A Veteran’s Hymn and Bloodline

When I was little, in the summertime, when the evening shadows grew long and you could be outside at night in shirt sleeves–and close to the time the rasberries grew into pregnant little globes on the vine–we could start expecting my grandparents to show up in my Grandad’s Sportscoach; nothing short of a forty foot dream ship, an American land sailing yacht, and most importantly, the roadworthy vessel that brought my Grandad from El Centro, CA the two thousand some miles to Spokane, WA. Days before they arrived, I would have vivid dreams of going out into our back yard and seeing the Sportscoach parked in its dedicated spot under the maple trees, under the tree house, tucked in there for a week of grandparent bliss. I don’t know where it comes from, that feeling, the little kid incompleteness, the undying ache for your grandfather; the need to hold his big hand, to trace the wrinkles on his skin and know that something about life is durable, that this guy made it through the ages, he made your dad, and he made it past that: yes, he’s old, but he has a land yacht and he can voyage through time and space and, just standing there, just the mere act of being there, he is equivalent to god. I wouldn’t want to unravel the feeling too much, philosophically, because–to me–he was perfect at the time… and he’s perfect now. Dove soap, every time I smell it, throws me into the tidy bathroom of the Sportscoach; always tinkering with things and machines, Grandad washed his hands maybe ten times a day. I can’t use the soap now. I remember watching him cutting peaches to put into Chex cereal in the morning; I remember him counting down from five to race across a stretch of lawn and preemptively jumping to one and leaping away first and laughing a laugh so pure that I should have bottled it up so I would have it to open when I’m feeling sad; I remember watching him lace up his gray tennis shoes, telling me they were so good he bought three pair and thinking to myself, “That’s genius!” I remember one summer, having buried our pet rabbit before he arrived, realizing that Grandad too would die, and when he arrived I took his hand and, looking at a carpal tunnel tendon bow-stringing through his palm (from years as a lineman for the fire department), asked him if he would die… in keeping with his perfection, he sat down with me and put his hand on my knee and told me, “Ben, I am not going to die.”

When he killed himself a few years ago, this memory came upon me like an ambush. I knew then that something was out of balance… somewhere in the greasy stretch of time between his birth, his own stern father, his service in WWII, service in the San Diego fire department, his vacuum shop, the Sportscoach, and his death, something had gone wrong for him. The godhead had been compromised. I probably did not know what this was until recently.

I went home to Spokane to watch my grandfather’s son deliver a sermon about a lifetime of struggle with post traumatic stress, a cobweb of shame and grief that has been with him since he flew in a helicopter gunship in Vietnam in 1967-8. During his sermon I remembered having had the brilliant idea to scare him by sneaking into the bathroom while he sang in the steam of a shower and dump a cold pint glass of water over the curtain. I was seven or eight. He did not realize what he was doing until after the shower curtain snapped open and he saw that he had pinned me against the towel rack, making it hard to draw a breath and, realizing what was going on, let out a gasp, “Oh god.” And started crying.

He describes standing-by, watching B-52s in bombing raids, while the gunship waited there, the chopper blades chundering overhead, waiting their turn to let brass fall, turning an Eden so green it hurts your eyes, into a carpet bombed cauldron of fire, marking it with white phosphorous and napalm, defoliating it with agent orange, and then laying tracer fire into Eden’s jungles, chasing men in black pajamas until they met easy defeat under the fire of his M-60, hung from the door of the gunship by a rubber strap. He describes watching the bodies of three little girls crumple under someone else’s fire in the Tet Offensive and screaming into the radio, “SAY I.D.! SAY I.D!” And scanning the scene, crying and violence and rage pulsing through his heart to find the responsible party and knowing that he was not involved in a just or fair battle… but in a criminal act that was on its way to stripping his soul of its native joy.

I watched my grandfather’s son stand up yesterday in courage and with a purple brave heart tell a congregation that he was ashamed and guilty. He has taken part in a crime; in the name of America, he has taken lives, he has been party to actual evil, he has witnessed firsthand the political lie that took our country to Vietnam; part of his crime is following orders, following the sovereign: he stood in solidarity with all of those who have brought this trauma home from war and said, “I’m your brother, I understand you, I forgive you, and I love you, hang in there, I know what you feel is the worst thing on earth, just hang in there: goddamit do not take your own life, because I love you, I’m standing up here saying, ‘look, you can get through this!'”

He read a letter that he’s written to a man named Nguyen (because he doesn’t know his real name), saying, “Nguyen, I’m sorry that I killed you; it was not right. If I could put the weapon down in hindsight I would; if I could trade my own life for yours that I took–now forty years later–I would. Did you have a wife? Did you have a family? Did you leave brothers and sisters, a bereaved mother and father behind? If so, I want to tell them I’m sorry too. Nguyen, I’m sorry.”

I spent today remembering my grandad, and his son. They are cut from the same cloth, and I suppose I am too. I found myself feeling proud of my dad… pointing me in the direction of a land where I can plant the oar… a place that does not know the spiritual defoliant of war, a place where men can have the courage to say, “I’m scared; I’m scared to death, I want to be held by my mother, I want to tell you how I feel: I’m not going to run your errand of death today, because I want to come home, I want to love a woman (or a man), I want to sleep the whole night through, I want to always sense the song my soul was born to sing, a joy that cannot co-exist with what you’re suggesting.”

Instead of a precept like “support our troops,” I suggest another practice: if you’re in America, don’t hate her or love her for some empty shiny idea like patriotism, instead hold your heart open for those who have gone down the dark road, the road of spirit amputation, death, suicide, sacrifice. I hold my heart open for the real grief, the paradox, the tension, the anguish, the inconsolable terror, the willingness and offering of my dad to risk it all; even though America commits this crime, I forgive her and I forgive you, dad. I will get under the grief too, and I will help you carry it because it is a real weight that must be carried, and with my help and the help of others you will live and you will have a club to which you belong. I love you, I love Grandad, and I love the life you brought me into. Thank you. There is no other man like you, Larry Shook.