Dawn, After Veteran’s Day, Between Here and There.
Yesterday Field & Stream dragged an old article from their morgue and reposted it. It’s from six or so years ago. Everyone, including me, had more or less forgotten it, if they even noticed it in its day. The timing of this minor resuscitation happened to align with the annual pulse of Veteran’s Day messages, which, for a range of reasons, I’ve never been able to answer thoughtfully.
Each of these messages, each year, offered graciously, risks being an invitation to argument. Just like the Main Street parade we’d managed to avoid yesterday usually triggers an incoherent mix of memories and emotions, which, we’re told, is a natural outcome of seeing sincerity and effort and service undermined, again and again, by a self-serving bureaucracy, with all of its incuriosity, megalomania and lies, and by its habitual substitution of secrecy or slogans for accountability or seriousness. And yet many of us refrain from speaking much of any of it, because much of it is leavened, somehow, and I can’t quite finger how this works, by the good and decent people whose lives are weaved through it all.
And anyhow who needs to hear that, as a price for their kind words? Most people, in their way, are simply saying the same thing: Thank you. For which they should be thanked in return.
So we say it as a way of moving quickly on to something else. Thank you. And pay the bills. And live within a small circle. And when we can we do the physical things that enrich the hours, minute by minute, that become the years that become the distance: turning the dirt; planting the seeds; cutting and splitting the wood; guzzling the ever replenished coffee, outside in the heat or in the chill; sharpening the knives; sampling the local honey, golden in summer, brown in fall; finding, gathering, icing and cleaning the fish, the birds, the mollusks and the meat; pulling up and storing the roots; listening to the sounds and inhaling the smells of what embraces and sustains – warm soil, chattering children, decomposing leaves, cooing turkeys, the waves hissing as they unfold and then thumping as they break, to sigh as they die; quarreling children; the click of the spade hitting the next buried rock, even though that well-worked and familiar dirt has been cleared of its rock dozens of times before; sleeping children, beading up sweat; the screech of the terns or the croak of the heron you startle from the rocks at night, because you prowl, because you are still alive.
Confiding in the few with whom there is a decision to trust.
It is easier, we learn, to sketch others. In this case: Mary and Mike. And the tension between anchoring here and being pulled there. Family, and friendship, and faithful service, even if squandered by the brass and misrepresented by the lapdogs. Who then lead and cheer at the parades. And striped bass, which call us into the night.
Mike explains why he is headed back. Of his 26 years in uniform, 12 were reserve time, leaving him short of the necessary 20 years of active duty to retire and receive a pension. But there is more: The men you are with. Those five words contain one of the basic lines of thinking that accompany a soldier’s experience of war. It is the ageless measure. One sure way a soldier can take an account of himself lies in how well he looks out for those beside him. Iraq is a mess; no sane mind would have wished that it would turn out how it has. But here is a reason to go back, something to commit to that is both larger and more personal than the reasons the White House and the Pentagon offered when the troops first went in. “My single biggest worry is losing a team, or losing a member of a team,” he says. “That’s where my mind is. That’s what keeps me awake at nights.”
This is a sleeplessness many vets know. Mike’s wife, Mary, says that when he has come home from other deployments, he has paced about the house in the night, looking out windows as if he is peering beyond the blast walls of a fire base. She hears him padding through their home and sees him silhouetted and quiet, gazing into the yard. “Sleep is one of the things you have given to Iraq,” she told him over coffee one morning. “It is gone.” There are remedies for this brand of insomnia. Anyone who seriously chases striped bass understands that striped bass, among their many attributes, are perhaps the best diversion for nighttime restlessness that the sporting life has given us. Bass feed best in darkness, especially big bass, which can relieve itches that are otherwise hard to scratch. In the darkness of this night, Mike emanates ease.
The men you are with—he downplays his other worries. What if that 155mm shell had exploded underneath his vehicle? What if, to borrow his own explanation for the life he was allowed to continue to live, that Iraqi bomber had not stepped away for lunch? Things happen quickly in Iraq. Lives change in a snap. Members of EOD teams often videotape their work, for debriefing and coaching later. On occasion these tapes have captured scenes of teams whose missions ended in a flash. One instant there are men. The next, a sickening crack and a roar of flame. All that remains is scattered helmets and boots. The Mean Mary drifts on the tide. Mike says he does not dwell on what could be. “I guess in a twisted sort of way, if you get blown up you don’t even feel it. So it doesn’t matter very much.”
There are no striped bass tonight, out here in the light rain, and so there are few distractions. He is looking for words that explain a form of psychological pragmatism that has adhered to frontline lives for as long as there has been war. It is a timeless armor, an acceptance of mortality, contemplated and compressed, that defends a man against nothing except his own mind. He has found that it fits. “My point is that you’re gone,” he says. “You’re there one minute and you’re not the next. You can’t think about it too much, because that is what it is.”
In the morning, Mike rousts himself for work and heads down to a friend’s waterfront plot of land to walk his dogs. He lets them out of his truck near a stack of lobster pots, and they burst off into the brush. Mike sits on a weathered dock. Nearby, in the shallows, what seems to be a small school of stripers is thrashing near the reeds, apparently having cornered a pod of bait. Mike looks at the spectacle briefly but pays it little attention. Time is short. Soon he is headed back to a war. He has an unapologetic dismay about how it has been waged. “If we wanted to win, we shouldn’t have gone in with 130,000 troops,” he says. “We should have had half a million and gotten the job done.” But there is a difference, he stresses, between assessing the course of the war honestly and supporting the job that he and his fellow soldiers have been left to do. “I’m for the troops, obviously,” he says. Perra, who wears hearing aids, the result of a life around explosives, has the air of a man comfortable with silence, and with understatement. He is quiet for a moment. “Of course I’m for the troops. I’m one of them.”
He heads home to drop off the dogs before heading to the base. Mary puts out coffee. She has been giving the house a makeover and has specks of green interior paint on her hands. “That’s how I deal with the stress when he is away,” she says. “I paint and clean. The house was spotless when he got back last time.” She is a retired Air Force noncommissioned officer. Her brown eyes are unwavering and strong. Mike is leaving. She is not enjoying her urge to paint.
“I don’t want to be alone again for seven months,” she says, “and I have an opinion about the war that I don’t want to express.” She looks at her husband, who looks back, giving little away. She is clearly his match, facing down the man who faces down bombs. Mike is silent. She stares at him before deciding whether to finish her thought. She continues. “I have a feeling that we’re fighting a battle for 1,000 years, and we’re losing all these people. I don’t want him to go.” Mike sips his coffee. Most every family that has sent someone to Iraq has been here.
“This morning I saw his skivvies on the floor,” Mary says, “and I just started to cry.”
They sit for a while in the kitchen, looking out the window at the autumn foliage. His boat is on a trailer. Dogs roam their yard. Mary fills a coffee cup with words on its side. It reads: HAPPINESS IS IRAQ IN MY REARVIEW MIRROR.
Mike heads out the side door. Work calls, at least for now. He has plans to go fishing next year, after his third tour in Iraq. There is an early run of sharks in the Mud Hole off Rhode Island. Later, there are sharks on Stellwagen Bank. Between now and then the haddock will be thick, and Scott will take the boat out and chase them, to keep the Mean Mary in shape. By the time Perra’s seven months of thwarting bombs are over, the sharks and the striped bass will have started swimming back, and the two friends will ride the swells together, chasing schools.
Most military families face moments like this, especially since late in 2002, when the accelerated cycle of deployments began as it became clear that the United States would invade Iraq. Now it is five years later; each week fathers and sons and wives and daughters are headed to Baghdad or Bagram, to Kirkuk or Kandahar. In the banter between Mike and Mary, in the wordplay and knowing glances, the depth of their friendship is evident. Soon it will be Mike’s turn once again on the line.