The Good Soldier
THE GOOD SOLDIER
The two of them sat in my grandfather’s living room telling their stories of youth and how they had intersected with his life. The funeral was over and the traditional gathering of family and close friends at the home of the widowed was taking place. It was a solemn affair with a cornucopia of food brought by the community to help fill and ease the emotional pain. But they were far from solemn and almost giddy with the tales of their youth. The stories grew bolder and more extravagant with each new tale. They were good story tellers and had an enraptured and captive audience. People would laugh then self-consciously catch their laughter look around to see if laughter was appropriate. Slowly the audience became comfortable and felt and said what came to mind. “Oh that is just a tall tale” or “I do not know if you want to tell that”. Wives rolled their eyes of long hidden truths being revealed and children were mesmerized by the fact their parents and uncles were young and full of life once.
One story was a snapshot of their lives in rural Alabama on a farm. Playing in my grandfather’s barn they had overturned a lantern and started a fire. Instead of calling the alarm they were so frightened of my grandfather they decided to run out the back of the barn. They circled around through the pasture and plotting their return. They now were on the path leading to the house and barn where they started the fire. Upon their return they were acting as though they had come upon the fire only now. They dutifully started raising the alarm and rushing to get water to put the fire they had started out. The quickly conceived plot had made them the heroes when in fact they were the culprits.
This story even stirred my red-eyed grieving grandmother. Coming from the other room where she had sat motionless as people consoled her with hugs and prayers. She entered the room and towered over them and pointed her finger at the two of them,” That was you! We always wondered how in the world that happened. Tom If your father was here he would rip the hide off of both of you boys.” The two of them sat there paralyzed with fear and looking as two young adolescents who had been caught doing the unforgivable. Grandmother caught herself and as if giving them permission to continue she shook her head and muttered, ”Lord you children will be the death of me yet. Go on keep telling your tall tales I might learn a few more things you do not want me to know” She left the room the two of them looked at each other and you could glimpse them as young boys with sweat on their brows and sheepish grins. They had lived and would be able to tell about it. The stories continued and I even saw grandmother passing the door and shaking her head and suppressing a smile at one of their more outlandish escapades.
My father raised on a farm in rural Alabama had a soul full of wanderlust. He wanted to see things, do things, and be useful. An education beyond high school seemed foreign to him so he chose the military. He would travel, be considered a hero, and do some amazing things along the way. He would become one of the few and the proud a United States Marine. Military life was an escape from the country life. The soldier dreamed acts of courage and fame and believed as he was taught that his country was the greatest.
He rose to the rank of First Sargent. He had served two terms as a Drill Instructor. Two terms was unusual for that time. He had been called back for the second term after a scandal of unnecessary recruit deaths. The drill instructors had crossed too far into sadism and were more concerned in playing machismo games than training troops. Thus they had appealed to the soldier who was as tough as they came but could keep his sadism under control. The country boy in him had taught him a religion of tough love. He did not believe in excessive foul language as was common among the Drill Instructors. He drank in moderation and even quit that at the birth of his second son when he renewed his Christian faith at a revival service. He believed in a quiet machismo. It went as follows be confident in who you are and always be respectful of others. Machismo was who you are in your actions and not who you said you were. Power was a tool and privilege given to you to help others discover what they were capable. He believed in the brainwashing of recruits not because of exerting control but because the soldier who allowed his humanity to cause hesitation in war did not make it home. It was not natural to kill therefore good soldiers were trained to react in accordance with the plan and not to question the plan once it was being implemented. Though he would never tell them he loved his recruits. It was this love that in the end would break the hardcore soldier.
The years passed and he knew he was coming to the end of his military career. He had served as a Marine military guard for President Kennedy and his family. He even was an usher at President Kennedy’s funeral. He often smiled when telling the story of how he a lowly Marine was turning away different dignitaries and politicians trying to claim a seat in the National Cathedral for Kennedy’s funeral. He had served in the Korean War and two terms as a DI. It was a distinguished career with enough medals to make any soldier proud. He had refused an opportunity to take officer’s training preferring to be closer to the foot soldiers and further away from the politics of officers. He was closing in on his 19th year after his twentieth year he would retire with full benefits.
He was a First Sargent the highest rank for a non-commissioned officer. He had nothing to prove. Yet there was one nagging problem the country was at war in Vietnam. He did not understand why we were there but he was a true patriot loyal to his country. He continued to train young men to fight. They would leave to go to a country most could not find on a map, Vietnam. The reports of the war were not good. The reports were confounding we were losing the war to a country we had never heard of before, the morale was low, and horrible events were occurring that shamed the military code. Some you read about in the paper others were known only by those in the know.
He continued to train young men to go to Vietnam. The country needed more soldiers so a draft was created. He saw draftees for the first time. He had chosen this career but these draftees were of a different breed. Not necessarily bad soldiers just sometimes more reluctant. A reluctant soldier is too often a dead soldier.
He had a family now and was a deacon in his church. He was young enough to start another career. He was not soft. His recruits, family and friends could tell you that truth. At thirty-eight he was at an age where the thought of going to war was not a choice he wanted. War was for the very old (usually without battle experience) to send the very young to. He was neither of these.
But the stories of the young men dying in jungles far away from home kept coming back. His religious and military pride were slowly intersecting as he thought of their immortal souls being lost forever in Hell. Maybe he could help lead them to the gates of heaven and back into their loved ones arms here. Nobody could disapprove of him not going out into the jungles for weeks on end that was a younger man’s game. His wife would not like it. Hell he did not like the thought of it.
The training continued the devastating news kept coming. Then one day at a recruit graduation ceremony he was overwhelmed with guilt. How could I train these men and then watch them go to a place he had never been to endure hell without him. He felt hypocritical. This was not a feeling he was used to. He knew then he would go.
He hated leaving. His wife supportive but angry let him go. His three sons he had raised as recruits were at crucial ages and he did not want to leave. But by now he had convinced himself that he was on a holy mission for God and country. He was a good soldier.
But as Vietnam was for many it was not a place that went as planned. He spent months in the jungles. He would preach to his men in the hopes their souls would be saved. But many would say they were not ready to commit and the next day they would die. They were young men brave and unselfish but they died. His beliefs would condemn them to an eternity in Hell. In his faith there was no Valhalla for the soldier who died a good death. It did not matter that many were drafted and forced essentially into an early death. Ninety percent of the men in his troop died or were wounded before they finished their tour. Vietnam for him had become a black hole sucking souls into it.
To make matters even more surreal his leave time became as painful as time in the field. He would take his leaves to An Hoi. There he would meet his cousin and child hood friend who was a supply sergeant for the Marines. The abundance of supplies which seemed short in the field could be found here. And the noncombat officers were enjoying them to the max. His cousin showed him warehouses full of champagne, steak, and other necessary goods for war. He became bitter knowing they would receive medals and commendations for serving in wartime and on the battlefield. It was not right but his fight was in the jungles and not in the back offices.
After his first leave he returned to the field and for the first time noticed the soldiers were black, latino, or poor white boys like him. He seldom encountered anyone whose race was white and whose class was upper. They were fighting a war in the jungle miles from home for a domino he did not quite see. And his soldiers had no real say in these decisions. He for the first time began to feel expendable.
His cause was tainted with caviar and class. He never questioned his own loyalty. He was a loyal partner. But for the first time he questioned the loyalty of his partner, his country, to him. He also began to see unusually mean soldiers. They may not be winning the war but they would show the Viet Cong their hatred for them. He could keep his troops form crossing lines and somehow keep their humanity but he was not sure others were doing the same. He was sitting precariously on the lid of a powder keg.
The questioning and doubts brought the fear. Fear of mortality was not the source but he doubted that what he did mattered or that anyone in charge cared. His life and the lives of the soldiers around him were balancing on a tightrope that was in full sway. The gods of war seemed capricious. It was this capriciousness he feared.
He remained the good soldier despite the gnawing fears. He was wounded by bomb shrapnel once patched up and put right back into the war. Another time his company was under fire. This was a twice weekly occurrence as the Viet Cong wanted to remind them they were still there. The mood was tense and the air of tension could be sliced as they sat in their foxholes. So he said to his captain for the other soldiers in the foxhole to hear. “Hey Cap we rushed to our holes and you seemed to have forgotten your coffee over there in the mess tent. Let me get it for you.” The young captain looked puzzled at first and horrified by what he did next. Slowly getting out of his foxhole ignoring the bomb spray all around him, he sauntered over to the mess tent poured a cup of coffee and returned and presented the captain with his cup of coffee. The soldiers thought he was mad but they also felt the tension leave. Then he grinned at his soldiers and said in a serious voice if any of you boys try that I will kick your ass. The bombardments did not seem as frightening after this.
He would win a silver star for retrieving troops from behind the enemy lines. Their position had been over-run and ten troops were stuck wounded or pinned down in various places behind the new battle lines. They were surrounded by the enemy. He had taught in their basic training no one was to be left behind. He now knew how simple that was to say but to live it here in the capriciousness of war seemed almost insane. Yet he gathered two of his best troops and led them to retrieve his men. One of those rescued soldiers many years later would hold a supper for our two families and he formally thanked my father in front of his family for saving him that day. He had four children. One was a newborn.
My father felt the need to stay another tour. So he signed on and immediately realized his patriotism and soldier’s pride were sending him on a fool’s errand. But he had a whole new group of men who had come to fight including a fresh inexperienced captain. They were frightened and looking to him to help them make it through. So he stayed. His reward was to be sent even further into Viet Cong jungles. The generals seemed to think if you were not winning the war all you had to do was try harder. He and his men were the try harder.
The fear had infected every fiber of his body. One night as he went to sleep in two inches of water with rain pouring on his cold body the prayer came. He found himself praying wound me God let me not be crippled but wounded enough that they will send me home. The prayer surprised him at first. He did not feel ashamed of it. He knew it was time. His luck could not hold out. When he first came he thought that only soldiers who made mistakes and mental errors in battle were the ones who died or were wounded. But now he knew better. War was quite capable of taking the best soldier. And sometimes being the best soldier made you have to sacrifice your life for your comrades. And he knew he was a good soldier.
It happened in a flash. They were sweeping a field to secure it. His radioman was the typical five feet away. He heard an exclamation of shit from him, a boom, and nothing else. He aroused to find himself in a helicopter being evacuated. He asked how his companion was and he could tell by their faces he was dead. He tried to assess his own situations. His right leg was in great pain. His head was throbbing and they were working on him at a consistent but not furious pace. Feeling pain in his leg was a good sign it was still there, the pain in his head was not so bad that he could not think straight, the relaxed pace they were working on him and their faces told him he would live and maybe keep all of his limbs. Thank you God he thought then fell unconscious.
The good soldier was broken. He was shipped to Guam to recover. He would stay for two months. He was exhausted his physical recovery was slow but his spiritual recovery was a long way away. He met soldiers who were not ready to go back to civilization. All they knew was to kill. They were angry and confused. They were not ready to be back with family and friends. Post-traumatic stress disorder was not accepted and there was very little in the way of assistance back in America. He became an informal counselor for many of the men but often thought who was he fooling. He could not heal himself and even if he could there was too much left on the rice fields of Vietnam to ever be whole again.
I will never forget the first Christmas he returned. Just a few weeks before the three of us his sons lined up to welcome him back. We had not seen him for over eighteen months. We stood at attention as if we were his recruits. He observed gave a faint smile and then hugged us. Not many words were spoken the boisterous loud confident voice we had known was gone. He was different. Mom hugged him, loved him, and nurtured him but it wasn’t bringing him back. It was as though he was trapped in a thick fog and he no longer could see clearly. The confident Marine was gone. He was on unsettled ground his bearings were off. He was lost unmoored in the world.
He and Mom argued over a rifle he had confiscated from some Viet Cong and smuggled back stateside. She had never allowed guns in the house. This was unusual for a Marine Family. But her brother had committed suicide while drunk with a gun and she swore she would never allow a gun in our house. He explained this gun was not to use. It was somehow a reminder of comrades alive and lost and he wanted it at home not at his office where he usually kept his guns. He knew it did not seem rationale but it mattered to him.
He talked to us boys different now. Where once he treated us as his young recruits in training giving us white glove inspections, having us stand attention while he dressed us down, conducting mini hand-to-hand combat classes, we were now just boys. We had been encouraged to prepare for military careers if that is what we wanted. He now told us we would not go in the military. Only blacks, latinos, and poor white boys fought the wars and he was not going to let us go. The three of us watching him were scared. If war could do this to him of all people we wanted nothing to do with it. We were now expected to go to college. We would be the first generation of Freemans to do so. He was determined to steer us and his grandchildren from war.
When Christmas came it was a subdued affair. He and mom had been fighting behind closed doors. On Christmas morning we did not know what to expect. He who was usually the master of ceremonies was not mastering. He was quiet. Which kept the three of us boys nervous and waiting for the explosion. For his part he was acting excited but his mind and heart were far away. We opened presents and said our thank-yous. The last present was one Mom had for Dad. None of us knew anything about it. She had held the cards close to her heart. My father with a puzzled expression opened the present. Shock and surprise came over him as he unwrapped it. It was a gun rack. Mom was allowing his rifle in the house. She never backed down from things like this and yet there was the gun rack. They exchanged looks. And the man who I had never seen cry before now balled like a baby. I did not understand the emotions and the love she was showing her soldier. I certainly did not understand his crying. It scared me.
Nor did I ever understand why the gun rack was never hung and served as a clothing rack. It was not the gun that was important to my father. I still do not understand its importance to him. But it did not matter this would be the beginning of dad’s long path to recovery.
In the next few months he retired from the Marines. He struggled with many jobs never finding one that suited. He would have his outburst some related to his PTSD and others to his old hard core marine self that was slowly disappearing. At one of his jobs he worked and traveled with a man who had played football with Auburn and stood over 6’6 inches tall. Upon returning to their shared hotel room after a night out the football player found dad in the middle of the room cussing and shouting orders and swinging his arms like he was in battle. The man tried to wake dad but could not and slept in the car terrified that night. He said the next day Dad was normal.
Dad would have a scandalous affair. He was a director of the government housing projects in the small town we lived in. He would have the affair with a resident of one of the homes. His job was used as a political football and his reputation was maligned. He felt dirty and a failure. He would endure the scandal as a good soldier. Confessing to his part and trying to make amends even though some politicians were more concerned with scoring points he never fought back. He had done wrong and must pay the price.
Two years later he would disappear for over two months until Mom finally found him in a one room trailer in the woods in Arkansas a far cry from Alabama. He wanted to be left alone and not responsible for anyone or anything. He was done. She coaxed him back into civilization and our family. The good soldier returned for duty.
My mother would say after their fiftieth anniversary, ’The first thirty years were touch and go but the last twenty he cannot do enough for me. They have been the best anyone could ask for. ” He realized he still loved the woman he married and was determined to be the most loving and caring husband he could be. He lived each day trying to make amends for his lapse in their marriage.
He became a baker, a restaurant co-owner with mom, a bus driver in his later years. He drew in his spare time. He returned to the rural small town America he had grown-up. The older he got the more attractive the small town became. His wanderlust was now confined to national parks and museums. He took over his father’s Sunday School class he had led for over twenty years and he would teach it for over twenty years. He would become the chaplain and president of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter. He enjoyed being a grandfather. He taught his grandchildren to play checkers in the grandfather way. The checkers were chocolate and vanilla oreo cookies and when you jumped one you got to eat it. He would lose to them on purpose so they could enjoy the cookies. While they played checkers he would show them his mangled toe that they gawked at when he wore sandals. He would regale them with the story of how he had won the ugliest toe contest with this toe and he was proud of it. He showered them with love.
They say war can take a decade off of your lifespan. That was true for him. His heart was spent. He was hospitalized with pneumonia, cancer, and heart problems. He was dying. He was not afraid of death. He was afraid of leaving his wife alone in her old age to fend for herself. And he would miss his children and grandchildren dearly. But death waits for no one.
I did not know it would be our last conversation when I called him on the telephone. He did however. I had been to see him several times in the hospital. I lived a seven hour drive away. Although, he was ready for death he would fight it for weeks. But after the preliminaries of talking about his grandchildren and how his doctors were treating him he stopped. The language was peculiar to me at the time. “Son I want you to know something. I love you. It has been a privilege to be your father.’ I was stunned and I told him I loved him and we said goodbye. I realized now his words were the soldier relieving himself from his duty. He had for good and bad done all he could. He was the good soldier.
The little boy looked out the window as his father drove away. His mother had left his father and his siblings to escape the physical abuse of the father. The boy would always wonder why his mother abandoned him to a father who was mentally and physically cruel, especially when he was drunk. Now he was looking anxiously out a window of the children’s orphanage as his father was leaving to serve time in the county jail. A pattern that would be repeated over and over. The child who stared out the window had tremendous potential but the pieces of his life would struggle to come together. The world worked against him. He would become a bright, reasonably good-looking musician, writer, and personable man. But his world was ordered in such a way that none of this would make a difference. His father had beaten out of him confidence in the world and himself. The abandonment of his mother had left him with a permanent scar. And yet both would hold the little boy’s love for his parents until he died. He seemed destined to remain a little boy staring out the window hoping to see his mother or a redeemed father who would whisk him away to a house and make it a home.
The grown man would always be window shopping. His father left him with conflicted emotions. Every relationship he had he struggled to discern if he was loved or despised. His mother’s abandonment left him looking for something or someone to fill his emptiness. The sins of the parents were visited on the child. He searched for a church to release him form the burdens of his sins. This search would lead to travel from church to church seeking forgiveness.
He never thought of college because no one in his family had ever gone. He was even thought lucky to finish with a high school diploma. When he was in his teens he went across America to find himself. He hitchhiked from Savannah all the way to California. Along the way he lay under the stars, listening to a reading of Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. It convinced him there was more, somewhere in this world and he wanted to belong to it. For the first time hope slept with him that night. After the trip he searched around each corner for now he knew the missing piece was out there.
It was in his third marriage that he saw the light when his wife introduced him to Unitarian Universalism. They were a church that did not emphasize sin but instead talked of the potential of individuals. This spoke to him. His social conscience was awakened in this place of new ideas. But in a world of the educated and the comfortable, they were uncomfortable with his lack of education and good breeding. This judging eye would not release his potential but create more bumbling and more insecurities. He now had found a home but was destined to be treated as a second class citizen. He was impatient and easily frustrated. He had trouble staying with one thing and staying in one place. But strangely the new social conscience was here to stay. He became articulate in stating his new beliefs. He joined every movement, hoping to find his place. He began to create the resume of an activist. Yet, insecurities remained. If someone did not return his call promptly he knew they were avoiding him. He belonged to a men’s group and loved the companionship and ideal of the group. It was a place to ventilate and be yourself. But later after the group when he was alone he knew he had talked too much and revealed too little. He soon lost interest and would only attend when he needed to ventilate or he would explode. He had nowhere else to do it. But it left him too a shame to come back the next week. He could never stay put because people would discover who he was and they would be disgusted or leave. He would represent his church at the neighborhood community meetings and was proud to do so. He was chosen to serve on the board and then he quit showing up. He needed something more. Besides once they knew him they would be a shamed he was a part of them. He planned events but would quickly be discouraged and abandon all plan, thus fulfilling the prophecy that it was not going to end well.
And yet, there were moments when all did go well and you could see the possibilities. But he could not stay with the possibilities. It was as though he did not feel he should succeed. Success almost scared him. He longed for respect and position but constantly sabotaged himself.
He worked as a salesman and could make a great first impression. He knew how to talk you up and he had enough charisma to make it pleasant. But the second impression would always show his insecurities and his ignorance of where to go next. He had problems with employers because he knew better than they did, but the recurring problem, was he could not perform better than they did.
He started taking classes to become a paralegal. This would provide a good steady job and hopefully he could be paid to work for the justice he sought. The legal courses were easy. He wrote well. It was the core curriculum of math and biology with which he struggled. He struggled and finally gave up. The law must not want him. It was time to move on to another dream. But he could write and would be published in a local paper several times. He was also a good speaker and would preach at his church often. He had that dreadful combination in life to see what competence looked like and have the tools to master it. Yet success always was a glass too dark to see through. He abused alcohol to escape pain and this abuse would cause divorces, alienated children, and loss of jobs. He could never get traction in his life.
A new UU church with a more social consciousness started up so he joined them. He became a founding member. He played the accordion and he became the church musician. His was the only church in America led by an accordion. He liked the quirkiness of the accordion and told of his grandfather teaching him how to play. This was a whimsical memory his grandfather died when he was very young and had made his father the man he was today. Playing the accordion on Sunday mornings became one of the few commitments he kept for an extended time. The judgment was less at this church he felt more at home.
One day, dreams of California came calling. He had always wanted to go back since his trek across America. He managed to take a one-week vacation to see his sister in Sacramento. It was a powerful and emotional time for him. His estranged mother came down from Oregon for a few days. He was able to attend his niece’s wedding. He felt like he belonged. They did tourist things. It was one of the happiest times of his life.
He returned to Georgia with pictures and stories of family. You could see the little boy in him although he was 58. He wanted the love and the family he never had when he was growing up. This was his quest all of his life. He was drinking again now. The new church had lost its original appeal and was now old news. He wanted home and his mother.
He began to fantasize about how he could regularly see his mother in Oregon if he moved to California. Not realizing she had only come to California for his niece’s wedding not to see him. He wanted to reconnect with his sister in Sacramento and have that feeling of sibling love. But she too had never made any moves to contact him in all these years. The patched together family in Georgia never had made the abandoned little boy feel at home. He was sure a better home awaited him in California. The dream of California took on mythic proportions for him. His mission now was to return there and find his long lost missing piece.
The church he helped found, the activist he had become, and the friends he had made—this was not family. So he left on a train to start over in California. His sister was a bartender; she and her boyfriend drank heavily. Robert’s drinking increased. The economy was bad and jobs were hard to come by. His saved-up funds were disappearing fast. His mother never came to see him and her new family told him he was not welcome to come see her in Oregon. The plan was going awry. The sister lost her job; the rent was coming due without any income to pay it.
He had made connections at a Unitarian Universalist church in California. He played music for some services and joined their social justice and action committee. He joined an Accordion Society and began to play the accordion in nursing homes. He worked odd jobs but could not support himself. Then he met her. She was older but liked his boy-like nature and cornball humor. She admired his social conscience. He needed someone and she had an income; he enjoyed their time together. He struggled to hold his end up financially but it was not working. He began to play the accordion at a local restaurant on weekends. He slowly built a reputation and was able to earn a little money with his accordion. His partner had invested in a co-housing venture and now it was available. They moved into the co-housing together.
He once made a trip back to Savannah. He bought a vintage 1950s trailer like one he would have travelled on vacation on as a youth if he had not spent so much time looking out windows and daydreaming. He wanted to show his new sweetheart around his hometown, with hopes that maybe they would live there. On the trip across country, the trailer hit a bump in the road and the roof collapsed to the floor. His son, with whom he was to stay was arrested and put in jail. They had nowhere to stay and were broke. They took her savings and bought an airplane ticket back to California. He realized the trip had been a disaster. He mused you cannot go home again. But this time at least he had someone to share it with and they had a place to go back to.
One day she looked at him after yet another failed job and said, “How would you like to spend your time only on your music? I do not care how much money you make; we have enough. All I want is for you to be happy.” He had his Unitarian Universalists and his co-housing friends and now he could say “I am a musician.” She would make a good wife. He thought he would find a young tanned blonde in California but he discovered a woman.
Years later he was looking out the window of his new home and called back in the house to his wife like a puppy greeting its master at the door with excitement and pure joy. His friends were coming up the walkway toward their place for the evening’s shared meal. A smile came over his face. The picture window he peered out offered a beautiful view.
He was from the streets of Queens, New York. He was born into a poor family and lived a hardscrabble life from day one. He became somewhat of a street tough. Yet he developed into a quiet man but would speak his mind when necessary. Growing up he was exposed to the anarchists, socialists, and reformers of the radical left of New York. It radicalized his thinking. As a young man searching for religion he attended the New York Ethical Society founded by Felix Adler. Adler was a German American professor of political and social ethics who sought to create a religion centered on ethics and not theology. The members were to live lives committed to personal ethical development with others, and work with the community to create social justice, and be environmental stewards. His experience with the Ethical Society would for the rest of his life encourage in him an atheism that sought a community to practice and promote his social concerns.
He joined the Navy because he did not know of any other way to escape the poverty in which he found himself. Because he scored so high on his aptitude test they trained him as a mechanical engineer. He would never be officer material because of his beliefs and outspokenness. But when WWII started he was on a ship doing maintenance. The War exasperated his mental health. He would be discharged after the war because of the onset of a disability.
He gradually learned how to live with his mental illness (back then it would have been called a nervous condition). But one of the symptoms would be a life of obsessive thinking. He would get an idea and would not let go of it for months and years. And because of his radical upbringing his obsessions could appear strange. Conspiracy theories and the books that explained them became his religion. He touted them in every way and every time he could.
He met the love of his life at a Unitarian church. She was as wonderfully peculiar as he. She had been married once before but it was a disaster. Her first husband physically abused her. Yet she kept her spunk and eventually left him in an age people did not do this. Victor had long ago decided that because of his mental disability he would never find a partner. So it was with a surprised joy they found each other.
She had similar ways. She dressed in old and second-hand clothes, never buying new ones. Quoted poetry to express her feelings. She loved gardening and was constantly offering up the ragged cuttings of a plant from the woods near their house to any taker. She always could be found picking up trash around the church, her home, or a building where she was attending a meeting. She was a founding member of the local Unitarian Universalist Church.
His dress corresponded to hers. He wore old polyester shirts or green coveralls with duct-taped glasses. He became an active member of her church, attending every time the door opened. When he inherited $100,000 dollars he gave it to the Unitarian Church. It was the biggest one-time gift the church ever had. The money was used to assist different social action programs in and out of the church. It helped the church gain recognition in the community for their civic involvement. It was a remarkable gift considering he and his wife were living on fixed incomes. But Victor’s religion left him no choice but to be generous. He never hesitated to help someone who was less fortunate than he, especially if he knew them.
Together they could be found at almost any peace or protest rally. They attended meetings of Amnesty International, Troy Davis (a man on death row), the first monument to the African Americans in the city, G8 summit protest, Gulf and Iraq war protest planning meetings. They had causes that filled their lives and they became fixtures for every progressive cause around. Everyone thought they were crazy but loved their eccentricities.
When the Iraq War and the Patriotic Act came into being his obsessiveness became severe. He would stand up in church and proclaim that our nation was lying to us about the weapons of mass destruction and spying on us in ways it had never done before. Sometimes he used a ‘deception’ dollar to make his point. The dollar looked like monopoly money, in its center was a picture of President George W. Bush. He would use it to explain why Bush was responsible for 911. He suggested the American government had staged 911 and constantly encouraged people to read the book Crossing the Rubicon. His persistent rantings upset the leadership of the congregation. They thought these were not appropriate topics for Joys and Concerns, a time in the church service when people shared about the different things they did and what was on their mind. He replied he was very concerned about the War and the Patriotic Act and other things he felt the government was doing. The controversy heated up and the church took a straw poll on whether he could share these concerns during the services. The vote was a tentative yes. Undeterred he continued ruffling feathers left and right with his statements. He was going insane they said. He was out of control they proclaimed. The elders and the board begin to manipulate and control the all-important Joys and Concerns time. They only allowed a certain amount of time to speak and only a certain number of joys and concerns could be made; the leader of the service would choose who could speak. So he began to use the announcement times to talk about local protest opportunities. The Board decided to only allow announcements about the church’s activities and even these announcements had to be pre-approved. He demanded they vote to see if his pronouncements could be allowed. The Board, having lost two straw votes, were not in a mood for that. He went with the Board chair and another Board representative to an outside mediation center to come to some resolution. The resolution went his way but the Board refused to act on it. The Board talked about voting him out as a member.
After all they assured everyone he was on the verge of some great violent act.
When his wife came in with a bruise they whispered that he, after twenty years of marriage, had decided to start beating her. He never lifted a finger to anyone. He once cussed at the Board chair for lying; this was his greatest offense. When the Board would not follow the agreed-on mediation terms, he created a stir by interrupting a church retreat to present copies of the agreement to everyone. Infuriated, some of the church board members bodily threatened him. He finished handing out the agreement and asked for a vote on his proclamations. For his efforts the Board would vote him out of the church using a new disruptive behavior policy they had developed. When asked if there would be some way for him to regain his membership, they said no. He went away quietly; he always respected the votes of the people. He was only asking them to allow the people to vote for the new policies and he would honor that vote. Yet he came to see that was never going to be allowed to happen. So he begrudgingly accepted the Board banishment.
During this time his wife had a car wreck that caused her to lose her hearing. Her eccentricities became more accentuated. Now if startled she would scream at the top of her voice in panic. She would repeat things that had just been said. It took patience to deal with her. He was wounded and lost any trust of anyone or any organization. They started attending the new Unitarian Universalist Church started by disaffected members of the old church and their friends. They were always present. Every Sunday she would be outside collecting trash before the service and he would be inside preparing his tootsie rolls, no-brand cookies, ice and awful unsweetened tea. During the right season they would bring blueberries galore from their blueberry bushes for all to take home. He would take time to edify the very small congregation on his latest and greatest conspiracy theory. Eyes would roll but he could be calmed down if he felt it was the will of the congregation. She volunteered to lead the services. But she was no longer able to hear where they were in the service and would continue on often not in sync with the rest of the members. But she felt she they had the best services when she led. She would occasionally shout to the minister, “I cannot hear what is going on.” But there would be moments when Victor and she would shine with affection for each other. She would blush at something sweet he said and they would enjoy sitting in the service holding hands. They enjoyed each other’s company and despite all their strangeness they had each found a partner with whom they were happy.
Some of the church members participated in a protest against the Iraq War. As usual they were there. It was a simple weekly protest on a public space not obstructing anyone or traffic. Nevertheless, police officers told them they must move. When asked why they mumbled something about not being allowed there. Everyone intimidated were about to move freely giving up their First Amendment rights. Victor said, “I am not leaving; we are within our rights” and held out his hands to be cuffed. “You will have to take me in,” he declared. “But realize I am a war veteran who has fought for the right to stand here.” He was insistent that he be arrested. The officers, who were relying on intimidation and not law to stop the protest, quickly backed down. Victor was never easily swayed by authority.
Victor was always making investments, trying to make his next big sum of money to give away. It was a pipe dream and a strange contradiction because he would say he did not trust Wall Street. But it was much like his joining the Navy; he saw no other way. He would join the Occupy Savannah Movement and at the same time ask if you wanted to invest in some company on Wall Street. He made a proposal to the city to make companies pay their fair share for the water they used. He explained how the citizens were subsidizing the manufacturers’ water bill. He made sure everybody around him knew about his proposal. He became an annoyance to any politician within earshot as he told them of his idea. After a decade someone in the city agreed and it came into being.
Eventually old age and their quirkiness caught up with them. She had a stroke, followed by senility, and had to go to a nursing home. Victor visited her every day and tried to nurse her back to health enough to come back home. It never happened. Victor, who was a member and promoter of the Hemlock Society, was found dead in his home. Their disappearance from life left a normalcy in the city that made it feel diminished somehow. Their simple living and granola-style life was a little ahead of the curve. In many ways time has shown that Victor was right about the War being justified with lies, and the National Security Agency tapping our lines, and Wall Street becoming too big. In lieu of all this maybe churches and boats should have been rocked. And maybe the two of them were not that crazy after all.
I Am Gorgeous
He was beautiful. His face had graced many an ad and magazine. He was a model. Even now as he sat in front of me sick and dying he held himself with erect posture and commanding presence. His outfit was carefully chosen to convey confidence with a little wow factor. His male friend seemed unable to take his eyes off him. Because he had lost so much weight and been through various treatments including radiation which left him bald but had temporarily put the purple splotches at bay; he was broke and had nowhere to live. He was in need of a place to convalesce and get his financial house in order. He looked forty, a good forty, but he was in his mid-twenties. So we took him in at our group home for Persons Living With AIDS.
He was seldom at home. He did the things to prepare himself to move into his own place. He had many visitors and many social outings. He was broke and not always feeling well but he did not miss a moment to live. Slowly his health got better and you began to see the model in him even more. He was nice to his housemates and meticulous in cleanliness, which pleased me but annoyed his housemates. His dress was always perfect and fashionable. His room was orderly but it was not stale. He had colorful fabric swooping from the walls, a modern chair copied straight from the Guggenheim Museum, and not posters, but paintings from real artists, hanging on the walls. I often teased the other residents why couldn’t they make their rooms as pleasant as his. Some tried but lacked Dennis’ panache.
We came from two different worlds but he took time to befriend me. He found everybody interesting. He was not a prima donna as I would have expected but someone who loved the aesthetic. Everything with the right amount of effort could be made beautiful, even awkward friendships.
His life was looking good. His hair had returned. His health was better. He was looking his age again. He even had a shoot by a photographer friend. I envisioned him leaving us soon and reclaiming his old life.
One day he knocked on the door and came in. He shut the door behind him, something he did not normally do. His head was wrapped in a bandanna. He sat down across from me. A tear rolled down his eyes. “It’s back: the Kaposi’s sarcoma (the cause of the purple splotches). The doctor said I may need radiation treatment again.” I could see he was upset. I muttered words meant to console but knew that really was not possible at this moment. He continued, “You know it has never been the dying that has bothered me.” He stopped, looked a little chagrinned and went on. “It is the damn splotches and the loss of the hair. I do not want to look old before my time. I do not want to die ugly. I want to die beautiful.” We talked for an hour. He was right; he should die beautiful. Death should not be a painful and cruel process taking away your dignity. But in the end death ruled and we usually had to accept its terms.
He was to go for his chemo treatment. He was not happy about this. I was concerned for him but also for the house. He had brought a sense of purpose and beauty to the house; if he became angry and disconsolate that would be within his rights, but the house would lose some of the brightness and feelings of hope and promise he had brought. It was with these fears some residents and I waited for him in the courtyard to offer our moral support before he went for treatment.
He was running late, something he never did. I thought he must be having trouble mustering the energy to go. Oftentimes I had to nudge people with words to take their medicines, go to their appointments, or even participate in life. I had never had to do this with Dennis and I was not looking forward to having to do this now.
Suddenly, the courtyard door opened and out pranced Dennis. He was dressed in full safari regalia. Safari hat, khaki shorts and button shirt, with hiking boots and a butterfly net. He was smiling and looked at us all and proclaimed, “I am off on yet another great adventure and the search for places yet not seen and don’t I look fabulous?” He did not wait for an answer that was obvious, on cue he turned around, got in the waiting car and left for the doctor.
The treatments were draining but he came out the other side whole. He left our house soon after the treatments. He moved into his own apartment, where he stayed until he died. I attended his funeral; it was beautiful. You knew he chose the speakers and told them exactly what to say as they read from note cards with what looked like his handwriting. The flowers were beautiful. There were various model photographs of himself around. The casket was closed. The music was otherworldly. I laughed to myself as I sat there in my mediocre suit and realized somehow he had done it. He had look death in the eye and demanded he die beautiful.