Big PictureMemorial Day Essay, Part I
If this is your first time here, welcome. If you've been here for a while, I apologize. I update this blog only sparingly. Last year when I started this monstrosity, it was mostly to have a creative outlet. I never once wanted to be a pseudo-news source. For one, there's already an established field of people who do it way better, and secondly, I soon discovered that writing 500 words on today's late-breaking news was, well, a waste of time. I'd just have to write 500 more words tomorrow when the news changed. And, as far as that goes, the day-to-day changes didn't mean much in the grand scope of things.
Here's what I mean: take immigration. Bloggers have vented thousands, perhaps millions of words on the ins and outs of this hot-button topic. And where were we now compared to a couple months ago? Not much has changed. There's been several protest marches, a big kerfuffle about a Spanish "Star Spangled Banner," a bill proposed and batted around, but in the end not much has changed.
In other words, I like to think about the big picture. Too much arguing over small things bores and irritates me.
A few months ago, I had my world expanded by a couple orders of magnitude. I'd been sitting, with a first draft of a blog essay gathering cyberdust on my computer and an e-mail address stuck on a post-it note to my monitor, laboring under a case of writer's block weighing down on me like the world on Atlas' shoulders.
The e-mail address belonged to someone whom I'll call "Piranha," and besides being one of my best childhood friends, at the time he was serving in the 1-13 Armor Division in Operation Iraqi Freedom. I'm calling him "Piranha" here because, well, that's what he reminds me of: he's small in stature and doesn't, on first view, appear particularly threatening. But cross him and you'll have one hell of a fight on your hands. Also, Piranha drives tanks for the Army, and "Piranha" is the name of a Swiss-based model of tanks for which (among others) the U.S. Army Stryker is based on. (The 1-13 drives M1A1 Abrams, though.)
For some reason, one conversation he and I had on one sunny day sticks out in my mind more than any other. I don't know how or why we got to talking about what would happen if we were near death. We'd probably exhausted the usual roll of pre-teen boys' conversational topics. At any rate, Piranha concluded that if he were ever attacked by a mugger, say, or maybe a bear or some other wild animal, that he should be left to die if he were unable to move. If he couldn't move, he said, he might as well be dead. In fact, he was already dead. I don't quite remember what I thought about that. I'm still not sure what to make of it.
A few years later, it wasn't a mugger or a bear who left him unable to move — it was a car. He was hit by a car in the morning on the way to school. And I don't mean he was in a car that was struck by another car — I mean he was hit by a car. A driver ignored the warning lights of Piranha's school bus and hit him in the middle of the street with such force that it literally knocked him out of his shoes. But evidently his views on the equivalency between immobility and death had changed. Despite being laid up in a hospital room trapped in a full-body cast, then weeks of rehabilitative physical therapy, he continued to follow his dream, which was simple but magnificent: to serve in the United States Army.
So what could I write about such a person here? What could I tell him in an e-mail? What words could demonstrate the awesome character of such a person who endures such a life-threatening ordeal just to volunteer to put his life on the line again thousands of miles away, or the immense personal gratitude I feel toward him for that act of sacrifice and service? If such words exist at all, I could not discover them. "Thank You" just seemed so inadequate.
And so I sat, in my writerly impotence, for weeks, until I received an e-mail which said that Piranha's unit had been shipped home, and his family would be throwing a welcome-home party for him. I was thrilled, of course, but also nervous; if I couldn't express my gratitude in an e-mail — even knowing that for him out in combat, correspondence from home is a godsend — if I couldn't talk to him in that case, what the hell could I possibly say to his face? Luckily for me, interpersonal communication doesn't always require words. I didn't have to say "thank you" — it was written all over my face.
The stereotypical character traits of an American soldier are brash and cocky. To be fair, Piranha did display those characteristics some of the time. But the only person more uncomfortable at that party than me was him. For those few hours, he looked positively puzzled that anyone should want to throw a party for him because of his job. He was mostly silent and still, and when he walked, it was slow and deliberate. I'm not sure whether that is a remnant of the accident or because he simply didn't feel comfortable. Perhaps it's both: I know if I were ever hit by a car, I'd feel a lot more secure behind the wheel of a 63-ton tank than I would while walking.
When the party wound down, and the friends-of-friends had left and only the people who mattered most to him remained, he finally opened up a little. He mostly talked about his best friend, a sergeant, who wound up getting killed in action by a roadside IED. Most of the "happy soldier" pictures on the wall also had the sergeant in them. And in the middle was a "In Memory Of" poster of the sergeant. Piranha also has a tattoo on his right forearm with a cross and his sergeant friend's name. (Piranha is quite tatted up; he also has another ink memorial on his back, for one of his high school friends who was killed by a drunk driver.)
Piranha wondered why the friendliest, best guys were so often the ones who lost their lives. In addition to his sergeant friend, he lost another man in his unit, a tank gunner, when he was waving to an Iraqi child from on top of the tank and a sniper shot him, from the side, through his ribcage, when he lifted his arm to wave.
It was a question I couldn't answer until a few days later, when I treated him to the ultimate manly display of gratitude: getting him totally plastered. This was a fairly expensive night, since Piranha and the rest of his unit only enjoy one alcoholic beverage: Hennessy cognac and Red Bull. It's called "Crunk Juice." Those run about eight bucks apiece, but they do the job quick. (As per my diet, I had the Henny and Sugar-Free Red Bull.) After we wiped out all comers on the billiard table, somewhere around the fifth or sixth drink, I finally figured out the answer to his question: the reason why the best men die is because the enemy they fight prey on the good and the decent. They see it as weakness. The soldier who waves to the child, the scout sent to determine if the road is clear — they make themselves easy targets, and the cowards who can't take on the whole unit without getting destroyed just pick off individual marks. Hence, the good guys, the ones most willing to lay down their lives to protect the rest of their crew, usually wind up doing so. Piranha's eyes welled up and he nodded silently as I was explaining my theory. For once, I wasn't the only one of us who had problems with words.
We talked about a lot of other things that night. I can't remember a few of them, due to the several (Diet) Crunk Juices I'd consumed. He did tell me what became of the terrorist who was the suspected IED triggerman who killed his sergeant friend (it involves the Iraqi army soldiers the 1-13 was working with, and the word "dudecki," which is Arabic for "faggot" — needless to say, it did not end happily for the terrorist). But before we left, before I gave him my going-away present (a fifth of Henny and an entire case of Red Bull), we talked about something far closer to home.
What it was, and why it had me thinking, and what it all means? That's for Part II.
Until then, if you still have some Memorial Day barbecuing and celebrating to do, I have one small request. Men like Piranha fight and die so that the rest of us can have our barbecues and shopping, so it's all well and good that we do so. But just take one moment to offer thanks to veterans. If you know one, thank him (or her — Piranha's mother is a veteran of the United States Air Force) personally. If not, do it silently — offer a prayer both for those who died and those who are still serving. If there's one thing I learned that doesn't require an entire series of essays to explain, it's that "Thank You" is more than adequate.