Friday, May 27, 2011

"The Truth As It Seemed"

Since we are finishing up our 2011 Gadsden Reads, I decided last week that I would go ahead and get a jump on next year’s community read by skimming through the text of the book we chose for 2012. I was unable to skim. I read the entire book, because I couldn’t put it down. But I’m not sure that I was prepared to read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I had heard amazing things about the book. That it was one of the most important pieces of fiction written about the Vietnam War. That it was a powerful account of what actually happened during the war. And that it was a statement to the nightmare of war.

While The Things They Carried is all those things, it is far more. O’Brian’s collection of short stories is possibly one of the truest statements to the chaos of the Vietnam War, the psychological struggles that our soldiers went through during the war, the psychological AND social struggles that they went through when they returned stateside. These soldiers had their morals and their lives jeopardized, hourly. It was a torturous existence they lived while fighting in Vietnam. Fighting an enemy that they could not accurately identify (How do you tell a North Vietnamese person from a South Vietnamese person? It would be like trying to identify a north Alabamian from a south Alabamian based upon looks…it is impossible to tell the differences in a split second, and through appearances alone), on a front that may or may not have really existed (guess it depends upon who you ask). I’m not saying that soldiers in other wars didn’t suffer the same kinds of atrocities during combat. They did. And they still do. But, I’ve just always felt that the Vietnam War was such a stinking unpopular war, such a stinking long war, such a stinking un-winnable war, that the veterans from that particular war got blamed for all of the badness, badness that they couldn’t really control. And that’s no way to treat somebody who fought for our country. But that’s just my opinion.

O’Brian’s style is approachable. He uses lists in the title story, something that reminds me of Whitman, and he uses a poetic style of repetition that keeps you from forgetting small details, details that make the stories more believable (or maybe the repetition is from the shock that he perhaps still suffers from all these years later). But O’Brian also employs the technique of the unreliable narrator. He reminds us over and over to be skeptical of war stories, thereby reminding us that he, the author, is not to be trusted either.
“In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way…The picture gets jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.” (pg. 78 from the Penguin Books paperback version). “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed.”

The book is labeled fiction, but one cannot help but get the sense that it is not. The Things They Carried is similar to, but different from my other all-time-favorite, gut-wrenching war books (Johnny Got His Gun, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Song for Night). The details are a little more raw in Things, a little too real. O’Brian sets us up, and then rips the rug out from underneath us. Not that we didn’t expect it, ‘cause we did. Who wouldn’t expect something like that from a war novel? We find ourselves lying on the floor with the wind knocked out of us, feeling a little sick to our stomachs, wondering if the passage we have just read is real, or if it is an altered version of what happened somewhere. Doesn’t matter. O’Brien got it right. So we find ourselves staring at the blurb on the back of the book, a statement from the Milwaukee Journal stating, “This writing is so powerful that it steals your breath.” Damn straight, it does.

One of my dearest friends was a Vietnam Vet. A hell of a guy by the name of Randy Dover. He was a friend of my Daddy’s through the VFW Post 8600, so I met him when I was tagging along with dad one night. Once I turned twenty-one, I became a Ladies Auxiliary member, and although I didn’t have to tag along with Dad anymore, I still did ‘cause he had a knack for attracting storytellers. Randy was just one of many storytellers there. Daddy had warned me to not believe all the stories I heard there at the VFW, and for the most part, I heeded his warning. But still, I enjoyed listening. Just as long as the story was good, I didn’t care if it was true or not.

Randy had some stories. And they were good, too. He possessed a voice that was soft and Southern, that drew you in. He also possessed an astounding ability to talk a blue streak. Told stories all the time. Simple stories with the sort of exact and crucial details that made you lean closer, so you wouldn’t miss any of them. Some of the stories were real believable, like his story about the one time he flew a small private plane under the Broad Street Bridge without being found out by the police. Other stories were maybe a little less believable (but I suppose believable nonetheless, cause with Randy, there was always the possibility that it could’ve happened), like the story he told about the song he said he wrote while he was over in Nam, a song that he said he tried to sell back in the States, but lost the rights to through his own naiveté and through an unscrupulous music industry. The song, Without You (credited to Pete Ham and Tom Evans, and made into a huge Grammy-winning hit in 1971 by Harry Nilsson), was something that Randy would on occasion play at the VFW. To this day, I can’t hear that song without thinking of Randy strumming on his acoustic guitar, singing with his eyes closed (maybe because he didn’t want us to see how everything about that song hurt him)…

Then there were the times when Randy didn’t have a lot to say, but he spoke in volumes. I remember the one night I arrived at the 8600 a little later than I usually did. The place was buzzing about a fight that had just been broken up out in the parking lot. See, a fella and his date had shared some heated words in the bar, and once they stepped outside, the fella took a swing at the lady. Now, being the gentleman that he was, Randy evidently stepped in to defend the woman’s honor. Some more punches were thrown, as well as some fine words of negotiation on Randy’s part, and then the fight ended with all parties agreeing to not hit anybody anymore (at least for that night, and in that parking lot). I went looking for Randy to congratulate him on his persuasive mediating skills, and I found him shaken-up and pale, with blood on his white shirt.

“Where’re you hurt?!” I demanded, getting up in his business. “Nowhere,” he responded. “At least not nowhere physical.” His hands shook so bad, I ordered him a liquor drink from the bar to steady them. He was not hurt at all, he claimed. He was just having a hard time with the sight of the blood. Sometimes, he said, seeing blood would take him back to Nam, and that just wasn’t a place he really wanted to go to ever again. Not wanting to pry, I didn’t question him any further. His hands kept shaking, and after awhile of things not improving for him, he asked me if I would just go on and drive him home. I wasn’t quite comfortable with the idea of leaving him alone for the night, and he didn’t seem quite comfortable with the idea either. So, we sat in the car in his driveway for the longest time, talking about the kind of stuff you talk about when you’re trying to avoid talking about tough stuff. He never did talk about the war that night, but he did eventually tell me about how he would sometimes sleep walk and dream that he was back in the jungle fighting. That was the reason why one of his wives had left him. Evidently she had her fill of him late one night when the neighbors woke her out of a dead sleep to come and get Randy out of the backyard. He had been sleepwalking, and dreaming that he was fighting. The problem for the neighbors was that Randy was naked as the day he was born, and was brandishing a broom like an M-16 assault rifle. It seemed that the good folks of downtown Gadsden, including Randy’s wife, did not appreciate the situation for what it was: a soldier suffering from PTSD (even after all those years). All they saw was a buck-naked man with an assault broom within city limits…

Eventually Randy got settled down enough that night for me to feel okay to leave him alone. When next I saw him, which was about a week later, he was back to his old easy-going self. I don’t recall ever having another opportunity to talk with him about his personal experiences in the war, nor to question him for more details about the other stories he shared with us. I did get to see him months later at a VFW dance function they had over at Post 2760, but we didn’t get to talk much cause Randy made the mistake of asking me to swing dance that night. He spent half of the night fussing at me because I wouldn’t let him lead (I fussed back, explaining to him that my momma taught me to dance that way, and that if he wanted to dance with me bad enough, then he was just going to have to get used to being led…and that maybe, if he REALLY didn’t like the way I danced, he could just take it up with my momma), and spent the rest of the night trying to avoid dancing with me. Even eleven years later, when I settled back into Gadsden after living in a bunch of different places, and I looked Randy back up to help me with a music program I was working on for the library, I still didn’t ask him about his past. His health wasn’t great by that time, but he assured me with a squeeze on my arm that he was doing well and could help me out. I wish I had asked him then about the time he spent in Vietnam instead of talking to him about library programming and his new Harley. And now, well it’s too late, because Randy passed away a couple of years ago. But I’ll tell you something, we wouldn’t have had the prizes that we had for our School of Rock finale that year if it hadn’t been for Randy. See, he used his persuasive skills on a Washburn rep to score us a beautiful new guitar to give away…

Human memory is a strange thing. I’m inclined to agree somewhat with Tim O’Brian in the truth of a story being the “truth as it seemed.” I’ve had many a conversation about storytelling, and how everyone’s perceptions and recollections are different. Even as an adult, I’ve written journal entries about things that I somehow have ended up altering somewhat in my mind later down the road. I have to go back and check my facts sometimes. Sometimes I just stick with the way I remember it happening. Perhaps it is a bit of the collective memory of which poet Natasha Trethewey has spoken. We, along with others, witness something. We recount our stories to each other, and we end up sharing and meshing our memories, but they become our own. My memory of incidents from my childhood are made up not only of what I remember, but also of bits and pieces of recollections given to me from my mother, father, sister, grandmother, grandfather…you get the picture. It all gets mixed up in the brain, and then it becomes one…

So, even though this post has been terribly long, I have one more thing to say. Although the song Without You is credited to Ham and Evans, I prefer to believe that my friend Randy Dover wrote it. Nobody will ever know the truth of whether or not it was swiped from a young soldier from Alabama who fought in the Vietnam War…And, as I’ve stated on more than one occasion, and about many different things, I prefer the not knowing to the knowing.

Monday, May 9, 2011

A Mighty Powerful Porch

Tree Cutting April 22, 2011
Eric and I knew we had a porch that was mighty powerful. And what has happened recently on that porch has solidified our belief in our porch’s power.

You may recall back a year ago when I bought The Bungalow, one of the main selling points was its deep porch with a perpetual cross breeze. I had fallen in love with it just as the previous owner Ms. Mildred had some fifty-three years before. That porch just calls to you to come and sit awhile. And the furniture upon which you sit is the same furniture that has graced the porch since around the fifties (vintage metal glider, chaise lounge and chair that I negotiated for in the closing of the house). I mean, when you’ve got something good, some mix of special, why mess with it?

So, in the past year, Eric and I have had many a meal and many a causal evening with friends out on that porch. When our friends Farrah and Jared came to Gadsden to give poetry readings and workshops, we spent a fair amount of time on the porch before they left to head back to Brooklyn. When Elisha came down from Souix Falls, we had a number of lunch-times, and after-dinner-times out on that porch (and we may have had a number of fancy beers, too).

But most recently, we’ve had some rather unusual (and truly magical) things occur on our porch. We’ve had music. Not music from a radio, but live, spontaneous music.

It started about two weeks ago when Tami’s son Zach stopped by the house after a cello performance. Tami, Eric and I were all sitting on the porch having after-work snacks and beverages, and were generally just enjoying each other’s company and the fantastic breeze. We began asking Zach about how his performance went, what piece he had played, etc. One thing led to another, and before we knew it, Zach had his cello out and was playing a piece from that night’s concert. It was surreal. There in the dark, on a Thursday evening, we were listening to live cello music on our front porch. It was a most special thing.

So, when something similar happened again last night, I knew that it couldn’t be just a fluke. Eric and I were sitting on the porch, minding our own business when, one by one, all of the neighborhood kids ended up on the porch with us (and I do mean ALL of them…five from one house, two from another, three from another, and a couple of extras who were just visiting). There was much jumping from steps and stumps (no, the stumps haven’t been ground, yet), lots of sneaking-up-on-and-pretend-shooting, some ballet demonstrations…you get the picture…we own the pied piper of porches. Then, our neighbor Adrian, whose wife and kids I know from the library, came over to formally introduce himself to us. And when he came over, all of the adults on our end of the street migrated over as well. And Adrian’s brother Tony stopped by with his wife Andrea. And before we knew it, Tony and Adrian had started singing a song that Tony had written for Mother’s Day and had sung at church that morning. They sang it to Adrian’s wife, Jessica, since she had missed it at church. It was a lovely acapella piece, sung by two brothers who had clearly sung many songs together. Eric and I were speechless. Yet again, it was most special.

A porch is a powerful thing. Eric and I know this to be true, because we recognize that we are the owners of a mighty powerful porch. And we’ve made a solemn vow to use our porch wisely, and only for good…

Friday, May 6, 2011

Griffin & the Order of the Pop-Secret

This is Griffin. No, he is not a fierce mythological creature that is made up of the foreparts of an eagle, and the hindquarters of a lion. This Griffin is the fiercely hilarious son of my friend Beth (the Beth who, along with her husband, two sons, and daughter, lost their poultry farm in the storms last week).

Griffin has a way of putting things into perspective. Here are just a few quotes out of the mouth of Griffin, posted by Beth to her Facebook wall:

“On Griffin's math test, he was to define/explain why the shape was a rectangle. His answer? ‘I say it's a rectangle because it looks like a rectangle.’”

“At church, Griffin's teacher said they were discussing the power of God and the powerful things He has created. He asked the class to give examples. Some answered: ‘hurricanes,’ ‘tornadoes.’ Griffin's response: ‘My mom.’”

And on Friday, April 29th, I received an email from Beth with numerous photos of the devastation that once was their farm. Among the photos of damage was the photo seen above, the photo of Griffin holding an unpopped, cellophane-wrapped bag of popcorn. In Beth’s message were the following sentences:
“Always have to find a smile, and having Griffin around usually brings one! At our farm he retrieved an in-tact (as he said, for emphasis) bag of Pop Secret...he was THRILLED! He also found Slade’s office TV remote nearly at the mountain, saying, ‘Dad, here's your remote,’ and then looked at me, whispering, ‘you know how grouchy he gets when he can't find it!’

I think that pretty much sums up Griffin. Fiercely hilarious...a protective salve for what ails ya.

So, mom doesn’t like being the center of attention, but I’m going to force her into the limelight for a moment. Today marks her final full week of treatment. Yep, that’s right. She’s done with everything except the last three radiation treatments. No more chemo, and after Wednesday of next week, no more radiation. I know she’s tired, and she’s a bit crispy in a very unmentionable area of her body (and probably sitting right now on the child’s blow up pool inner tube dad got her), but she has almost made it (literally and figuratively) out of the fire. This may call for a small victory dance of thankfulness sometime today. And since I’ll be working our Links for Literacy Tournament, I may have to do my dance on the 3rd hole of the golf course. Suits me just fine.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

“Every moment of light and dark is a miracle.” Walt Whitman

I want to take a moment to thank all of the new visitors who came here to my blog in the recent days. I know that many of you came to read my post about Mrs. Reba J. Jones of Pleasant Grove, AL. And I know that many of you have read the comments that have been exchanged in the comments section below that post. So, many of you know that Mrs. Reba did not survive Wednesday’s storm. And you know that a friend of a friend of Mrs. Reba’s Googled information about her status and stumbled upon my blog post, and that this individual then contacted Mrs. Reba’s friends to share the blog post with them. And that one of those friends of Mrs. Reba’s then left a comment for me as to what had happened to her…

Throughout Friday evening and Saturday morning, comments were exchanged between two dear friends of Mrs. Reba’s, Mrs. Reba’s youngest son, and myself. They shared with me things about this beautiful woman whose address label I discovered in our yard late Thursday afternoon. And what I discovered through their affectionate comments was this: Mrs. Reba was much loved by her friends and family; that she loved much…her family and her friends, and probably many others who came into contact with her; and that she was a devoted attendant of the Lord. My sadness at her passing is nothing compared to the sadness of her family and friends, and I respectfully send my thoughts and prayers to all who were close to Mrs. Reba. What an extraordinary thing that even in death, Mrs. Reba was able to reach out and touch other’s lives…

My humble thanks to Rhonda, Jeff and Tim for sharing their thoughtful words with me, and for sharing this marvelous and special journey. I’ll close with Psalm 91:1, which Rhonda used to close one of her comments:
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty