Monday, August 17, 2009

The Things They Carried

Every generation, it seems, has its war. WW I just lost its oldest survivor; Anne Perry's novels make the trenches seem much closer than 100 years past. WW II = The Greatest Generation. Books, tv shows, movies......... ok, Tom Brokaw, I get it already. Korea (a "conflict" not a "war") hangs somewhere between Daddooooo and The Beatles and is so conflated with M*A*S*H and anti-war 60's sentiment that it has lost its connection to a specific time and place for me. When I conjure Korea I go to the DMZ as Earth's last untouched wilderness spawning flora and fauna unseen in generations or to Kim Jong Il singing "Ronrey". Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan - the discussions always seemed to be more about politics and collateral damage than about troop movements and battles. And then there's Viet Nam.

A brother-in-law. A roommate's boyfriend. A fraternity brother. Moose and Stroker. They all served and they were all damaged in ways that seemed different than the change G'ma described in her brother upon his return from Patton's Army. Uniformed ROTC cadets racing up Libe Slope accompanied by cold stares or hissing from bell-bottomed classmates. Girls doing poorly on exams to skew the curve and keep their male classmates safe with their 2S Deferments. The War defined our generation with its negatives.

Walking across campus with Stroker was as close as I ever came to sharing in that vibe. He'd been a boxing champion in the Navy, and with his height and sculpted body and Native American genes he was a presence who could not be ignored. I felt teeny-tiny next to him, and it was more than the discrepancy in our sizes. There was an aura of controlled violence and a "stay away" piece that could be felt across the quad. He was on "the option plan" for the two or three semesters he was attending classes - he'd explain to his professors that it was his option to show up or take tests or submit papers and it was their option to pass him or not. He always passed. As the bouncer at The Salty Dog, he would smile and kiss me and pass my friends in ahead of those waiting in line, and every time I'd hear someone murmur, "I can't believe SHE knows HIM." He read philosophy and looked both ways when we crossed the street and never ever mentioned a word about the jungle or the fighting and yet it was always, unmistakably, a part of him.

Moose and I took Physics for Poets together my Junior year. Professor Silverman tried hard to push the concepts into our non-scientific brains, but for the most part it was a hopeless cause. We did the reading and the homework and the labs but the essence of the subject was elusive. What were we to do? Moose had the answer: "The Hat will teach us." And so he did, for The Hat was an acquaintance who wouldn't dare to disappoint the giant that was Moose.

And then there was my obsession with Mr. Houseman. He sat in the first row and asked questions. Lots and lots of questions which were annoying to me because he obviously understood what was going on and wanted the rest of us to know that he was smarter than we were. And so, one day, I mentioned my aggravation to Moose. At the end of class, Moose sauntered down the aisle and loomed over Mr. Houseman. "You see that lady back there?" he said, pointing my way. "She would really appreciate it if you stopped asking questions in class." I laughed, and waved and we left the auditorium. Three classes later, Prof. Silverman interrupted his lecture to peer over the podium at Mr. Houseman and ask if everything was all right because "You've been strangely silent these last few days." Poor Mr. Houseman...... Moose had scared the braggadocio right out of him. Quietly menacing and totally believable. He had a big laugh and huge heart and a hole in his ankle from a bullet he took while dragging a buddy into an evacuation helicopter - the only war story he ever told.

And that, I think, is the overriding reality of Viet Nam for me. They went, they served, they came home and they were silent. The fraternity brother would dress all in black and go out in the middle of the night, skulking and lurking and trying, it seemed, to recreate the sensation of Indochina. No one ever asked him, though. The brother-in-law had nightmares and was unapproachable as a resource for the Little Cuter's "interview a veteran" essay in high school. The roommate's boyfriend showed up on campus after his tour, but he ignored all of us who'd considered ourselves his friends before he'd left. I wanted a closer look, a sense of what they'd seen and felt and done, but it wasn't mine to share.

Then I found the copy of The Things They Carried which Princess Myrtle had left for G'ma on one of her visits from New Haven. She doesn't share a lot of herself, but this book has her name on the front cover and was the only grandchild-donated book I saw while packing. With that as recommendation enough, I put it in my suitcase for the road trip. And I cried on the treadmill as I read On the Rainy River. Faced with danger, sleeping in a sewage field, they were children and it was scary and inexplicable. Jimmy Cross and Lemon and Kiowa and Mary Anne, whether real or apocryphal, are slices of the event which shaped my coming of age.

Riding home from a lacrosse game one spring evening in 2001, the Big Cuter noted that his age cohort had never known the USofA to lose a war. He opined that their cheeriness and lack of anxiety about the future was directly related to that fact and that my cynicism and pessimism came straight from being "of the Viet Nam generation, of loss and of failure."

There's some truth to that, I'm sure, but there's more. It encompasses futility and shame and fear and lack of control and a sense that our transition to adulthood included a passage through or around a life-threatening disaster. Not a lack-of-jobs disaster or a financial meltdown disaster but a get-yourself-shot-and-killed disaster.
Reading Tim O'Brien is the closest thing I've found to making it real right now.

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