Friday, November 11, 2011
--I'VE BEEN YOUNG AND I'VE BEEN OLD BUT I HAVE NEVER SEEN THE RIGHTEOUS FORSAKEN
…I have two interviews up at Scribophile that had somehow slipped by me. They were posted late October. Anyway, they’re here listed as “Scribophile Interview, Part 1” and “Scribophile Interview, Part 2” under “Words in Print.”
…Today is Veteran’s Day. 11/11.
Veteran’s Day is an important occasion in my family. Four of my brothers went into the miltary. One is still serving.
Their experiences changed their lives. You can see the way it’s been worked into the fabric of who they are. Sometimes it’s very obvious—a broke down body, a flag tattoo spread across the entire expanse of a back. Other times it’s a subtle hitch of the eye when a certain word is said.
My oldest brother got sent to Vietnam when I was ten. I remember watching the news, Walter Cronkite, reporting on various battles, showing the black body sacks being lifted, airborne into helicopters. You could tell Walter didn’t approve. A small film camouflaged the fact that he was more than a little bit fed up and disgusted with the war. News people were supposed to be unbiased when reporting, but Walter was always like that gentle Grandfather who was strong yet not afraid to cry in front of you.
I wrote a paper called, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again, or Does He?” I was in 7th Grade and the teacher made a big fuss over it. At first she questioned whether I really wrote it. She told me I was saying things adults said. She asked how I could write something without having experienced it firsthand (which is what people would continue to ask me to this day.)
My brother, Charlie, served on the demilitarized zone, the line drawn between North and South Vietnam. However, it was anything but “demilitarized.”
His squad came under attack the first week they were there and a buddy of my brother’s got hit with a missile while in a trench. (CAUTION: READ THE NEXT LINE AT YOUR OWN RISK). The explosion blew my brother’s buddy’s body apart, his head flew through the air, through smoke and haze, dirt and splattered blood, before landing my brother’s lap like some horrifying fruit.
That’s one of a few stories my brother told. There were others that were worse. I know, how can there be worse? But there were.
Eventually my brother won The Bronze Star. It’s the fourth highest award a service man or woman can receive for distinguished bravery, heroism and meritorious participation. My brother carried a severely wounded solider over five miles on his back. Every day since then, he’s paid for that act physically. He walks with a cane and some mornings—all these years later--the pain is so severe that he doesn’t get out of bed.
Last week when I was home for my mother’s funeral, I asked if he’d do it over again knowing what he knows now and without hesitation, he said, “I’d do it in a second.”
I am not that brave. In fact, it’s difficult for me to comprehend that kind of daring and courage.
--When I was a boy, my parents somehow got a hold of a stash of military rations. They felt it important that we know what our brother was feasting on each day in the muggy jungles of Nam, so they pried open the tins and sliced up the coagulated globs. Everything came out of a can and was a combination of pasty and dry, like Elmer’s glue rolled in sawdust, like dog food dusted with someone’s cremated ashes.
That night I studied the only picture we had of him in Nam. In it, he’s stacking mortar shells into a massive pyramid taller than himself. Each copper-colored shell looked double the size of a king Salmon. My brother was smiling and shirtless.
It was raining that night, and after dinner I felt very strange—proud of my brother yet guilty for not being in the service myself, even if I was only 10 at the time. I remember (and this is going to sound really stupid, but it’s the truth) taking my shirt off, going into the rocky hills behind out trailer and walking bare-chested in the icy rain for several hours until I could no longer stand it. I guess I thought by doing so, I was somehow proving I could sacrifice as well as my brother, that I had gumption and moxie.
--When I lived in Virginia, my brothers all came back for a reunion. It was a touching time. At dinner I heard them tell raucous tales. They spoke a common language, employing some terms that meant nothing to me unless I asked for clarification.
I heard some heart-searing stories about the Vietnam War, ones I’d never heard before, ones I’m sure I will never hear again, stories I won’t ever forget.
The second day we went to the Mall, to the Vietnam Memorial. It’s a long black marble wall built into the ground, sort of like a retaining wall. The names of every dead service man and woman, plus those still missing, are etched into the stone. No one spoke. Not my brothers and not any of the other dozens of people. Most touched their fingers against the names carved there. Some had tracing paper and would pencil a reverse stencil and lift a name off. There was a book on a pedestal there were a person could look up someone. My oldest brother spent a lot of time flipping through the pages, his breath catching every so often. He cried but didn’t speak a word.
5,604 Americans have died fighting in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars since November 3, 2011.
58,794 Americans died fighting in Vietnam.
My third oldest brother is a Colonel. While we were in DC that time, I got to see him in full uniform. Everywhere we went that day, if a soldier was passing, they stopped at once, pivoted, clicked their heels and saluted. It was a startling thing to witness.
When I was in the corporate world, I more or less gave up my life for my job. I sacrificed time with my kids and special events. But I wasn’t literally sacrificing my life. I was just walking in the rain, without a shirt, getting very cold and frost-bitten.
…Obviously I’m a bit in awe of my brothers, just as I am any service person. I hope we do right by them. I hope we get out of the wars soon. I hope we don’t cut their benefits. I hope we help them find jobs and transition back into society. Those things seem like the bare minimum.
Here are three poems I wrote that were published last year at Rusty Truck. Each is more or less nonfiction:
We went as brothers
from different towns to this one,
meeting at the memorial,
our pasts broken down by
slab after slab of gray granite.
People moved like solemn shapes
no one speaking.
Black rain pecked our skins
but those were tears on Charlie’s face.
There might have been a million names.
There might have been but one.
War is an unscrupulous host.
A young boy my son’s age
Dragged his fingers across rows of engraved letters
I thought my brothers might be angered by the child’s act
but instead my eldest grinned and said,
“That’s why I went.
For those born later
they would only know it as the bad war
the one they made so many movies about.
At the time, protesters received more attention
and history may never right that wrong
or the ignorance of a new generation
but to the men
to the women
to the souls who went there,
I bow down
and I say,
“God bless you.”
His brother took him to a pool hall,
bought him tequila and beer chasers,
farted out loud and
commented over the texture and vibrato of each.
His brother laughed at anything—
his own jokes,
the old geezer with a chin stuck inside his mug,
the skipping juke box saying, “You give love a bad naye-naye-naye-naye.”
This place had the classic arcade games—Pac Man and Space Invaders.
Around 2:00 am,
Stucky threw them the keys and said to close up,
as if it was something he’d done a lot of times before.
He studied the homemade tattoos on his brother’s forearms.
Everything was short, choppy and to the point,
no word or ink mark wasting time on being clever:
Old Glory Hole
The little gray bug men
marched across the screen in neat rows.
His brother shot them down with his finger beating the sweaty red button.
He killed as many as he could.
He seemed happy.