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Red Line

The Recruit

The Recruit

Photo by Joel Messner

I asked myself if this is really the fraternity Rick wants to join. I should be taking my son to look at college campuses, not visiting veterans' convalescent homes. This trip was my last chance for Rick to see for himself what the consequences could be of his plan before it was too late. I had tried everything else to change his mind, short of ranting. I wanted him to be objective and rational just like the arguments my students learn to develop on their term papers: establish the hypothesis, bring in diverse points of view, establish the evidence as proof of the main point, and make a conclusion. My conclusion, of course.

"Dad, I'll go with you, but what's the point? I've already made up my mind. I'm going in on the buddy system with Sean and Devin. I'm not backing out now. If you think some old guys in a home can talk me out of my decision, forget it. I know the risks, but I'm young."

"I wish you did know the risks. There are a lot of hazards out there. Even before you get into actual combat. Hell, you don't even always buckle your seat belt in the car!"

"Dad! I know, I've heard it: 'take care of the little things and the big things take care of themselves'".

The steep, curving drive up the hill to the veterans care facility passed through groves of birch and alder trees, interspersed with firs and pines. It had recently rained and the road was still slick. The shifting clouds of the spring sky opened up to clearings through which we had vistas of small meadows surrounding rows and rows of small, white crosses; there was a larger columbarium for the ashes of the departed veterans.

You could see herds of deer and flocks of birds in the spaces between the trees and the meadows. The air was fresh after the rain and the birds were in full voice proclaiming the defeat of winter's dreariness. The scene reminded me of the saying I'd learned as a young boy at the Ash Wednesday rituals, "In media vitae, morte sumus. Never forget, in the middle of life, we are in death."

The well-kept, whitewashed buildings of the veterans' home provided large covered porches with wheelchair ramps accessible from the street below. It wasn't at all as I had expected it-had even wished for it to be. It was certainly a contrast to the homes I had visited when my mother and Jane's father had broken their hips and couldn't walk any more or take care of themselves at home. There was no fancy landscaping and pastel-colored walls and carpeted dining areas with indirect lighting and room servers. I could detect only the faintest suggestion of disinfectant; the walls had recently been painted and though it was institutional, the pale green color had an almost modern effect, and not the drab cheerlessness I had expected and secretly hoped for. It was spare and functional. Just like the military.

Though he quietly took in the scene, I could tell that Rick was moved by what he saw. Standing in the hallway in his high school letterman's jacket with the awards from three sports for four years, he offered a fresh contrast to the men sitting or walking around in various states of mental and physical disrepair. That letterman's jacket, with its insignias should have signaled me that he wanted the kind of feeling a uniform could provide. I had come full circle to reject uniforms right after I gave mine up. Uniformity in clothing meant a singular form of thinking. Just like all the low rider pants andbaseball cap uniforms the young men took on from the rap singers and other celebrities.

"Attention A wing personnel. Proceed to dayroom 3 for mail call and medications. This message will be repeated."

The voice and the squawking public address system took me back to my own experience of mail calls. From the relative slow pace and quiet we experienced earlier in the facility, Rick and I found ourselves suddenly in a logjam of wheelchairs, walkers and men on crutches. All heading for the day room. What I remembered of the uniform of the day was no longer very uniform. Several men, mostly the older ones, combined hospital pajama bottom whites with checkered shirts and baseball caps. Among the younger ones, there was a lot of facial hair and they wore their hair longer than the traditional GI haircut. Most ignored us; a few smiled through vacant eyes. They had gotten used to people coming in recent weeks with news cameras and interview pads. The country was about to launch another military action abroad and the press liked to use the veterans hospitals and homes as backdrops to the announcements by various administration officials and military spokespeople.

"Dad, look at those guys," he whispered. "Some of them aren't much older than I am. How long have those guys been here?"

The walls in the common areas were decorated with head shots of the current administration. They competed for space with plaques and framed declarations of a grateful nation to the sacrifices of its sons. You could chronicle the last 50 years of US military involvement in this facility. Citations mentioned World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the first Gulf war, Panama, and any number of smaller brushfires around the world the US was called on to fight and extinguish. These men reminded me of surplus airplanes stored in the dry air of the desert. But unlike the airplanes, these warehoused men's prospects would never improve with an uptick in the economy.

I knew my son too well, and I was proud of his determination. But I was also damned afraid for him. When I got back from Vietnam to the rallies and demonstrations, I was convinced that the next time it should be the children of those who didn't go the last time who should go. Not my kid. Fair is fair.

It was a hard sell to get Rick to make this drive out of the city on one of his last free weekends. "When you asked me for my opinion, didn't I try to be objective? This is just another point of view." I knew I could be preachy, but that's my trade. As a community college history instructor, I could never turn it off. Always making the rational argument.

When Rick came home from the career assembly with more than the usual excitement about a vocation, I had perked up. When I found out what it was about, some of my old feelings about the military started percolating again. I had made it a point never to discuss my own war experiences with him. Except in general terms. His description of the Army recruiter's high tech power point and slide demonstration were almost rhapsodic. Hadn't I raised him to think clearly on his own? Hadn't his pacifist Mennonite grandparents made their point of no war clear to him? They had lost that battle with me, and my dad and I hadn't spoken for years. Maybe Rick had been won over by the recruiter's razzle dazzle. He and his staff parachuted onto the football field from a small plane. A rifle platoon fire team had rappelled from a helicopter. There had been smoke grenades and an assault demonstration. It was one of his video games. Rick had even invited the recruiter, all decked out with his medal-laden uniform, to visit us at home.

"Dad, it's not just about adventure. It's my duty to serve the country. People everywhere should have freedom like we do. And yeah, sometimes you got to pull a few bad weeds so the plants can grow."

"Rick, I believed that once. A lot of guys did. Can't you learn from my experience?"

"I don't know your experience. You always refused to talk about it. It's my turn now, dammit. Let me make a decision."

The receptionist pointed Rick and me down a long hall wide enough to accommodate the two-way traffic of wheelchairs and walkers. There was even a double yellow line down the middle.

"If Sergeant Bigelow's not in his room, he'll be in the common area."

"Thanks, 115 B is the room number, if I'm not mistaken."

"He should be taking his medications now."

Josiah had gained weight around the midsection. The new lightweight metal prosthetics allowed him to walk with only a slight limp and a cane. He had more than a little gray hair. The pain lines in his face were new to me. Booze, boredom and cigarettes had taken their toll on his once smooth, glistening ebony face. He still held his commanding six foot four frame stately, if not just a bit stooped now. He could have stood inspection in his civilian tan slacks and starched white shirt. Behind him, as he moved toward us, I glimpsed a neatly organized room. Rick took to him immediately.

"I've heard a lot about you, sir."

"No need to sir me, son. I used to work for a living. Can I get you gentlemen something?

Sergeant First Class Josiah Bigelow had been a staff sergeant back when we served together in Vietnam. I called Josiah to recruit him to provide another perspective to that of the Army recruiters."No need to sir me, son. I used to work for a living. Can I get you gentlemen something?

"Listen, Lieutenant Davis, you can't talk your kind of sense into these kids. They been sittin' in classrooms all their natural born lives. They got so much pent up energy to spend. And you want them to sit in college for another four or five years, drinkin' the rest of their brain cells away and gettin' it on with some sweet thing? All they know is what they see in those adventure movies. You know, the badass hero, huge muscles' ripplin', who blows into town and shoots up every known bad guy, never even gets a scratch, and then climbs over the bodies and leaves a smiling, happy town. Thinkin' and logic's got nothing to do with it."

"It's just Bob now, Josiah, and you're right."

I learned of Josiah's wounds after he rotated back to the states. At first, I visited him regularly at the military hospital where they were putting him back together just like he used to reassemble his M-14. I had left for my stateside rotation and had turned the platoon over to my replacement, a green young lieutenant. The sergeant himself had only a few more weeks in the Viet Cong interdiction zone on the Cambodian border when he stepped on a camouflaged bouncing Betty anti-personnel mine and lost his leg. Josiah's wife, Sheila, had waited for him to return before she died of cancer. He had been brought to this facility up on the crown of the hill after several years of operations and physical therapy. Baptist-raised Josiah had acquired a new dependency on painkillers, pills and bourbon. For his physical wounds. And for the ones in his head. His trip to this facility was only supposed to be for the transition. But Josiah Bigelow's new problems kept him here indefinitely.

On the phone, Josiah had been happy to hear from me as his former platoon leader and friend. He said he looked forward to a visit.

"So you want to recruit me to talk your boy out of doin' what you and I done. Well, I'll talk to him, LT. For you. But neither you nor I can deny who you were. And still are deep down. All your boy wants is to be like his dad."

Even though we were both civilians now, Josiah never dropped the title or the respect that went with it. Thirty years of habits didn't die easily. We had seen a lot together and there was earned respect both ways.

I agonized about using Josiah's misfortune to "shock and awe" Rick into giving up his plan to join. I couldn't sleep the night after he told me of his plan to join the Army out of high school and defer college. We had argued. But he was eighteen and no longer a minor. The only other time I had felt this strongly about the military was when I rejected my Mennonite parents' pacifism and joined up myself. I wanted acceptance; I wanted to belong. And now I belong to a generation that carries pictures of the past in their heads like some people carry baby pictures in their wallets. I hoped the image of Josiah's physical and psychic wounds would offset that recruiter's promises of glory. Maybe Rick would see my perspective now.

Josiah's medical treatment, though basic and competent, had been pretty bleak the first months after his return. Others on his ward had not fared so well. The biggest stink in the military hospitals was just not the unemptied bedpans and the unchanged bandages. When the brass bands were silent and the funding dried up, the vets were often forgotten.

"LT, you know I'll talk to him. But I'll do it alone, one on one. And I'm not just goin' to tell him about the bad times. If he's your boy, he's not stupid. He'll know that if I stuck it out for thirty years, it wasn't all pain and suffering. Like our friendship."

"Fair enough, Sarge."

After we filled our recyclable paper cups with a syrupy fluid suggesting some obscure fruit from an urn in the hallway, Josiah suggested a walk out on the grounds. Per our agreement, I excused myself and went to the men's room. At the sink, waiting for the water to warm up, I tried to focus on the image staring back at me. Just like Josiah, I had put on weight. What hair was left was salt and pepper gray. Worry lines and tense lips.

I sat in the car to read student essays, but I couldn't focus. Had I always been so controlling? This had been Rick's description of me. Sometimes you just can't save people from themselves. When I was young, my discerning friends had told me to run to Canada. My mother promised me money to flee the draft. My father promised to make a case for me as a conscientious objector due to my Mennonite upbringing. But as a student of history, I had been concerned about the rise of Communism and its destruction of democracy around the world. Something had to be worth fighting for. Being a pacifist seemed such a cop out.

I had been in great shape from college sports, and had actually volunteered for the draft. After basic training, it had been easy to get into officer candidate school. Not much later I was on the ground in hostile territory, scared as hell and in charge of a platoon of men. Josiah had saved my ass on more than one occasion. Would he do it now?

The dinging bell sounded when the car door opened and Rick slid into the passenger seat of the older model Ford Taurus.

"You were there longer than I thought."

"It went fine."

"And...?"

"He said he was going to be straight with me. And he was. In the final analysis, shit can happen to anyone, anytime. Crossing a street, or in an earthquake, if it's your time, that's it. He said you don't always know if the cause you're fighting for is worth it. Sometimes it's not. You can't always pick and choose. He said it was all about the people you're with in the fight that counts. Like you and him. He said to say goodbye to you. You can call him if you want."

"That's it? That's all?" I could feel the blood rushing to the scalp under my already thinning hair.

"He also told me about you. I didn't know you had a Bronze Star. You did some awesome things. Why didn't you ever tell me?"

A light drizzle had made the roads slick after a long dry spell. The early spring sun was setting in the southwest, at eye level, dancing through the leaves of the trees; sometimes there was shade, sometimes glare. The road down to the highway had more hairpin turns than I remembered. I had to fight the need to watch the road and also maintain eye contact with my son. Sometimes the road got short shrift. My grip on the steering wheel made my hands shake and the bile of fear and anger welled up in my throat. When our eyes locked, I saw Rick's mother's eyes, my set jaw and his bottom teeth pressing against his upper lip. I also saw the determination that my father must have seen in me.

"Dad, watch out. That deer!"

Somebody must have heard the impact of the car against the tree I turned into to avoid the deer or the horn blasting when my chest hit the wheel. The emergency vehicle's siren played counter to the car's pulsating alarm horn. Red and blue lights blended in and out of my dilated pupils. A light rain danced off the trees and onto light refracting off cracks in the windshield. I was fighting gravity as it pulled my head down onto my chest while my eyes opened and closed. In what seemed slow motion in a movie scene, I turned to see that Rick's body was splayed between the blood-stained light brown dashboard and the seat. There were glass splinters embedded in his face and neck; his seatbelt hung limply next to the doorpost. He had forgotten the little things.

My lips were moving but the sound of my own voice echoed only in my head as I screamed over and over what I had said so many times in a different place in the past. "Sergeant Bigelow, get the men out."

But Josiah Bigelow couldn't save me now.

Published SNReview, Summer, 2008

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