Archive for May, 2012

Casualties of War

It’s been a while since I last posted to The Donut Shop Conversations and being Memorial Day, I dug through some old files and found this analysis of Tim O’Brien’s short story The Things They Carried.  If you’ve never read it, I suggest you do so.

An elegantly simple story, The Things They Carried is deceptively profound.  Beginning with a simple premise, author Tim O’Brien elevates the theme of a list to sociopolitical commentary and psychoanalysis.  What’s more, he slips it in through the backdoor.  By detailing what his fellow soldiers carried on their person in to battle, he creates a deeper, more meaningful inventory of what is lost from, or replaced in, their souls.  O’Brien’s title may be The Things They Carried, but his message is the things they lost.

Vietnam defined a generation and profoundly transformed the nation.  To say that the young men and women who fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia lost their innocence would be trite.  They sacrificed their youth upon the altars of corporate colonialism.  And after giving so much for King and Country, many returned to a world that no longer existed.  If the Vietnam War can be defined in a single word, that word would have to be: loss.

In this poignant narrative, written in first person from a point of view that can only come from having been there, Tim O’Brien strips away the Hollywood and video game facade of war to reveal the truth: there are no winners.  Everybody loses something.

Those who fought in the jungles of Vietnam lost many things along the way, but one of the first casualties of war was their patriotism and sense of purpose.  With no measurable improvement or results, death and destruction became routine – just part of the job – like the daily commute:

They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility.  Their principles were in their feet.  Their calculations were biological.  They had no sense of strategy or mission.

In a war with no clear objectives save the daily body quotas, the men are forced to concern themselves with only their survival.  The daily marches, the nightly watches, are all for one end: stay alive long enough to get home.

What they didn’t know then, but soon learned, was that they had also lost the home they knew and dreamed of returning to.

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey…In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.  He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

At the end of their tour, the freedom bird would fly them out of Vietnam, but it would never take them to the Promised Land.  Once you’ve spent your days killing other human beings, things are never the same again.

They lost a right the rest of us take for granted: the right to live till morning.

Lee Strunk made a funny ghost sound, a kind of moaning, yet very happy, and right then, when Strunk made that high happy moaning sound, when he went Ahhooooo, right then Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back from peeing. 

In a world where you can die on your way back from taking a piss behind a bush, every breath becomes the elixir of life.

With every step, every thought, every heartbeat threatening to be their last, some abandoned all pretenses of decorum – dropped along the trail like yesterday’s C-rats.

Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker.  There was no blood.  Smiling, he kicked the boy’s head, watched the flies scatter, and said. It’s like that old TV show – Paladin.  Have gun, will travel.

The loss of perspective is clear: Paladin never roamed the countryside leaving human road kill in his wake.

Some, like Kiowa, a half-blooded American Indian and son of a Southern Baptist Minister, lost their faith.

Shrugging, Kiowa pulled off his boots. …He tried not to think about Ted Lavender, but then he was thinking how fast it was, no drama, down and dead, and how it was hard to feel anything except surprise.  It seemed un-Christian.  He wished he could find some great sadness, or even anger, but the emotion wasn’t there and he couldn’t make it happen.  Mostly he felt pleased to be alive.  He liked the smell of the New Testament under his cheek, the leather and ink and paper and glue, whatever the chemicals were.

Can the comfort of a familiar object bring solace in a vacuum of faithlessness?  For some, yes.  Some cast off any faith they may have had in favor of superstition.  “Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot.”  Faith is a major casualty in war.  Ultimately, our faith is in humankind, others like us.  We hold out hope that others will perform honorably and with “good faith.”  When lives are taken in an instant, at the whim of these others, our faith is lost – sometimes forever.

They discarded their humanity while they tried to hold on to their compassion:

After the chopper took Lavender away, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his men into the village of Than Khe.  They burned everything.  They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage, then they marched for several hours through the hot afternoon, and then at dusk, while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling.  He tried not to cry.

Contempt for the enemy must always be generated in order to justify all the death and destruction and in the end, compassion for human life becomes elusive.  In the case of Kiowa and others in the platoon, compassion moves beyond their grasp.

And some things that they wanted to lose, some things they wanted desperately to rid themselves of, they couldn’t shake.  The war had become a cancer in their lives and each village represented a new tumor to be excised and cauterized.  They embraced their contempt and roamed the countryside, Gods of Death, burning and destroying everything in their path.  But every day brought a new tumor, a new lesion, and a new excuse to destroy:

They searched the villages without knowing what to look for, not caring, kicking over jars of rice, frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, sometimes setting fires and sometimes not, then forming up and moving on to the next village, then other villages, where it would always be the same.

Like feral dogs, they had lost their rational mind but gained a close relationship with their reptilian brain.  Such is the nature of war.  In the end, those who fight it are reduced to animals in the wild.

They are trained to kill and loosed upon the world.  But someday the freedom bird comes to take them and once home again, these feral dogs, these trained killers, these children who have gained a view of themselves that no one should ever see, are asked to simply return to their average lives as if nothing ever happened.  And in the end, we all lose.  O’Brien tells us that once lost, innocence cannot be regained:

He [Lieutenant Cross] was realistic about it.  There was that new hardness in his stomach.  No more fantasies, he told himself.

Like war itself, the theme of O’Brien’s tale is straightforward: it’s not what you carry that counts, but what you lose.  No matter what you take into battle, you leave behind something precious.  O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical tale of men in the grisly business of killing shows us that there are no locks strong enough to guard against the losses that war creates.  And more than any other conflict in American history, Vietnam shaped the nation and the US military – because of what we lost.


Book Review: The Art of Racing in the Rain

May 18, 2012 1 comment

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

I don’t often write book reviews so I’ll break with tradition and skip directly to point: go out right now and get a copy and read it.  It is one of those rare books you’ll never forget.

This is the autobiography of Enzo, a Lab mix who recounts for us his life with Denny, the man who first chose him from among a litter of chubby puppies born on a farm in eastern Washington.  Yes, you read it correctly – autobiography.  It turns out some dogs are very articulate, as I always suspected.

Denny works as a service manager at a BMW and Mercedes dealership while he attempts to break in to the competitive world of auto racing.  As his closest companion and biggest fan, Enzo is always by Denny’s side as he risks his financial future and his life to race to the top.  And as the family grows from one man and his dog, to a young couple with a baby girl, Enzo’s role in Denny’s life changes from chief companion and cheerleader to stalwart guardian of home, hearth and heart.  As Denny’s ever-present chronicler and wingman, Enzo details the struggles and vicissitudes of modern life with pathos and understanding few humans themselves ever achieve.  Yet at times, his frustration with his inability to effectively communicate so overwhelms him that the only thing left is to shit on the carpet.

Like us, sometimes the only thing we can think to do is punch the other guy in the face.

Garth Stein has spent considerable time pondering the life of dogs.  Enzo’s inner motivations are so honest and true it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Stein spent an entire day moving around his house on all fours and attempting to communicating only with facial expressions.  If you’ve ever had a dog and asked yourself, “Why in the hell did they do that?” you’ll wonder no longer after reading Stein’s book.  Enzo explains it all.

Enzo’s take on human behavior is a breath of fresh air.  As he struggles to come to terms with the motivations of the people around him, he gains an understanding of what it takes to be happy in a world we can’t always control.  He watches and learns and dreams of the day when he will be reincarnated as a human with the ability to speak clearly and grasp doorknobs with an opposable thumb.  He doesn’t always understand why people do the things we do, but he knows he wants to be one of us if for no other reason than to teach the rest of us what he’s already learned about being a good person.

Get this book, read it and then give your dog a hug.

Going Back to Big Tree – Part IV

A man can divide his life into four parts.  Part four: When his father is a memory.

You can put a thousand miles on your boots but some things stay with you for the rest of your life.  People you’ve known, things you’ve seen, places you’ve been to, like Big Tree.  When I left home I took Big Tree with me.  That place was forever locked in my heart like a first love.  My father’s secret place in the Rocky Mountains was as much a part my life as our own backyard or the fireplace in our living room.

As Joshua grew I tried to take him fishing with me as much as possible, but a career in the Air Force didn’t make it easy.  We had no such place like Big Tree we could call our own.  As he approached the age where he was beginning to doubt my intelligence, I picked up the phone one day and called my father.  He answered, “Hello?” in his customary gruff voice.  When I was a kid, my friends were terrified of him.  He always sounded like he was ready to bite your head off, but it was his way.  I said, “Hello, dad?”

“Yea, it’s me.  Who’s this?”

I said, “Its Ed, dad.”

“Oh, Ed.  Well how’re ya doin’?”

“I’m doing just fine dad.  Just fine.  How are you and mom?”

“We’re gettin’ along okay.  Ya wanna talk to your mother?” he asked.  My father never liked to talk on the telephone.  He spent as little time on the phone as possible.  If you called and he answered, you could expect to be dumped like a bad habit.

“No.  I called to talk to you dad.”

“Me?  What the hell ya want with me?”

“I just called to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ dad.”

“Sorry?  For what?” he huffed.

“Everything, dad.  I’m sorry for everything.”

My father had World War II, the last good war.  My war was the Gulf War.  When I deployed forward, I left Janet behind with Josh.  I didn’t like leaving her behind with a teenager, but there was no choice in the matter.  Josh took it well, all things considered.  He always was a pretty responsible kid, not the pain in the ass I was to my father.  I am grateful for that although I’m not sure I deserve it.  According to the Law of Karma, I should have been institutionalized years ago.

On the endless flight to Riyadh, I wrote a letter to Janet and Joshua – separate letters for each.  The letter to Josh was lengthy and included retellings of my adventures at Big Tree.  It also included the story of his fall and the letter my own father sent me.  I tried to put a lifetime into that letter – the lifetime I might miss with him.  I hoped I’d never have to send those letters.  They were only if I failed to come home.

When I arrived in Riyadh, I was assigned to a secure communications facility.  It was an underground bunker.  Once we went in, we wouldn’t come out for weeks at a time.  After I’d been there for a couple of days, I asked a guy if he would hold the letters for me and see that they got home in case I didn’t.  It was a time-honored tradition.  He just smiled and said, “Could ya hold mine too?”

Life in the underground bunker was life in an alternate reality.  With no sunlight, there was no way to tell what time it was unless you looked at the clock.  Time was marked by periods of frantic focus on every critical second, and waiting for the next emergency.  There was no in-between.  During one of the unusually long quiet moments, one of the young airmen piped up and asked, “Hey, anybody thought about what you’re gonna eat first when you get back to the world?”  Well of course we’d thought about it.  Young airmen always think they’re the first ones to think of things.  What we thought about was: sleep, sex, and food in that order.

One guy was all for pepperoni pizza, another guy swore by some barbeque ribs at a place he knew of, a third guy from Brooklyn talked on and on about a pastrami and cheese he was willing to trade his grandmother for.  The first thought that came to my mind was a cheeseburger and beer.  But then I thought that was too easy.  I needed to go for something a bit more elusive, a bit more personal.  So when it came to me I said, “A Payday and an orange Nehi.”


“Who are you, Radar O’Rielly?”

Uproarious laughter.

“Yea.  Yea, I guess I am.”

Whenever we would hear the sirens, we would don our gas masks as fast as possible.  Between the first siren and the “All Clear” signal time stood still.  Looking out through the insect-like lenses of our black rubber gas masks, we would look at each other.  And we would wait.  And we would listen.  And we would try not to breathe.  The facility was case-hardened concrete and could withstand a direct blast from a conventional bomb, but it had no air filtration system.  The air outside was the same as the air inside.  The thing we worried about the most was a chemical or biological attack.  Inside our gas masks we would listen to our heartbeat pounding in our ears.  We would beg it to slow down.  Please, for the love of God, slow down.

I could take a direct hit.  That never scared me.  But chemical or biological weapons were a different matter altogether.  They terrified me like nothing I’d ever known.  They terrified me more than the bear at Big Tree.  One microscopic chemical compound or bio-organism was all it would take to cook a man from the inside out, turn his lungs into fiberglass, or cover his skin with oozing boils that would fester and turn gangrenous.  And you couldn’t see it coming.  It could make its way through the tiniest crack in your mask, or get onto your skin.  It was the angel of death, invisible and silent and it could sit quietly next to you in the dark and you would never know it until it reached out and touched you with its cold, bony hand.

During each missile attack, I would sit in my mask and close my eyes and tried to think about things that took me away from that place and time.  I would think about my first girlfriend, my first car, my son and my wife.  I would think about my father in his rubber hip waders folded down below the knee like a pirate.  I would think about all the times my friends and me played Army with toy pistols and how that child’s game had now become some weird reality for me.

But mostly I would think of a place where I had no worries, no responsibilities, where I was at peace.  I would think about Big Tree and the beaver pond in the misty mornings with my father standing on the bank.

Whenever we think of the people in our lives we always think of them in a certain place, locked in a certain time.  Whenever I think of my father I see him there, at Big Tree, on the banks of the beaver pond with a fly rod in his hands.  The father I remember is the father who fell asleep in church, the father who built things with his hands, who folded paper airplanes, who smelled a certain way and who carried me on his shoulders into the brush to the edge of the pond.  I never remember the father I tormented as a teen, or the old man who would sit for hours in his chair, staring out at a world that no longer wanted him.

In Riyadh, while I sat waiting for the All Clear and thinking about my father, I realized that even though he was still with us, I had already entered part four of my life and my father was becoming just a memory for me.

After the war, I came home to a hero’s welcome.  I didn’t feel like much of a hero.  More Americans died from friendly fire or accidents than enemy assault and for my part, I spent the war in a subterranean concrete bunker babysitting a computer.  Nevertheless, there were people at the airport with flags and banners and it was nice to be appreciated.  I had come home from other trips many times and never experienced a crowd of people waiting.

Janet and Josh were there of course and that’s who I wanted to see the most.  Josh had made a big sign that said: Welcome Home Dad!  We stood, holding each other the entire time we waited for my baggage and on the way home from the airport we stopped at a restaurant to eat.  I ended up having that cheeseburger and beer after all.  I was still in my desert BDUs and people in the restaurant kept coming up to us and thanking us, as a family, for everything.  It was nice for Janet and Josh to get some recognition too.

We tried to put some order and regularity back into our lives as much as we could.  I was so focused on my own life and family that the years rolled by one after the other with nary a thought of my parents in their tiny, little house in Idaho Falls, Idaho.  Then, we heard that dad wasn’t doing so well.  The cancer that had started out as a small patch on his shoulder had moved through his chest.  He didn’t have that much time left and I had just received an assignment to South Korea.  It was a one year tour, alone, without the family.

When he died at the age of eighty, that’s where I was.  I flew home to California, picked up Janet and Josh and we drove to Idaho for the funeral.  Upon arriving I wasn’t sure I wanted to see him lying in a casket.  It was an image of my father I didn’t want welded to my memory.  I wanted to keep the memory of the strong, vital man who cared for me as a child and taught me how to fish.  But I went to the viewing anyway at the behest of my sisters who insisted that our father looked very peaceful.

There in the funeral home, he lay in his casket with his eyes closed, sleeping eternally.  His body, ravaged by the cancer that took his life, was sunk and frail.  His curly hair, still piled high on his head, was snow white like the morning mist on the pond.  His hands – his enormous hands – were folded calmly across his chest.  I looked at his hands.  I stared at them.  I studied them.  I wanted to burn their image into my memory like a brand, never to be removed.  They were tough and leathery as always and extraordinarily large in comparison to the rest of his features.  His fingers were still gnarled and scarred from a life of hard labor.

His hands told the story of his life from the dust bowl of the Great Depression to the Good War, from the one-room grocery store he’d built on the corner to the concrete business that ultimately consumed his life.  They told the story of the houses he’d built by himself, the machines he’d designed and constructed from blueprints in his mind, the family he’d protected and served.  His hands told the story of Big Tree and the secret beaver pond high in the Rockies.  They told the story of the little boy who sat on his shoulders and faced the great bear.

Following the funeral, with extra leave time to kill, I decided to take Joshua to this place I had always told him about.  I would take him to Big Tree to the beaver pond where I spent my youth.  I hoped I could remember how to get there.

I called an old friend and arranged to borrow his four-wheel drive pickup.  Without any camping gear, we would have to make the trip in one day, up and back.  It was possible.  We left at dawn’s first light and drove north-northeast toward the Idaho-Montana border and the Continental Divide.  Along the way I regaled my son with an endless string of tales from my adventures in these mountains.  Some stories were true and others were, well, not so true.  But they were all sincere.

We made the turn off from the highway and began the long trek across the open plain to the Kilgore Store.  Even after all the years, the dilapidated wooden structures still dotted the landscape.  And Camas Creek, from its headwaters high on the mountain, still ran across this plain leaving a streak of green winding snake-like through the blue sage prairie.

We stopped at the Kilgore Store, or rather, what was left of it.  The business was gone, the building empty and ravaged by wind and time, the gas pump dry and rusted.  There it sat an empty carcass on the landscape, a whisper on the wind.  This gutted skeleton left behind by the march of time stood alone in the dust as a stark example of what neglect will do to history.  Like the other structures sagging and empty on the plain, the store had been left to decompose and fade from all memory.

Josh picked and kicked around inside while I just stood there, staring.  I felt like I’d come from the other side of the world to see an old friend, only to find out that he’d died and no one told me.  All I had left of my friend was a grave site that no one ever visited.

With no Payday or orange Nehi, we continued on up the road toward the mountains.  The road went from gravel to hard-packed dirt and rocks but the spongy beds of evergreen needles never appeared beneath the truck.  The ancient trees that once made a canopy over the old road were gone, replaced by new growth.  It was a forest of tiny Christmas trees and tall grass.

The old logging road had been scraped and leveled at some time in the near past and was clearly defined as it wound its way up through the pass.  We continued to drive until we came to the black mountain standing against the sky.  This was the place.  This was Big Tree.  But it was not the place of my youth.  The landscape was stark and thin.  Big Tree itself, was nowhere in sight and the beaver pond was a dry, scrubby meadow with a trickle of what used to be the headwaters of Camas Creek.

The forest had been scraped from the earth, ripped out by its roots while the black mountain looked on and wept.  The beaver pond had been destroyed and the beaver were all gone.  Without the pond, the glen died a slow and agonizing death by starvation.  It was if a great cancer had ravaged this land as it had my father who once walked here.

The ancient trees were now simply stumps in the earth.  The creek was a mere trickle of tears falling from the face of the great mountain.  This place, this magical place, had been gutted like the Kilgore Store and left to decompose.  My childhood had been cut down by the logging companies and hauled away on the back of a truck.

Not even a decent burial had been given this land.  No eulogy to honor its place in history.  No acknowledgment of its contribution to the soul of humanity.  No recognition of what it had meant to a man and his family.  No one would ever rest here again, in the arms of the ancient forest, below the black mountain on the edge of the beaver pond.

And as I looked out upon the parched meadow beneath the black mountain where the pond had once sustained the life of this glen and greeted Big Tree and the boulder on cool misty mornings, I watched as the spirit of my father knelt…and wept.

Copyright, Mitchell H. Elder, 2010

Spacebook, Myface and the Age of Screaming

It’s impossible to know what name future scholars will give to this time of ours but I have no doubt that historians will look back on the turn of the 21st Century as a time when narcissism became a social mandate.  A billion people screaming for attention with the excruciating minutia of their lives.  It’s a little like standing along the side of the interstate waving your underwear at the passing drivers.

We used to have conversations.  For most of human history, people gathered together around the fire and talked in complete sentences.  Now, we tweet.

Imagine an Ice Age Internet:

­Mook:  I’m having Mammoth tongue sandwiches.

Queeb:  That’s so last winter.

Call me old fashioned, but I prefer face-to-face conversations.  If you have something to say to me, say it.  Don’t text it.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t think in 148 characters.  My thoughts are little more robust than that.  And I don’t need to know what you’re doing and where you’re doing it every minute of every day.  I have enough trouble keeping track of my own life.  I really don’t need minute-by-minute updates on yours.  What happens when this constant participation in every moment of everyone’s life is taken to its ultimate conclusion?

Jerry:  Is masturbating in the men’s room at Phil’s Texaco.

Most people would call that TMI.

I call it DILLIGAF.

The Republican’s dilemma is everyone’s problem

May 7, 2012 2 comments

The Republicans have a dilemma.  Mitt Romney is their man.  But he’s the wrong religion.  He’s not Christian enough.  And while they fret and fuss over the rightness or wrongness of Mormon theology (completely oblivious, of course, to the sad irony) those of us who live in the rational world must face reality: the United States has a two party system and one of them is engaged in a civil war over imaginary beings.

This country has very real problems.  Our problems are of our own creation.  They will not be solved through intervention by gods or magical thinking.  They will only be solved by rational analysis of hard facts and honest compromise.  This will never happen so long as half of the participants can’t even agree on an imaginary friend.  It’s frightening.

This is not a defense of the Democratic Party, by any means.  On the contrary, the Democrats have devolved into a party which prostates itself to its corporate masters while feigning allegiance to the underclass.  Their problem (and ours) is equally as debilitating to democracy.  But it’s a very real human problem of greed and hubris.  Those are problems that can be discussed rationally and addressed openly.  And they must.

But the Republicans have morphed into a party that openly caters to the top ten percent while pandering to the delusional.  The Republican voter is not looking for a statesman; they’re looking for a savior.  They don’t want a President.  They want a Prophet.

And it’s not like no one saw this coming.  Before the rise of Ronald Reagan, the Republicans began earnestly courting the Southern Dixiecrats and Barry Goldwater read the writing on the wall.  His words are worth quoting at length:

On religious issues there can be little or no compromise.  There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs.  There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being.  But like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly.

The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom.  They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent.  It you disagree with these religious groups on a particular issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both.

I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” Just who do they think they are?  And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?

And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate.  I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of “conservatism.”

Goldwater was long considered the father of modern conservatism until the religious takeover of the Republican Party was complete.  Then, he was cast out.  Before his death, his open opposition to the ban on gays in the military completely stripped him of his title of Elder Statesman and cemented his position as persona non grata within the Republican power structure.  In fact, his comments on the matter resulted in vicious retribution and character assassination.  In a world ruled by religion, honest dissent is blasphemy and blasphemy is a sin punishable by death.

He is never mentioned today.

The Republican’s obsession with religiosity has created an immovable stone wall of intractable stubbornness.  Compromise is impossible.  Dissent is a sin.  Progress isn’t in the vocabulary.  We can’t even have a rational discussion about real issues because half of the players don’t live in this reality.  The Republican’s search for a savior who will rescue them from modernity and take them back to the imaginary world of 1950s television is a delusion that will lead us all off a cliff.

Now that I’ve had a prostate exam, I’m going to Disneyland

May 4, 2012 2 comments

I just came back from my annual physical this morning and am glad to report a clean bill of health.  My blood pressure was 114/72.  Doesn’t get much better than that.  I could stand to lose an extra ten pounds but frankly, for a 52 year-old guy, I’m not doing too badly.  My doctor did want to know how much I drink.  They always want to know how much you drink.

I lied.

There is a reason men don’t like to go to the doctor and I’ll tell you why.  It’s a lot like taking the car to a mechanic: you just know they’re going to find something really expensive and you’re never going to get your old parts back.

My doctor is a woman too, by the way, which is a little weird for me because it’s sort of like having my mom checking under the hood.

“Mitchell, where have you been?  What have you been doing?  Well, now I’m going to have to palpate your testicles.”

I’ve been seeing this particular doctor since we moved here in 2005 and the first time I went in, she asked me the question all men dread: “When was the last time you had your prostate checked?”

The last time I’d had my prostate checked was when I had surgery in 1997 and I was knocked out cold.  As it should be.  We’re talking about an output device here.  Not an input/output device.




So she gave me the standard boilerplate lecture.  You know.  One out of every five men will develop prostate cancer and blah, blah, blah…

So I said okay.  Let’s do this.  But you have to promise me something.  She asked, “What’s that?”

I said, “You have to promise me that when we’re done here, you will write me a note, that I can take home to my wife, that says you have personally checked, and my head is not up there.”

Going Back to Big Tree – Part III

A man can divide his life into four parts.  Part three: When his father becomes a genius.

After High School, I worked a few jobs here and there and then took my savings and went to college.  It was there I met Janet.  If there is such a thing as love at first sight, I can honestly say I’ve experienced it.  I’m not sure I believe in predestination, reincarnation, past lives or anything like that, but I do know that when I first met her I could have sworn we were old friends.  Looking into her eyes was like looking into another life once lived a long time ago.  Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we’ll find someone we’re supposed to find and that will happen.  We will look into their eyes and see an ancient soul smiling back at us as if to say, “Welcome home, I’ve been waiting for you.”  Suddenly, my life was all about Janet.  I wanted to hold her, to rub her feet when her toes were cold, stroke her hair as she fell asleep, wipe away the tears when she got hurt.  But mostly, more than anything in the world, I wanted to just fall into her endless eyes and lose myself forever.

The year in college went quick and then I was all out of money.  Me and Janet had decided to get married and I needed to start looking for a job – a real job.  After discussing our options at great length, I decided to join the Air Force.  The economy stank, I had no prospects, and we both wanted out of Idaho so bad our teeth hurt.  It seemed to be the answer to all our problems.

My first assignment was to Madrid, Spain.  When we arrived in Madrid following a sixteen hour flight from Salt Lake City, I arrived at my new unit the lowest rank you could possibly be and Janet was so pregnant the baby had already bought film for the trip.  Janet almost wasn’t allowed to make the flight and in fact, had we waited another week, she would have had to stay behind and follow later.

We took an apartment on the fifth floor of a building near the base and with no furniture except a rocking chair, an old steamer trunk and an ironing board for a table, we called the place home.  But it was more like an asylum.  Josh was born two weeks after we arrived in country.  He came a little early, but other than that, everything went well.  It was after the birth things went down hill.

Josh had colic and would scream day and night non stop.  It was a living hell.  Some people wonder how it is that a person can take their own life, but I don’t.  I know.  I know how easy it is to be pushed over the edge.  And I was the lucky one.  Every morning I got to leave the asylum and go to work for the day.  At night I would come home and we would fight until bed time.

Our fighting was vicious, complete with slamming doors, flying china, the whole side show.  If Josh wasn’t crying we were yelling at each other.  Between the post-partum depression and the cabin fever from being cooped up in the apartment all day with a crying baby, Janet was ready to kill herself, or me, or both.  It was ugly.

At night, Josh would start crying and the neighbors next door on the other side of the block wall would pound on the wall as if that would make the baby stop crying.  I hated them.  I wasn’t sure who I wanted to beat the living hell out of more, the neighbors, the kid, or myself.  There were times I would stand on the balcony, looking down at the concrete below, and wonder if the fall would be enough to kill me or if it would just leave me paralyzed.  And then I’d wonder if Janet stood there during the day thinking the same thing.  Oh good God it was absolute agony.

My father used to say to me, “Wait ‘till you have kids of your own.”  It looked as though he’d exacted his revenge.  We couldn’t manage phone calls home more than once every couple of months.  But we had some friends much older and wiser than us, who lived two floors above and they had a video camera we could borrow.  We could exchange tapes with parents back home and they could watch their grandchild growing up.  We would make tapes to send home, making sure we put on a good show for the grandparents.  As odd as it sounds, we found humor in the fact that we were able to be nice to each other for an hour or so.

It was still the deep chill of the cold war and we stood nose to nose with the old Soviet Union, ready to see to our mutual destruction should either side flinch.  It was like staring down a dog.  Whoever blinked first, lost.  There was plenty to do at work and at home with a young family, with little money, and living off-base in a country that didn’t speak your language.  But of all the things that he could have been concerned with, my father always ended each video tape with, “Make sure you’re changing the oil in that car of yours.”  Above all, he was a man of machines.

I’m not sure how we managed to keep it together for three years.  We came back a family but Janet and me had decided to call it quits.  It was just a matter of getting settled in and then it was off to see a lawyer.  We couldn’t stand the sight of each other.

I had been reassigned to Tucson, Arizona.  We rented an apartment on the second floor of a building near the base.  Janet wanted a second floor apartment.  She said it made her feel safer.  I wasn’t so sure it wasn’t just a cheap jab at me, but she got her way.  The next day, the movers came.

Of all the things that can happen to a family, tragedy will either tear them apart, or pull them together.  You never know which way it will go until it happens.

Toddlers are curious little buggers and if you blink, they’re gone.  The movers had arrived at the apartment late in the day and we were tired.  We hadn’t had anything to eat and we just wanted to get our stuff in the door, eat something, and go to bed.  Janet was in the kitchen unloading a box of china so we could eat and I was in the bedroom setting up the waterbed so we would have a place to sleep.  The house was a flurry of activity.  Everyone was in a hurry.  And no one was watching Joshua.

His curiosity over the movers and our inattentiveness became his downfall, literally.  Neither of us is quite sure exactly what happened, but I heard something in the kitchen crash to the floor and Janet scream.  I thought for sure she’d dropped her grandmother’s antique crystal.  What really happened was, one of the movers ran up the stairs and into the kitchen and asked Janet, “Don’t you folks have a little boy?”

By the time I got out there, he was at the bottom of the concrete stairs, face down on the sidewalk, and wasn’t moving.  I thought he was dead.  Janet was going absolutely bananas.  I just froze for what seemed like an hour and then ran down those stairs so fast I don’t even remember doing it.  One second I was at the top and the next, I was kneeling over Josh’s little body trying to feel a pulse.

With my own heart in overdrive, I couldn’t find any pulse on his tiny little body and was sure he was dead but I dared not say it aloud.  You can’t bring yourself to say it.  You can’t bring yourself to believe it.  All I remember thinking at the time was, “Why not me?  Why did it have to be the boy?”

Janet and me were both so wrapped up in our own pain and frustration and panic, one of the movers ran upstairs and called 911.  Or maybe one of us did it.  I don’t recall.  It’s a blur, like a bad, bad dream.  When the paramedics arrived they found his pulse but it was faint.  I wasn’t sure if I should feel relief at that or not.  A cornucopia of emotions fills you up and it’s a chore just to sort them all out.  I felt rage, fear, sorrow, guilt and pain.  Mostly pain.  A lot of pain.

We wanted to blame each other but in the end, we each blamed ourselves.  We got Josh to the hospital where he was stabilized but in a coma.  He’d taken quite a few knocks to the head and the doctors didn’t know how long the coma would last.  They said it could be hours, days, or forever.  I wanted to rip my guts out with my bare hands.

I hadn’t prayed since I was a kid and wasn’t sure it would do any good but I was sure it wouldn’t hurt.  So I accepted my hypocrisy and got down on my knees.  Some people say that God is up above with the Angels and the Saints.  I’m not so sure.  If God exists, He’s down here with the beggars and the thieves.  Because when you’ve hit rock bottom and you’re lying face down in the dirt, that’s where you’ll find Him.  At least, that’s where you always start looking.

We didn’t sleep for three days and never left his side except to go to the bathroom.  We didn’t eat much because we weren’t hungry and neither of us wanted to be out of the room when he woke up.  It was during those three days that Janet and me found each other again.  I got down on my knees to pray and I got down on my knees for her too.  I looked up into her eyes and saw that beautiful girl I had seen those years earlier.  She was still in there and she still wanted me.  I still wanted her.

After three days of agony and waiting, Josh woke up.  It was his mother’s face he saw first.  I was glad.  She deserved it more than me.  He was left with some minor paralysis in his right arm.  The doctors were baffled as to why it was only his arm and not the entire right side of his body.  But that was for them to worry about.  We didn’t give a damn why.  We were just glad to get him home.

His disability, if you can even call it that, hasn’t slowed him down a bit.  He’s grown into a smart, tough, ambitious and athletic young man.  He can run like an antelope and he’s the star of his college soccer team.  His coach tells me he’s good enough to go pro.  But I’m not telling him that.  Not yet, anyway.  College comes first.

He’s never held anything against his mother and me.  Hell, he can barely remember it.  But Josh doesn’t have to play the guilt card on me.  I’m perfectly capable of doing that all by myself.  I’ve carried that card in my shirt pocket over my heart every day of my life since.  As I get older, it gets a bit easier but that’s only because of something my father said to me all those many years ago when it happened.

He must have known what I was feeling because about a week after we brought Josh home from the hospital, I got a letter in the mail.  It read:

Dear Son,

I wanted to write and tell you how proud I am of you and what you’ve done in your life.  Many lesser men would have failed where you have already succeeded.  Being a father isn’t easy.  We all make mistakes with our kids.  They don’t come with instructions.  But we do the best we can.  And when we stumble and fall with them in our arms, we blame ourselves.  We blame our self because we think it’s somehow nobler to do so.  We blame our self because we think it means we’re taking responsibility.  We blame our self because we don’t want to hurt the others in our life any more than we already have.  But in the end, we hurt them anyway by making them watch us self-destruct and kill our self with guilt.  One of the most important lessons you can learn in life is how to forgive yourself for being human.

You’re a good man, a good husband, a good father and a good soldier.  I’m proud of you.

Love, Dad

It was official: my father was a genius.

Copyright, Mitchell H. Elder, 2010

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