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


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.