Water

May 30th, 2017

 

“We spotted the ocean at the head of the trail

Where are we going, so far away?

And somebody told me that this is the place

Where everything’s better, everything’s safe.”

From Toad the Wet Sprocket, “Walk on the Ocean”

 

We had time to kill. We planned to meet with Jody in Buellton at about 4:00 PM, and it was only a little after noon time. We were driving along US101, where the road starts to hug the coast just south of Ventura. The temperature dropped and the sky became overcast with thick clouds. The ocean was over to our left, occasionally visible from the highway.

Karin and I planned on going to the seashore. That was mandatory. It had to happen. Somehow, some way, we were go to the water. We had driven too far, for too long, not to visit the Pacific Ocean. We had not been to the beach on the in California since 1988, and we were due, overdue. Karin had thought to visit Monterey, where we had lived all those years ago. It didn’t matter to me where we met the ocean, as long as we embraced it.

Karin was driving. She asked, “Do you think we should stop somewhere?”

I saw a sign, as we breezed along, that said, “Channel Islands National Park.”

“You wanna got to the Channel Islands?”

“Sure. Do we have time for that?”

“Hell yeah. We’re on vacation. Let’s do it. Next exit.”

A mile later, we pulled off of US101 and went down some side roads to the coast. We passed some berry fields and then we arrived at the marina. There were boats to our right and dunes to our left. We saw a sign for the National Park, and pulled into a parking lot near the shore.

It hit us as soon as we opened the car doors. There was that pungent smell of the sea; that fishy, salty scent that whispered to us, “You’re home.” We both breathed in deeply. It has been sooooo long since we had smelled the ocean. The  air was cold. The wind whipped us from the west, and clouds blocked the sun. We both wanted a sweater. It was just like summer in Monterey. It really did feel like home.

Karin and I stared out at the ocean. Fog made everything indistinct. Somewhere, out in the distance, were the Channel Islands. We couldn’t see them, but we could see the offshore oil platforms. Closer to us were the breakwaters, and protected by them were kids playing on the beach. A long spit of land extended into the sea. On the right side of it were the breakwaters. On the other side, the waves rolled in, white-capped and fierce. They slammed against the tan-colored sand and then withdrew in frustration. They did it over and over again. There was that endless roar of the waves. A sound old beyond reckoning, but somehow fresh to our ears. I loved it.

Karin and walked past the oleanders to the welcome center for the park. It was a small building at the marina. We went inside to look at the different displays. Some of them described the flora and fauna of the islands. Some of the displays explained the effects of the cold ocean current. There was a salt pond filled with crab and fish. There was a garden outside with a variety of plants from the islands. There was the ubiquitous gift shop, where we bought a couple postcards.

I asked the park ranger if they had excursions to the Channel Islands. He told me that a private company offered all-day trips to the islands, but the Park Service did not. This kind of sucked, because Karin and I had not planned to spend an entire day in Ventura.

The disappointment that Karin and I experienced concerning a possible visit to the Channel Islands was something that we experienced often during the trip. There were many opportunities to see and do things, if we just hung around a little bit longer. The problem with all these chances for new and life-enhancing experiences was that they all cost money. We are retired, on a limited income. Actually, we are on no income.  Also, if we had said “yes” to every opportunity to expand our horizons, we still would not be home. Maybe that would be okay. I don’t know.  I do know that there is just too much out there. A human cannot possibly take it all in. A person has to choose, and sometimes that means choosing between two things, each of which is very attractive. We wanted to visit with an old friend in Buellton. We wanted to see the Channel Islands. We decided to go to Buellton, but not right away.

Our next decision was to find a place to get lunch. Off to the marina. We found a tiny restaurant that just happened to be open. Karin and I split a plate of fish and chips. She drank a glass of water, and I nursed a bottle of Modelo Negra. The sun came out, ever so briefly, while we ate. The boats floated and rocked against the pier, and we could hear the gentle sloshing of the water underneath their hulls. We looked at the palm trees and the mountains in the distance. We watched the clouds skid across the sky. We took pictures and texted our kids. It was good.

We walked back to the beach after we got the camera out of the car. The kids were still playing in the surf. Karin and I walked past the life guard to the part of the shore that had no breakwater. Patches of ice plant held the sand in place. The beach was littered with bird feathers, drift wood, and bits of kelp. The wind whistled through my t-shirt, and blew my beard over to one side.

I looked out to sea, and I saw the just the barest outline of an island. Yes, I could see one of the Channel Islands, like a ghost in the distance.

“Karin, look! Out there!”

“Where out there?”

I pointed at the ghost in the mist. “There!”

“What ‘there’ are you talking about?”

“That ‘there’! The ‘there‘ with the island!”

Karin squinted. “Oh, I think I see it. Let me take a picture.”

“You’re going to take a picture of fog?”

“It might turn out.”

“Okay. Whatever.”

I took off my sandals and rolled up my trousers above my knees. I stepped into the ocean. Damn, that water was cold. The waves rolled and crashed against the shore. When the waves receded, the heels of my feet sunk into the wet sand and I nearly lost my balance. I dipped my hand into the seawater. It felt slick, almost like oil. I touched my index finger to my tongue to taste the salt. Another breaker came on strong, and it soaked my trousers. I didn’t care.

I was happy. Truly happy. Little-kid-playing-in-the-surf happy.

Joy.

Jody in Buellton

May 30th, 2017

“Old Friends, old friends

Sat on their park bench like bookends

A newspaper blown through the grass

Falls on the round toes

Of the high shoes of the old friends.” – Paul Simon

 

Jody was a moving target. Karin and I wanted to meet with her, after three decades of separation. We had initially thought that we could visit with Jody in Pacific Grove, near our old stomping grounds at Monterey. That was not possible because Jody wasn’t in Pacific Grove. She wasn’t anywhere, at least not for long. Jody was on the move. She was riding her bicycle in a basically southerly direction, stopping at the old Spanish missions, and exploring a California that was both her home and terra incognita. Jody had a blog at earthpilgrim.org, and she would send us updates on her progress.

Karin and I were also on the move. We were working our way west through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and finally southern California. As we closed in on Jody, we started sending texts. We needed to narrow down times, dates, and locations.

“Jody, where will you be on May 30th?”

“Near Santa Inez.”

How near to Santa Inez?”

“Buellton.”

“When?”

“I’ll get settled there around four. Does that make sense?”

Karin and I had a reservation at a Quality Inn in Buellton. We checked in there before looking for Jody. Buellton is a town of about four thousand people, slightly inland from the coast. It was sunny there, and the hills were golden brown, the color of perfect French fries.

We got a text: “I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Flying Flags RV Park.”

“We’re on our way.”

It’s odd that, even as we approached Jody, her presence seemed more elusive. We got to the RV park, and I couldn’t figure out where she was. The GPS got us really close, but somehow not close enough. We were parked next to some tiny houses, but Jody was at a little campsite that eluded our detection.

“Where the fuck is she?” I growled.

Karin said, “Don’t worry. She’s on her way here. She’s looking for us.”

And so she was. Karin saw her first; a figure in the distance, who was waving and smiling broadly. Jody came to our car. She got in and we drove a short way to her campsite.

Jody had set up her one-person tent, and her bicycle was parked next to it at the campsite. There was a picnic table on her site. The three of us sat there.

I looked at Jody intently. There was briefly a sort of disconnect between my dim memories of her former appearance and that of the woman who was actually sitting across from me at the table. I’ve had this sensation before. It’s both confusing and unnerving. It takes a moment or two to reconcile the present with the past. Two images have to merge, and there is an intense sadness in that. The older image, the image from our youth, has to fade, and that is a small death.

Who did I see? I saw a woman with grey streaks in her hair. I saw a woman who was thinner then I remember, and weathered. She wore glasses, and I don’t think she did so thirty years ago. The smile was the same. Her voice was the same. The eyes were the same: gentle eyes illuminated from within. Her eyes hadn’t grown old.

We sat at the picnic table and spoke. Where do you start a conversation after thirty years? You start with now. Who are we now? It is impossible to bridge the gap. Too much has happened. Too much has changed. Start fresh. Meet again for the very first time. The past still exists, but it doesn’t own us.

Jody had a small bag of grapes. She took the grapes out of the paper bag, and she laid them on the table. She never actually offered them to us. She nudged them in our direction until we ate with her. As she spoke about many things, her hands would push the grapes toward us. She silently invited us to try them.

I don’t remember of what we all spoke. I imagine that we talked about our kids. I’m sure we did that. I know that time went swiftly and the sun was getting low in the sky. The shadows grew long.

Hans called me on my cell. I walked away from Karin and Jody on order to talk to him. In a way it seemed rude, but it also gave Jody and Karin a chance to converse without me. They could talk as two women, two mothers, without a man present. Upon my return, the decision had been made to go out to eat. We decided to seek out a Chinese restaurant.

Buellton has one Chinese restaurant. We sat in a booth. We ordered. We asked a waitress to take a picture of the three of us, as if we needed proof that we really met. Our conversations continued.

Jody asked me if I felt strange being a liberal in Wisconsin. I asked her, “Am I a liberal?” She was under the impression that I was. I responded that, in many cases, I could be seen that way, but in other ways I am not. I don’t agree with abortion. I don’t believe in gun control. The three of us had a long talk about what we believed.

The check came. I reached for it. Jody said, “No, I’ll pay it. You two came so far.” We did. Sometimes it is best to accept a gift graciously. Sometimes it is best to let others make the decisions.

Jody sighed and said, “I’m tired.” She had been on her bike all day. The meal ended, and Karin and I drove Jody back to her campsite. We hugged. We said goodbye.

I thought briefly about maybe meeting Jody the next morning for breakfast. I rejected that idea. A person needs to know when to stop. We had met again. That was enough. It was best to make a clean cut.

A moment in time. A blip on the screen.

Did it all matter?

Yes.

Earnel

July 18th, 2017

North 18th Street is a quiet neighborhood in Milwaukee. If you look to the north, you see Rufus King High School. One block to the south is Capitol Drive. The houses along the block are older, but generally well-maintained. The population is almost entirely black. There was one white guy there, and that was me.

I went up to Ernie’s house and rang the doorbell. Merry, his wife, opened the door to me. She’s a strong, solid lady, with a welcoming smile. Merry greeted me and gave me a hug. Then we went inside the house.

Ernie (Earnel) and Merry have tidy home. It’s full of all the sorts of things that a married couple accumulates in the course of a lifetime together. Merry likes flowers. There are flowers, or pictures of flowers everywhere. The house is clean. Immaculate. The house has that old-school look: some inlaid cabinetry, curved ceilings, solid wood doors. It has character. It has a history.

I saw Ernie as soon as I walked into their living room. He was sitting in a chair, staring at me. There was an empty chair right next to him, so I knew where I was going to sit. I sat down next to Ernie and took a good look at him.

He’s changed. Ernie has lost weight. His arms and legs are almost fleshless. Ernie was never a big man, but he’s shrunken. His hands and fingers are thin and spidery. His hair is longer, and it seems to be much greyer. Ernie doesn’t smile much. He doesn’t laugh. He didn’t while I was there.

I asked Merry what kind of cancer he had. Ernie’s been in chemotherapy for a while. Merry called to her nineteen-year-old granddaughter, and asked her to explain it. Merry said, “Can you tell Frank what your grandfather has? You say it so well.”

The girl and Merry and Ernie told me what was going on. “Ernie has multiple myeloma. It’s a malfunction of the plasma cells in the blood. It’s like the body is fighting an infection that ain’t there. The immune system attacks itself.”

Merry told me about the chemotherapy. She said, “Well, all Ernie’s vitals are better now. When he started he had a viral infection in his GI tract too. They have him doing four courses of the chemo: each course goes every Friday for three weeks, and then a Friday off. So, four months of chemo. Then they will look it all over to see how it’s helped him.”

Merry smiled at Ernie hopefully and said, “This cancer is curable.” Ernie didn’t smile back.

Ernie and I sat in the living room. He talked. I listened. Ernie’s youngest grandchild came to visit with us. Mila is three. She brought Ernie a smoothie to drink. She looked at me and tugged on my beard. The little girl smiled.

Ernie said, “You got yourself a new girlfriend. Don’t be telling your wife now.”

Merry asked me about my beard. She said, “You growing dreadlocks in that thing?”

“It just grows like that.”

Ernie said, “Frank, he just an old hippie.”

“Yeah, that what Hans tells me.”

“He your redneck son.”

“Yeah, he sure is.”

Merry said, “We got your postcards. You wrote about your son. We looked at that and thought, ‘Did he really write that his boy was a redneck? Did he really write that?“. She laughed.

Ernie talked some more.

“Yeah, Frankie, I never thought I’d get sick like this. I mean I know people get cancer, but when your own body be fighting against you. Damn.”

Then he said, “Yeah, Frankie, this sickness it makes me feel lazy. I ain’t never been lazy.”

I replied, “No, you never have.”

I can use a lot of words with Ernie, but “lazy” is not one of them. I have never met a guy who worked harder than Ernie. Ever.

Ernie kept saying, “I’m going to get up soon and start cooking them brats. You going to eat some?”

“Yeah.”

“I got to get up soon and start the grill. My feet swell up. I need to get me my house shoes on first.”

Ernie didn’t cook. His daughter, Tanya, did. Ernie was grumbling about starting the grill and Merry told him, “You ain’t cooked in months. Why you going to do that now? You and Frank go outside and sit.”

We did. We sat in his backyard. Ernie played Bill Withers on the stereo (Ain’t No Sunshine). Then we sat there and listened to Roy Orbison. Some young man next door was having an animated conversation with people I couldn’t see or hear. Ernie ignored him. Mila splashed around in a wading pool. Tanya grilled brats. Merry asked me about our trip across the country.

Eventually, we ate. Merry brought us brats and noodle salad. Ernie ate some. He gave some of his food to the dogs, Tyler and Rocket.

Ernie asked me, “You liked that moonshine I gave you?” Ernie used to bring that stuff up from Mississippi, where he grew up. That shit sneaks up on you. The last time I had moonshine with Ernie, Karin drove me home. I didn’t argue with her either.

“Oh yeah”, I said.

Merry came out and smiled. She said to me, “I’m glad that you are here. Ernie ate more today than he has in a long time. He usually says that the food don’t taste like nothing, and he can barely keep it down.”

I had a sudden memory. Jeanne, Greg Brown’s wife, said the same thing to me years ago. Greg had cancer. He’s gone now.

I had to go. I needed to teach my citizenship class. I talked to Merry. She said that Ernie misses work. He misses driving. I asked her if he would mind having visitors. She smiled and said that he would be okay with that.

I went to the backyard to say goodbye to Ernie. I asked him if I could give him a hug. He was good with that. I held him tight for a minute. I could feel all his bones.

Then he said to Merry, “Go inside and get Frank that glass bottle with the blue writin’ on it.”

She bought out a bottle for me with a clear liquid inside.

“I’ll keep this away from open flames.”

Merry smiled and said, “That would be a good idea.”

She walked me to the street.

Merry told me, “Now you say hi to your wife for me. Tell her I miss her.”

“Okay, I will.“

Then I told her, “You got a great husband.”

She said, ”Oh, he’s okay for now”, and she laughed.

She gave me a hug.

I left.

Hospice at the VA

May 15th, 2017

The VA hospital is like a labyrinth: various wings, multiple floors, rooms that have obscure purposes, hallways that dead end, signs that guide you to places where you do want to go. It is an easy building for losing your way. Most people who enter the building eventually find their way out of the hospital. Some don’t.

I went to visit Duane on Thursday. He’s in hospice. They don’t call it hospice at the VA. The section on the 8th floor of A Wing is referred to as palliative care. It means the same thing, but sounds nicer somehow. Why is it necessary to use a euphemism? I mean I wouldn’t call the hospice “Your Last Stop”, but why refer to it in a way to keep a person, probably a visitor, from thinking about death? It’s all about death.

A nurse took me to Duane’s room. He was lying in bed, talking with some guy about his pain medication. Duane was covered up completely with blankets, and he had a knit cap on his head. All I could see was his face. The nurse told him that I was there in the room with him. Then she and the man left the room.

 

The hospital room had the usual medical paraphernalia: monitors, an IV drip, charts. There was a note on the wall near the head of Duane’s bed that read: ” ‘Dewey’ Duane Dean”, and underneath his name it said: “We appreciate our veterans!” Next to Duane’s bed was a television screen showing some sitcom movie with Dick van Dyke. Nobody was watching the TV. It was just there babbling, providing background noise so that the silence would not be overwhelming. Some of Duane’s personal effects were nearby: a collection of pictures of Duane’s family and a couple images of Padre Pio.

 

I came up to Duane’s bed and said hello. He looked up at me, and he slowly extended his hand from under the covers. I took it.

 

Duane said, “Your hand is ice cold.”

 

“I’m a cold guy.”

 

Duane didn’t reply. He held on to my hand and dozed off. I remained standing next to his bed. It seemed strange that all I could do was hold on to his hand. I turned off the TV. I didn’t want the distraction. I watched Duane sleep fitfully. I held on to him. I raised my left hand over his head and tried to say a blessing. I watched. He slept.

 

Duane woke up. He looked intently at me. He asked, “How are you?”

 

I lied. I said, “I’m okay.” Well, I guess it’s all a matter of degree. Compared to Duane, a man with an aggressive brain tumor, I was doing great. I just didn’t feel like that. I didn’t ask Duane how he was. I don’t ask questions when I already know the answer.

 

Duane asked, “How’s your son?”

 

I wasn’t expecting Duane to ask about Hans. That threw me off. I told, “He struggles. The war didn’t do him any good,”, and I felt suddenly very sad.

 

Duane said, “War never does.”

 

Then Duane asked me, “Does he believe that God loves him?”

 

Another curve ball. Does Hans believe that? Do I even believe that?

 

I told Duane, “Hans believes that God has a purpose for him. But it’s hard for Hans, after what he did in Iraq, to believe that God loves him.”

 

I paused and said, “Hans did some really bad things. He will struggle to make his peace with God for the rest of his life.”

 

Duane said, “He’ll get through it. God will give him enough time.”

 

My vision blurred a bit as I pushed tears away. “I never expected to hear my son tell me about killing people.”

 

Duane said, “Nobody expects that. God will get you through it too.”

 

Will He? Maybe Duane is right. I put a lot of stock into the words of a dying man. Duane may be mistaken, but he’s at a point where he is not going to lie to me. I think that approaching death strips away all pretense. It all becomes very, very real.

 

It was getting too hard to stay.

 

“Duane, I’m going to go now.”

 

“Okay”, he said, as I gently released his hand.

 

“We’re in this together, Frank, although we came with different purposes.”

 

I replied, “But we will all wind up in the same place.”

 

“People care. That is what Church is about.”

 

I thought about my recent experiences with Church, and said, “Sometimes.”

 

Duane replied, “When we listen.”

 

“I’ll try to listen.”

 

“Okay”.

 

Living Someone Else’s Dream

February 12th, 2017

On Friday evening, Zen Master Dae Kwang made the statement that, in order to really help another person, it is necessary to live their dream. We all live our own dreams, but that isn’t enough for us to answer the question: “How can I help?”. If I am going to do my job as a human being, then I have to live somebody else’s dream.

I have been thinking about that. It made me remember an event from many years ago, when our kids were in the Waldorf school. I was sitting with a group of parents before the start of a class play. Barb Danner, the drama teacher, spoke prior to the performance. She tried to explain why each class did a show each and every year. She said the reason for having these plays was to allow the student to slip into another person’s role. She went on to say that the school taught the kids Spanish and German for a similar reason. Barb said,

 

“We don’t necessarily teach Spanish and German so that the children become fluent in the languages. We teach them so that they get to experience a Latin soul or a Teutonic soul.”

 

That comment has echoed in my mind until this very day. It fits in well with the Zen master’s remarks. How better to live somebody’s dream than to learn their language? I had an Arabic professor at West Point who told our class that we truly know a language only when we dream in that language. I guess I never really learned Arabic that well, but I have dreamed in German, which means that at a very deep level I sometimes think and feel as a German. I have connected with that Teutonic soul.

 

I think that Zen Master Dae Kwang used the term “dream” specifically and on purpose. A dream isn’t real, unless you are stuck inside of it. Usually, I am stuck in mine. A dream is a narrative, a story, a way to make sense of a fundamentally irrational world. Both Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell said that human beings need this narrative, this personal myth. We need a story to keep chaos at bay. Does my story resemble reality? What does the world look like if I wake up from my dream?

 

Living somebody else’s dream can be beautiful. It can be exhilarating. It can also be damn scary. I can tell you that, when Hans tells me his war stories from Iraq, he is asking me to live his dream and to shake hands with the ghosts of his past. When Hannah hurts herself, I bleed with her. Many times I have gone through the looking glass with our daughter, and it’s been a bitch trying to find my way home.

 

But it has to be that way. I can’t help Hans or Hannah or anybody if I don’t live their dream for a while. I have feel their suffering to the extent that I can. If it is real for them, it has to be real for me. I have to know. I can know if I have a clear mind. I get a clear mind through regular practice. Time on the cushion enables me, at times, to shift from my dream to that of another person.

 

Zen Master Dae Kwang also cautioned that, while it is necessary to live somebody’s dream, it is also necessary to avoid getting attached to it. No kidding. That’s another place where practice is useful. Living in a bad dream takes a toll. Sitting in silence enables me to breathe deeply and slow my pounding heart. At some point I can sigh and say to myself, “It’s okay. It was only a dream.”

 

So, how do I help? Living in somebody else’s dream doesn’t mean that I can or should fix anything. However, I should understand what the person needs, and act accordingly. When I go to the VA Hospital and hang out with guys in psych. ward, I am living their dream. That gets pretty wild. Their dreams are consistently interesting and often tragic, but I can’t do much for these vets. I can just be there with them. I can listen to them talk, and we can sit together inside their dreams. Maybe that’s enough. At least they don’t have dream alone.

 

Peshmerga

December 16th, 2016

I went to the psych. ward of the VA Hospital last night with some folks from the American Legion. We brought snacks and drinks for the residents, like we usually do. I talked with some of the vets for a while, and then I settled down into a chair next to the table that held the sodas and the cups of ice.

A nurse wheeled a guy into the break room. He was older than me; gaunt, with longish hair combed back from his forehead. His hair was streaked with grey, and his nose had been broken at one time and badly set. He had a drooping moustache and long, thin hands that trembled slightly. The man was unshaven and he looked tired. However, he smiled and greeted us.

 

I offered him a soda, and Sister Karen gave him a small plate of cookies. We introduced ourselves. The man in the wheelchair was named Jim.

 

He said, “I served in the Army. Vietnam: ’66 to ’68.”

 

I replied, “I was in the Army too; ’76 to ’86.”

 

Jim said, “Oh, that was after my time.”

 

I told him, “I was a helicopter pilot.”

 

Jim’s eyes lit up, “Really? That’s cool. Helicopter pilots saved a lot of lives in ‘Nam.”

 

“Well, I was in peace time. I didn’t do anything that exciting.”

 

Jim laughed, “Flying sounds exciting to me.”

 

I asked Jim, “What did you do in the Army?”

 

He got serious and said, “I don’t like to talk about it”, and he looked away.

 

I said, “My oldest boy fought in Iraq.”

 

Jim asked, “Is he okay?”

 

“Not so much. He’s talking about going back. He wants to fight alongside the Kurds. He misses the war.”

 

Jim looked hard at me and said, “Some men are like that.”

 

Jim said, “My brother came back from the war after I did. He just sat in the kitchen of my folks’ house and smoked cigarettes, and he flicked the butts on to my mother’s floor. It was just a habit he had picked up, you know? Then, one day he took a gun and shot himself in the head.”

 

Silence.

 

Jim continued, “He was the Marine. The tough guy.” Jim shook his head slowly.

 

Jim thought for a moment and said, “Well, maybe your son wants to do something good.” Then he paused and said quietly, “Maybe he wants to die.”

 

Even more quietly, I said, “Yeah, that could be.”

 

Jim told me, “I ran the VFW in Milwaukee for a while. Lots of guys committed suicide. They say that twenty guys do that every day. I think it’s more than that.”

 

Jim nibbled on a cookie from somebody else’s plate. He looked at me and said, “Well, if your son goes back there, you tell him that he’s doing a good thing. I mean with ISIS and all, he would be fighting against evil.”

 

Jim said, “One of my sons died a while ago. I just don’t know about it. They say it was a heart attack, but he was a forty-year-old construction worker. Do you think those guys die of heart attacks? It don’t seem right to me.”

 

I told him, “I’m the oldest of seven boys. Two of my brothers are dead. My father buried two of his sons. There’s nothing harder than that.”

 

Jim sighed. He said, “Everybody has to find their own path. You can’t choose it for them. You don’t know.”

 

“I don’t judge Hans. I try not to.”

 

Jim said, “Don’t do that. He has to find his own way. Maybe he has to go back there.”

 

Jim rolled his wheelchair away and watched the movie for a while. I left him alone.

 

It got time to leave, and I went up to Jim to say goodbye.

 

I said, “Well, thanks for talking with me. I’m glad that I got to meet you.”

 

Jim looked up from his wheelchair, and said, “I am glad that I talked with you. I learned a lot from you. You helped me to remember my brother and my son.”

 

I reached down and hugged him. He hugged me back. Hard.

 

“Good night, Jim.”

 

He smiled and said, “Good night.”

 

 

The Wall is White

January 8th, 2017

 

“It’s a damn shame when you can’t even trust your own woman. My wife, she didn’t want me no more. She started foolin’ round with other men. Then I was foolin’ round with other women. That’s a fast way to break up a home…well, it weren’t much of home by then no how.”

 

Daniel and I were in the break room of the psych. ward of the VA hospital. We sat across from each other at a table that is a graveyard for old magazines. Daniel was nibbling at some popcorn that we had brought for the patients at the VA. Daniel spilled more than he ate. Daniel talked. I listened.

 

Daniel is an old black man. Well, he’s my age, so you can decide if that qualifies him as being old. He sat across from me in his green pajamas. He had grey flecks in his hair, and the reddest eyes I have ever seen. He looked tired, and he rambled on about his life. He was born and raised in Tupelo, Mississippi. He served in the Army at Erlangen, West Germany during the mid-seventies. He was divorced, and he was at VA because of some sort of drug abuse. Daniel spoke for a long time about his struggles and misfortunes. He was bitter, but he was also oddly clear minded about how his own actions contributed to his problems. He took some responsibility for his life.

 

He said, “I had plans. Shit. Didn’t none of them turn out.”

 

I like going to the VA psych. ward. I go there most Tuesday evenings with a small group of people from the American Legion Post #18. We bring snacks to the people staying there. Sometimes we play cards with them. Sometimes we just sit with them and talk. I usually sit and talk. Every week is different. The VA cycles these guys through quickly. It’s rare to meet the same person there two weeks in a row. The patients spend a few days in the ward, get patched up, and then they go elsewhere.

 

One reason that I like going to the ward is that there is no pretense. Nobody has anything left to prove. Everybody is equal in their pajamas, bathrobe, and no-slip socks. If there is a pecking order, I have not detected it. Maybe the patients don’t have time to create a hierarchy, or maybe they just don’t function well enough to do so. In any case, there is no rank and there are no titles.

 

The vets usually talk to me, and they are remarkably open. A few people are reclusive and I respect their wish to be alone. The ones who converse with me generally are totally upfront about why they are in the ward. It’s not rare to have a guy say to me, “I was drinking way too much”, or “Yeah, I am hooked on Percocets.” One guy spent the better part of an hour explaining to me how the doctors were tweaking his meds so that he could deal with the voices inside his head. They tell me these things so matter-of-factly, as if they were telling me, “The wall is white.” These vets have nothing to hide any more. I have found more honesty in the psych. ward than I have ever found anywhere else.

 

None of these guys are there because they want to be there. They are there because they had plans and “none of them turn out”. They are in the strange position of being in control of nothing and responsible for nothing. Somebody else cares for their needs and somebody else makes their decisions. Suddenly, they don’t have to do anything. Suddenly, they have the chance to just be. I don’t know, but that has to be oddly liberating; like when Paul McCartney sang on Abbey Road, “Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go…”.  How hard it is to just be. All these patients are on a mandatory Zen retreat. They live in the moment because they have no other options.

 

The veterans can be very compassionate. I guess that shouldn’t surprise me. They all wear their suffering openly like medals on uniforms. I often tell the vets about my time in the Army, and sometimes I tell them about the struggles that Hans, our oldest son, has had since he came back from the war in Iraq. The vets listen to me closely. Some of them have to leave because the topic cuts too close to their own experiences. I feel badly about that, and I try to apologize to them. They don’t blame me. Some try to comfort me when tell them about my concerns with Hans. More than one has said to me, “It will be all right, Frank. Your boy will be okay.” When they say something like that, they mean it with all their heart. Because they know. They really do know.

 

There is a movie called “The King of Hearts”. It is a black comedy about World War I. The story is about a French village that is about to be blown up by the Germans. The citizens of the village flee their homes, and the patients in an insane asylum escape and take up the roles of the villagers. The movie ends with the inmates of the asylum returning to their facility because the people fighting the war are too crazy for them.

 

I think about that movie when I go to the VA.

 

Compliment

April 5th, 2017

I sat across from an old man last night. My friends and I had just finished setting up snacks for the patients in the psych. ward, and so I found a chair and started talking with Jerry. He had on the standard maroon pajamas and off-white bathrobe. Jerry had forgotten to fasten a couple of the buttons on his shirt. His white hair was unkempt, and his eyes looked even redder than mine. He was tired, but alert. I’m not entirely sure why he was at the VA hospital, but he didn’t seen at all confused.

We talked for over an hour. One subject led to another. We talked about addiction and rehab. We talked about transitioning from the Army to civilian life. We talked about depression. Jerry told me about his five-year-old grandson, who had died in a car crash. I told him about my two brothers who had died young. We talked about our kids. I told Jerry about Hans and his experiences with the Banditos. Jerry mentioned his quality time with some members of the Mafia.

 

Jerry told me that he had first come to the VA back in ’78. “Yeah, I was losing everything: my wife was leaving me, I was going to lose my job, and lose my license. I don’t where I would be if it wasn’t for this place.” He stopped, and said, “I’d probably be dead.”

 

It was getting late, and Jerry smiled and asked me, “So, what are you here for?”

 

I pointed the tables with the popcorn, fruit, and cookies. “I bring the snacks.”

 

Jerry looked lost for a moment, and then he said, “Oh, you bring the snacks here. I thought you were a patient. You’re not here for treatment?

 

“No, not yet.”

 

Jerry seemed uncomfortable. “I thought you were a vet.”

 

“I am a vet.”

 

“Oh, yeah. I know that. I thought you were one of us.”

 

He paused and rubbed his unshaven cheek. “I meant that as a compliment.”

 

I took it as such.

 

Streams of Thought

February 8th, 2017

It is rare to see the same guy in the psych. ward week after week. The third floor of the hospital is where the VA has all the inpatient psychiatric treatment. The ward has a transient population. Most of the vets come in through the emergency room, go up to the third floor, calm down and sober up, get some meds, receive some counseling, and then they go somewhere else. They might go to the “dom” (domicile), or maybe to a halfway house, or maybe home. The psych. ward is a temporary safe place where these men and women can get patched up. They are seldom there for more than a few days. So, I was surprised that Tom was still there.

Tom has white hair and a white goatee. Only his eyebrows are still dark and heavy. He’s heavyset, and he has deep, piercing eyes. He sat down at the table with me in the break room. He likes to stare, so it is difficult to look at him for long. He was talkative, but he wasn’t manic like the last time I saw him. The doctors must have tweaked his meds. It is still hard to hold a conversation with him, but it’s no longer impossible.

 

“You look tired”, he said to me in a concerned voice. “Are you okay?”

 

I find it ironic that a patient in the psych. ward needs to ask me if I am all right. I told him that I was in fact tired, but that it wasn’t a problem. Then I asked Tom, “So, how are you doing?”

 

“Oh, I am just getting used to being in a place where I don’t want to be. I’ve done it before. It was like this when I got drafted. Were you drafted? How old are you?”

 

I replied, “I’m fifty-eight.”

 

“Oh, you’re still a youngster. I’m sixty-five already. I was drafted into the Marines. Back in ’68. I was in from ’68 to ’70. Vietnam. It wasn’t what I thought it would be. We took blood to the Purple Heart guys. I took it to them in my veins. No, it wasn’t at all what I thought. I thought there would be more fighting, but we just brought them blood. I would have stayed a Marine longer, but they discharged me. It wasn’t what I figured.”

 

I thought about asking Tom what exactly he meant, but I decided against it. I’ve had these sorts of conversations before. Questions often only bring up answers that cause more confusion. I didn’t want to go down that rabbit hole.

 

Tom asked, “So, do you have to drive home after this?”

 

“What?”

 

“Are you driving home tonight?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Well, you be careful. But it doesn’t matter how careful you are, because somebody could just pull out in front of you. There are some crazy people out there. I know from when I was a Marine.”

 

“True.”

 

Then I talked to Scott. Actually, he talked to me. He had been there for a couple weeks too. His meds weren’t right, not at all. His mind and mouth were constantly moving, shifting restlessly from one topic to another. He sat down next to me, and started shoveling a bag of chips into his face, while talking continually. Crumbs and words spewed from his lips.

 

“Are you Charlie or Sally? I forget your name.”

 

“Neither.”

 

“Oh, okay. Yeah, I used to have these custom vans. Hot rods too. Do you like vans? I like vans.” He dropped a chip on to his faded Grateful Dead t-shirt, and then he brushed it off.

 

“Maybe I should take a bag of these little marshmallows.”

 

I told him, “Take what you want.”

 

“Well, there are six bags. I could take them all.”

 

“You should leave some of them,” I said.

 

“You said that I could take what I wanted,” and Scott looked at me confusedly.

 

“Well, yeah, but other people might want marshmallows too.”

 

“Okay, I’ll just take three. I’ll take some cookies too. Custom vans. I had some of those. I had to get rid of them. I don’t know about this place. They don’t know what they are doing here. Is there any soda left?”

 

He walked to the table with the soda, and then walked out of the break room. He found an unused wheelchair and sat down in it. He rolled himself down the hallway. He moved with a purpose.

 

I talked to Russ.

 

Russ had been quietly sitting near the wall, staring at the television. “Man on Fire” with Denzel Washington was playing loudly on the big screen. I asked him how he was.

 

“I’m okay”, he said without much conviction. “Do I know you?”, he asked. “Did I see you in an AA meeting?”

 

“Maybe twenty-five years ago.”

 

Russ frowned and shook his head. “No, it wasn’t that long ago. You just look familiar.”

 

I asked him, “So, what do you do?”

 

Russ kept staring ahead, and said, “I work for a tree trimming service. At least, I think I do. They haven’t fired me yet.”

 

“How long have you been here?”

 

“Two nights.”

 

“Are they taking good care of you?”

 

“Yeah,” he said softly as he gazed into the distance. “They have to adjust my meds before I can go.”

 

It occurred to me as I spoke with Russ that maybe he wasn’t watching the movie. He didn’t look at me. He didn’t look at anything. He just stared straight ahead.

 

“What will you do when you get out of here?”

 

Russ replied, “I guess I will go back to work, if I still have a job.”

 

“How long have you been with that company?”

 

“Twenty-four years.” He never even glanced at me.

 

 

Thoughts flow like water. Sometimes they move swiftly and surely. Sometimes they make twists and turns. Sometimes they get dammed up until they overflow and wash away everything else. Sometimes they pool in deep places, and become dark and fetid.

 

Tom’s thoughts always seem to flow back to a low spot on the other side of the world, to events that happened a half century ago. Something happened to him in Vietnam that changed everything for him. His mind always returns there.

 

Scott’s thoughts burst forth like a torrent. They rush and roar, and sweep away all order. They can’t find a valley big enough to hold and guide them. They can’t find peace.

 

Russ’ thoughts follow a straight and narrow channel. They flow constantly toward a point in the distance that only Russ can see. They flow toward an unknown future, a void, a raging sea.

 

A Dog

January 23rd, 2017

Hans called last night. He had been drinking a bit. I can usually tell. He tends to obsess on a certain topic when he drinks. He doesn’t sound incoherent, but he is relentlessly on topic. He speaks in a matter-of-fact manner, and that makes the conversation somehow much more intense. Last night he talked to me about a dog he had in Iraq.

The conversation went something like this:
“Yeah Dad, I’m thinking of getting another dog once I got a place to stay. I’m thinking of
getting a dog like I had in Iraq. She was like a German shepherd, but some kind of Belgian breed. The dog looked a lot like a German shepherd, but a little smaller. She was smart, and had really big fangs.”
“Sounds like a nice dog.”
“Yeah, she saved my life a couple times.”
“Oh.”
“Yeah, one time I was kicking in a door. I was the first one in. There was this Hajji holding a shotgun. She bit his hand, and then she tore his throat out.”
(At this point, I am listening much more closely to Hans’ story).
“Oh, God.”
“Yeah, she saved my life then. It’s weird. This other guy. He trained from a pup, but she wouldn’t stay with him. He couldn’t control her any more, but she would stay with me.”
“You’ve always been good with dogs.”
“Yeah, remember that white dog I brought up from Texas?”
“That was Francis.” (this was at least fifteen years ago).
“Yeah, I called you about him, and you didn’t want the dog, so I hung up on you. Jamie and Mark freaked out because they thought you would come down to Texas and kill me for that. (Hans laughed).”
“Well, I was mean then.”
“You’re mean now.”
“”Okay, but it’s a different kind of mean. It’s an older sort of mean.”
“Yeah. Whatever.”
“Did the dog have a name?”
“Yeah. It was ‘J’.”
“You mean like ‘J-A-Y’?”
“No. Like the letter ‘J’.”
“Okay.”
“She used to sleep in the Q with me.”
“Hans, what’s a ‘Q’? I don’t know what it is.”
“That’s a conex with an air conditioner, and only one door. J used to sleep at the end of my bed. When we had incoming rounds (usually at 2200), then she would bite me hard to wake me up. She would grab my machine gun in her mouth, and we would both run to the bunker together. She was one smart dog.”
“Okay.”
“Hey, I don ‘t know if I told you about this, but she saved me another time. I was kicking in another door, and I was the first one in. I got in the room and there was a guy holding an shotgun. The guy fired at me. Then the gun jammed, so he couldn’t shoot, but I went down. I couldn’t reach my M4 (rifle). It was tethered to me, but I couldn’t get at it. I couldn’t reach my M9 either (pistol). I grabbed what was handy. There was a broken piece of PVC pipe. I shoved that up into his groin. J bit his hand. He had cleared just his weapon, and he was ready to shoot. She kept him from shooting, and she went for his throat. She didn’t kill him. I did. The PVC hit his artery and he bled out.”
“Okay.”
“Yeah, they wanted me to keep J when we got back from Iraq. She was too wild with everybody else. But I was living in the barracks and I couldn’t take care of her. So, they put her down. She was kind of crazy. She would attack anybody who she thought wanted to hurt me. So, they put her down. I want another dog like her.”
I hope that Hans gets another dog like J.