A couple of months ago, I took my two boys to see the Moving Vietnam Wall at the local VFW. It had come escorted by the Patriot Guard Riders of New York, and we had a nice time checking out the bikes, the names on the wall, and the resident helicopter. After a while I left the kids playing football on the lawn and had myself buzzed into the Post. (My friend, Chris, is the bartender. "Come on down for a visit," she'd always say. "Since you're not a Veteran, just tell 'em you know me.") But as I took a few steps into the dark, crowded room, I froze.
It might have been due to all the cigarette smoke, but right where Chris was popping open bottles of Labatt’s, I saw my Granddad. He had been stationed at Gibraltar during World War II, while his family survived the air raids back in England. Next to him was my father, home from the Berlin Airlift, and my younger brother, just discharged from the Navy, a career in aircraft mechanics tucked firmly under his belt. Uncles, brothers-in-law, students, and neighbors, all in uniform, filled the chairs around the old card tables. There was no place for me to sit, and I backed out.
See, I was in grade school when the Vietnam War ended, and I drifted through the general opulence of the late Twentieth Century, living the life of an American as I knew it. I worked on a couple of English Degrees, moved into the city, got married, and bought a house. I never had the need or inclination to join the military. On 9/11, one month after the birth of my second son, I was 41. By the time of my brief foray into the VFW Post, I was 50, and teaching writing at a couple of community colleges.
As a composition instructor, I have to pretend I know how to write. Usually I get away with it. But recently I re-read the brilliant essay, A Letter to the Republic for Which We Stand, by Lee Kelley, Iraqi War Veteran, creator of the Glass Half-Full Report, and founder of Desert Sun Writing. And I am forcefully reminded of the old adage, "Those who can, do, and those who can't, teach."
Kelley has what we in the business call “Ethos,” and he has it in heaps. Ethos means “moral character.” It is the voice of authority, the steady, confident discourse of one who knows, who’s been there and done that, who has walked the walk and compels, but does not demand, attention. It is also the voice of reason; it doesn’t just look for common ground, it lives there, because it knows that in the far reaches lie the cliffs.
When Kelley writes, “Drive your comfy cars to work, we want you to,” or, “Remain a perfect parody of yourself by having a mid-life crisis and listening to tribal meditative music on a state of the art CD player that you ordered from Sharper Image.com,” he means it. There is no irony here.
We wouldn’t expect you to alter your lives for us–you’re not soldiers. Don’t travel 7,000 miles to fight a violent and intelligent enemy–we’ll take care of all that. You just continue to prosper in the middle class, trade up on your economy sized car, install that new subwoofer in the trunk, and yes, the red blouse looks wonderful on you–buy it.
In those two tiny pronouns—“we” and "you"—I see the sacrifice that Kelley and his fellow soldiers have made. To protect their loved ones, to ensure this glorious, wacky, unappreciated way of life we Americans enjoy, they have forever stepped outside of it.
Be whatever you choose. Let fate and destiny and blind luck and synchronicity guide you. But please remain constant as well, because we have changed.
There is no going back. The soldiers may return to these things, God willing, but they will remain beyond them, always looking in from the outside with a kind of awe: “Our work here is a part of that collective effort through the ages that has granted you those things. So don’t forget about us, because we can’t forget you.”
Who did I think I was, walking into that VFW? Who am I now, thinking that my writing matters, or that I can speak to—or for—anybody? Who are any of us, who believe we have done something for others, if we have not risked it all, or irrevocably altered ourselves, while calmly watching our fellow citizens march off into the future without us?
And still, even as I say to myself that I’m too old to serve in any meaningful way, I think of a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses:
Old age hath yet his honor and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
Like what, then? Well, maybe I can pick up a few of the Golden Apples that the men and women in the military have tossed at my feet, and put them in a basket for my children and my students. I can certainly try to make my writing better. And I can just go about my American day with eyes wide open. As Kelley implores us, "Don’t move the continent. Don’t sell the house. Don’t lose the dog."
I think I can do that.