Saturday, November 8, 2014

A Cost of War

   The very residential corner of Monongahela and Schoyer streets in Swissvale is basically a thru way for people trying to get to work. It's no wider than any other local intersection but it's cursed by being the quickest way to get onto 376 and then downtown or out to the eastern burbs and beyond, the Turnpike.
  So everybody uses it. Pity the poor sods who live on it.
   I was pulling around this corner when an ambulance passed going the opposite way, into Swissvale or Swisshelm Park. A glimpse of two twenty something guys in reflective gear blipping their lights and siren.
  And I thought, it's possible, anywhere among the thousand some homes and apartments behind me in this old working class, old too white neighborhood, there's a decent chance somebody's watching the last moments of their life tick by. Somebody's dying.
  As I'm driving on a pointless errand, glancing up at steps and storefronts I haven't let register for 47 years, passing facades I've insisted over the decades will be unimportant to me, clotted with exhaust, and worn down by endless traffic, somebody's staring at the last thing they'll ever see: the side of a bed stand their parents gave them, the underside of a lamp they thought to but never replaced, the sliver of a windowed view into a backyard anyone could have and not appreciate.
   The immensity crossed from my banality to their melodrama. The sad drip of a day? A block or two away Angels sing or Devils howl and a shock wave's about to pass through a family. 
   Boggles the mind. A seismic shift thru 20 people's souls. The karmic fabric of a neigborhood wrinkled for years. 
  And I drive by thinking about nothing; knicks on the windshield, the bricks below the potholes or how miserable Bonnie Rait's rhythm section is. 
   Death doesn't go off like a bomb. Bombs may kill people - car crashes, gunfire- sudden impact and dramas create death but the loss of someone is like a suction, a silent removal, a leaf pulled under the surface of a river, an insect plucked from a fissure of sand.  
  There's a Czech word I saw written on some gravestones in Prague- a conjugation of the verb zanik- which doesn't mean "died", it means -loosely- extinguished, snuffed out and the Czechs use it on the stones of the murdered, holcaust victims especially. "Died" normally is something like zemryl or umerl. (I spent 3 months in Prague but speak no czech so forgive the approximations).
   I asked someone to say it for me, this zanulych type word, and it fit, the sound. The last syllable like a drop of blood, or a slavic version of the "pfft" we make when we draw a finger across our necks. The silent piff which accompanies someone breathing their last, leaving us to transform the non-event into our own catharsis- to tear our clothes, strike something, sing, pray, scream - basic human instincts-  reaching for some kind of form to wrap around the spongy madness left after a death in the family.
  I drive my car through a neighborhood I grew up next to and all this is happening again. To someone else. As it always does. Till you're the someone else.
  Think of the casual trauma all these someones carry thru their daily lives. Even if a death is expected. A person's of a certain age or contracted a known disease, it's accepted, this is the way it goes. You lose people.
  And then it happens and the threads in your psyche fray and your behavior changes and your friends suffer, if not your lovers and your family, tearing and taking a toll wherever you go. Of course there's the covalent decency, the new empathy you have learned as well, but I can't help but think the damage is worse than the good when you feel you've had something torn from you. Or when you may be responsible for the tearing.
  You go out every day into the daily world and you potentially bring discord. You fray the fabric.
  And I thought if that's what I bring….what the Hell do people bring who've seen vast terrors and murder on a military scale? What do they bring with them if they did those things? Felt responsible for them? What aura trails in their daily wake?
  I don't mention this in terms of blame, well not for individual soldiers, nor do I say this as some sort of practical warning- I simply feel that I now have the slightest grasp on, the tiniest understanding of why  people completely forswear violence as a tactic to achieve justice.
  I think of reading Tolstoy and his 1400 page mantra against War, his simple insistence that murder rends the fabric of creation, allowing the demons of our nature to emerge.
  If someone who feels cheated by the death of his brother trails a dark spirit or two through his day what possibly happens to daily life in Sarajevo, or Gaza, or Baghdad when hundreds and thousands and then millions of people collide who at one extreme or another are suffering some kind of traumatic shock? Think of the waves of paranoia coming off these people. Ever amplifying. Yes some of them will cancel each other out but by the simple laws of propagation, some of those waves are going to double and triple. Rogue waves of terror. A perfect storm of fear.
    What cruelty could be unleashed? What madness?
    What could possibly be worth that reality?
    What about the US?
     As we acculturate violence further into our culture how much have we changed? As the very air around us is more and more colored by the off gassing of the worser parts of our selves what do we become?
   It just strikes me now. I used to mock the sayings of Ghandi and MLK - what was Malcolm X's riposte, "If I respond to someone trying to do me and my family harm I don't call it violence I call it common sense." I still agree with that- but I can see how the price of violence, of murder, or assault is written down in the hearts of those who pull the trigger. They pay, if they're sane. And so do we.
  This again is in no way me saying "Oh all those violent people in our midst! We're not safe!"
  This is me saying governments that send men and women to die and kill for any reason below the Holy or the necessary, reap the whirlwind. Or we do. It comes back, with its own vengeance and again the people pay the price.

4 comments:

  1. I post this really in my notes on facebook but for some reason, all of my notes are gone. So, I hijacked this from a different site but what truly matters are the words. This would make a beautiful song. I'm a lyrics kind of gal, after all. BTW, I found your blog via a Google search on you. Chiller channel shows Ghost Whisperer often and I've admittedly developed a bit of a crush on you. *blush*. So here I be lol ;). This is a first for me, being a celebrity "stalker" muahaahhaa. Joking, joking...well, it is a first, looking up detailed info on a celebrity but I'm joking about the stalker bit. OK, I'm starting to sound creepy. I do truly enjoy your writing style, though. I'd read your blog regardless of your name. I, too, enjoy writing.


    Listed as MIA while piloting a helicopter on a mission in Cambodia on 24 March 1970.

    His remains were recovered and interned at
    Arlington National Cemetery on 16 August 2001.

    Michael Davis O'Donnell is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Panel 12W Line 040.

    If you are able,
    save them a place
    inside of you
    and save one backward glance
    when you are leaving
    for the places they can
    no longer go.
    Be not ashamed to say
    you loved them,
    though you may
    or may not have always.
    Take what they have left
    and what they have taught you
    with their dying
    and keep it with your own.
    And in that time
    when men decide and feel safe
    to call the war insane,
    take one moment to embrace
    those gentle heroes
    you left behind.

    Major Michael Davis O'Donnell
    1 January 1970
    Dak To, Vietnam

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