Soldier

On a flight I was booked on recently, the gate attendant announced prior to boarding that we would carry a fallen Marine in cargo and his relatives on the plane. A sergeant from Spokane, she told us, had lost his life in Afghanistan.

Everyone stood up and walked to the wall of windows so they could see the proceedings. Perhaps earlier in my life I would have not watched to make a poltical point against the war, but many of my formerly rigid angles are now rounded corners so I rose to see something I’d never been in the position to witness.

Down on the tarmac, two decorated Marines approached a Delta Airlines luggage container. They pulled back the heavy canvas flap that hung in front of a large, rectangular wooden crate. This was no shiny mahogany coffin — it was straight from overseas, in limbo here in Raleigh, the sergeant’s brethren doing their best to honor his sacrifice. The two men carefully unfolded an American flag and placed it on top of the crate, and then they stood up rod-straight and hand-saluted the sky from their brows. Two women stood close by, dabbing their eyes with tissues, the wife and the mother it appeared. A third Marine with his beret at his chest held vigil beside them. Then a Delta Airlines employee walked up and hoisted the crate onto the conveyor belt, which took it slowly up toward the stowage cabin.

When the coffin finally disappeared into the plane’s belly, everyone went back to their devices or children. We soon boarded the plane, and as I walked in I noticed the two women and the Marine sitting in the first row of coach.

I kept glancing over to them during the flight. I thought about the responsibility of the Marine delivering the sergeant’s body back to Spokane, the airport there most likely hung with sad banners. What exactly would he say? A veteran I talked to later said the man most likely did not know the fallen sergeant personally — he was fulfilling the role he’d be trained to do. I wondered about the wife, and the mother: their shock and awe at the hole suddenly gaping.

In spite of the multihued strands of folks coming through our house, I don’t have one close friend or family member who has recently served in the military. I feel almost embarrassed to have strong feelings about war when I am so divorced from the military. And yet most of the men and women I have met in the military, at least those of my generation, have a sense of sadness and resignation in their eyes, not much of the glory that I’ve sometimes seen in World War II veterans. Are cheery old war stories just propaganda? Or was service truly more glorious once? Is it that nostalgic hope that keeps today’s soldiers going when their sense of security has slipped away on the fuzzy lines that make our frontier?

This morning, I looked at a photograph in the obituary section of the newspaper of a local soldier killed in Afghanistan. I paid attention to how I felt: did I have a different response to him than I did to all the other photographs of people who had recently passed away? I did, partially because the soldier was so young and also because his death seems so unfair — he had such a sweet face, and I imagine he had good intentions when he went off to fight in a war that in reality has been misguided from the start. (To imagine channeling young soldiers’ willingness to serve and their quest for self-worth into something fruitful! The Iraq War veteran Paul Chappell has spoken of his dream of a military corps trained to respond to the planet’s growing number of natural disasters, their boots on another nation’s soil a true blessing.) For all the pomp and circumstance behind the slogan “Support our Troops,” the politicians who send our young men and women to fight ill-conceived and poorly executed wars are in fact exploiting our troops rather than supporting them. Part of me doesn’t want to honor this soldier’s life more than I do the other people on the obituary page precisely because I’ve seen my own government use our heart strings to orchestrate further military misadventures, which not only leave behind human devastation but also demand huge infusions of public money that could instead be funding our own crumbling infrastructure. Maybe I’d feel differently if our wars solved global problems instead of exacerbating them.

And so I must sit with a steely resolve to fight against our military machine and a simultaneous feeling of tenderness toward the foot soldiers who serve it. And I also must point to all the people who make sacrifices for important causes. I will always respect devotion, but I don’t place the U.S. military’s sacrifices on any sort of higher plane. I am not against formally acknowledging the loss of military life, and yet there are also all the uncelebrated organ donors and fathers jumping in the way of incoming cars and peace activists losing their lives to bulldozers and even those sacrifices that don’t end in death but are nonetheless noble, the sleepless nights of vigil beside a dying sister’s bed. They, too, deserve yellow ribbons.

When we finally touched down in Atlanta, the plane bustled with impatient energy. The pilot came on and announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, when we come to a stop, please stay seated and allow the sergeant’s family and the accompanying Marine to deplane first.” As the trio rose, the plane erupted in applause, and I clapped too as I felt a quick choke and a tear sneaking out the corner of my eye despite my best bravado.

Rescues

Not my Pinewood Derby car...

My fallout with the Cub Scouts began with Mussolini and ended with a Pinewood Derby Car.

I was nine years old and living with my parents and sister in Los Angeles. My father was an avid reader and World War II history buff; he’d often sit on the couch by the fire, thick book in his hand, oblivious to the fact that I was spying on him from just feet away, trying to get as close to him as I could.

I think my father regarded my sister and me more as miniature adults than as children. He took us to R-rated movies years before our time and regaled me not with nighttime stories of magical creatures or superheroes but rather with the finer points of Nazism and fascism. He told me how Adolf Hitler used to intentionally arrive late to Nazi rallies, the crowd’s impatience roiling into nationalistic fervor once the Fuhrer finally took to the stage. He told me about Mussolini, El Duce, how he adorned Italy with statues and posters of himself and trained black-shirted fascist youth in anthems and songs.

One night I was at my weekly Cub Scout meeting; we had just finished reciting the Cub Scout Promise, and as we lifted our fingers to our brows to give the Cub Scout Salute, it suddenly occurred to me that all of my pack mates were dressed the same: identical blue uniforms, identical gold scarfs around our necks; identical merit badges adorning our breast pockets. When I returned home from the meeting, I announced urgently to my parents, “I’ve got to quit the Cub Scouts!” When they asked why, I revealed, as if it were obvious: “Because they’re fascists!”

My parents didn’t disagree; in fact, they told me I could quit, as long as I finished out the year. After all, I had the Pinewood Derby to look forward to.

I was excited about the Pinewood Derby. Each Scout would arrive home with a small wooden rectangular block, four nails, and four plastic wheels. Our task was to transform these materials into a sleek racing car that would speed down a slotted wooden track against other Scouts on the appointed night.

Unfortunately, shortly before my Pinewood Derby packet arrived, my parents announced that they were getting divorced. On New Year’s Day, my father unceremoniously moved out with little more than his personal belongings, leaving my sister, mother, and me behind in a house that suddenly felt too big.

I remember one evening I was walking through the dining room when I sensed someone in the room. I took a few steps back to see my mother sitting alone in the dark. “When is Papa coming back?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she said, and she burst into tears.

But my mom was also a fighter. There were torrential downpours in Los Angeles that winter, and one afternoon my mom called my sister and me downstairs. She showed us how the water level on the back patio was rising so high that it was threatening to seep through the door, which would spell ruin for the house she and my father were about to sell. She made us get into our raincoats and handed us both outdoor brooms, and the three of us spent the next several hours pushing the water away from the door and toward the patio’s overtaxed drains. The water almost leaked in, but in the end we saved the house.

So I had no reason to think my mother and me couldn’t make a winning Pinewood Derby car. We worked on it in the breakfast nook; my mom wore a blue bandanna around her head, and I remember the smell of sawdust as we used our rudimentary tools to turn the block of wood into a race car: one handsaw, sandpaper, one paintbrush, and paint. In the end, it was a simple vehicle: triangular in shape (not a curve on it), and painted a chirpy orange and red.

The night of the Pinewood Derby, my mother was busy, so I caught a ride with my friend Greg Magnuson and his father. Mr. Magnuson knew me from sleepovers and was, I believe, aware of my parents’ recent divorce. When we entered the school gymnasium, I was struck immediately by the preponderance of Dads there, most of them showing off the cars their sons had supposedly made. I sensed from their prideful grins that they had been the ones most likely wielding the lathes.

I quickly found my pack mates, and we stood in a circle sizing up each other’s cars. It went well at first, but then one of my friends asked, “Hey, what did you guys do about weights?” Simultaneously, my friends turned their cars over to reveal that they had all somehow added weight to their wooden cars; some had carved out notches in the wood and glued in melted-down fishing weights. Others had used duct tape to fasten coins to their cars’ undersides. I had nothing.

As it turns out, you were just supposed to “know” that a heavier car meant a faster car on the Derby’s gravity-based track. My mother and I couldn’t have known this; it must have been some inside information shared among fathers. In a fit of anger, alienation, and panic, I threw my car down onto the floor and ran out of the gymnasium in tears.

I didn’t know where I was going, just that I wanted to get away from this world I didn’t feel part of. I ran until I started to tire. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. There was Mr. Magnuson, who brought me towards him and whispered, “It’s OK, Tim. Come on back inside.”

Mr. Magnuson and I walked back to the gym, where we found my car and the races I was scheduled for. I lost three times in a row, even the consolation round.

In the days and weeks and months and years that followed, I did what we do with a painful memory: I pushed it down, let a thick skin grow over it, forgot about it. Until about two decades later. I was in my late twenties, in the midst of a surge of cathartic writing; I was feverishly composing a series of rants and screeds to my father, cataloging every crime he’d committed. I even sent him some of these poems.

But in the midst of this wreckage, I stumbled into a more-tender memory, the one of Mr. Magnuson and the Pinewood Derby. What lived with me from that night was not losing the races, nor my father’s absence, nor the fact that my mother had been with me at every step of that boyhood ritual except the final one, when I needed her the most. No, what stayed with me was the feel of Mr. Magnuson’s hand on my shoulder, the way it felt to turn into him for that tiny second.

Last week, I returned home to Bynum after being out of town for a week. I was flying in late, so when I got home, Rio was already asleep. The next morning, I went into his room to wake him up for school. I sat on his bed next to him, and he must have sensed I was there, because he lifted one eyelid and directed his gaze up towards me. He slowly brought his arm out from beneath the blanket, reached up to my face, and gently placed his hand on the back of my neck. More than any painful memory or imperfect moment, I believe it is these points of contact that make us who we are.