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Sunday, December 14, 2014

I used to be a Marine

I used to be a Marine.

In a way, that sums up this story and its ending. It doesn’t seem like much, but I think it is.

There are a lot of things that happened. A lot of significant things happened. When I first tried to write this story, I realized that I didn’t understand a lot of the things, because I knew only what I experienced of them. We experience life in medias res – in the middle of things. I didn’t realize how much I was missing until I tried to tell the story. So I thought and asked. Some of the people I wanted to ask, I couldn’t anymore. And that is part of the story. In the end, I can’t tell the whole story. No one can. But maybe that is the point.

We think our story is the whole story, but the earth doesn’t work that way. We are born in the middle of things and we die in the middle of things. We come into people’s lives in the middle of things. We don’t even understand our own stories, but we assume we understand others at a glance.

Lacking an understanding of our own stories, we create them of whole cloth. Most of us create them in first person future tense. A friend of mine called this our “mind movie.” We while our days away dreaming through our mind movies and judging others by this future fiction of ourselves. We hope and aim to be something and in being something, we hope to immortalize ourselves. As was said once by a wise teacher, these are all vanities.

Writers have always reminded us of the fickle, unknowable finiteness of our lives. We nod our heads, moved for a few moments, then go on as we have. It takes a sharp blow – more likely a series of them – to understand that only the earth remains forever. Tomorrow is a dream. Regret can only be avoided by what you do today, not by what you were or what you hope to be.

I used to be a Marine.

All of that is over now. In a way.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Essence: Veterans Day



When he was little, he spent hours in the basement, mining cardboard boxes for uniforms and artifacts, wondering what they all meant. Sometimes, when no one was in the house, he would tiptoe into his father’s room. He slid open the top drawer of the tall dresser and gingerly took out the weathered plastic bag. At that point, he did not yet know that such bags were meant to protect radio batteries then repurposed to waterproof all else in a world that was perpetually wet.

He opened the bag, which was folded over on itself in a very specific way, and took out a map and a green memo book. He laid the map flat on the bed, trying not to further disturb the dried out acetate where it was cracking at the folds. He stared at the browns and greens of the map and tried to decipher the lines stacked against each other like the whorls of a great fingerprint. The map sheet was labelled “Hiep Duc.” A strange name that meant nothing.
The memo book was equally foreign. It was filled only with strings of numbers – 9673 3856 - and cryptic shorthand like “H&I” or “8 EN” or “”3 VC.” The only thing recognizable was a jack-o-lantern drawn next to the date 31 Oct 69. James carefully folded the map the way he’d found it, placed it and the memo book back in the bag, wrapped the bag over on itself, and laid it back to rest in the top drawer, where it always stayed.

All the men in his family had been in the military. All had been in wars – World War II, Korea, Vietnam. The stories they told were like the dress uniforms he found in the basement. They were tidy and comprehensible.

It was not until far later that James heard more. “More” wasn’t a matter of gore. The fragility of the human body is a known quantity and – while disturbing – is not the essence. The essence is how the living carry on.

James’ grandfather was a child of the Depression. He matriculated from tramping around the Midwest on trains to working in the Civilian Conservation Corps, to joining the Navy in ’39. He was off the coast of Panama when Pearl Harbor awoke to war and spent most of the next four years in the Pacific as an aviation metalsmith on aircraft carriers.

Late in his life, after his wife passed and his eyesight made reading a challenge, he started getting old videotapes of the war from the library. One day, James and his wife stopped by when he was watching a documentary about the Battle for Okinawa. As the screen filled with the anti-aircraft fire of the U.S. fleet, Penny asked the old man if he had been near this. He let out a dry chuckle and reached out a weathered finger toward the screen. “I was right here,” he said, pointing at an aircraft carrier just as a kamikaze blossomed into a cloud of white, gray, and black that careened down the long deck.

When they were leaving, Penny went ahead to get the kids in the car and James was saying his goodbyes. Out of the blue, his grandfather said, “Right before that kamikaze hit, I sent up one of my sailors to check on a plane for the next mission. It was just a routine thing. I sent him up there and a few minutes later he was dead.” The old man shook his head. No melodramatics. No outward emotion. Just a fact about something that happened long ago and never quite made sense. He knew that James, back from Afghanistan, would understand that there is no understanding.

While it was slow in coming, James eventually got some additional perspective from his father. It stemmed from a firefight one October day in the Que Sohn Mountains that rose into the clouds north of Hiep Duc. Late one winter night when James was home for the holidays, his father narrated the basic details in a taught, matter of fact way. It was like something he’d read in a book.

Sometime later, James sent his father a link to Tim O’Brien’s “July ’69,” precipitating a series of short emails, spartan, yet meaningful, like haikus.

i have always been a loner

but VN forced me to mix and mingle

He addressed this topic obliquely.

in VN i saw one marine pull his weapon on another marine

because he had drank up the other marine’s water

it was over the top but everyone was strung out after we had been hit and my TBS classmate had been killed that day. Everyone just let it go

around the same time we were not getting resupplied because of the weather

and the gunny (he and i hated each other) and a lower rank enlisted had a fight (verbal and physical) over food that the enlisted had humped up the hill

the enlisted wanted it to go to his unit/guys and the gunny wanted it dropped at the CP

i do remember at one point sharing what we had for a few days with my group (snipers, mortar and air/naval gun)

so when i did eat a full meal of c-rats i felt dizzy afterwards

probably the only time i was really short on food

that is stress and that is what puts people at each others’ throat as you well know


What James’ father didn’t say in the email was that the weather also precluded a medevac, so his TBS classmate, a platoon leader in the company, was wrapped in a poncho and carried down away from the ridgeline where they had run up against an NVA bunker complex. His body cooled in the night as they set in a defensive perimeter on a finger that jutted out below. The next day, a chopper was able to carry the body away and they carried on with their exile in the wilderness.

James’ father ruminated some more on O’Brien’s piece and wrote another email a few days later.

his esquire article seems to be not mom’s apple pie

it is cynical with cause because “life is hard then we die”

btw i started in VN in August of ‘69

once in VN i did not feel i was fighting for my mother or the motherland

but

i felt brothership with fellow Marines (the snuffies especially, although i hugged Cookie from Georgia, a platoon leader from my TBS class, upon celebrating the Marine Corps B-day in 69 at the rock crusher south of Da Nang with help of a guy named Jack Daniels)

when i was an FO in the field with a company, an enlisted Hispanic and me used to have an exchange which he started

when one of us saw the other had something in short supply like a cigarette the one would say “is that right” and the other (with the cigarette) would say “don’t mean nothing but i owe it to myself”

when i left that company for the rear i thought i would be happy but i felt i was abandoning them

i felt like i was leaving the good guys

He must have read the essay one more time, because he sent James one last email on the subject.

i did like the story because it seemed real in its confusion

That is the essence. Brotherhood and confusion. There isn’t much more.

Maybe also cynicism. Cynicism with a cause.

all the civilians god bless me now when they hear i served

back in the day around VN when they had a draft it was f you you bum but that has changed now with no draft as you know




Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Sleep of the Dead

Casualties aboard the USS Hancock, 1945.

James died again and again in his dreams, the consummation of one death flowing into the start of another. A skull-rattling shockwave initiated the procession. In this dream world, James was standing next to an aircraft, the deck of a ship rolling beneath his feet as he looked over his shoulder to see the inferno snowballing toward him. The beast gathered more metal and fire by the inch, spitting out pieces of the men it did not swallow whole. The light washed over him reducing his world to fire and pain. The searing light faded to a point and, just before blinking out, expanded again into a new scene.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How many more?

I'm sitting outside in the Florida fall night. I've just watched the sun go down in front of me and the full moon is rising behind me and Paul Bowles is asking, "How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless." 

I try very hard to get outside, to watch the full moon rise. To just smell the air. It is a constant battle.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

There it is

Brownies won today. I don't expect a playoff berth, but maybe someday. There are so many people who would have loved to have seen that.



On lazy summer afternoons when he was home on leave, they piled into the black pick-up and headed down the country roads, through the sun-soaked farm fields, and into the canopied roads that led through the woods to Larry’s favorite bar.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Ghosts That Remain

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The U.S. Marines and the British in Helmand Province officially turned over their bases - Camp Leatherneck and Camp Bastion - to the Afghans this Sunday, 28 October. Although I knew that this was coming, the news still caught me off guard. I'm out of the Marine Corps now and, though I pay more attention than most, Afghanistan no longer monopolizes my attention. It did, though, for over a decade.

I first landed in Afghanistan in early 2002, deploying once again and flying into the country in late 2002 and early 2003. Then, in 2004 while the rest of the world was focused on the growing catastrophe of Iraq, I spent half a year in Uruzgan Province. I returned again in 2010 for a little over half a year flying out of Kandahar into Helmand during the height of the Marine surge there. We were pushing as quickly as we could to expand our footprint, expanding bases, airfields, and territory at a mind-boggling pace. Success came at a high price. It was a period when we flew bodies out of Helmand on a daily basis and amputees were being produced by the hour. I remember during one meeting, the MEF Surgeon saying that his doctors were "up to their elbows in blood 12 hours a day." The pace was frenetic, though, and for all the bad news, the place was alive with activity.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Hope is not a course of action


My daughter had a chorus concert a few weeks ago in which they sang an arrangement of the poem  Invictus. In introducing the song, the teacher mentioned that Nelson Mandela was inspired by the message of the poem and recited it to his cellmates during his long incarceration in South Africa. 
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
 
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
 
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
 
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

In my mind, the poem conjured an image of "The Pit" - the prison in The Dark Knight Rises

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Earth Remains Forever: The Idea

"Then as I was getting up to the Closerie des Lilas with the light on my old friend, the statue of Marshal Ney with his sword out and the shadows of the trees on the bronze, and he alone there and nobody behind him and what a fiasco he'd made of Waterloo, I thought that all generations were lost by something and always had been and always would be."
I posted the first few pages of my novel manuscript the other day. I've actually written the entire manuscript once, heavily edited/rewrote it a second time, and then sent out a round of queries to agents. I got some great feedback and I realized that, while it might have found a home if I kept querying, it wasn't quite to the level I wanted it to be yet. These things take time to develop. So, I busied myself with my life after the Corps and let it rest for a little while. I kept coming back to it to jot down ideas and read things, but only recently did I get back into gear on finishing up the revisions.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Earth Remains Forever: A Start

I.
At the dawn of a new millennium, their prophets foresaw the end of history. Justice would triumph over ambition and the good of the many would coincide with the good of the few. Fear and honor would become relics of a tribal past, known only in libraries where paper copies of the great epic poems sat gathering dust.
Perhaps the new prophets’ visions angered the ancient gods. What else could explain the apple of discord that fell heavily from the sky? This evil deed done under the bright sun threw a vast pall of gray smoke into thin air, casting the darkness of night over the land. Fear clawed at the people and the prophets once again cried out for the defense of honor and interest.
These were a people descended from the Achaeans and the Trojans, the Athenians and the Spartans, the Romans and the Carthaginians. They were no longer a singularly war-like people, but the spirits of the old warriors still lived among them. Those with the hearts of Peleus and Achilles, Priam and Hector, Laertes and Odysseus, they eagerly boarded swift vessels that deposited them on desolate, foreign shores. They found that the riches of the peoples of these lands had been plundered or squandered. Their once-high walls had been laid low and left in disrepair. The gods had forsaken these lands long ago.
The warriors, arriving on their sleek vessels, knew these lands were troubled, but they were not there for empire or booty. They went to remake new cities of men, ones forged after their image in which justice and the common good would triumph. They ignored the admonitions, as had their forbears, that he who undertakes to found a city among strangers and enemies, “must be prepared to become master of the country the first day he lands, or failing in this to find everything hostile to him.”
They did not become masters of the country. They built ramparts, high and strong, to protect themselves, but only the few went beyond the ramparts and traveled among the people and they indeed found everything hostile to them.
The ramparts were built of fear, shored up by indecisiveness, and topped with facile certitudes. The ramparts set off two starkly different realities that could never be reconciled. Within the ramparts sat the old kings who refused all advice, believing steadfastly that they could control the world. Those who traveled beyond saw the evil deeds that are done under the sun. They learned from bitter experience that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. Fate strikes on its own terms. The only certainty is that it will strike all some day.
In the end, they left their ramparts behind and set sail for home, but the way back was different. Many found themselves tossed on the seas; sailing, searching, lost. They fought to save their own lives and to bring their comrades home. But some could not be saved. Recklessness, grand recklessness, destroyed them.

II.
In the end of the matter, when all was heard, they left little more than their ramparts.
The earth patiently endures man’s vain toils, then unleashes its tireless forces to wash away the remains and make all smooth once again. The timeless work of sun, wind, and water has smashed all man’s ramparts, swept away his implements of war, and tumbled the bodies of warriors into the seas to be buried forever in the cool silt of time. The earth sets all things physical to rights once more.
The world of man is far more than the physical, however. The world of man is a construct of the mind, in which even the physical is only an image, a snapshot limited in time and depth – filtered, bent, deconstructed, reconstructed, obscured, and focused by uncounted, unknown lenses passed down over generations.
These lenses shape and order each individual’s collection of memories and ideas held in a wilderness of billions of neurons that course with ever-changing chemical currents as they encounter an unending stream of new, often incomprehensible experiences. From this material, each mind creates its own, private world. These worlds drift on tempestuous seas, held together by the most tenuous threads of meaning.
Over the ages, seers, storytellers, prophets, and philosophers have spun these threads, tying communities together and giving them an outsized belief in their ability to understand and control the world. The ancients trusted their success to the intercession of the gods. They saw the fates as fickle, however. Their wisdom was set down in the words of a great teacher. “What has been is what will be; and what has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new under the sun.”
Generations have come and generations have gone and wise cautions have never been a match for the indomitable hopefulness of the human spirit. When the power of divine intervention to fuel this hopefulness waned, humanity turned to new prophets, who stoked their enthusiasm anew, foretelling that science and logic would lay the old order low. They divined in the annals of history not repetition, nor rhyme, but the self-similarity of fractal patterns that could be mathematically determined. They promised to unlock the secrets of Chaos, the primordial void.
Computers produced great crystalline swirls that represented the elegance of the fractal, like the growth of frost on a windowpane, or a large and perfect snowflake in the second that it remains solid on a small, cold hand in the night. This enthusiasm proved that there is but one fractal pattern in humanity. From the one, to the few, to the many, they cannot abide a world that lacks order. They will spend their lives seeking, weaving, and protecting a thread of meaning. This thread of meaning, of belief that there is an order in things and that they will always be a part of that order, is what keeps the individual worlds from careening off into the terrifying space of utter loneliness. When this thread snaps, they fall weightless, unique, and separate, like a snowflake.
Water is patiently irreversible in its work. Snow is immediate and transitory. It paints the sky in its dancing patterns and remakes the world in hours, not months or years. But the fresh canvas is fragile and impermanent. There is only a brief window to wonder at the unblemished blanket of perfect white before it begins to tarnish and fade.
For that, it is all the more magical and captivating. So, when James Eacus finally came to rest on the bench in Paris and the weight of the journey slipped from his shoulders, he breathed a sigh of relief, closed his eyes, and thought of snow.
He thought of the warm, dark bedroom in his boyhood home – a space of his own, comfortable and safe. He remembered the cherished moments, watching the first flakes begin to float down, testing the night. More and more followed until they were dancing together in great, sweeping swirls around the lights lining his street.
The earth resisted at first, the warmth of the fleeing sun still clinging to the soil. Before long, it accepted the first dusting of white. As the squall built, flake upon tiny flake painted a new scene. James could think of nothing more peaceful or hopeful. He remembered how his small hands strained to open the old window a crack and how the polar wind mixed in eddies and whirls with the heat of the furnace at that border between his room and the rest of the world.
Just before closing the window for the night and crawling under the warm covers, James reached out and swept his fingers through the damp accumulation on the sill and believed. The new day would bring a fresh start – each footfall a fresh conquest. Then, if he was quiet and patient and willed his body to be deathly still, he could collect the silences of a million unique crystals slipping through the night into a hush that beckoned dreams of wonder and possibility untarnished by the disappointments he’d eventually come to know.

Some thirty years later, James let the memory of those disappointments slip off into the dark. He opened his eyes with childlike wonder, unsurprised to see the snow starting to float and dance down from above. The facets of each flake glistened in their unique way as they fell to the ground, melting away at first, then beginning to accumulate into something tangible and recognizable, no matter how transitory. This was what James needed. He needed a blank canvas – a fresh start to put his mind at rest. He smiled the first smile in a long time as the City of Light shone against the blanket of white.