Towards the end of the Memorial Day ceremonies at the Vietnam ‘Duty to Remember’ monument in Philadelphia I watched as the charge d’affaires of the local Vietnam Vets Association collapsed — in the more than mild afternoon heat, of a much more than mild heart attack.
And then he was saved by the mouth to mouth resuscitation of a Vietnamese doctor present for the annual remembrance ceremonies.
At that moment some reverse irony and poetic justice was inhaled and exhaled in all our tortured memories of a war that never decided who was right – just who was left… to survive… and fight the stroke of death one more time.
And that’s when I thought of Dan. An old friend. At least in the glories of my mind. He died there. Near some far off village whose name I have long forgotten. And always mispronounced.
I learned, in some later years when truth becomes the daughter of time, that even if a medic had been on hand it wouldn’t have saved my friend Dan who once wrote me that ‘only when you finally are no longer afraid do you truly begin to live.’
“Fear is just excitement in need of an attitude adjustment,” he humorously scrawled among his few succinct missives. I think that’s mostly how Dan thought – uncomplicated. Like when he once asked: “What happens if you get scared half to death – twice?”
Hmm… I remember… It’s my Duty.
But obviously there are some people, some soldiers… some victims who simply can’t be saved – from fear or death.
But what I did save was his memory harvested from a long lost letter or three. At that time they probably meant little to anyone but crazy me…. In one in particular, I recall, he wanted me to know that if he died, it would truly be “without a hitch.”
That’s what those gnarled, burly Ft. Benning Drill Instructors — culled from the hard-scrap deltas of Louisiana and the choking backwash of Alabama — called Dan’s twitch. His wince. That flinch that was beaten into his long lanky soul as deeply as his earliest inoculations. That is, until those DI’s shake-n-baked it out of him on those parched training fields of Georgia’s red-clay, hellfire heat.
Hmm… Dan said it started on his second day. Before morning meets dawn. When you’re too tired to care. And too scared to be tired.
In that coarse, red-neck acrimony that rubs layers of your epidermis raw, Dan’s DI snarled: “Well, looky-here! We got ourselves a boy with a hitch.”
“A flinch,” Dan wanted to correct, but wisely figured you don’t interrupt an intense man screaming his saliva in your face. He just don’t care.
“Your Daddy punch you too much, soldier?”
“Probably his Mammy,” another DI injected. “Or his little sister. Kicked his sorry ass.”
Some old bully make you walk naked to school?”
All of which — and more — were apparently true in one fashion or another of Dan’s quiet, desperate history of suffering. But here, he would later remark, was the incipience of his dawning. He would soon come to prudently recognize that a man who fears suffering is a man already suffering his fears.
“We got ourselves a hitch here!” barked the DI directly into Dan’s sun burnt face poking out beneath the three day old bristles of his sheared head. “And we is gonna pitch that hitch right in dat ditch. You hear me, soldier!?”
I am absolutely confident that you can appreciate the vim and vigor with which these professional bad-asses persistently pursued this task. If you can’t… well, as Dan described it those long 45 years ago: ‘It was furious and feverish. Like a 50 percent sale on women’s shoes at Macy’s.’
And, believe it or not, Dan said he got 20 years of psycho-therapeutic rehabilitation in less than 8 basic weeks. They prevailed upon him as mercilessly as angry sharks circling his bloody entrails. He had extra duties. Extra kicks in the ass. Extra combat training. Extra KP. Extra long nights… Extra, extra, extra…
He had extra everything and, eventually, even a snatch of extra time to recognize that just about everyone’s misery in this man’s Army was, extra-ordinarily, pretty much the same – only separated by mere shades of pain.
Dan wrote of his company of men that: We are all like toddlers craving independence — but, at the same time, we are quite fearful of being left deserted. We’re not exactly a merry band of Spartan fighting men, but together it’s better than fighting sharks by yourself.
Everyone has issues, he wrote. Everyone has a story. Yet, in the end, we all yearn to be brave. But first, you have to face your fears, your demons. Those irrational nightmares that frighten men — not like a child is in the dark, but like a darkness in the light of day. Fear is what you don’t know. And when you do know, the fear lightens.
And later, from Nam, he simply put it this way: “There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them.”
I should have been thinking of Dan once again long before Memorial Day. Like a couple weeks back when I was reading a pitiable story concerning students in some of our leading colleges and universities. They are seeking “trigger warnings” in advance by professors.
They fear that some students with a past of some horror, or a deep seated phobia might have those fragile memories triggered by something they are about to read. Like racism in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” Or a variety of scenes that reference “gory, abusive and misogynistic violence” in Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
For the most part, professors are aghast. They insist that a certain fragility of mind is what higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace.
But of course!
To be blunt: You can’t just carry everyone else’s hopes and fears around in your backpack and expect to stand up straight.
And I am left to wonder where are the likes of Dan to prompt us yet again? To remind us one and all as he once reminded me: Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears. Face your fears and doubts, and new worlds will open up to you.
What I personally have learned through my own horrors is that your secrets become your sickness. And eventually they own you. That life is difficult – but not unfair. The key seems to be to really confront such fears because when you do, when you stare them down, or challenge them from other perspectives, you really begin to realize that you are capable of handling them.
As a professor friend recently related: Some people are afraid of what they might find if they try to analyze themselves too much. But you have to crawl into your wounds to discover where your fears are. Once the bleeding starts, the cleansing can begin.
I really don’t know if I completely buy into all of that. The truth is I still harbor a trove of tortured secrets that I am afraid to share with just anyone. Because when you do, that person – like a savage ex-wife – owns you. And then what are your options – I mean, short of: “pitch that hitch right in dat ditch!”
Perhaps as Dan once put it poignantly: ‘Understanding dissolves fear. When we understand the true nature of our being, fears dissipate. We are spiritual beings, not human beings.’
And that definitely is my Duty to Remember.
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…