May 29, 2006

I don't know what I'm remembering: Memorial Day 2006

My great-grandfather kept his gas mask in the garage but he never talked about the war. Maybe because it was too horrific, or maybe because he wasn’t one to talk loud or tell stories, or maybe because he didn’t think there was anything to say. Arthur was stern, taciturn, silent, complicit in some of the sins of his time, but he was a good man. He took care of his family, his mentally unstable wife, his divorced daughter and her two sons. He loved baseball and cars, worked his whole life and didn't brag.

"Grandfather," my uncle wrote, "called them niggers. So that I was surprised at how many elderly African American men, all, like my grandfather, members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), came to his funeral."

In the family mythology my great-grandfather is always cast opposite his bother-in-law, Newton. Uncle Newton always talked about the war, bragged about what he had done and who he had killed while, in fact, he'd never left the States. Newton was a bastard and a liar and whatever other discrepancies there are, in the family stories, everyone agrees on this. They say he fought the VFW for membership but lost because he'd never been abroad or seen action, and he claimed that Fig Newtons stole his idea or name or both. My father says that when Newton talked his grandfather would leave the room. "The only true thing I ever heard him say," my uncle says, "is that blond hair turns white really fast."

My dad burnt his draft notice. My uncle was a non-religious conscientious objector. When the first Bush fought the first Gulf War, we were the only house in the neighborhood that didn’t hang an American flag over the garage. Like them, I am a Pacifist - opposed to this war, to war, and to violence (especially my own). I never know what to think about Memorial Day. I don't know what it means to support the soldiers but not the war, because anything anyone says about the soldiers always seems to just be a way to say something about the war, to slip in a political opinion where it won't be argued, where it will be supported by the troops.

When John came home, back from Iraq, they had him stand up in church. Honoring him as a hero. It’s an evangelical church and the pastor’s family gives the contribution limit to the Republican Party and they have the Young Republican’s meeting is in the pastor’s house and when he asked John to stand up he said that this church was "supporting our soldier." My brother says the guys all gathered around him after church and listened to him talk. He says that later John started having flashbacks and nightmares, that John said they'd killed kids and it had seemed like the only option and that somtimes the kids'd been armed but now he didn't know. Now he had nightmares and flashbacks and he'd told the pastor and the pastor'd said he did what he had to do and that God understood but no one ever told the people in the church they still look at him like he's a hero.

There’s a letter here from Fez. I never met Fez but he used to go to the school here and come to the bible studies here and here's his letter in pencil on Army stationary signed with his full Saudi name. Tomorrow, he says, they're going to throw them in groups in the woods and give them three hours to find their way back. "That should be fun," he says, "other than the rain. I've mostly avoided racial stereotypes." Everyone agrees it's a bad time to be an Arab in the army, but his only other choice was to go home like his parents wanted and join the Saudi Arabian army and everyone agrees that would be worse. So this was his best bad option. His letter's here and his address is up on the chalkboard and there're some notes they're going to send him. I keep looking at them and wanting to write him, to say something. I don't think there's anything I could say, though, or anyway not anything that would make sense.

"Dear Fez," I would write, "you don't know me. My great-grandfather kept his gas mask in the garage but he never talked about the war."