Thursday, May 7, 2009

Ducklings

"Half the world is crazy and the other half is scared."
-- Phil Ochs.


Shortly after the corporations found the Texas imbecile to represent their policies around the globe--to plump up their offshore holdings and cripple the American middle class--Dale was shipped out to Afghanistan. He was a monster of flesh, rising over 6'6", with a shaved, bullet-shaped head. Born and raised in the quiet towns of Oregon's Willamette Valley, Dale longed to do good for himself and his family. He'd flunked out of school, was arrested for alcohol-fueled pranks and misconduct, starred in football, but was a dismal failure in the eyes of his brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts.

I learned about his battlefield exploits in short asides that would leak out in innocuous conversations about weather or sports. He'd been home from the war and began anew the trajectory into rage and frustration, shoved out into the streets after battering holes in his father's living room walls with his fists. Alcohol steadied his nerves for an hour, but as he kept on drinking, he overshot the mark and began practicing hand-to-hand without discriminating between animate objects and just any old thing.

The Corps wanted nothing to do with him, kicking him out for alcoholism and mental illness. They washed their hands of him and turned their attention to fresh recruits. Dale said he had been prescribed depression medication in basic training but once they shipped him overseas the Corps decided either he no longer needed it or that it was too much trouble to find some for him. He said he felt excited when he killed, but sad and lonely afterward, that he could make up any number of stories in his mind about the women and children they killed. He said believed he was doing good, but was haunted. He and his fellows would kick dogs that lay in the streets, stupefied from concussions.

The stories slipped into conversations we had in coffee shops about recovery and how to live without alcohol. They slipped out when we sat in the park on summer mornings before the Sacramento heat took all energy out of you. We read the recovery books, swapping turns, and Dale stopped in the middle of his paragraphs because his mind went elsewhere. I'd sit and wait and smile at him. Told him how well he was doing.

He was living in a recovery home not far from where we held our meetings, sharing a house with a dozen other men who were trying to find a way out from a walled-up life. Dale had his own room now, decorated with posters of heavy metal bands and football players he admired. He had a devilish grin that flashed when you had no other indication he was in the same conversation, let alone the same room with you.

The fellows in the recovery home went everywhere together like so many ducklings in the road. In this war, you survived by safety in numbers and by sticking to the middle of the pack. It was more difficult that way to get picked off by the sniper in your head. Guys loved Dale and when I went over to read literature with him, they joked about his clumsiness drying dishes or how he'd scorched the macaroni dinner, mindlessly letting all the water boil out the bottom of the kettle.

On our happiest day, he came over to my apartment for the Fourth of July. It was brutally hot, so we strung canopies over the plastic patio tables and chairs that circled the swimming pool. He wolfed down ribs and chicken and chugged soda pop, and made cannonballs in the pool, his huge body a sudden flash in the air, then the center of rippling waves, his head pink in the sun.

In Sacramento, the locals were at odds about the war and a familiar chasm opened between us all. Guys in over-sized pickup trucks bearing flags roamed the streets, honking their horns. Across from the apartment complex, a Victorian house where a lesbian couple lived had a chart in their window, tallying the war dead .

At dusk we took the stairs to the roof to watch the fireworks explode over the fairgrounds. The roof had weak patches, which scared me, but Dale hopped up and down on them with sadistic delight. The fireworks flashed in his eyes. And as the party wound down, he was the last to go home.

It had taken me a long time to get over my own sense of shame of using a medical deferment to escape service in the Vietnam War. My draft number was among the lowest, which meant I was among the first to go. But I went to college instead and marched against the war, mostly for feeling at home among like-minded people, for the parties, drugs, and easy sex. Unlike many protesters, I did not resent soldiers who had been less fortunate with deferments or who had volunteered for duty, and I was not among the haters who spat upon them when they came home. I was mostly sad about the whole thing.

And when I reached recovery in Port Townsend, I was surrounded with vets who had returned to addiction and despair. I learned to shake their hands and welcome them home. I sat in coffee shops with guys who couldn't sit with their backs to the door, who had buried the living as well as the dead in trash pits in the jungle. With friends who had lost their hearing after manning cannons, or who now walked with braces on their withered legs and had no ill will after gaining traction in recovery. I made friends with the colonel who had come home in alcoholic rage and attempted to throw his wife through a high-story window. He had, at last, found an uneasy peace within our company. The military, I learned, had done little for them after their release. So when I learned that the Texas imbecile had not attended a single military funeral for Iraqi-war veterans, I had to redouble my recovery work to dilute my own rage.

The week after the Fourth of July, I went to the recovery house for a routine meeting with Dale, but he had gone. He had exploded again, this time ripping the kitchen sink from the wall, and had been dismissed. None of his friends knew where he went after he tossed his posters in the trash, rolled up his sleeping bag, and walked off into the night. He said he would phone them, but he never did.

Weeks passed and the ducklings continued to trail into our meetings. One by one, they graduated or were kicked out from the recovery home and went off into whatever lives they could muster. Eventually the last man who had known Dale was gone into the world.

The ones that live, they're amongst us now.

2 comments:

A Cuban In London said...

And in this in case the sniper is no longer on the battlefield, but inside your head. You're afraid or yourself. That fellow could not let of his comrades, not just out of habit and convenience (survival, too?) but also because he knew he had a gun inside himself aiming at what he held dear.

This is a wonderful tale, mate. And I notice that your book is on amazon. I will check amazon.co.uk and finances are fine by Nov (my b'day) or Dec (Christmas) I'll give myself a nice pressie. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

dutchbaby said...

This is an incredible journey you describe here. It must be haunting to not know where they all went, but I'm sure they know that at least one person cared deeply for them. That is a gift that I'm sure they treasure.

You got my hackles up when you said that "W" never attended a military funeral. How could he call himself a Christian? I don't see a moral compass in that man.