Winter 2008, Volume 24.2
Winner of the Dr. O. Marvin Lewis Essay Award
Contexts are like flesh draped over the skeletons of our lives. Those angled bones, so delicately poised tendon to tendon, hold in their chalky cage everything that’s vital. Each organ balances and floats against those bones like small satellites dancing at the edge of the universe.
But that flesh is how we identify ourselves to ourselves and to others. I have yet to meet a man who introduces himself by saying, "I am my spleen." Spleens are singularly unattractive organs. Moreover, they don’t have much use in the body, sometimes causing more harm than good while, like Heidegger’s existential man, just "being there." The fact is that just "being there" is something the spleen does extraordinarily well—sort of a hitchhiker on the galaxy of the circulatory system.
Spleens, furthermore, don’t have much to say for themselves when out of the body, and one can live quite happily without one. The extracted spleen simply lies inertly in the metal basin, bearing none of the romantic mystique of the heart, for example, nor indeed of the brain. A brain or heart lying in that cold metal basin has an exquisite tapestry that no language is powerful enough to unfold. The viewer leans forward, peers closely as if examining a rare and fabulous coin. They are the sacramental treasures of the body. The spleen? Loose change. But rupture it and, without treatment, you will die.
We don’t think about these things. We identify ourselves by features—how we face the world and how the world reacts to that flesh that wrinkles, folds, droops, and finally drapes like cerement cloths.
Definition of self cannot be established by one individual unit of the self (the spleen), nor can definition be established solely by the dancing symbiosis between inner and outer beings. Although, to qualify, one must admit that some do limit the human being precisely to that—a naturalistic aggregation of inherited and conditioned molecules from which we don’t escape until death. Mind is brain; emotions are chemical reactions; instincts—such as ethical values—mere conditioning.
I have seen the other side of human nature, other than the naturalistic contextualists. Surprisingly, it occurred during what may be one of the more naturalistic forces in historical reckoning—war. War nearly perfectly exemplifies random forces, from directors in a distant city ("All wars are planned by old men / In council rooms apart," wrote Grantland Rice in Two Sides of War) to mortars that slice through the air from some distant spot, wreaking havoc with human lives. Once in, one can’t get out. War has you in the grip of a hand stained by weapon-cleaning oils. In a 1966 article in McCall’s, Charlotte Keyes wondered: "Suppose they gave a war, and nobody came." I would have liked to have declined my invitation, but two years later I was there, in that big, dirty war in the little, frightening country of Vietnam.
That was a long time ago, and I wonder why I write about it now. I don’t go to war movies, I don’t talk about war with anyone, and I never go to VFW affairs. The only war novelist I read regularly is Tim O’Brien because I believe he gets it right. He touches the living soul of the person called to war, even when those perilous forces of random havoc testify that one is no more than bone and organ and flesh.
Nearly any war veteran goes through certain stages of adaptation to normal life. Indeed, many casually walk over that line as if into a new chapter in their lives. They get to write the script now, and forget the chapter burned in the fire. They are few. More commonly ripples of aftershock follow the earthquake in their lives. Disbelief, anger, keen sorrow. And in time, a long time, a looking back. This looking backward is nothing at all like the romantic longing for what is lost; it bears none of that fondling of innocence and naiveté forever disappeared.
The backward glance breathes life not into a sack of bones and flesh, but into the inmost intimacy and secrecy that defines what a human is. It is hope; then again it is faith. It is longing and fear, dreams and desecration. It is the poetry of the soul.
If one takes the backward glance, there are always two ways of seeing. These should not be understood merely as differences of perspective, of which there may be many. Consider: It is a day in early June, my wife and I are riding our bikes on a trail through undulating country. One side of the trail drops off sharply through trees and bramble to a quick stream coughing through stones in its silver throat. To the other side pastureland folds away in ribbons of grass and clover full of June greening. We can hear the nicker of horses beyond a rise. I ride near the stream and, enchanted by its musty, seasonal odor, remark, "It smells like honey."
My wife, on the pasture side, replies, "It smells like hay and horseshit."
So, too, our different historical positionings shade our perception of an event nonetheless shared equally with someone else. But this two-fold backward glance, especially upon the experience, memory, and recovery of war, needs to be fine-tuned a bit further.
Too easily they are called the outside and the inside glances—terms close to the truth but not fully accurate. Call them, instead, the narrative and the poetic. One accounts for the facts, the who, what, and where (there is no why during war). The other accounts for the feelings of those at the moment, and the successive moments as they carry the reverberating narrative into their later lives. Perhaps we know war best, as Ernest Hemingway said, when experienced with the head and with the heart. And even then it is not really known at all until the experience is transmogrified by the narrative and poetry of art.
In his brief but jarring essay, "The Exact Location of the Soul," from Mortal Lessons: Notes on the Art of Surgery, Richard Selzer makes a two-way analogy: the surgeon to the technician and the doctor to the poet. They strive to become one in the febrile symbiosis of the surgical craft. Selzer’s premise is the question: Why should a surgeon write? As a technician, he probably shouldn’t bother. The shelves are laden with books aplenty and "To add a single adverb is to risk exceeding the strength of the boards." The surgeon writes, as do most writers, in search of that profound, and therefore elusive, meaning of human nature—a sense that we are more than the sum of our technical parts, that we have something like a soul.
Selzer speculates that "Perhaps if one were to cut out a heart, a lobe of the liver, a single convolution of the brain, and paste it to a page, it would speak with more eloquence than all the words of Balzac." Accurate and eloquent—this would be the testimony of the surgeon. But those parts would be mounted as objects, labeled to be hung in a museum of kitsch art. The task of the doctor is to heal. Selzer confesses that "It is the poet who heals with his words, stanches the flow of blood, stills the rattling breath, applies poultice to the scalded flesh." Here is the heart of the matter, then. Here we have it: when the technician becomes also poet, when the surgeon becomes also doctor. That is the moment when the human soul is uncovered.
Each portrait that follows, in which I attempt to find this uncovering of the soul, wrenches the narrative truth apart from me, objectifying it. Each poem allows me to enter, to see things whole, to join with a living soul too long lost. By doing so, I am also reconstructing my own soul, then.
They rise up now without my bidding. How is this possible? So long they have been hidden. Now they walk beside me.
It isn’t people first of all—not in this experience of war. People surround you, but never have you felt more alone. The strangeness, the otherworldliness, the unreality of the very place of war assaults and overwhelms. It may be the shadows or the feel of the air, the way it’s hard to breathe in the Mekong Delta, for example. Hot and fetid air seeps into the lungs like some befouled drink. And it smells. Rot. Some people call it "sickly-sweet." It isn’t. It just stinks.
If smell is one half of the alien assault, the other half is sound. In the real world, one can’t escape sound. I hear it now, in the scratching of the pen on paper like a restless insect crawling over squiggly ridges, in the dog barking outside, the sudden bubbling of the coffee brewer squeezing the last grapes of water through its gastric bypass tube. In war the unnerving sounds are of two kinds. Silence as deep as midnight. Even the wind holds its breath. Or, cacophonous noise so sudden and overwhelming one wants to scream.
Here too the clichés have it wrong. An "explosion of noise," for example. Rather, it’s explosion, chaotic and overwhelming. Explosion has something sublime in its sheer discordance, a pure and utter mockery of everything one has ever assumed of harmony. Explosion is the collapse of the logic of notes, the scattering of the mathematical principles of progression to the four winds. Four-elemental, explosion rocks and buffets earth, air, wind, and fire into one momentous, fifth-dimensional gyre. In "Ulalume," Poe wrote of "This sinfully scintillate planet / From the Hell of the planetary souls." Explosion.
It happened like this at base camp, Tet, 1969. When the assault breached the razor-tipped coils of wire, when the claymores coughed their loads of shot in return, when the weapons—shotguns and M60 machine guns the weapons of choice at the broken wire—then when the assault fell back and the constant rumble of the mortars ceased and the shrill whine of the rockets died, then the show began.
The troops sat on the sandbags then. They smoked cigarettes and waited. Some talked. Most smoked and waited in silence.
They came in staged choreography. Somewhere up there a C47 gunship had been burping gunfire all along, a long trail streaming like a flailing whip across the jungle. And now another sound distinguished itself. Huey and Cobra gunships stalked the distance, their rockets and gunfire probing into the jungle.
They clear out suddenly.
You don’t hear the sound until they are already on you, these Phantom fighters. That close, the sound enters through the pores. That’s right, your skin eventually shivers from the waves of sonic thunder. When they pull up into ascent, the afterburners wash the jungle with blue rain.
Napalm sounds like such a harmless thing. Let the word work on the uninitiated and they might be thinking of pina coladas on some white beach overhung with palm trees. Napalm eclipses the sun over that beach. It jellies out in a glowing orange ball of fire that literally bounces and twists over the terrain. In the jungle you see weird shapes against it. Many of them are monkeys. Some not.
The C47 gunship returns. One last elephant fart from its minigun and thousands of heavy rounds crater the earth, stripping trees like toothpicks, disintegrating bodies like dust. Tomorrow the behemoth B52 bombers, already airborne out of Guam, will pass over so high they are sun-flashing specks in the sky and drop their loads of 500 pound bombs on trails and valleys miles away.
Indeed, this is the way many think of war. This is real, they think. It isn’t. That experience of Explosion is real—irreducible, incapable of breaking down into intellectually comprehensible nuggets. Afterward, one can hardly remember Explosion, except for some half-hearted descriptions, and then one buries it deep under the psychic folds.
Some things one cannot bury.
Memory passes like a still life across the mind. Being memory, this "thing" is not the thing in itself. It is a-dimensional, a suspended frieze. And being suspended, memory appears in an historical vacuum, like a minuscule, crystal globe floating somewhere in the brain, bereft of past or future. But being past, it is itself bereft of present.
Memory appears to have dimension—a trick the brain plays as it pulls down a screen of a precise event relative to another. By then, the first has disappeared. Therefore, we say that the action of memory occurs in an historical vacuum. Heraclitus said in On the Universe, "You could not step twice into the same rivers; for other waters are ever flowing on to you." He liked the idea so much he used it several other times, especially in his life of Diogenes: "Nothing endures but change." The idea of eternal flux, still very much with us today, is undone by the action of memory. Memories may change, not of necessity but because the random neurons constantly reconfigure the brain. But the memory itself is static, non atomic, broken down by a disconjunctive process until it falls apart like the pieces of a mirror you have been staring into, trying to determine what is real.
If memory itself is a trickery of such cognitive postulates as time and space, then it is yet more frustrating to realize that no one quite knows where the seat of memory exists or how it functions. In fact, for all our Tower of Babel-like knowledge—qua quantifiable facts—of the brain, we might as well say that memory is seated in the left big toe, or the prostate gland, or the olfactory nerves.
Memory is diffusely stored, with no clearly identifiable sites. It’s like a warehouse, miles long, and you have to load an order but there is no flow plan of the endless shelves and surely no labels. There may be a certain logic: some relationship between the hypothalamic nuclei and the prefrontal cortex, say. Then that little seahorse rider on the hippocampus ties it all together with her seaweed lasso. It is very likely that long term memory involves exchanges among three primary sites: the medial temporal lobe, cortical regions, and the midbrain. We also know that it is very likely that water once existed on Mars and that the Sahara Desert was once a swamp.
The only thing certain about memory is that it derives from something experienced. Memory is not fabrication or imagination. At the same time, memory can be alloyed in its hidden storage cells in the brain, for the imagination does shape every instance of our reality. The reality is objective; the imagination subjective, interpreting data to our own needs and desires.
Why is it, then, that some memories buzz out of those beehive interstices and lay a stinger in your brain?
Here is one way to answer, the one we have been pursuing thus far. Memory intensifies because of the duration of time—which is always too long and never long enough—and its relation to space. That relation, as Kant argued in his Dissertation, is further refined by the geometry of relative experience. Put it like this: all the living and all the dead we have known reside in our memory. Each of those made impressions upon the memory relative to time and space. Since the circuitry of the brain is protected against bringing all these impressions to the fore at once—mere chaos—it sorts them by the relative degree of our personal experience with them.
Now I am acquiring a lens, a scope through which to study memory, to place it in the crosshairs. The event remembered, if too long, is not fully remembered. If too short, it is remembered only in part; it has passed by the brain, the spider’s febrile net, so very quickly.
Furthermore, the event is most likely to be remembered by the relative intensity of personal involvement. There’s a physics of relativity at work. If too intense the personal involvement, those hidden houses where memory lurks might reflexively close and shutter down. Sometimes they leak out in unguarded moments and send you wailing to the floor. Sometimes the memories just settle down in the big, old house of the brain and the owner keeps painting it and putting up decorative fences and the house fades like a faulknerian mansion draped by live oak and the memories nearly disappear.
That’s why the scientists don’t know where memories live in the brain. Memories don’t want them to know.
Sometimes, like the concomitant actions of reality and imagination that shape all our lives, bits and pieces of memory present themselves before our conscious minds and beg that some sense be made of it all.
Here is the objective, and therefore real, story. Anyone can find it in books, or locate the data in dozens of maps. For example, during the fourth quarter of 1969, the 45th Medical Company Air Ambulance medevaced 23,841 persons to field and surgical hospitals of the 44th Medical Brigade. This was not the busiest period for the Company and Brigade. This history tells us.
One could point, as further example, to the Tet Offensive of 1968. The ideal "patient census" in the 44th hospitals was 65%. This was achieved by 1) medevacing the wounded to a hospital ship (the "Repose" or the "Sanctuary") for intensive care; 2) transporting to Japan; 3) returning to duty; 4) death. The 35% vacancy was necessary for events such as the Tet Offensive of 1968.
One of the largest hospitals was the 93rd Evacuation at the sprawling base of Long Binh. It is a fact that during the first 36 hours of Tet, all seven operating tables were in continuous use. In the emergency room, personnel rushed from one person to another. Triage principles grew ever tighter. Many wounded sat for hours. During the six-day offensive, the 93rd treated 3,261 patients.
For many, the story ends there. Data comprise the real. But an intermediary zone also exists, where the objective as real grasps hands with the imagination as real. Ligaments and musculature stretch over the skeletal bones. More elements, more lives, and more memories enter.
The call comes in and it seems to rattle the radio shack like brass clappers on church bells. A ceremony of survival begins. The telephone man presses a button. A horn wails against the broken dawn.
Within five minutes of the call, like a priest ascending to the altar, the first-up ship is in the air. Once the Huey Medevac helicopter is airborne, the Aircraft Commander [A/C] details the mission to the crew. Coordinates, number of wounded, nature of the landing zone, presence of hostile fire—they buzz through the helmet phones. Estimated time of arrival, 12 minutes. This mission is one of the worst. It is over dense jungle, requiring a penetrator hoist through a small clearing, and hostile fire is still sporadic. Three wounded. Two unconscious and one ambulatory. It will be a long time hanging like a crippled angel, completely frozen in the air while the penetrator makes its slow passage.
Immediately a second-up Huey is launched. Even though the Medevac bears the big red Geneva cross, it is a coup to put rounds through the engine of any ship. From another area of the base, two Cobra gunships rise from their pads. The underslung minigun and the stubby twin pods for the rocket launchers protruding from the narrow body make the ship look as lethal as its name.
Compared to the quick, athletic Cobras, the Huey seems cumbersome, even ponderous. The appearance is a lie, for the steadiness lies in the wrists and ankles of the pilot who exercises a mute lordship over physical laws. After the Cobras sweep the area, the Huey finds a trail of purple smoke. The clearing is a crack in the trees. The Huey comes in fast and low, avoiding groundfire, then hurtles to a stop precisely over the clearing. The ship lowers. The crew chief watches the boom, tells the pilot when to stop. He will become two persons now—the person who constantly watches the alignment of the boom while the pilot fixes his gaze at some indeterminate point of a distant vertical, and also the person who manages the penetrator hoist. The medic will help get the wounded off the hoist.
The first up is a heavy man, his head swaddled in bandages, that they have to manhandle to a litter. Before the medic has him strapped down, the crew chief has the penetrator on the way down. Off to the north a Cobra whipsaws its minigun. The second one follows with a string of rocket bursts. No one on the Huey looks. No one. The commander is talking with the ground radio, the Cobra radio, and the Evac hospital. His voice is calm and quick, as if he’s conducting a choir in hell.
The second-up ship peels off to the west. Three klicks away another engagement. More wounded. Third and fourth-up ships are in the air. Two more Cobras are lifting off. Two fighter-bombers are on the tarmac at Long Binh.
The third wounded passes out on the penetrator. Again the crew chief and medic manhandle him off the hoist, and strap him in. The crew chief barks at the pilot. The Huey shudders as it pulls pitch and turns, screaming away at tree top level. The crew chief watches as the Cobras circle. They hover like dragonflies darting.
The crew chief hears the sound before he spots them. In the air he can hear them. The mammoth jet engines throw the Phantoms into their dive. The jungle crisps orange and silver. The air rocks with the jet backwash.
The wounded ambulatory is awake. Quickly the medic examines the leg wound. It chewed up the calf but seemed to miss bone and artery. Still, the bandage had shifted. Loss of blood and shock, no wonder he passed out. Good way to pass the time. He has a morphine tag from the ground medic. The medic lights a cigarette for the grunt.
The Huey flairs out on the 93rd pad. G.I.’s run out from E.R., carrying their own litters. The medic and crew chief help transfer. The medic hasn’t done anything to the second man. There is no need, but it’s not his call to make. They’ll do that in triage. The medic and crew chief stand outside the ship a moment. Second-up ship is coming in. They have to move off. But there, right there. Count ’em. Seven holes stitched in a row behind the door.
"Were those there before?"
"Don’t think so."
"Seven holes. This our lucky ship."
"Not so lucky for him." He thumbed at the grunt inside, enjoying his smoke.
"Made it back, didn’t he?"
The crew chief lifted his microphone and shouted. "Come on out, buddy." He tugged the microphone back down and talked to the A/C. "Be with you in a minute, Captain."
"Get that guy off and out to the edge of the pad. Second and third’s both coming in. We got to clear out."
PFC Tony Panicara didn’t remember a thing of what happened after Doc’s morphine ampule took hold. He had a vague idea. After all, he was sitting here on the burnt red ground at the edge of the chopper pad with a couple of pretty ugly bandages on his leg. Didn’t hurt much. In fact, didn’t hurt at all.
He thought about it. He tried to imagine how hot the bullet would be when it ripped through that muscle. No one had ever told him that. If it didn’t exactly hurt, it tingled in there.
No wonder he was hot, sitting here . . . must be 211 degrees, he thought. And thirsty. He didn’t have to imagine that. The hospital looked a long way off. Didn’t look like anyone was in a hurry to come get him either. Long way to walk for a drink.
How come no one had put one of those IV things in his arm? The others had them. Norton didn’t even look like he was alive anymore. Maybe they were already syruping embalming fluid into him.
He heard rotors behind him. Thwack. Thwack. Two ships, coming in together. Better get out of the way.
They had a truck this time. Red cross on it. Pulling out from the hospital.
He reached down, searching for a point of leverage to stand. He was surprised that he still held his M-16 in his hand.
"Damn," he said. He leaned on the rifle, barrel down, and stood. While he steadied, he looked himself over. His fatigues bloodstained from the knees down, both legs. Never get ’em clean, he thought.
Still got my knife. Holy shit, grenades. What do I do with them? Lost my canteen, though.
The Buck 119 BR special knife had twisted into his groin. He balanced carefully to shift it over his back hip. The truck barreled past him toward the hospital. An orderly from the hospital, loaded down with another medical box, passed him. His uniform was very green, very clean, and neatly pressed. He paused there a moment.
"Need a hand, soldier?" he asked.
"Nah," said Panicara. He hobbled on his M-16 crutch, dragging his wounded leg in the dirt. "Fine day for a walk," he said. "Damn fine day for a walk."
Panicara fell asleep waiting. Around midnight a nest of maddened hornets awakened in both his legs and he got another ampule of morphine. He had a quart bottle of water in his lap and an IV in his arm. He was surprised when he looked down to find a bandage on his other leg too.
At two a.m. the nurse came out to check on him.
"We’ll be taking you into surgery in a few minutes," she said.
"Surgery? I just have a hole through my calf."
"And a broken fibula on your right leg," she said. "X-rays showed a piece of shrapnel still lodged in the break. An orderly will be out to get you prepped in a minute."
"Wait. The two guys I came in with. McClintock and Norton? What happened to them?"
She paused. "Doesn’t ring a bell," she said. "When did you come in?"
"I’m sorry. We’ve been busy, you know?"
This orderly didn’t have clean fatigues. They were faded, brown-stained, and sweat-soaked.
"Ah, shit, man. How long you been out here? Didn’t I see you see you a day or two ago?"
"Seems that way," Panicara said. "Slept a lot though."
"If you weren’t going under the knife, I’d get you outside for a joint."
" ‘Preciate it. McClintock and Norton. Two guys I came in with from the 25th. Know anything about them?"
"Shit, Private. I’ve hardly slept for two days and we got a shitload of wounded coming up from the Delta. Hospital down there’s parking the wounded in storage bunkers."
"What the hell. Norton, he’s the big one, right? Black one? He’s KIA, on the way to Saigon right now."
"You know. The morgue. The other one . . ."
"McClintock’s got it worse. He’s on head and neck. They’ll get him out to Japan when the airport opens and if he ain’t dead."
Now it is many years later, of course. And what brought the memory out from whatever cranial maze it lurked in? Just this. I am working the garden, my knees in the grass in a posture of prayer. I am laying zinnia seeds in the 3/8" deep rows I have carved with an old Buck knife. The prayer of benediction passes through my fingers to each husky seed. I have had zinnias in that garden five feet tall with blooms eight inches across.
Then it is that I hear the helicopter overhead. It is not a Huey, but a sleek Bell, not even deserving an upward glance. I know the flight path. Then too, I know who owns it. He is one of the richest men in the nation, but never, insofar as I know, has he brought the dead to life.
One of the precious objects a soldier carries into war is the short time calendar. Across the front fly leaf all the days of the year are miniaturized in neat rows according to month. You start counting down on the day you arrive and watch the 365 days pass by. At least, that was the demarcation for our Tours (quaint word) of Duty in Vietnam. In Iraq, who knows when one will leave? The politicians are playing checkers with our sons’ and daughters’ lives.
There is a certain artistry to the short time calendar. It is, first of all, a very small affair with faux leather covers. Most soldiers rip out much of the full weekly pages inside, leaving just a few pages for addresses of departing friends they’ll never speak to nor see again. Curious, those names on the yellowed pages. Does Joe Gillenwater still live in Brooklyn? Did Abraham Nadel make it big in finance?
Everyone saves a page or two at the back—the last month, the genuine short time. At 100 days the count gets serious; the last month is the real thing. The fear intensifies; the dark humor multiplies—the mathematics of war.
I’m so short I can sit on the edge of a dime and my feet don’t touch the ground.
I’m so short I can’t see out of the top of my boot.
Maybe there were one or two formations during the entire past year, the formal stuff where grunts had to get hair cuts, and had to hire some mamasans from the flock hovering around base like small dark quail to wash and iron the one good uniform and shine battered jungle boots. The mamasans all look alike, faces hidden under the conical straw hats, teeth stained black by betelnuts. These formations might occur for a change of command, for example, or when some U.S. dignitary lands for a few minutes to survey the battlefield progress.
"We’re winning, Sir."
"Very good. Carry on."
Some formations even require the wearing of medals, half the troops not even aware of what medals they have. The supply sergeant scrambles to find them. The troops stand under the blazing sun with flecks of color on fatiques.
"Is that a Purple Heart, soldier?"
The last hectic three days are jammed with lines and formations. G.I.’s have long ago learned how to sleep on their feet. No problem. At formation, sergeants check hair length—1/4 inch on the side, two inches on top, inspect baggage, sniff for marijuana. Now no one sleeps. The call comes at 5:15 a.m. A Freedom Bird is ready. The buses roll. Two hundred plus G.I.’s stand at formation on the tarmac as the fierce sun eats up the eastern sky in great red gulps. Everyone wonders whether there are more people in line than there are seats. By 6:30 a.m. the tarmac is hot; sweat creeps down the body. Silence.
Eyes turn toward the stretch DC8, a monster of a plane, hung with four engines. A ramp of stairs attaches to the door like filigree. In the distance the shriek of mating monkeys cuts the air. Else there is silence.
Someone gives an order. The line turns, shuffles toward the ramp that turns to diamonds in the sun. The men are soaked through now. They ascend. The door locks. The men sit back in the seats, bodies tense as a trigger finger. Someone breathes deeply. It can be hard five rows away. The plane taxies, lifts, cuts a long, ascending curve over the jungle. In each mind a silent supplication—Go plane. Get us out of here. Higher. The plane bends north toward the ocean. Suddenly the coast is below, ahead an infinitude of blue and silver water. Someone in the back howls, like a wolf released from a trap. Screaming, shouting bang off the aluminum walls. Some bury their heads in their hands and cry softly. The No Smoking light goes off and the air turns blue and gray. From the back flows the scent of marijuana. Most are asleep in seconds.
Then everyone is asleep. A 22 hour flight to Oakland, with refueling in Japan. Disembark still asleep into the terminal, don’t remember reboarding. Sleep through Oakland and somehow get the forms right and walk out in a new uniform that fits now but won’t in six months when you put on the 30 pounds you lost in the past year. Board another plane and sleep toward home. Sleep there for three days straight after arriving. People wonder if you are ill.
It is during the following months—years—when you awaken during the night with your chest heaving and body thrashing, that you understand that no amount of sleep will eradicate the blackness in your soul. It lies there in you, like a dark uncoiling serpent.
For the rest of your days, you will be a short-timer.
What being short really means is this. Thirty or forty years later your eyes glaze over when someone asks a question about war. You can’t find a language to make others understand that you’ll always be a short-timer, that somehow war never really ends, that always you’re trying to find the real world.
You never leave war behind. You can bury your life in six-hundred dollar business suits, the two-hundred dollar wingtips. You never can hide the purple scars at your ankles, the fungus that turns the toenails into grotesque growths like some alien monstrosity. You go out to expensive restaurants but look for the john before you eat because your insides are shot.
You spend a long evening before the fireplace trying not to watch the flames and wondering how long is decent behavior before going to bed.
You’re short now.
They hang there in their crystal globes, these memories of war, tucked away who knows where in the brain. They must be terribly small, maybe floating around on the head of one particular synapse, waiting a certain electrical charge. That charge may be the peculiar whack of helicopter rotors heard while one kneels in the garden. It may be the browned, wrinkled pages of a small calendar book, or a certain hot tingling in the left fibula. Such things might knock one of the crystal globes loose. It floats between the two synapses, glowing with neurons, and grows huge. So huge that for a moment it blots out everything you know and feel and are. So huge that it doesn’t come to you, but that you come into it. For a moment your life is in that place, that memory, and it is all you know.
Then the rotor blades fade and you are pressing zinnia seeds into the garden dirt. Three-eighths of an inch.