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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Of Veterans and Thanks

Today is Veterans Day.

I confess I have very little interaction with anyone in the military and I myself would never consider joining. I'm a bit of a pacifist and an even bigger baby; the thought of killing anything makes me queasy, and the thought of someone trying to kill me makes me want to curl into a ball in the back of the closet.

I grew up during the Vietnam war, although I wasn't even aware of it at the time. I wasn't yet born when it started and it ended when I was ten. I'm not sure if my parents tried to shield me from it or if I was just oblivious. We only had one television in the house and my only memory of it was watching Gilligan's Island when I got home from school. I never saw those infamous news clips of the fighting over there.

As a kid my family consisted of my parents and brothers, and some older relatives on my father's side. By sheer luck or timing, none of my relatives on that side served in the military. My grandfather was a welder by trade, and he did some ironwork for the war effort during WWII but never actually joined. My great-grandfather was married with children before WWI broke out and owned a sheep ranch; I assume some of the wool went to the war effort there as well.

I didn't really know my Mom's side of the family; she grew up in Seattle and that's where most of them lived. Kids live their lives in such a small radius, anything outside the circle doesn't seem real. I knew I had uncles and cousins but had only met them once or twice. My mom had some pictures, but a kid has things to do, friends to play with, who has the time to look at some old black and white photos?

My crazy uncle turned up in San Francisco at some point during my grade school years. I don't remember exactly the day I met him, but he made quite the impression just the same. He drove an AMC Pacer, the smashed back bumper tied on with brightly colored hair ribbons (probably the first thing he could find at the nearest drug store—he was both poor and not very mechanically inclined). Every now and then he'd show up at our house, roaring up the street in that goldfish bowl car, parking it willy nilly and rushing in the front door in a cloud of cigarette smoke. His mustache was always carefully waxed into a curl like a New Age Snidely Whiplash and he dressed in the latest hippie fashion of the day, all vests and bell bottoms.

He loved everything new. He was the first to buy a laser-disk system (the precursor to DVD as it turned out) and he always had the latest (and biggest) television to go with it. He bought us the best Christmas gifts we could imagine, sometimes things we didn't even know existed. One year a tiny transistor radio, the next a calculator that actually added, subtracted, multiplied AND divided for you! (This was the 70's after all. It's hard to remember that those things were cutting edge and very expensive back then.) When Star Wars came out he took us all to the biggest screen theater in San Francisco where we stood in line for two hours and sat in the front row, starships zooming over our heads as the latest THX sound system rumbled our seats.

He was an artist and always struggled to make a living. He finally got a "real" job as a long distance operator translating for Japanese callers trying to reach relatives in the U.S. I never once wondered how the son of an Italian immigrant who grew up in Seattle learned to speak Japanese. It was just something Uncle Steve knew how to do.

Hindsight is always 20/20, as they say, but it can also slap you in the face and remind you just what an oblivious idiot you can be.

My uncle was a medic in Vietnam. He didn't show up until later in my childhood because he was busy patching his fellow soldiers back together, that is until he contracted malaria and was sent to Japan to recover. He spent six months in a hospital there, learning to speak Japanese for lack of anything else to do. He came home physically weak and mentally scarred, struggling (I'm sure) with how to exist with the memories he carried in his head.

He married then divorced, moving around the country looking for his place in the world. He lived in Atlanta for a while, moving back when the southern way of life started to grate on his bohemian nerves. He tried his hand at being a monk, giving away his worldly possessions and moving into a seminary in Massachusetts. After a few years, he gave that up and moved back to California, getting a manufacturing job nearby so he could be close to his sister.

I only remember one instance of him talking about the war, and that was just a few years ago. He told us he was waiting by the side of a field with his unit, just another day "on the job." A soldier was walking across the field toward them when he stepped on a mine. My uncle said it looked like a cartoon, detached arms and legs flying out from the center, the center of course being a body that was reduced to the red mulch that rained down on their heads. There was nothing really to do but pick up the pieces and stuff them into a body bag.

How do you live with that?

We're told to thank the men and women who have served, and be grateful they have protected our way of life. Of course I am thankful. But it seems like the phrase "Thank you for your service" has been reduced to a greeting—"thankyouforyourservice" "haveaniceday" "how'reyoudoing?"—and has ceased to have any real meaning. Besides, what can a returning soldier, with visions in his head like the one my uncle shared with us, really take from a thank you? Politicians talk about sacrifice and bravery and flags get put out on porches and the mall holds a big sale. I'm sure that makes veterans feel awfully proud.

My uncle's demons never left him. He died alone in a condo filled to the brim with things he had purchased trying to fill a void that couldn't be filled. It was sad and heart wrenching and I'm sure it happens every day which makes it that much more sad and heart wrenching.

So today I will remember my uncle as I knew him: funny, generous, artistic, and genuinely, comically mechanically disinclined. I will be thankful for the people who were willing to spend part (or all) of their lives in the military following orders, doing things no one should ever be asked to do.

How can a civilian like me possibly understand what it's like to be in a situation like those faced by military veterans? I can't. By way of thanks, though, I plan to listen to their stories, pay attention when conflicts around the world arise and most importantly, hope against hope that someday we'll all learn to settle our differences without sacrificing anyone's life or sanity.

And to all the Uncle Steves out there: Thank you for your service. Sincerely.

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