April 10, 2006

April Showers

I distinctly recall, as a child, crying in the fellowship hall of my church during some event. Honestly, I don't even remember what I was crying about or how old I was.

But the thing I remember the most was that my father eventually saw me and said "you'd better cut that mess out".

Dad's an old school man.

I don't think I ever remember seeing my father cry. In fact, the only instance where I can recall even HEARING about Dad shedding a tear was for his 60th birthday. My mother decided to treat him to a trip to New York City, where they'd spend some time with me, before reaching Dad's final destination in Atlantic City. He had no idea that, after they'd gotten home from Atlantic City, there would be a surprise party waiting for him.

That trip was the first and only time my father ever stayed in my apartment in New Jersey, and, since he's a bit of a neat freak, I'd been cleaning for the better part of a week. Even bought new linen. Of course, the first thing he did when he arrived was check the bed sheets. From the corner of my eye, I caught him nodding his approval of the bed to my mother. Mission accomplished.

I took them to the Christmas Spectacular at Rockefeller Center before treating them to dinner at the Motown Cafe.

That night, one day removed from gambling to his heart's content and two days before being unexpectedly surrounded by all of the people he loves, Dad turned to me and said "this is the best birthday I've ever had."

Two days later, he quietly, bashfully, wept tears of joy.

And my older brother wasting no time in making fun of him for crying like a baby.

Two years later, Dad got to return the favor when the family threw a surprise party for my brother's 40th birthday.

The men in my family tend not to be all that in touch with their feelings.

I suppose I'm one of the exceptions.

I cried at the end of Star Trek II when Spock died. I was nine. I mean, I cried from the movie theater, all the way home, and all through dinner, until Dad pulled me aside, sat me down on the couch, put an arm around me, and said "I'm sure Mr. Spock will be alright."

Crying over sad things is easy. However, having gone to an all-boy's private school, you quickly learn to set aside that instinct. I became really good at sitting on my feelings. Or being angry & vindictive.

I suppose that school was it's own sort of boot camp.

The Army was Dad's dream.

He told me that over lunch in a mall food court a few years ago. Growing up as the middle child in a tiny rural town on Maryland's Eastern Shore, I'm sure the Army represented a lot of things - the chance to see the world, be a hero, serve your country, get the Hell out of your mother's house, etc.

He said that all he ever wanted to do was retire after 20 years of dedicated service to Uncle Sam.

Those kinds of things are easy to say when you're 17 and fresh out of high school.

But when you're 25 and married with a small child, priorities change. Especially if your young wife desperately misses her family and hates traveling.

Dad was honorably discharged after 7 years, but not before my older brother was born & raised on various Army bases for the first three years of his life.

Many of you regular Macroscope readers, I'm sure, are well aware of how vastly different my big brother & I are politically.

By trade & training, I'm an engineer.

He's a lawyer.

In my heart of hearts, I'm a storyteller.

He's a soldier.

Mom tells me that, as a toddler, my brother would look out the window at the soldiers marching past in formation and say "there goes Daddy".

The military is deep in my family marrow. Again, I'm the exception. The closest I came to wearing a uniform was being a Boy Scout.

But my brother is another story.

On my side of our room was a poster of Spider-Man.
On his side of the room was this:

One of his most prized possessions was a Time/Life collection of World War II indexed history cards. He moved well beyond board games like Battleship and Stratego, graduating to hardcore war strategy games with names like "Tactics II" that didn't even bother with toy soldier game pieces anymore.

The army is a part of who he is. The day I graduated from high school, my brother showed up at the ceremony in combat fatigues because he'd just finished with his reserve duty that day. Most of the family portraits I have show him in uniform.

My brother's dream was to be a fighter pilot. But he was weeded out of Air Force ROTC through some, frankly, racist maneuvering. Similar circumstances kept him out of combat helicopter school. Nonetheless, he stuck with it, eventually earning the rank of Captain, working primarily in convoys, transportation, etc.

Not what he wanted. But he still loved it.

His unit got to March in Bush's inaugural parade, and, in his worlds, he even got to see the new Commander-in-Chief.

I could hear how excited he was, even though I was thoroughly convinced that his adoration was, shall we say, misguided, at best.

I remember talking with him in the summer of 2002, just after he'd done his reserve tour for the year in Germany. They were already doing war games & training for an anticipated war in Iraq. I asked him "so what do you think?"

He just shook his head in resignation and said "We're gonna need a lot of guys."

As fate would have it, for some reason, he was unable to get the promotion he wanted to Major and was, therefore, honorably discharged in February 2003 - one month before the President ordered the invasion of Iraq.

And we all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Most of us, that is.

Because, even though my brother was now out of harm's way, he was also no longer a soldier. He'd been discharged after 16 years in the Army reserves - four years short of retirement and all the commensurate benefits.

My father was disappointed.

My brother was quietly devastated.

I recently watched "Patton" for the first time.

A great movie, by the way - well worth it. Patton, as played by George C. Scott, believes himself to be the reincarnation of Hannibal and a host of other great military generals from eras past. He lives and breathes to fight. But, in the course of the war, his excessive disciplinary tactics cause him to fall out of favor and he's subsequently removed from the field of battle by his superiors. His response?
"The last great opportunity of a lifetime - an entire world at war and I'm left out of it? God will not permit this to happen - I will be allowed to fulfill my destiny. His will be done."

My brother's been trying to get his Army commission re-instated ever since.

And, despite his age, and an old knee injury, and slightly high blood pressure, and one kid in college and another soon to go, despite his belief that Robert MacNamara should, in his words, "burn in Hell" for his conduct of the Vietnam war and that Donald Rumsfeld should be immediately fired for his conduct of THIS war, he finally succeeded.

My brother was re-activated as a Captain in the Army reserves in February.

And, when I called him on his birthday last month, he told me that, earlier that day, the Army had called him up for active duty.

He's shipping out today. And, after spending a month in his birthplace, Fort Hood, TX, for additional training, his unit will be shipping off to Iraq.

Baghdad, to be exact.

For a year.

They'll be training Iraqis to manage military truck convoys.

I can remember a conversation I had with my father a few months ago, where I said that I felt that my brother was being tremendously irresponsible. He's a family man, after all, volunteering to walk into a killing zone.

But, then again, on a smaller scale, the same charge of being irresponsible could have been levied against me.

I remembered the day I left the east coast, and my outrageously high paying tech job during the height of the internet boom, to come out to California for film school. I'd packed up my apartment in New Jersey the day before, and I was back in Baltimore, looking for a battery for my watch with my Dad. And, as I was laying out all of the things I still needed to do once I got to L.A., Dad just stopped me.

He said "You really want to do this, huh?"

I said "Yeah".

He looked at me hard and asked "Really?"

I still said "yes".

Dad just shook his head and said he would support me in any way that he could, even though he didn't understand it. He said "if I were you, I would really have to think long and hard about the money I was leaving behind."

And I sort of bristled at that. I'm not a stupid person. And this was not a decision I was making lightly. I'd been considering, and planning this move, or something like it, for years. Then, when I was still young and single and childless, was the supremely responsible time to do it.

And, more importantly, it was the truth.

It was who I am.

I am a storyteller.

I have to be in the place where the stories get told to tell the stories to the most people. I HAD to leave.

I would die if I didn't go.

Ironically enough, the day I left for California, my brother volunteered to come with me to help me move in. We rode a train from D.C. to L.A. for four days and sat on the floor of my empty apartment watching Jerry Springer on his Sony Watchman for a week.

My brother is, also, not a stupid person. He's been planning this for years. His whole life has been pointing to this moment. He's constructed things in such a way that, not only is his Army pay a significant, tax-free raise over his regular salary, but, because he has such a ridiculous amount of vacation time saved, he'll actually still be on the payroll for the first 2-3 months that he's on active duty. Debts will be paid. Tuition will be paid. His job will still be here.

I am a storyteller.

My brother's a soldier.

This is who he is. He'd die if he didn't go.

It's the truth.

Yesterday, my family had a bon voyage party for him. And, unfortunately, because it all happened so fast, I couldn't be there. We finally tracked each other down by phone while my girlfriend & I were in the local esoteric bookshop.

I asked him how he felt, and he paraphrased Steve Buscemi from Armageddon:
"I'm feeling a mixture of excitement and terror, and I'm not sure which one I feel more."
He told me he'd be e-mailing me instructions in case something "unfortunate" happens, because he trusts me to be more clear-headed than Mom or Dad in that instance. I told him I knew he'd make us proud. And, since he was using my cousin's phone and didn't want to use up his minutes, we said our good-byes.

And I had to call his house and leave him a message to tell him that I loved him.

We don't really say those sort of things face-to-face. Even by phone.

And I went back into the bookstore, found my girlfriend, and cried.

I felt like I'd just said "good bye", I mean, REALLY good-bye, to my brother.

And my girlfriend asked me if that's what I wanted.

Of course not! What the Hell kind of question is that?!?

And then she reminded me that we always have a choice. Even on how we feel.

Is there any wonder that I absolutely love this woman?

So, instead, I choose to see him safe, sound, living the life he was destined for, and being transformed by it.

And I see me giving him the biggest hug he's ever had when he steps back onto American soil, all smiles and all in one piece.

But, to make a long story short, I cried.

I guess that's why I'm a storyteller.

Please keep my favorite Army Captain in your prayers. And see him home, safe and sound.

Thanks.
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