11/11/11

Kage Baker was the proud daughter of a veteran. She was the cousin, niece and aunt of several, too; the sort of American family where military service is a part of the normal part of life, and not a subject of unusual scrutiny.

There are myriads of families like that – lots of their sons ( and now daughters, too) go into military service because … well, that’s one of the things real people do. You pay your taxes, you go in for jury duty, you suit up and spend your time in the service of your country when you can and must. It’s not an attitude that calls for posturing or news conferences; it’s the bred-in-the-bone patriotism that makes every adult citizen as responsible for our country’s safety as they can manage to be.

Girls were not yet especially welcome in the Armed Forces when we were young, and no one would have taken Kage anyway: her eyes, her nerves, her dreamy unawareness of authority …  Me, I applied to the Air Force (I wanted to go to space, ha ha) but one look at my eyesight and they stifled a laugh and said No. Besides, it was just before girls got to fly (I’m older than you are, Becky!), and they had no use for me other than for the receptionist work I ended up in on Civilian Street. But I tried.

The men who go to war from these families don’t talk much about it afterwards. One of the things I have noticed, from my relatives and playmates and lovers, is that men who saw real action are often quiet about it. And now that women are doing it, too, much the same attitude prevails. Those who dream  hungrily of battle are seldom those who ever had to face it; the war stories I have heard from the veterans in my life have mostly been brief, thoughtful, in the middle of the night conversations. Often, they’ve been nightmare soliloquies from the sleeping.

There’s a hill somewhere on the border of China I have heard taken a thousand times; a thousand times, too, the sergeant and medic both buy it before anyone makes it to safety. There are mortar barrages against hot cloudy night skies in Vietnam I’ve heard narrated in three languages. Neither of those story-tellers talked about them, though, when they were awake.

The agonized poetry that does come out of those times is memorized by school children, who don’t get the goosebumps from them until years later – but the point is made, the blood remembers, and for the rest of your life you weep at the poppies of Flanders Field. And it’s the silence of the actual participants that demand we remember this, that requires us to recall and mourn and honour all those men who have been silent since their own times under fire and hell ended.

That’s pretty much what today is for, I think. Kage thought so, too. She wore a poppy, always. It used to be easy to find them; lean old men in dress blue and white handed them out at bus stops, or on the porch of the church after Mass. It’s gotten harder to find them these days – the one on my desk is a decade old – but they’re there if you look. Go to an American Legion Hall, track down the Veterans of Foreign Wars, or go walk among the snow-drop lines of headstones in the Veterans’ Cemetery out on Sepulveda: someone will hand you one.

If you can’t find one, make one. Kage and I did, more than once. Some crepe paper, some florists’ wire, some red, white and blue tape – if you ever made crafts flowers in school, you can make a veteran’s poppy.

War is not good, soldiers don’t want to die, and most hope that we if we take up their quarrel with the foe, we’ll have the sense to end it. But in the meantime, it behooves us to remember those who suffered and died for us, the living.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you.