My closest personal experience with participation in the military was as the commanding general of plastic Green Beret soldiers. They fought regular pitched battles against
plastic Nazi soldiers. I learned to aim a Daisy BB gun while picking off the Nazis one by one and sending them tumbling down the hill in the back yard. In my war, the ill effects were limited to not being able to find as many toy soldiers as I had originally positioned earlier in the day.
My dad had several stories of his time in the Air Force after Davidson College. He wanted to fly. The McFadyens’ genetically inferior eyesight rendered that an impossibility, so his stay in the USAF was relatively short.
Then, in 1987, my mom married another Davidson College Air Force guy, this one a pilot and a retired Brigadier General named Pop Pop. Now Pop Pop is full of happy stories of landing planes on postage stamps and buzzing rooftops of girls who broke up with him. We know that he was active duty during three wars, but I have never heard him tell even one story that was as violent as were my wars with the plastic Nazi soldiers. Most of his tales include some far away glance at something only he can see and some form of his laughter usually accompanies them. Only Pop Pop hears the ones he does not tell.
Perhaps as I got older, I heard things differently. Perhaps as I got older, people sensed that it was safer to expose me to things that happen from the ends of weapons that produce injuries far more permanent than what my air rifle did.
Pop Pop has a son-in-law who was a colonel. The colonel has a son who completed
Special Forces training and who served as the medic on an SF team down range in Afghanistan. Son’s stories are usually related with the teller’s eyes cast down and with vocal tones reduced from their normal timbre. They include a buddy’s clothes stained by blood. They include field hospitals. They conclude in a cemetery in Alabama and the placement of a body that once housed a soul. There are broken-hearted parents. There is a permanent grief. That son has a sister. She graduated from Davidson College, oddly enough. She is tall and pretty. She is funny. She loves Hawaii. She loves the Rockies. She dreams out-loud of marriage and perhaps silently of motherhood. Her employer is the United States Army. She flies Chinook helicopters. Today, she is flying her Chinook in Iraq. I do not know if, after she flew today, she laughingly recounted landing on a postage stamp or whether she has a story that will require eyes to be cast down during the telling of it. I just know that she is painfully away. I just know that the only help I really have to offer is prayer.
I should have been working. When I initially pulled up the Internet, my intent was surely to progress to the County GIS website to look up some tax value or zoning code. The headline stopped me though. The story was a synopsis of several interviews with soldiers who had returned home from the region of cast down eyes. Its thesis was their fatigue with total strangers walking up to them and thanking them for their service. The story was careful to not indict the well meaning ones who did the shoulder tapping. The story was more a description of silent battles some soldiers fight after the shooting has stopped. Even the guys in the interviews seemed to understand that people like me, the Plastic Soldier Fighters, understand that we don’t understand. Still, their own cynicism was represented as almost self-preservation for them. It was a stitch in a tight line of suturing over invisible battle wounds that, if left open, would bleed out into something uglier than just cynicism.
The indictment could have been served on me. Yet I did not take offense. In fact, it made me love those particular guys more. Some things cannot be made right with simple kindness.
Some things cannot be healed at all.
My sons practiced lacrosse the other day. While waiting to ferry them home, I took the opportunity to walk around the fenced barriers inside of which my boys were running full tilt. Only after making my turn between the fields did I realize that the even younger group of children buzzing around where I was now walking was also practicing lacrosse. Their coach was earnestly doing for them in lacrosse what I strove to do so many times coaching baseball. He was trying to make them more skilled than they were when they came there and he was trying to make them move more with one purpose. Coach was running amongst them, leading them, as well as instructing them. It stirred empathy in me. Then, he broke free of their circle, such that I could see him more clearly; clearly enough to see titanium where on most of us is skin and bone.
I do not know the circumstances that resulted in that titanium appendage becoming an accoutrement to that lacrosse practice. But when one lives long enough in this town, when
one’s mom marries people whose people end up down range, This I do know: the fellow who ran among the kids in such a way as to lead them toward something new…the fellow who
ran amongst them as a volunteer coach and role model…that fellow’s eyes were ablaze with passion and they were anything but cast down. His eyes were looking into the eyes of
his young padawans with all manner of expectation for their futures. And, as discerned by me anyway, for his own.
I understand that I do not understand. Just know, you whose business suit is or was a shade of camo, that deep inside of the vast majority of us who do not understand, there is an
indescribably deep gratitude for your role in providing for us the luxury of enjoying our own ignorance and innocence.