hang on to things. We come into this life grabbing stuff and we
leave it thinking we can take whatever we've picked up along the
way out with us to heaven.
don't think it's a matter of choice, either. No. It's got to be
an instinct. I mean, why else, when you lift him in your arms, does
a day old infant grab your ear so damn hard? Or take hold of your
new shades with a grip like Spider-Man that bends the temples all
out of shape? Or wedge his tiny finger up your nose and fasten down
like he's gonna pull the thing right off your face? You know what
I'm saying? He's grabbin' on. Anything shiny, anything warm, anything
looks like it might be good. It's hard-wired into us from the start.
And I get that. But what I don't get is why we hang on to the pain.
As if it were the gold of our experience, we hang on to it tight.
see me, a guy around 40, reasonably good shape, looks late 30's,
you'd say I could never have served in the Korean War, 1950-1953.
But you'd be wrong. As a matter of fact, I'm still serving in it
-- well, hanging on to it. In view of Memorial Day, a holiday which
is, after all, not just a great excuse for mega-corporations to
hold a giant five-day box office fuck-fest between Anakin Skywalker's
light-saber and J. Lo's pseudo-pneumatic, over-insured, back-end
assets, but is also a reasonably significant holiday at the end
of May, in the beginning of summer -- you know -- when we think
about the war people. And as I said, I served in the Korean War.
come with me. Dinner-time with the Chrisman family: Five boys and
one girl, three to a side of a long kitchen table, kneeling on benches
with Mom at one end -- the beatific provisionary of all things good
-- beaming over the banquet she had set before us -- a roast leg
of lamb, say, with peeled and halved potatoes basted in the juice
of the lamb -- beaming over her brood -- her darling six children
-- and across to her black-bearded, deep-voiced, six-foot-two-inch
MAN at the other end of the table, him carving the meat with a sharpened
knife where he stands holding court, raconteur of vivid tales coloring
the events of his experience with a reverberant rich baritone.
with me and see us all reflected in the California picture-glass
windows. And hanging over our glowing table of plenty, three balls
of light -- one of those sixties' chandeliers (basketball sized,
Italian blown-glass globes suspended at uneven heights) burning
rich red and orange-yellow and turquoise-green, throwing a warm
halo over the meals of our childhoods and reflecting in the windows,
blackened by the night outside, along with the repeated form of
our colossus, the unfathomable male of our house, our Odysseus,
Channing Burke Chrisman, AKA Chan, AKA 'Chan Chan the shirttail
man,' AKA, Daddy. My Daddy standing there like the apotheosis
of man at home, a king in his castle.
next to him not a glass of wine, not a bottle or carafe, but a great
California jug of Zinfandel from the Napa Valley. Him drinking and
swallowing and chewing with the living gusto of a character out
of Gilgamesh, dark eyes shining, hair curling black around his ears,
face, illuminated by a sheen of almost imperceptible perspiration,
the gloss to his joy of life. And that great jug of wine lifting
and pouring and lifting and pouring until, by random selection on
a night chosen by some devil at the roulette wheel of domestic suffering,
the joy transmogrifies, the narrative of adventure darkens and the
bitterness of his sublimated experience empties forth.
one night it might be a disquisition on the uselessness of women,
the incompetence of our mother or the "bitches"
that ran the PTA, and another on the mendacity of politicians or
the hippies in Berkeley, the "long-hairs" whose
"hypocrite blood'll be the first to run into the gutters
if they ever get their GODDAMNED REVOLUTION!"
on yet another night, on one particular night each year, as if from
a trance-spell spun out of the recurrence of the season, at the
end of spring, on Memorial Day, a certain memory would begin to
play. Projected like the shifting colored lights of cinema streaming
out from my father's fugue-state unconscious onto the receptive
blank screens of our enamored and entranced childhood souls, the
story would un-spool, The Terrors of the Rear Guard.
by Chinese infantry, alone in the hills of Korea, protecting the
retreat of a badly crippled unit, "Your father
him speaking third person now, "
and one private first
class from Minnesota, look away from the flies crawling in and out
of the split skulls of dead GI's by the trail, grab up from K.I.A.
to each side as many rounds of ammo as they can stuff into their
pants and jacket pockets, and listen for noises in the dark."
And listen close, too, 'cuz the Chink had been takin' off his boots,
sneakin' up in his socks and killin' guys with just a bayonet or
there was nothing to hear, nothing, that is until the long whine
of artillery shells and instant thunder, the burn of phosphorous
from the mortar rounds, the shrapnel imbedding. Then waking up later
on a hospital ship at Inchon Bay, "the U.S.S. Haven,"
he would say. "And they got me in a -- I'm lyin' next to
that private from Minnesota. And his intestines are hangin' in a
sack on a stand beside his bunk. Got a pump circulatin' salt water."
Waking up then, and jerking awake nights at the slightest knock
for years since. Fourth of July or New Year's, leaping from sleep
to cower beneath the California-king-sized bed and shiver like a
dog afraid of an electric storm under his wife's helplessly loving
deadly Chinese. The fear of the dark night. The beauty of the hills.
And the "good men, boys." "My driver, Kim."
"Your uncle Big Red Dave Johnson." "MY GUYS!"
after another glass of wine and another, exploding into tears of
frustration and rage at the pacifists and lefties and women in government
who'd let the nation lapse into unprepared-ness, who'd "sent
those guys boxes of ammunition more than ten years old, stamped,
literally, 19-goddamned-40, the date on it, before the GODDAMNED
SECOND WORLD WAR!"
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