Who out there might I have saved and who am I to say that if I had gone and fought along they'd be happier today? Which among them would have marched before adoring mortars and towards their final chance to Meddle with the Honor of their chore? Who out there might I have saved and what would that have done but reinforce the enemy on the ever-growing front? Which among them would have marched until their soles knew every grain of every dune and cratered ruin that compelled the inward aim? Who out there might I have saved and who am I to say that the lives I would have handed out were better than the graves?
How close were you dad (here he peers
down plastic sights of a painted gun)
to the bad guys when you shot at them?
I had to say (I hoped) in a way
that would not forever break his aim,
I had to say (as hidden as the thing had stayed!)
that I never got that close.
But I was available,
I promised my apology,
had someone simply asked me to.
And that much was surely true
but that much was not enough
to burn me into some hell where
the blood of better men dried
and caked and made crispy
little cards of the sand.
That much was not enough –
as apologies never are.
Were you good at shooting dad and
should I close one eye when I aim?
You should aim I said
(he couldn’t know how blindly)
with every eye you can open.
I walk, post-war, with ignoble carriage and this sheepish hunch as if rucked-under by flak-heavy packs of hot laughing sands that don’t have to worry about missing any of the coming fights and drift to me like a sarcastic care package sent the wrong way by the desert to say what comfort is home and here have these grit-bloody cookies and this hilarious picture of me with three of your buddies from when you were still in. Remember them? Guess which one is still alive. But everything’s fine and even when I really try I sleep alright and the nightmares don’t come. But the packages do with fresh loads of jokes from a desert that mocks me like people telling stories about a party that I missed.
We were a sentence written at night in the woods on some old road dug out for I can’t guess what and knee-deep with the damnedest sand. But there was only the walking never the starting. A tiny line just a few words long marching unprefaced and already three chapters deep in a forest that had a beginning somewhere but like all beginnings it came first so we forgot it as soon as we… Sometimes we walked for days but our martial moments were phraselong and fragmentary and I swear I can only ever remember a minute or sometimes even just the preparatory inhale – a memory with half a mind and here the breath catches on a movement through the falling action of a black February night when in an odd blank space erased from the forest’s page there was a slickblack scribble that was a snake. One of the words in my sentence raised a blade and I drew a slight hyphen but it was predicated on happy endings and nobody writes those anymore so he cut the head from the snake like pulling the dot out from under the exclamation point and it writhed and squirmed and semi-colon’d and parenthese’d and ran on and on and on and bled inkblack into the moonwhite sand and all I could say was that it wasn’t even poisonous but that doesn’t matter much because either am I but I know from the way we write stories now that mine’ll likely end in knives too because when all you are is words somewhere three chapters deep there’s no way for you to remember the beginning.
People like to say that you can conquer your fears, if you can just manage to face them. I disagree. The more you face your fear, the more you details you collect about what there is to be afraid of. The more certain you become. I had thirty chances – thirty-five, I always forget about jump school – to get over my fear of heights. All I got over was my interest in jumping out of airplanes. I’d do it again if I had to. If I had to.
The trained eye watches that video and sees a few fellas who are going to have a hell of a time getting their affairs in order before the ground comes up to meet them.
There’s no point in trying to avoid the ground, it’s everywhere. Still, your brain tells your body to find a way around it. Your brain screams at you to not let that meeting happen. You are told to look for the treetops and estimate your distance to the ground, but it can’t rightly be done. Like a drunk, you have no idea, really, when you’re going to hit bottom. Hopping off a chair or a platform 5 or 6 feet off the ground gives you the impression that you understand your position relative to it, but it’s not really true. It’s really just something you don’t care about, because you know you’re safe. You aren’t falling long enough to care about how fast it’s happening. From under a parachute, the closer you get to the ground the more you realize that you have no idea – no way of knowing – just how fast you are falling. They tell you it’s twenty-eight feet per second, and that’s a neat thing to say, but screaming it at the ground, in the dark, isn’t going to make things any easier. Besides, you’re only supposed to make noise out there if you are hurt.
You’ve been stuffed in this tiny airplane for the last hour, like tobacco in a cigarette, sweating. Sixty pounds on your lap, forty on your back. Your legs are woven into the legs of the man across from you, because the bird just wasn’t built for this. When it shakes, the dust of all the world’s time zones fall from the exposed wires and tubes. It has about two decades worth of flight hours, and has been doing this since Vietnam. The skin’s so thin that you think you can see right through it, all the way to home and your mom and that day when you thought you needed this, somehow. Even if she didn’t love you then, she loves you in this memory, because this memory wants you to go back. The old plane creaks and settles when it’s sitting still, and then it really lurches and lifts you into the sky.
The noise. Jesus, the noise. A little red light and the commands you echo not because you can hear the jumpmaster shout them, but because you know where and when they belong, even if you haven’t figured that out for yourself yet. Even if figuring out where and when you belong is really why you’re here. The noise, the light, the commands. And the games. You deflect and you distract. Your mind is screaming at you to not do this. To stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are tough. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are crazy. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself that you are screwed. This time your mind doesn’t rebuke.
The light goes from red to green, and finally your instincts are jolted by all your years and you know what to do when lights turn green. Your mind tries one more time: STOP.
There’s a dozen ways to screw this up, and your only comfort comes from knowing that almost none of them will kill you. That’s left to God, so you’d better hope He was there for pre-jump. It’s so dark and loud and your feet are shuffling and really you’re just doing what the other people are doing and all you know for sure is that if you buck this trend you will ruin the night for everyone behind you.
Then it’s silent but for the numbers in your head. Counting because they told you it was important, that if you made it to five there was something going wrong and you had better pull that reserve. But you’re not really doing the counting. They’re just shapes in your mind, a slide show with your eyelids stapled open. Just terror and symbols occupying the same ether, no causality. Somehow you always knew that if you made it to five you would probably make it all the way to nine or eleven or however many it would take before nothing else will take.
Somewhere in there came the yank. When the straps pull tight it is the only burning in the groin you will ever love. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Counting – six, seven…you can stop that now. The chute is open, the night is dead. You might or might not hear the quad props of a fifty year-old airplane trailing off somewhere. Maybe the moon is out and the varied terrain below you is somewhat visible. Varied. It’s mostly flat, and it’s all hard as trigonometry. Maybe the moon is gone and everything is black, except that matronly silk vestment above you, which is the darkest green Creation has ever seen. A perfect circle cut into the nothing overhead. You have a dark halo.
But twenty-eight feet per second isn’t interested in what’s above you.