Articles

Memorial Day

“Hey Nerburn, good to see you. I heard you got killed in Viet Nam.”

It was a surprising greeting, but not unexpected. It took place in a small restaurant right near the Minnesota State Fair, and the man addressing me had been a high school classmate. We were all accustomed to such greetings, because many of us were killed in Viet Nam, and all of us were impacted by it. It was the cultural common denominator of males of our generation.

The result was an unlikely divide that other generations cannot understand. For us, the military, or its lack, defined us.

Those of us who went were shaped forever, either by the jungles of Nam or simply by the fact that we were the short-hairs in a world of long-hairs in which we could not participate. We watched as a cultural wave washed across our generation, in every corner of every country, and we were unable to ride it, at least during the time of our service, because of the demands and limitations that our service experience put on us. When we got out, we were either too late to catch the wave, or grabbed onto what we could find of it with a vengeance. Those of us who had been in the jungles — well, we were part of a different cultural wave, and we would forever be separate in some way from those who doped and danced and criss-crossed the country as part of a national celebration of what seemed at the time to be a cultural revolution.

For those of us who were not in the military, the military kids were the poor sods, the naive, the victims and dupes of a policy of a nation gone mad. Too often we berated them as docile stooges of a government that we knew was corrupt and disingenuous. Today such a notion about the government is old hat. We have seen far too much corruption and disingenuousness lately. But in those days, the simple inference that our government might have corporate rather than national interests at heart was not only heretical, it was very possibly Communist. We must remember that Richard Nixon was president, and Richard Nixon had a political genetic link with Joe McCarthy and the Communist witch hunt of the fifties. So those of us who were on the side of the cultural youth wave were seen by the government as the enemy, and we, in turn, saw our brothers and sisters who were dying in the swamps of Viet Nam as peers who had lost their moral compass for not standing up to the government.

In the end, we stood divided, and the division has never completely healed. Just as my generation could never really participate in the worthy vision of the military in World War Two, the prior and succeeding generations have never understood the depth of the division that has scarred the collective soul of my generation. They have never understood the moral righteousness and patriotism of many of us who refused service, or the anger that came from those of us who were drafted and taken away from our lives to be maimed and wounded in body and spirit in a war that was worth nothing, for nothing, and run by politicians for the good of corporations, or the profound sense of incompletion and national betrayal of those who went with good heart and returned from the jungles to receive no public acclaim, no real benefits, and no real feeling of having served any real national good.

It is a flash point in the psyche of our generation that runs to the very core of our consciousness, and it colors the way we look at war, soldiers, and each other.

It would be easy to draw parallels to our contemporary situation, but that is not my purpose here. My purpose is to speak in honor of those who, for whatever reason, chose or were called to serve in the armed forces, whatever the time and circumstances. GW and Cheney have put the nail in the coffin of any high minded visions of the reasons behind our national war-making. But, the fact is that the coffin lid was shut during Viet Nam for those who were not deaf to the slamming sound. Since Korea, the forgotten war, there has been no time and place where our brothers and sisters died for a high minded purpose. They have been pawns, they have been tools, and this has taken away some of the respect they deserve. I would like to speak out in appreciation of them and respect for what then endured, wherever and however they served.

On a human level, they — all of them, from WWII to Korea to Nam to Grenada to Kosovo to Iraq and God knows where else we send them to put them in harm’s way — have shown a courage that extends far beyond what is required of most of us in our daily lives.

Anytime you experience something that no one who has not been there can understand, you isolate yourself in small ways from those around you. In the supermarket, in the classroom, in the bedroom, you are, in some corner of your heart, ineffably alone, because that part of you can never be shared. All who fought in wars know this. And if you are one who fired a bullet that hit the flesh of another human being, you have an awful knowledge that will forever haunt you and leave a dark stain on your heart that can never be erased.

Of those who come home missing some body part that once made them whole, nothing need be said. But all who serve in war come home missing something, and, even if we can’t see their loss, they know it each day they wake up with that corner of aloneness that can never be touched. And those who served but never saw combat while their brothers and sisters fought and died, must wrestle each day with conflicting and confusing feelings of good fortune and guilt, for they escaped, yet failed to share in the experience for which the others died and for which they were trained.

It is all something very deep, very private and, in many cases, very dark.

To those of you who have experienced it, I salute you. You have given something of yourself for a vision of your country and a vision of duty. And even if the national purposes for which you served proved not to be high minded and good, your gift is no less worthy. You, truly, have been among the best of us.

May you have a peaceful and fulfilling holiday, and may you find peace in your heart and in your life.


Meditations on my mother, failing.

I have just finished a visit with my mother. She lives in an assisted living high rise several hundred miles from here in a pleasant neighborhood of parks, shops, and sufficient traffic and activity to be agreeable without being assaultive or overwhelming. She is 89.

She can no longer walk, cannot see well, and needs assistance for almost all of her daily tasks. The cost of her living situation is astronomical — nearly criminal, one would say — except for the fact that my father’s various pensions from his job and his time in the military allow her to almost break even. The remainder is paid from a small pot of savings that is dwindling by the month. In the harsh world of economic realities, it is a race between her money and her time, both of which are growing short very rapidly.

I, obviously, have never lost a mother. I have lost my father, and it changed my life forever. I do not look forward to the loss of my mother, though I am preparing emotionally and spiritually as best I can. It will be another stage in life’s journey, and another door into a different dimension of understanding.

For now, it is her life that matters. As I watch her struggle with her growing infirmity — and she does not always do so gracefully or gently — I am struck by the strength she displays in the face of the weakness she endures. And though there are many sadnesses that overcome me as I watch the colors of her life fade, the one that hurts me the most is watching her struggle with her feeling of uselessness.

This surprises me. I would have thought that it would be her helplessness that would touch me the most. But that seems so natural and within the course of the human journey. The feeling of uselessness, however, is something that feels culturally created and unnatural, and it seems unfair. She was raised to serve, and, in her own way, she did so wonderfully. She chafed mightily under the cultural limitations of women of her generation, but, after a brief period of personal exploration before the start of World War Two, she settled in to the accepted role of wife, mother, and keeper of the domestic fires.

As these roles were taken from her one by one — by my father’s death, the loss of her house and her ability to perform domestic tasks, and, finally, the need to nurture her children — she lost the handholds she had on her individual importance and significance in the world.

We children do the best we can to assure her that her job in life is no longer to do, but to be. But that is cold comfort to someone who spent her live volunteering and offering assistance to others in one form or another.

Still, it is true. She now represents something, and that is her primary job in life. She represents all of our pasts, she represents the link to a time that we succeeding generations know only by stories and books, she represents the certainty of a mother’s presence and a mother’s love. And these are all real and they are all good. But they are all passive. They are a function of her being, not of her accomplishments or even her personality. It takes a wise person on a good day to be satisfied with simply embodying something for someone else. Most of us would and do find that hard; for her it is supremely difficult. She weighs that almost symbolic value against the very real liability of her physical infirmity and limitation, and the scales do not come out in balance.

What remains for us is to love her, to visit her, to take pleasure in her journeys through the pathways of her memory. It is also a pleasure to see how little it takes to give a small sense of adventure to her life — a trip to the store, a trip around the pond in her wheelchair, a visit to one of my sisters’ homes for a family gathering. If neither she nor we look upon these small moments as revelations of limitation, but instead see them as deeply important moments of human contact and sharing, they fill us with warmth. But when they serve only to underscore her infirmity and our helplessness in its presence, they are hard lessons in the fragile course of life.

As I sit at home now, four hours away, I wish, as I always do, that I could have done more. I wish I could have been more present to her concerns. I wish I could have given her more of my time. Most of all, I wish I could have bartered away five years of my own life to give her one last real journey, or five minutes of walking, or an hour of clear eyesight, or a night with my father. But I could not do that. And my children will not be able to do it for me. All we can do is bear witness to the passing, celebrate the mystery of life, and share such love as we have with those who are most hungry to receive it.

They are small gifts, but they are our gifts. May we all, you and I, have the power to offer them when life calls upon us to do so.


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