Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day

I wrote this piece as a creative writing student at Northwestern in response to Tim O'Brien's short story, "The Things They Carried." The framework is fictionalized, an evening like many others we've spent but not, in fact, when I had this conversation with my dad. But the story itself and the words he used to tell them are true.

As we remember the fallen on Memorial Day, may we also give our thoughts to those who can't ever forget.

Carrying On

I can't imagine why anyone would set down his stuff in the middle of the jungle, and then walk away. It seems too obvious a trail. I ask my dad if it could have really happened. He was a First Lieutenant, too. Just like the soldier in the story.

"Travel heavy, patrol light -- that was the rule. When we moved from place to place, we took everything along, but if we were just out looking around, then we left most of our things in one spot. Someone was always there with it, though."

He's in a good mood tonight. The Twins beat the Angels, and his boss called him just to say hello. He's even swearing a little, which he only does when he's sure he won't hurt anyone by it. I want to ask him more. I would even write his story if he could tell me how he felt, but his answers usually fly at me like wild pitches, military details too far over my head.

Keep your eye on the ball, he would say, just like when he was my softball coach. I've been searching the sky for years, without ever seeing the helicopters or hearing the artillery fire.

We're quiet for a minute, both drinking Coke out of cans and staring at the empty dinner dishes in front of us. He still seems happy. I don't come home much anymore, so when I do, we stay up talking until even the dog gives up on us and goes upstairs to sleep. I don't know how to ask the big questions that are on my mind, so tonight I talk to him about the story I read.

"What did you carry, Dad? What special things?"

The physical act of remembering pushes his graying eyebrows into the metal frame of his glasses.

"Cribbage. Your aunt sent me a little cribbage game in a leather case. And Kool-Aid, because the water tasted so bad. And we all had O-rings, with bottle openers and other little things attached to them."

"What about the other guys?"

He taps a fingertip lightly on the kitchen table.

"There was this one grunt we called Cowboy. He carried a hank of rope with him. To practice roping. He used to lasso up whatever he could see -- tree trunks, fallen branches, the radio operator."

I can't help smiling. "That sounds like a bad war movie, Dad."

He laughs like three sharp raps at a door. "Yeah, I guess it does."

The dog has been upstairs for a while now, and I can see my father is ready to be done with the questions, but I am suddenly filled with the longing to hear the story he has never told me. I've seen it on his face when we were at the memorial in D.C., and I've heard dismembered details from my older sister, but I'm not even sure that she actually knows. I don't think he's ever told anyone.

He sets his glasses on the table and rubs the bridge of his round nose. I know he's tired, and memories are wrapped around him like the heavy jungle heat. I don't know where to begin. I know this man better than anyone, some people say we're practically clones, but I can't imagine this part of his life. Mom has told me about the nights when an unexpected phone call or ambulance siren jerks him out of sleep and thrusts him back into a muddy culvert or humid base camp. He doesn't scream anymore, my mom has said, or leap out of the bed, but he sits straight up, and his eyes are open, inward, and his knees drawn tightly to his bare chest as the lights flash red-blue, red-blue through the window and then disappear, or the clamor of the telephone gives up and fades away. But that's now. I still can't imagine then. I ask him now about combat and rainy seasons and anything else I can think of. We start talking about accidents.

He says that by the end of his tour, he saw more people killed by accidents than enemy fire. Falling trees, malfunctioning helicopters -- strange, dumb things, he said, those were the worst. People killed by mistakes that could have been avoided.

"Like what?" I regret the question immediately, but then relax, fairly confident that he will skirt around it like many others I've asked over the years: "How'd you get that medal?" "What's that scar from?" And when I was very young, "Did you ever shoot anyone?" I've never heard him say more than he wanted to. But now as I look at him, still wearing his suit five hours after coming home from work, his shoulders lose a little of their usually solid breadth as he leans his elbows on the blue plaid placemat in front of him. He is going there, to the place I want to know, but I still feel far away.

"My sergeant told me where he was in the field, and where the rest of the guys were. My men, from my platoon. He gave me the numbers and I gave them to the artillery battery. Then the first mark round went off and landed about 400 meters away from them." His tone is so crisp and distinct, I feel like he isn't talking to me, but just radioing in reports from the field like coordinates.

"The first what?"

"Mark round. They shot those to make sure the guns were set correctly. Then they followed them with what were called 'high explosives.'"

"Okay, I see." A little confused, I still try to keep up. This may be the only chance I get.

"But then the mark round from the second gun buzzed just over their heads. I called in to say it was too close, but by then, the explosives from the first gun had been fired. And they landed right where the mark should have gone before, but didn't. Right on top of the men."

"So it was a problem with the gun?"

"Just a fluke. It had misfired the first time."

"Was anyone hurt?"

I know the question is ridiculous, but I can't say it any other way. I already feel like I've gone too far. His voice is growing thinner with every answer, and his narrow eyes blink more often than the dim kitchen light calls for.

"Ten people killed. About that many injured, as well." Then he tells me about the investigation and official ruling; more intricacies in code words I don't fully understand, like that base-coach sign language he had always tried to teach me. It makes little sense to me, but I keep nodding, just so he won't forget I'm there, won't forget how far he has gone since then.

It wasn't his fault, any of it, but I'm still afraid that I'm hurting him by making him remember. He rarely says a word about the war, but tonight I wonder how he will stop. He wants to keep talking himself out of the jungle, where in one unforgettable moment, the weight of ten deaths was added to his load. Each word is a step away, but the weight is still there, like the lingering smell of rotting things he says he could never get out of his clothes. His tie is loose and his hair is beginning to fall across his forehead. His palms are flat on his knees, and his eyes, small and deep like mine, are focused somewhere beneath the kitchen floor. He looks young, but burdened. He could burn his uniform, throw out his gear, but the weight is still there. Patrol light. Travel heavy. After twenty-five years, he's still carrying the weight of an ownerless mistake he can't order himself to set down. 

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