It’s Veteran’s Day and I’m flying to San Antonio. That would not be relevant except: a woman boarded the plane wearing a picture pin of a young man in a military uniform. I have no idea what this means. Except I maybe do. Did she lose a son? If so, that son has/had a younger brother, also on the plane, and a father, trailing behind managing the bulkier bags.
I found out after the fact that, while my brother was in Iraq, my father thought about attending a funeral for a fallen marine, quite a drive from my parents’ house. My mom was glad he ultimately decided against making the trip. She said he wouldn’t have made it home.
I called my brother this morning, as I always do on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. I never know what to say. “I’m thinking of you and I hope you have a good day” is the standard. There is a lot more to say, but it’s all so convoluted that I go mute.
My mom and dad flew home yesterday, and my brother came back from Iraq two times. It’s like we just missed being the family that boarded a little bit after me, by a day, maybe by an inch. From his stories I know it was inches. He could hear bullets whipping by. Not the shots. The bullets, the way they stir up the air when they are very, very close to you.
Polite phone calls and no picture pins. Moving along, attending conferences, one foot in front of the other. As I write this, Delta Airlines is saluting veterans over the intercom. We all applaud. They have a small token of their appreciation that they’ll be passing around throughout the cabin. A wing pin to put next to the photograph? She’s at my row with a basket of chocolates. The wrappers say “Remember Our Veterans. Nov. 11th,” and have circular stars and stripes, red white and blue design. Made only with Belgian chocolate.
What are you going to do when you get to that row, though? Give that family three pieces of only-Belgian chocolate, one for each survivor? It’s distinctly possible that the young man is away fighting, not dead. I could look up what this gesture, the picture pin, actually means, duly diligent. Something about the way they carried themselves, though, played into my morbid fantasy. Going forward, getting to their seats with “quiet resolve” and “fortitude” and “courage” and carrying a deep palpable sadness.
The man who drove me to the airport has lived outside of Northfield, Minnesota his whole life. He said he was “too stupid to leave.” No wedding ring. We listened to sports radio the whole way up, UofM just having hired a new coach who I gather had something to do with the “defense kids” because he now wants to spend more time with the “offense kids,” per the press conference. I picture this man all alone watching football in the frigid winter. I imagine that he is lonely and sad. I imagine that this young man in a picture on a pin is dead. I have a strong It Will Be Ok impulse in me. Sometimes I let it drop, and see sadness and pain all around.
For every “click like and share if you like the flag” there’s someone who has endured a loss I cannot imagine, or someone trying to absolve themselves of the guilt of survival, tragedy-free for the moment. It is this way in war and it is this way all the time. And once in awhile we make partial contact with that abyss, the one we cover in layers of It Will Be Ok, Everything Happens For A Reason. And you start inventing stories about sad taxi drivers watching football in the snow, or a family of four now a family of three. Tell me it happens for a reason, make an intercom announcement and then pass out chocolate. Balls of yarn to play with while the world burns. And we are the lucky ones, on the conqueror side of the line. Maybe “lucky” isn’t the word.
And yet. I know I’ll keep telling stories and keep making things, Tommy Cosh singing Mandalay, a line from a poem. Going down not fighting. Going down in song. I can’t articulate why and how that has moral value, I can’t monetize or quantify it. But I know it, because I want it so badly to be true.