mess Hall Allen." He hated math, found schoolwork tedious, stuttered in the classroom, and flunked out of the academy. His determination to become an Army officer pushed him back to school at the Catholic University of America, in Washington,

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