Sunday, May 28, 2017

Barn Burning

I’ve said on a number of occasions that I am glad that I keep a journal.  One of my projects over the past few years has been to go back to the entries that I began keeping in the early 1980’s and read forward.  It keeps me honest and prevents me from rewriting my personal history in a way that makes me out to be the hero. (It is amazing what you forget.)

There are some nice surprises, too, and I came across one of those when I was reading in my 1994 journal earlier this week.  I discovered a poem that I had written and forgotten for some reason. Perhaps my sensibilities were different at the time and I thought it was incomplete, but on reading it again I really liked it and decided to resurrect it.

The immediate impetus was that Maya had to do a report on Wiliam Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning” and I had read the story to be able to help her if she had any problems. 

Barn Burning

After years of moving from place to place,
Of constant boils and pinworms from shared beds
Of welfare saying “college is not for you,” “wash dishes”
I understood Abner’s need to put the match to the hay.
Now I live in the white house
Am become one of the columns that is part and support.
It is difficult not to keep glancing out the window to see
If the barn is still standing
Or if perhaps sleep walking I have reverted
And handed it over,
To the flames it deserves.

From an aesthetic point of view, what I like about the poem is that it achieves a sort of simplicity while at the same time, it seems to me, still being to be able to speak to a reader in on terms that s/he can relate to in relationship to their own lives.  It is a middle ground between merely reporting and trying to cram in unneeded material, as I am prone to do. 

More to the point, however, it serves to keep me honest.  After writing the blog about Dad and the military the other day, I’m particularly mindful that, in Faulkner’s famous words, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”  More than ever, I’m convinced that is true.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Dad and Memorial Day

            This weekend is Memorial Day weekend, and, as I out walking Grace, my thoughts turned to Dad.  Though I have never thought of him as a traditional military man, nevertheless, in the past few years I have thought about his relationship to the military when this holiday has rolled around.  This morning, however, something struck me that had never occurred to me before.  Perhaps it is because I am now looking at him from the vantage point of someone who is 71 years old.  I have always known that Dad was in the Navy for twenty years.  As a child, twenty years sounded like an incredibly long time – a lifetime, really.  The thing that struck me this morning, though, was how terribly young Dad was when he got out of the Navy after serving 20 years.  He was only 38, Maya’s age!
            Realizing how young he was when he came out of the service was a jolt to me.  Essentially, he had his whole life ahead of him.  It also put his life in a different light for me.  He was only 21 when he was at Pearl Harbor and when he saw all of the fighting from the ships.  His tales of being up in the Aleutian Islands (the foggiest place he had ever been) and in Australia were really a young man’s tales. He was, in effect, much like those young men who went away to Vietnam or, how, to Iraq and Afghanistan, and return, damaged, having witnessed the atrocities of war.
            I bring this up because it is commonplace now to hear of men (and now women) who return to society and just cannot fit in and I wonder just how much psychological damage was done to him.  My first impulse is to want to blame war and the military.  I want to ask the question, what kind of person would he have been, what would he have made of himself, if the war had not come along.
            There is a list put out by Wicomico High School honoring all of its attendees who served in the military.  On that list are Dad and four of his five brothers – John, Robert, Peyton, and Colvin. (Byers could not join because he was legally blind.)  I’d always assumed that because Dad was the second youngest of the boys in his family, he had joined the military because it was a family tradition, but over the past few years in doing family research, I’ve discovered that was the first in his immediate family to join and, for me, that puts a different perspective on things. 
            I ask myself, what kind of life Dad would have had if he had not joined the Navy and, before I put too much blame on the military, I have to look at the context.  Dad was orphaned by the time he was eleven.  He grew up with unofficial foster parents.  The town that he lived in was a backwater town of small time fishermen and farmers who were trying to make a living in the wake of changes wrought by the Civil War. None of his brothers seems to have prospered. Alcoholism was a family curse, several of his brothers were childless or had unhappy marriages. One committed suicide. Given those circumstances, would Dad have turned out any differently?
            Still, Dad’s foster father seems to have been involved in education. Dad graduated valedictorian from his class and, according to what he told me when I was young, got a year’s scholarship to attend William and Mary – something unheard of in his family. I distantly recall Dad’s saying that he did not attend college because even with the scholarship he could not have afforded it. Was Dad really joining the Navy simply as an act of patriotism or was it because he saw it as his way out of a life that the rest of his family seemed consigned to?  We’ll never know the answer.

            What I do realize now is how terribly young he was even after serving twenty years in the Navy.  I can only repeat the cliché, “He had his whole life ahead of him.”  But really, did he?  Given the background that he had, the damage done to him by the war and military culture, and the fact that he now had five children to support, what real choices did he have?  Free will is basically a fiction.  Once the machinery of life is in motion, it has a force of its own.  I doubt any of us now are where, at eighteen, we thought we would be. Paths lead to other paths and where our footsteps finally end is anyone’s guess.