Memorial Day just blew past us, more than a long weekend for cooking burgers and splashing in the lake or pool, you know, though one might well think it was invented by and for the folks who make powdered lemonade and instant-light charcoal. The Observer is not being accusatory, Dear Reader, just stating the facts of the situation. We are guilty of not memorializing on Memorial Day, too. So now: amends.
The Observer's grandfather — who died of a cancer in the bone and blood before The Observer was born — was in the Pacific during Dubya-Dubya Two. After they heard about Pearl Harbor on the radio, he and a truckload of farmboys piled into a Model-T pickup way up in the sandy hills north of Conway, rattled to town, and signed up. He wound up working in the motor pool of an engineering battalion that turned jungles into airstrips on unnamed islands he would never return to. His were one of the first pairs of American boots on the ground in Nagasaki after the bomb. The Observer's mother said that he didn't want to talk about it, except when he was drinking. Then, sometimes, he would recall how the Army dozers ran day and night, digging graves, covering over the irradiated dead. That is all The Observer knows of my grandfather's war. It may be all we want to know. There's not much more to say than what General Sherman did already: war is all hell.
If you've watched this space awhile, you know that The Observer teaches some college classes, primarily creative writing. We've had all kinds of people come through those classes over the years — nurses who wanted to write romance novels, lawyers who wanted to write gumshoe mysteries, serious young folk who want to write serious tomes on serious topics and change the world. Here's what we have to tell them all: Art is not a hammer. It's a mirror — a fragile thing, unsuitable for bearing much weight, but which can show the reader something hidden about himself, or bounce light onto solutions so you can see them.
Some of the most memorable folks we've seen in classes over the years have been the combat soldiers. They started trickling in a few years after America embarked on our sandbox adventures in the Middle East. There haven't been a lot of them, but they've always been memorable, each in their own way. The ones who have been there — who have walked the streets of cities with unpronounceable names with rifles slung and fear tamped down — always have this way about them. Never unkind. Never haughty or arrogant or particularly broken. Just the air of a person who knows that life is much more than Coke or Pepsi, Walmart or Target, Ford or Chevrolet, or even Hemingway or Faulkner. It is as if they carry the dust of those places, and that dust always asks a question, as old as The Iliad and The Odyssey: Once young men and women have accompanied Death to the underworld, can they ever truly return to the land of sun and shade?
The Observer is a crusty old cuss by now. Not much gets to us. Here, however, is something that still does: There are jobs in our society which require a person to box up and put away a very primal part of oneself, that part of a human being that makes us want to run from fire, or flee from bullets, or turn away in horror from blood or the dead. One of those jobs is the job of the soldier. That putting away — that sacrifice, and the amount of love it takes to make it — is what we spent a good chunk of the day thinking about on Memorial Day.
To all those who've been there and back again: Welcome home, and thank you.