Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Plastic Veteran (point of view, fictional essay)
Uncle Sam said I had fulfilled my duty and could finally come home from the Middle East. I had read my wife’s letters religiously like the Bible and the pictures of my child, who was a baby when I left, became the images upon which I built my fantasies of home. It was somewhat anticlimactic to come off the plane to no cheering. I walked through the airport, got my bag and exited through the glass doors out to the curb. I remember the old days when you said your goodbyes and hellos at the gate, the actual place of departure. I realize there is a vague connection between the war I had been asked to fight in and this new rule. But, it was just a duck and cover routine like in the 1950s when we feared bombing, just a formality. Because… weren’t the terrorists ticketed passengers?
Anyhow on the curb I was hugged and mobbed and flashed at by cameras. Like an out of body experience I saw myself embrace my wife and start to sob into her shoulder but, I don’t know what I felt exactly.
The car neared our house and I saw the lawn fluttering with at least fifty American flags. My wife told me the Boy Scouts had come and staked those in that morning. There was a fat yellow ribbon tied around our spindly tree and a Welcome Back banner over the door. I guessed that meant me. Apparently my wife had planned an open house for the neighborhood to welcome me home. My family, friends and vague acquaintances came and went, smiling and congratulating me. Just glad to be home I think, I mechanically smiled and nodded, wanting to be alone with my wife and the darling little stranger who attached herself to my leg. She squeezed tight and kept repeating “Daddy” over and over again.
Finally everyone was gone. I gave a big sigh and turned to my wife with a grin and scooped up my daughter when the doorbell rang. So my wife opened the door to a family I knew I had never seen before.
“Sorry we are late- we won’t stay. We just heard about you and wanted to say welcome back. We moved here while you were gone.” The man with the goatee smiled enthusiastically and his wife did too.
Two little boys stood uncertainly between them and glanced up. The older one who was 6 or 7 was wearing camouflage pants and a plastic dog tag. He held out a piece of paper to me and a big chocolate bar.
“Thank you.” I said for the millionth time that day.
“Thanks to you for going out there for all of us” the wife said.
“Too bad he isn’t in uniform” my wife said to the boy.
“Oh- he would have liked that- as you can probably tell” the dad said.
When they had gone I looked at the paper. Scrawled in crayon it said “You’re my hero.” And there was the drawing of a soldier in uniform saluting the American flag. On the bottom it said “Freedom”. Also there was a small plastic army man taped to one side who had an impressive and unidentifiable piece of artillery resting on his shoulder. Hero. Me?
My uniform hung in the closet, clean and unwrinkled. It was hard to imagine what it had looked like days earlier. The folks at home would never see it with rings of sweat and dirt and blood on it. This war is complicated. It isn’t clear cut like the true fight for freedom that the American Revolution was. In that war everyone knew the cause. The colonies wanted freedom from the King and the right to govern themselves. Even the opposition knew that was what the fight was about. I wish it was that easy now because it would be more satisfying to serve and sacrifice if I knew all the reasons why, wouldn't it? Maybe there were no real reasons...what if I was a toy in some game?
Being home, not a lot has changed. America seems the same- so far removed from her all important struggle across the sea. I guess I am back to normal too....can't be sure if it ever even happened sometimes. Just about the only place that isn’t normal is the airport which still makes no sense to me.