Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Private Matter

'Ol Gus wrote this...when?  I don't even remember, at least 5 years ago.  I wrote it down a day after.  It's all true, as near as I could remember.  Someone else might remember it differently, and that's fine with me.  So here it is, a day late for Memorial Day.  And there's no talk of food.

My brother got sent to Iraq.  I'll admit right now that I don't really know him all that well.  Mark is almost ten years younger than I am, from a family of ten children.  By the time he was in the fourth grade, I had moved away from home.  When he was eighteen he went into the army, and seldom came home for the next decade.

When he did get out, he had a wife, a son, a job and a house.  But he stayed in the reserves, and eventually, inevitably, he was called back up, and was sent to serve in Iraq.  I didn't think much of it, and still don't.  I thought he should refuse.  But he and I have different ideas of right and wrong, and for Mark the right thing to do was serve his country.

And so for the next year the only contact we had with him was through his wife.  And now, finally, after over a year, he was coming home.  His wife called me and the rest of the family in late October to tell us he was flying in to Volk Field, and that we could meet the plane if we wanted.  Most of us siblings have scattered, from Alaska to Florida.  But there are still a few of us who are close enough to drive to meet him.

But the thought of the military's staged welcome home, and the idea of the contrived ceremony of meeting the plane as it touched down made me balk.  I didn't want to be a part of it.  I mulled it over all of that morning, and finally my balkyness turned into a disgusted resignation.  I wanted to see him home.  He's my brother.  I just didn't want to be a part of the crowd and the ceremony.  I thought it should be a private matter.

No, I didn't want to go, but in the end decided that it was too far for my parents to drive.  I quit work at noon and drove over to their house.  The three of us rode together in Dad's big Buick.  I was behind the wheel, as I had been for the last few years whenever there was any distance involved.  Dad took the back seat.  He always sits in the back when Mom comes along.  He sits in the back and doesn't say a word.  I think he has trouble making small talk with me.  We don't often see eye-to-eye on many things.  I'm his oldest son, and I think I was often the most troublesome.

Today though, at Mom's urging, he talked a little about when he was a kid growing up on the farm outside of Elroy.  He talked about how they'd all go to church on Sundays.  And then after church they'd stop at his grandfather's house to visit.  "But he lived down by the train yards," Dad said.  "And the coal dust was everywhere, on everything.  So Ma always made sure we brought our farm clothes to play outside in.
"My grandpa worked at the roundhouse," he said.  "He was an oiler.  The engines would come in and roll onto the turntable and then into the shop.  He's have to go all over every moving part with his oil can.  Then they'd roll them back out and put 'em on the track again."

That was about all Dad said during the half-hour ride to Volk Field.  Mom did a pretty good job of filling the silence by telling me stories, mostly of her childhood, most of them stories I'd heard many times before on different trips.  She sang a few bars of, "Shine on, shine on harvest moon, up in the sky," and then told me about visiting her older sister who had been in the last stages of dementia before she died in a nursing home, and who shouted out, "Honey moon!" when Mom sang that song to her.  Mom was silent for a moment, then said, out of the blue, "She was only a stableman's daughter, but all the horse manure!"  I kept my eyes on the road and drove on.

The temperature had been dropping through the morning, and now it was down below freezing.  The wind picked up and whipped dry brown leaves and ribbons of snow across the highway.  Heavy gusts rocked the big Buick.  The sky was a bright hard blue, but the clouds were dark and heavy and scudded in clumps across the sky and across the sun so that we were driving through a chiaroscuro of sudden darkness and sudden sunlight.  Whenever I looked in the rearview mirror, I could see Dad looking out across the brown stubbled remnants of cornfields and to the bare trees beyond.  His face was as unreadable as the gray woodlands on the rocky hillsides.

He had been through WWII, in Africa and Italy.  But he never talks about it.  He talks only of the traveling there and back.  "It was a job," he says.  "When it was over, we came home."

The guard at the gate at Volk Field hunched against the wind when he came out of his shelter.  His collar was pulled up over his ears, and he only glanced in the car before he waved us through.  We looked like what we were, a family there to meet the plane.

We followed the signs that said, "Parking."  The narrow road wound past old brick and stone barracks and officer's quarters and the mess hall.  Dad said they were all  built during WW I, before they started making everything out of wood and tin.

The parking lot was half full, and more cars were coming in as we parked.  My sister's van pulled in beside us.  I hadn't even seen her following.  She had her two kids, Vincent and Rebecca with her.  Rebecca came running over to tell us that they'd followed us all the way from the gate.  There were six of us now, and we all turned together and leaned into the wind, slowly and steadily moving toward the big gray airplane hangar that squatted at the edge of the runway in the distance.

The wind was even worse here with no hills to block it as it tore across the flat sandy land.  The powder of snow and grit rose up to cloud the buildings, and suddenly fell away again.  Dad was moving slowly but gamely on his poor bowlegged knees.  In his eighties, he still has a drill sergeant's voice, and a solid grip when he shakes your hand.  But arthritis had hit his knees over the last few years.  I asked him about it a while back when I saw he was having trouble walking.  All he said then was, "They hurt like hell."  But he hasn't mentioned it since then.  It hurt me to watch him walk.  I used to follow him around on the farm, looking for new calves or checking the fence line, and I always had to run to keep up.  Today we all slowed, pretending to be strolling so that he wouldn't be left behind.

We had to go through another gate to get to the hangar.  There was a tent set up at the gate, as big as a garage.  Big propane heaters roared and blew in hot air, but the young guys working there were still bundled up and shivering.  They made everyone hold their arms out while they ran metal detector wands over us.  One of the politely and apologetically asked Mom to open her purse for inspection.  She checked out okay.

Mark's wife, Tammy, was waiting for us on the other side of the tent, along with their son, Zach.  Tammy is a hugger, married into a family of non-huggers.  We have our space, even among each other.  Even though she knows this, Tammy ran up and hugged each of us.  Now there were eight of us walking slowly across the tarmac, through the cold and the wind and the sand and the snow, the last 50 yards to the hangar.

Inside the hangar it was warm and brightly lit and filled with people.  There were groups of families who stood in clusters and chattered and laughed.  There were other people who stood apart, alone and silent while they waited.  The voices of the talking, laughing people merged and echoed off the walls and off the ceiling until it became a low roar of anticipation and excitement.

There was no sign of wealth to be seen anywhere in the crowd.  A few of the young wives or girlfriends were dressed in their best, of course.  But for the most part the people, especially the parents, were in everyday working clothes, and many of them looked apprehensive and unused to crowds.

After a while a man stood up at the podium and announced that the plane was nearly there.  The big hangar doors were kept closed, so we all filed out, maybe two hundred of us trying to funnel through the two small side doors.

We could see the landing lights of the plane up against the bright and cold blue sky.  It still seemed to be miles away.  A few people cheered and waved little American flags on sticks.  But their voices were cut thin and blown away by the wind.  Dad looked up at the sky as he had done every day when he was farming.  Then he looked at the hard bright landing lights.  He had his back to the wind and his face was turned up, his jaw muscles clenched.  He didn't say anything.  Mom was confused.  She was standing behind a tall woman, and saying, "Where is it?  I don't see it!"  Tammy put her arm around her and moved her from behind the tall woman.  She pointed, and Mom said, "Oh there it is!  I see it now!"

The plane dropped smoothly onto the end of the long runway.  White smoke puffed up under the tires when it touched down.  It slowed incredibly soon, it seemed to me, for such a huge machine.  Then it turned off the runway a quarter mile away, and stopped.  It took a long time for the steps to be wheeled up to the plane and for the door to open.

We finally saw figures filing out, and down the steps.  A man on a platform at the edge of the crowd started cheering, and the rest of the crowd took it up.  Then more soldiers walked out and the same voice shouted out, "I don't think they heard you!"  The crowd cheered louder while the soldiers gathered in a group beside the plane.  I stayed in the back of the crowd, apart from them, and looked over their heads.

Mom and Dad were shivering from the wind and the cold.  I walked with them back to the hangar where they ended up talking to another couple who had also come in from the cold.  I left them there and went back outside.

There was a company of veterans outside now, about ten of them, all carrying big American flags.  They were getting set up to fall into some sort of formation.  The ranged in age from thirty to sixty or more years old.  One of them was a short and grizzled guy with a beard.  He was dressed in black leather and wore a Harley-Davidson bandana on his head.  One of the many patches on his jacket read, "Viet Nam Vet, and Proud of It!"  He had that beaten-down-but-not-beaten look that I've seen so often on men at the V.A. hospital, on men from that era.  I've also seen that look a hundred times on television and in movies, every time there's a displaced vet as one of the characters.  I've seen so often that it seems more an affectation than a reality.  There's a part of me that says I'm wrong to think that, but on the other hand I don't recall seeing it on WWII veterans.

The soldiers were finally moving to the hangar, hurrying now to get out of the wind.  None of them wore coats.  I turned to go inside to tell Mom and Dad when my nephew, Vincent, came running up to me.  "Uncle Gus," he said.  "You're not as much fun as you usually are."

I didn't know what to tell him.  I had never realized that he thought I was fun.  I told him I was sorry.  I told him I was thinking of other things.  And I was.  I still didn't want to be a part of this.  I was trying to keep the annoyed and bitter feeling alive.  But it was getting hard.  The anger was still there, but what with the cold, and the wind, and the gray driving snow, what with Mom befuddled and Dad hobbling, I began to feel empty, and I began to feel alone, and I began to feel lonesome in my anger.  I followed the crowd inside and found the rest of the family.  We waited together.

The soldiers started filing in the back door, all in their lightweight desert camo uniforms.  We watched and waited until, finally, Mark walked in.  He's a big man, and stood half a head taller than most of them.  He looked about him, smiling in an oddly unsure but happy way that I remembered from when he was a little kid, a look that seems to say, "I'm happy to be here, even if I'm not sure where 'here' is."  I moved out to where he could see us, then stepped back with Mom and Dad.

Tammy and Zach pushed through the crowd to meet him, but the rest of us held back, letting them have a moment together.  I glanced over at Mom and Dad.  Mom was smiling distractedly while she watched Mark.  But Dad's face was twisting, as if he were in pain.  His mouth turned down sharply and I thought for a moment that the walking and the cold and the wind had caught up with him.  I took a few worried steps toward him, then stopped.  I stopped because I knew he wouldn't want me to see him, to see his face sttruggling to keep a confident smile on, struggling to keep the tears back.  When I saw that on his face, on his strong-jawed and stoic old-soldier face, and realized it for what it was, it hit me too, with an awful suddenness.  It filled my chest so that my breath hitched and I had to look away to make it stop.  But I couldn't look away for long.  I couldn't keep from watching as Dad forced his tired and aching legs forward to meet Mark, as he held out his hand to shake his son's hand.

I hadn't seen how the rest of the family had greeted Mark.  I had only watched Dad during that time.  And now, as he held out his open hand, his mouth kept turning down, twisting from that smile that he kept vainly trying on, and the struggle went on and on until Mark ignored the open hand and hugged him.

We didn't stay much longer.  The soldiers had to meet up, to be debriefed before they would be allowed to go, and that would take hours.  We said our good-byes and then I ran ahead to the parking lot to warm up the car and bring it as close as I could to the airstrip gate.  From there we followed the winding road back to the gate and turned out onto the highway.  Outside the wind was cold, and was still driving the leaves and the dust and the snow across the road, hissing across the hood and roof of the car.  But inside the car it was warm.  Dad spoke up from the back seat.  "Boy, that heat feels good."  A few minutes later he spoke up again, the last thing he said all the rest of the way home.  "Well," he said.  "I'm glad we went."

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