In the Time of the Virus We’re Not Sick, but…

One of the more common themes of life as a human, at least as I look back over things, is not knowing what to do, think, feel, or say. All the more true in this time of the incipient plague. Like earthquakes, winning the lottery, and getting published, I’ve got that undeniable sense that it will most definitely “never happen to me.” (He said in an election year.) And as the man in the song says:

“the agony and the irony, they’re killing me.”

Whatever that digression was about…

I’m being a little cleaner, more sanitary (what a word) than before, but that doesn’t amount to much. I’m more worried than before, but again…

I do wish that we would go back to calling it a plague. I like what Merriam Webster gives me online; this introduction to misery and despair:

plague
noun
\ ˈplāg \
Definition of plague
(Entry 1 of 2)
1a : a disastrous evil or affliction : calamity
b : a destructively numerous influx or multiplication of a noxious animal : infestation a plague of locusts
2a : an epidemic disease causing a high rate of mortality : pestilence
b : a virulent contagious febrile disease that is caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) and that occurs in bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic forms
— called also black death
3a : a cause of irritation : nuisance
b : a sudden unwelcome outbreak a plague of burglaries

2b sounds suitably scientific, and that’s what we’re all after these days. That’s why we don’t call it a plague. We call it a what?

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

We call it an epidemic. Now that’s science-y! Our saviors can do something about that! Scientists: the people who settle disputes in an indisputable manner, who answer questions with unquestionable answers, and are never to be doubted (except when it comes to food and biological sex; then suddenly they’re a bunch of Keystone Khemists who have no business telling us anything). Test tubes, beakers, swabs, and acronyms! An epidemic doesn’t stand a chance.

But then 2b dons its plague doctor mask, and descends upon us with the “black death.”

In which we think of Artifacts and potential Evocations - Onyx Path Forums

Call it the black death instead of an epidemic and things seem pretty hopeless, don’t they? I mean, just add it to definition 1a up there: “Evil.” “Calamity.” We don’t have labs for evil and calamity, much less black death.  We do have art, though:

Church Records Could Identify an Ancient Roman Plague - The Atlantic
Jules-Élie Delaunay’s “Plague in Rome” (1869)

And there’s literature, from Defoe to Camus, and a little work you may have heard of that’s called, in some circles, The Bible ((science has declared a hyperlink to be unnecessary in the case of The Bible (A little joke that I’m now recognizing has substantial depth to be explored, depending on your sleep and electrolyte levels this soon after DST clock changing)).

All of which is to say that I don’t know what I am saying, or what I want to say, or how to thnk or feel about it all. We have a germaphobe in the house already, so there hasn’t been much of an uptick in the previously sensible sanitation habits (though between me and the kids, our germaphobe hardly stands a chance).  And I find myself reading King County Health reports very selectively, for the information that helps me to not be concerned – all the dying people are old, they all came from the same care center, etc. There’s not much of a reason to give it any thought at all, as long as I do it like that.

I barely remember the swine flu or the bird flu, which are much cooler names, BTW, than Coronavirus, but there’s probably something worth examining in a society’s tendencies when naming it’s disasters – do we shoot for sensationalism? Gravitas? Humo(u)r? (our ancestors would certainly have much to say about the humors in the time of a plague).  I do know that we fancy ourselves a very intellectual culture and society here in the US, and “unseriousness” is frowned very seriously upon – he said, yet again, in an election year.

And I have to say, though I’m sure it’s just coming from the macabre child that will not release its hold on my soul, that I envy a society that called its affliction something so dour, dire, and distraught as “The Black Death.” That’s beautiful. Succinct. I don’t think we’d ever do that. I already note how unwilling people are to joke about this outbreak, and resistance to humor is another mark of a society that overvalues intellectualism amidst a dearth of it. Comedians are brilliant, and geniuses tell huge jokes. But mediocrity (and we are mediocre, on average – definitions and all that) – mediocrity poses and postures, and adopts a serious tone, because it adapts poorly to things that stray too far from the line it clings to. Mediocrity hides best when it moves least, and there’s nothing more stagnant than humorlessness.

I had no idea I was going to go there. But here I am, talking about fear and humorlessness in the time of plague, and in an election year, blah blah. Of course it’s somewhat overserious of me to draw that comparison at all, which fact brings swimming back to me what the man said in the song, and what I already laid out above:

“the agony and the irony, they’re killing me.”

Especially the irony.

 

The Dirty Geese

Any Season’ll Do

A few weeks ago, the family and I took a much needed but ill-timed (weather-wise) trip to Camano Island for the weekend. February is no time to head up the Washington coast. That wind. If you live in the PNW, you know that wind. We couldn’t do a lot. But my wife and I did get to take a good walk halfway across a vast bay that went full dry when the tide went out. It was clear from the pieces of driftwood that were still visible when the tide came back in, that we could probably have walked across it wet, too. Aside from that, the weather kept us mostly indoors. It was a nice rental, with a telescope for eagle spotting, and we did alright. Even the kids.

On a local’s advice we made a short drive from there up to La Conner. We were told we might see some snow geese on the drive.  Swans, too, but mostly geese. And we did. One of us pointed out the window to a field next a barn and said “She was right. Geese.” The wife and I shrugged. The kids shrugged. Our sharp black Mercedes shrugged and sped along the Pioneer Highway. And for a few minutes we saw a few more – dozen here, dozen there. “I think that one’s a swan.” But then we turned West onto Fir Island Road.

In the distance we could definitely make out a vague brightening, groundward, inverting the natural order of a Northwest winter, where the light we wait for – we pause for, we die for – is the elusive and short-lived sunbreak. The sky was far too thick to hope for that, but the dark earth of those coastal farms held an entirely unexpected thrill. We drove on and slowed so that my wife could avoid the cars pulled half-off the narrow road while also trying to see what they and their tri-pod mounted cameras were there for. We finally put two German wheels in a bar ditch and looked. Someone must have said “wow,” because it was the only word that could have made any sense.  The road was a new beach, and we had pulled off of it to look at a whole new ocean – this one snow white and downy, the furtive waves of a fallow field covered in snow geese. Thousands upon thousands of them. I believe it’s Carver, maybe Ford (maybe neither) who has a brilliant short story that takes place on a hunt during the height of the snow goose migration in Washington. Richard Ford it is, the story is Communist:

“I put down my gun and on my hands and knees crawled up the earthwork through the wheatgrass and thistle until I could see down to the lake and see the geese. And they were there, like a white bandage laid on the water, wide and long and continuous, a white expanse of snow geese, seventy yards from me, on the bank, but stretching onto the lake, which was large itself – a half mile across, with thick tules in the far side and wild plums farther and the blue mountain behind them”

Our geese were in a muddy field, and with Ford in mind I knew I wanted to ignore the fact that the pure white birds were hiding filthy undersides. This was no time for that. I don’t know if I said anything to my family then about that story – I know I remembered it right away and I hope that I said something. Let them know. Let them in. The world gets too big at a time like that, and a man shouldn’t be alone in it.

We looked for a while. There’s nothing ese to do about it.  I hoped someone would do something else – honk a horn, sneeze, fire a gun – that would make the whole thing lift off. Ford called it a “raft,” but of course his were on the water. I wanted to see if they would all take off at once, or if it might start gradually from one end and curl fantastically off the ground like a giant vegetable peeler scraping off a skin of soap. Or maybe it would be random and messy – disappointing. We didn’t find out.

We moved on to La Conner. Cute, quaint, all that stuff. It has the mildly interesting Rainbow Bridge. We spent a good couple of hours hiding out from the rain in curio shops and galleries. Bought some things we didn’t need, and had a grand finale in a candy store where the proprietors were wonderful with the kids. Walked out of there with way too much chocolate (I’m a sucker for a classic turtle – milk chocolate, caramel, and good, old-fashioned peanuts). The kids ate ice cream in the cold and rain. We went back to the car.

On the return trip the geese were still there, but I think some had left. Or maybe it was just that we’d already had our first time, and it would never look like that to us again. A lot of them were flying, having robbed us of the sight of the take-off that I wanted so badly. One of them, in a display of trite symbolism that could only disappoint, shat a great wad of stewed grasses onto the hood of the Mercedes. This is its own story, I thought, and I wondered if Richard Ford’s characters could drive their Nash Ambassador back out to that lake for a second run, and still pull their triggers:

“I don’t know why I shoot ’em. They’re so beautiful.” He looked at me.
“I don’t know either,” I said.
“Maybe there’s nothing else to do with them.” Glen stared at the goose again and shook his head. “Maybe this is exactly what they’re put on earth for.”
I did not know what to say because I did not know what he could mean by that, though what I felt was embarrassment at the great number of geese there were, and a dulled feeling like a hunger because the shooting had stopped and it was over for me now.

And to think, there was a moment in there when I wondered why we went.

 

 

Unabashed thanks to Gerard at American Digest. For more and better PNW tavelogueing, see his The Olympic Peninsula at the Vernal Equinox

Never Stop Laughing

Christmases!

Seven years ago, this was. The Boy wasn’t even a year old, and the girl was only three. They’re 7 and 10 now. Wow.

We didn’t go anywhere in search of Christmas, necessarily. But we did go driving off to a place where Christmas might be, if it were going to be anywhere.
 

“He looks out the window a lot, Papa.”

“He sure does.”

“Why do you think he does it?”

“Well, do you remember when I told you that his spirit was a miracle?”

“I think so. I think you said it was a miracle because it hasn’t done anything twice.”

“That’s right. Because for a tiny moment, it was the only thing in the world that had not done anything twice. And now there’s a world full of things that he hasn’t seen even once. Turns the world into a kind of miracle for him.”

“That’s why he laughs at it?”

“No, he’s laughing when he looks out at it because he wants to do everything he can with it to make it laugh like he is. He doesn’t know where it comes from or how it starts or anything about it except that he wants it to keep going. That’s how you feel when you are tiny, and new, and haven’t done things twice or seen things once, and it’s the part of it that’s the same for him as it is for us.”

“If it’s the same, Papa, then how come you don’t laugh so much?”

“Jeez, how old are you again?”

“Three and a half.”

“Hm. Well, I guess I don’t laugh so much because after a while you find out that some things don’t laugh back. And after a longer while, after too many things don’t laugh back, you just get tired.”

“Too tired to laugh?”

“Too tired to laugh, baby. But we remember that the world was a miracle for all of us, once. We remember that we saw new things everywhere we looked, and we expected everything to be laughing because we were laughing, even though it has been too long, sometimes, since anything up and laughed with us. That’s what Christmas is, sweetie: Being old and tired and still laughing, for a day, like we did when we were still playing with miracles.”

“But I’m not old.”

“No, you’re not. And you never have to be, because to your brother you are everything he sees when he looks out the window. And laughs.”

When it Works, it Really Works

A bright, tiny poem at the end of some sappy reminiscing. Have a smile on me.

I followed, yesterday, the link to someone who liked my poem. It landed me at a blog called Reowr, a lively and fun place of poetry that I had never visited or heard of before. The author is talented and sincere, and this is what I used to love about the internet.

Eight or more years ago I blogged regularly, almost daily. Through the odd tentacles and tendrils of the world wide web, I made a whole bunch of friends. I never even knew what some of them looked like, how old they were. I only ever met one of them in person, and I don’t think I measured up in real life to what I was in writing, so we never met again. He was (and still is) a big fish out there. At my heyday I was barely a tadpole.

But we all left comments for each other at our blogs, exchanged emails when something called for it, and my family even got a Christmas card from one of them. For me, for a long time, the internet was good.

They’re all gone now. At least gone from me. Their websites are shuttered or stagnant, probably in a lot of cases from the sheer fatigue of keeping up, emotionally, with the too often sinister turns that personal exposure on the internet can take. It’s hard, oddly, to be a public nobody. One of them, a curmudgeonly but generous and compassionate Air Force retiree (and regrettable Red Wings fan) named Buck, died several years ago. I regret not finding out in time to make it to his funeral.

Yesterday I got a little glimmer of that good side of the internet when Cubby, the proprietor and author of the aforementioned Reowr decided she liked my poem, and I, as I always do, decided to go look at her blog. The first poem made me interested in reading a second one, and that’s something. There was a section on her site called “challenges,” and for the most recent one she supplied two lines to a poem and said “finish this.” I was happy to see something that seemed motivated only by joy and creativity, so I, as I almost never do, decided to accept the challenge. So did a whole bunch of other people. Poetry is always fun, but sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes poetry is cotton candy and high fives and a place where, finally, I don’t hesitate for a second to use exclamation points.

The first two lines are the ones she wrote, the rest is mine:

Dreams like water-colored paintings
Wash away when days are raining
But, the puddles!
My, the puddles!
The muddled, colored, splashable puddles!
I bootbrush the pavement
with the dream-streaky puddles!

Dark Halo

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.

The Ugliness of Books

IMG_2543

There’s the #bookstack for the quarter. One book is still missing, an anthology of Ottoman Lyric poetry. I don’t have nearly enough history in me to say anything funny about that, though it seems ripe for ridicule, for some reason. I’d go do some quick research on the Ottomans, find a reason to presume the quality of Ottoman poetry to be somewhere between Tay Bridge and Vogon, but I think I’ll just put my feet up and relax instead (do I still have to point out the #dadjokes?). And of course that doesn’t include Arabic. We don’t even use the textbooks for Arabic, but I lug a dictionary the size of a church pew to that class every day, except the 4 days per quarter that we actually open it. Every single time I look at it in the morning and think “I can leave it at home today,” we end up using it. About 3 people will actually have it with them, and the teacher makes us feel like naughty children who have disappointed her terribly. I love her. She bought chocolates for my kids and gave them to me after our final exam last quarter (don’t tell the kids).

Sometimes I feel (bear with me here), sometimes I feel like I don’t look all that cool, when I’m wearing my cardigan. Like I’m showing my age, as they say.

Anyone whose read David Foster Wallace can probably tell at this point that I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace. I have a terrific tendency towards style creep, and while I am universally incapable of reproducing the wit or profundity of any author worth selling in a nearly Amazonned-out-of-business basement-used-bookstore, I can certainly wrestle with them (wit and profundity) in a passably similar sentence structure and pacing scheme. I can sound just like Vonnegut, given a few chapters of reading him, without worrying you over any questions of my actual talent. The proof, I was recently reminded in an Alexa-driven round of Jeopardy!, is in the pudding.

He’s going on and on, Wallace is, in this part of Infinite Jest where he finally gets to describing the physical abnormalities of one of the characters. Mario. Mario has been talked about enough that the reader knows, and if the reader is honest wants to know how much, Mario is enfeebled. Wallace does not disappoint. He is as relentlessly visual about Mario as he is about everything else, and not a single word of it is flattering or careful in any way. The book was written in what, ’96, so I would have been too stoned  to know what The Culture was doing about honesty at the time, but it strikes me that a modern audience is probably aghast at Wallace’s being so derisively clear about someone born – how would we say it in the classroom – omnilaterally bio-intersectionally disadvantaged. Take this:

“…Mario had not so much club feet as more like block feet: not only flat but perfectly square, good for kicking knob-fumbled doors open with but too short to be conventionally employed as feet: together with the lordosis in his lower spine, they force Mario to move in the sort of lurchy half-stumble of a vaudeville inebriate, body tilted way forward as if into a wind, right on the edge of pitching face-first onto the ground, which as a child he did fairly often, whether given a bit of a shove from behind by his older brother Orin or no.”

It reminds me of parts of Something Happened by Joseph Heller, in which the main character is bluntly despondent about the toll he suffers because of his son, who is a special needs child of some sort (I cannot remember the details, years removed)(Here it is)( Found it):

“It is not true that retarded (brain-damaged, idiot, feeble-minded, emotionally disturbed, autistic) children are the necessary favorites of their parents or that they are always uncommonly beautiful and lovable, for Derek, our youngest child, is not especially good-looking and we do not love him at all. (We would prefer not to think about him. We don’t want to talk about him.)”

This is the truth. This is people exhausted by the gymnastics, with nothing left for the self-immolating obsession with seeing the best, no more blood to spill. He laments the time, the effort, the drain, the stress. And he blames the boy, because it is the boy’s fault.  The modern psyche cries “SELFISH! MONSTER!” but if it’s healthy, the modern psyche takes a moment to be refreshed by the permission to feel just as handicapped, though in this case by duty.

More about Mario:

“…together with the lazy lid-action gave even Mario’s most neutral expression the character of an oddly friendly pirate’s squint.”

His brother, for Pete’s sake, yanks down on his (Mario’s) eyelid “with that smart type of downward snap that can unstick a dicky shade.”

You’re not laughing. I mean, you are laughing, because you’ve pictured it and you’re hearing the cartoonish flapflapflap of the liberated shade, but you’re not doing anything wrong. You’re relaxing your sphincter for a moment, finally. Of course we don’t go around freely cursing every living thing that can’t be reasonably expected to go golfing or row a boat, and when you have a child or a sibling or someone very close to you who has some Serious Problem or another (here someone suitably progressive will tell me that my use of the word ‘problem’ is problematic) you do not curse his existence. You do not target him. Because if one facet of telling the truth is that it can be shit ugly and hurt worse than withdrawal, then another facet is the kind of intentional lying that shores up the holier parts of our nature. The looking at the Marios and the Dereks and saying, unbelievably, “He’s wonderful.” It may be flat-out false in all but the briefest and most accidental flashes, but so is epiphany, and thank God we have books that can say the ugly stuff out loud for us.

Breakfast

“You and mom,” he said.

“Careful now, boy.”

“You and mom,” he said, “are at that age when”

“Eggshells, boy. Have I told you about eggshells?”

“You and mom are at that age when,” here he goes. I can’t believe he’s doing this “at that age when you start shrinking.”

“Get out.”

I used to write these little things down all the time, and am pretty crushed at this point that I’ve spent the last 4 years or so neglecting to record the interactions that I have with the kids. They made some of the best essays I’ve written. My daughter is 10 now, and too neat, so she doesn’t delve into ridiculous things like the 7 year old boy does. And when she did, it wasn’t as ridiculous as it was adorable. The boy, on the other hand, is just a friggin’ mess. To wit:

“I like being in pain. Like an adult. That’s what it all has to go through when you’re an adult. Having pain with your children.”

I don’t know about pain, but it’s telling that he interprets it that way. And his sister asked me today, point blank, “what is it like to be a parent?” How in God’s name do you answer that? They sat behind their cereal bowls, staring at me expectantly, the girl in her pajamas and morning hair, the boy, deathcamp-skinny in nothing but boxer shorts the size of a postage stamp. I don’ know how he survives, I just know that the world doesn’t seem to effect him much, externally. Anything goes.

Anyway, they asked me what it’s like to be a parent (isn’t it obvious? That’s a dad joke), and I don’t think I performed well in the moment. There was some boilerplate stuff about highs and lows, happiness and sadness, good days and bad, but I don’t guess that sounds much different to them than what it’s like to be a kid. I should have had something in there about pressure, about every moment having the terrifying weight of potential life-shaping significance, the immediacy of having someone else’s distant future on your shop table – is this a chopsaw situation, or just a little sand-and-blow? About the fact that I am, indeed coming to that age where I start shrinking, because of that pressure and that weight, but that it’s more willful acquiescence than it is attrition. As a parent you do not lose mass, ever, but you lose a little density, and the universe around you never stops expanding. You shrink just by not keeping up.

But I didn’t say any of that. Not even close. I said the dull usual stuff and said “you’re excused, go get ready for school,” and just kind of went along hoping they didn’t pick up on the fact that often, being a parent isn’t so much about shrinking as it is about failing to be big when the moment calls for it. But then again, that’s why we have kids – to fill up the moments that are too big to inhabit alone.

Like breakfast.

Just a Dog

 

Less than a year before I reported for duty in South Korea, two 14-year-old school girls who were walking along the road were somehow hit and killed by a US Army bridge-launching vehicle. I say “somehow” because that machine is something which very few people will ever see in their lives. I spent eight years in the Army and never saw one. It is uncommon and such a cumbersome giant that it can do nothing suddenly. To be surprised enough to be struck by it defies explanation, yet it found two children in rural South Korea and left them dead on the side of a quiet highway. Like so many of history’s dangers, they must have heard and seen it coming for so long that they had time to stop being afraid of it. By the time it was upon them it was too late to get out of the way.

That it was an accident should not even need to be said. But with all the politics and the jarring connotations of a foreign military being responsible for the death of local children, it was not just an accident. When the ensuing legal process ended in the worst possible way – with a verdict of not guilty – it strained relations between the US and South Korea until they were at the worst point they had been in years. Still, remarkably, and perhaps because enough time had gone by, the ongoing protests I saw as I passed through Seoul were rather perfunctory and tame. I did not feel unwelcome there. If nothing else, I wanted to get out of the other side of that year feeling the same way.

When I arrived with a few other soldiers at my unit in the southern half of the country, we were given briefings about being good visitors, good guests in a foreign place. We were handed booklets that introduced us to Korean customs that we might find odd or unsettling – proper ways to say thank you, different meal habits, and the fact that Korean men would often act in ways that an American would find decidedly feminine. But the death of the school girls was still fresh enough that we were reminded of it as much as anything else. It was an event that was still a functioning part of our relationship with our hosts, and the sort of thing that could sneak up on you with startling consequences if you stopped paying attention.

I heard the warnings and scoffed at the booklets, partly because I was still young enough to believe I didn’t need to be told anything, and partly because I recall the booklets having a distinct presumption of American cultural immaturity – a dull cliché that has always made me bristle. It was also pretty clear that most of the people stationed at that post wouldn’t really need any of this information, because they wouldn’t have much contact with Korean culture, insulated as they were by the sheer concentration of American service members in the area. The post was home to about 25,000 US soldiers, airmen, and marines, so while it was in South Korea, it was foreign in geography only. But the warnings, the booklets, and the customs would become more important for me if I was to get the position I wanted – to take charge of one of the three remote detachments near the North Korean border.

Unfortunately, that position had already been taken by Staff Sergeant Lamb, who arrived a few weeks before I did. I had served with Sgt. Lamb at my last duty assignment and knew him to be genuinely unreliable and irresponsible. I could lie and say that I had the Army’s best interests in mind when I mentioned his shortcomings to my new platoon sergeant and platoon leader, but really, I only did it because I knew that I was the most likely choice to replace him. It didn’t take much. When I met with Sgt. Arnold and Lt. Kwan for introductions on the first day, I said “I heard you put Sgt. Lamb on the Det.”

LT. Kwan was short and thick, and two or three years younger than I was. Fresh out of college, he looked studious and clean in wire-rimmed glasses. He opened a drawer and removed a folder. I could see Lamb’s name on it. With just a shadow of an accent he asked, “You know him?”

“Yes, sir. I do.”

He looked at Sgt. Arnold – an over-starched uniform and a mustache too neat to trust – and then looked back to me. “You like him?”

I could see by the folder and by the way he asked, that they already had their doubts, so I dove in. “He’s late for everything. Used to fall asleep in class all the time.”

It was a low move on my part, some petty brinkmanship that I could not always have gotten away with in the Army. We have all manner of creeds and codes and unwritten rules, and one of the most commonly held is the one that says you do not undermine your fellow soldiers. When I was in a combat unit, where trust is sometimes more important than honesty, this rule was among the highest of all commandments. Discrediting a fellow noncommissioned officer for my own interests probably would have been the best way to guarantee that I did not get the job. But in this military intelligence unit, more corporate than combative, it was the best way forward.

And it worked. They pulled Sgt. Lamb back to headquarters, and I was flown to my stolen detachment by helicopter. I don’t remember how long the flight was. The Blackhawk wound low with its doors open, through heavy green valleys and over countless rice paddies and I would have been happy if we flew around up there forever. When we finally came up between two tree-covered ridges and touched down on the helipad – my helipad – we were about a 60-mile drive from the nearest US Army Garrison, nestled atop a mountain that overlooked the Yellow Sea to the West, and just a handful of miles from the river that separated us from North Korea.

Somewhere on that river and extending out into the sea, an invisible line had been drawn. You could see it clearly enough on a map, and no matter which side you were on, the bad guys were on the other. Sometimes a North Korean ship drifted too far South, always accidentally of course, and we would know because fighters from the nearby airbase would fly past us and towards whomever made the mistake. Often it was just a wayward fishing boat, but borders are borders and must be observed, even when you can’t see them.

About halfway down the winding road that accessed the mountain was a barracks and a few related buildings that housed a Republic of Korea Marine unit. We knew them as the ROK Marines, a small defense force ostensibly in place to protect us and that corner of the country from a dubious, yet oft-invoked, North Korean threat. I can only guess at a count, but between them and a handful of Korean intelligence soldiers, there were probably a couple hundred or so native military personnel on the mountain in total. There were only four Americans – myself, Private First-Class Judge, and Privates Reyes and Priest.

Along with the people, there were dogs seemingly everywhere up there. This was common all over Korea, and it was part of the reason you couldn’t eat a piece of meat in that country without someone half-joking that it was probably gaegogi, or dog. The Marines down the road had several of them, most of which were of a good-sized breed called Jindo, strong dogs that stood very upright and vaguely resembled a husky with neat white or reddish-brown fur. In that military environment they looked purposeful and not much like pets, so even though I was not given any reason to fear them, I never approached them. They belonged to the Marines, existing on the other side of the line between us and them.

That line, unlike the border with the north, was blurry and even harder to see. It was not drawn on any maps and it did not stay in one place. It was a line with no enemies on either side, but the same mandate that it be observed, lest there be consequences. Up there on that mountain, the line moved when we did, and we simply had to be careful not to move so quickly that we got ahead of it.

Which is not to say that there was any tension between us and the South Koreans. Indeed, we got along very well, joining them for small cookouts on the weekends and playing soccer with them on the large dirt field in front of their barracks. Many nights they would take two or even three of us – someone always had to remain on duty – into the town at the base of the mountain, where we would take off our shoes and be treated to a real Korean meal. Whoever was eldest at the table would pour us the first of the soju (or did the eldest get served first? I still can’t remember), and we would eat and drink and hear stories of the American soldiers who preceded us on the mountain in years past. They were accustomed to being generous hosts, and we did our part to be gracious guests.

Still, we had certain manners to observe and practice. And though we were far away from the crowding and politics of Seoul, someone always seemed to find an occasion to remind us of the girls we killed out in the country. Not as any kind of a warning or an accusation, but simply because it was still part of the fabric of their experiences, and so it would work its way into conversations without much intent. Also, arriving when I did, the one-year anniversary of the incident would have been approaching. I remember being relieved that we were out there on that island. Not only was it far from the site of the accident, but it was also far from the capital, where the bulk of the demonstrations would be concentrated, and the Americans were sure to be a little less comfortable than usual. On the island we were blameless, all of the Koreans were our friends, and the only thing that didn’t smile was the dogs.

We had a dog of our own, the mascot of the detachment. He had official orders assigning him to the post, just like a human soldier, signed by a Major or a Lieutenant Colonel. He was just a little mutt of fifteen pounds or so, scruffy and permanently dirty, probably born on the street and rescued by chance by a shopkeeper on her way home, as was often the case. His name was Frodo, given to him twelve years ago by whatever Americans were serving the mountain at the time he was brought there.

Frodo was old and ragged but still had a lot of energy, and I thought I would bond a little with my soldiers and the Korean Marines and the mountain in general by taking him on a short run down the road. A little PR tour where I could smile and wave at the local troops, showing my goodwill and fitness for the job. Frodo would serve as my liaison, a symbol of my right to be there and my willingness to get along. Private Priest and PFC Judge agreed to go with me, and the four of us went through our gate. We nodded at the skinny guard in his faded and tired-looking uniform and started jogging downhill.

I wasn’t thinking about much, other than what a beautiful day it was. It was May or June, and the early Summer view of the Yellow Sea made me pious and exultant. The road wound steeply downward. My troops were in good spirits. Frodo skittered back and forth across the road on his short legs, as happy as the rest of us to be free and moving. I felt perfect about the impression we were making on our hosts.

Whether my giddiness caused me to miss a warning sign I cannot say. There should probably have been terrible barks and growls from the brush at the side of the road, and I should have heard it coming in time to stop it. But I do not remember any of that. What I do remember is Frodo, being ripped at by the jaws of one of the ROK Marines’ stout dogs. I had brought him across some invisible line known only to the animals, drawn in scent and instinct, and the Jindo had raked him from the road and into its mouth. It heeded none of the shouts that I didn’t hear, but must have been coming from its Marine handlers. I wondered later whether the Korean dog would have understood me if I screamed at it in English.

Surely nobody could have stopped it – once the dogs got going, so the only truly useful thing to do would have been to never go out in the first place. That’s what Sgt. Lamb would have done. He would have stayed inside, sleeping every chance he got, and thinking nothing of his duty outside of those gates. He would have avoided the Koreans as much as possible, and he would not have gone running. None of this would have happened, Frodo would not have been killed, and I wouldn’t have been so confused about how something that really wasn’t my fault could feel so much like it was. But of course Sgt. Lamb wasn’t up there. I was, because I sat there in Lt. Kwan’s office and told the truth when honor should have made me lie.

None of that mattered in the least anymore. What mattered was whatever I did next, and I had no idea what that would be. The Koreans and PFC Judge were looking at me, Priest was looking at Frodo, and Frodo was looking down the road, in the direction his head fell when the dog dropped him there. I wasn’t looking at anything, because there was far too much to see. A voice inside me said do something. Now. But we had no vehicle nearby, and cell phones were not so ubiquitous at the time, so all I could do was nearly kill myself sprinting up that mountain to do something useful, even though there was nothing left to be done. When I try to think about it, my memory always rushes out somewhere in the strained breaths on that winding road up to our building, and I realize that I wasn’t running to get something done. I was running to get the hell away from there. I knew I could not stand there and look at Frodo anymore, so the one thing I managed to do in that crisis was to look like I was advancing, while actually running away.

Ultimately, I don’t remember anything else that happened after his death, after that dog raged out of the woods and tore into him right in front of me. I only remember Frodo being scooped and shaken, the fact that it was over almost immediately, and most clearly, I remember that the six of us who witnessed it were completely frozen in our places. I stood there with Priest and Judge on one side of the carnage, those three Marines on the other, and every one of us just hung there until the big dogs dropped little Frodo’s limp body into the gravel on the side of the road. I don’t think there was even any blood.

Of his body or who took care of it or where he ended up I have no idea. Knowing the Army as I do, I have to believe that the event would have generated a small pile of paperwork, a meeting or two to formalize the blame and be forgiven by someone with no right to do it, and finally a grim, silent drive into the maddening traffic of Seoul with Frodo wrapped in a towel. The Army put him out there, and the Army would want him back. But if any of that happened, I don’t know it.

And I don’t want to know, because it gives me a chance to hope that something much better happened for him. Something less administrative and cold. Something that anchored him to his home and didn’t put his fate in the hands of strangers anymore. It gives me a chance to hope that while I was running back up the mountain to do nothing of any use, the ROK Marines gathered him up gently from the road and carried him behind their gates. And that later, with their dogs watching or not, they gave him a quiet and reverent burial somewhere on his mountain.

I hope for these things because otherwise it would be too easy to say that Frodo was just a dog, and that to accidentally kill a dog does not deserve to be spoken of the way that accidentally killing a human is. But he was not just a dog, any more than it was just an accident when an American vehicle ran over two Korean school girls on another beautiful summer day the June before. They were not alone on that road, and we were not alone on that mountain, or that island, or that country, and it’s never just anything when you are not alone. In this case it was a dog and the other five sets of eyes on the road, and the ears and opinions of everyone who would hear about it, and most importantly of everyone – American and Korean – whose lives belonged to that mountain. It was all of that and all of us and those two girls who are still dying on that road out in the countryside, forever being snuck up on by something as loud and slow and huge as history.