The little house hisses at the big sins of winter drifted stacked stuck against creaking clapboards -- an occasional fearful SNAP to which the roof beams swiftly whisper what's that?
Two hours into the operation
time came to choose
twice sold books
over and over again.
But the last survivors of that era –
they are all gone away
to bring your children
An insect feast,
accessible game meats,
some bottles of water,
and unrelenting nerve pain in the face.
Are you done with these?
Are you still down there
with the flame proof wisdom
of a snow storm
fluent in English and Japanese?
How is the fairy tale?
Oh don’t go cold, Heaven now. Don’t
shiver-shrug our dust from your shoulders
and ice shut each new tomb.
My grave awaits me yet
and whatever I am in death
will not lie down forever.
(Gah, formatting. The lines are not how I wrote them, and I don’t really know how to make WordPress behave)
I wake up with the news and am in no mood to endure it and come instead to visit with you.
On my way to you a few blocks up from the ferry dock
a car is broken in the road in everyone’s way (the nerve).
It is too broken even to roll – The driver said as much.
Other people in unbroken cars have to be somewhere now always now
so they honk, gesture, wave and blame.
People blame him with their hands and their eyes
People are very good with the things they do with their eyes
Their eyes say that yes they see but they need and
their need cannot be defeated.
Certainly not by him and his broken car
Certainly not by him
This is what people look like to me, when I don’t slow down.
This is what I see of people in my cynical times
what I know of them raging against some poor man’s trials
and what it does to them.
(He is no poor man. He does not suffer)
These people woke up watching the news and they’re listening to it in their cars
where they honk at him and they are believing it, the news.
All the time they are believing it.
Right now as their palms press down on the cold molded
February of steering wheel plastic
and their horns blare the sound of their need they are believing the news because the news moves everything
out of their way.
They think it is real.
But not him or his car.
They don’t believe in him or his car because it is
in front of them and in the way.
They don’t believe in things that are in the way.
They don’t believe in things that the news can’t move out of their way.
They decide not to believe.
They just decide like that.
This is what people look like to me when I don’t slow down.
Someone’s buying him…
…I slow down here…
…and gather myself…
…someone’s buying him a coffee.
She walks a coffee out to him
and in that blesséd beat when both of their hands are on the offering
God damn it.
God damn I go slow
He’s on the hood of his broken car, the half-sit you do sometimes
with one heel cocked up on the bumper.
Looking undefeated with coffee and listening nowhere to the news.
Getting up when he needs to direct traffic and doing it like he’s done it before. With a half-smile and that knife-hand pointing, arm extended,
fingers and thumb pressed together in flat, playful authority.
This way is clear.
You picture the whistle, the white glove
(the traffic cop)
It isn’t a very busy intersection back here in our neighborhood near the bakery.
When I go slow it is his unflappable traffic direction,
all smiles and gifted coffee on a February morning just up the road from the ferry dock
It is his this, his him
he is it, the thing –
he is the thing that hits me right where I need it and when
back here in the corner of the bakery just up the road from the ferry dock.
When the boat comes it will bleed out and he will be busy with people
who will honk their news at him. They will honk what they believe at him
from their unbroken cars full of need.
He will not see his empty paper cup roll half-circle off the hood
when he gets up to be something they don’t believe in.
He will point, and wave, and smile while he slows them down
to show them how to get around him and when.
I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, trying to find something that happened somewhere but that’s like counting the grains of gunpowder in the bullet with your name on it.
There might be one in there that isn’t going to light when the firing pin strikes, but that’s not going to slow it down any.
All that mad space on the airwaves. A dozen papers a hundred websites a thousand articles a million words.
Each one distinct and identical and individual but fired all together from a three-letter casing that tries to hide its intent. It succeeds wherever we let it and it does what a bullet is supposed to do – it makes a hole in us.
Oh my god I just can’t do it.
I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, trying to find poetry, though I know I should have known better. By the time I had my breakfast all I knew was exactly what my opinions should be.
All I knew was that it was wrong to stereotype (except by voting preference)
and that it was wrong to discriminate (except by skin color and gender)
and which kind of prejudice would get me high fives
and that love is both love and a very oppressive weapon
and I am far more certain now that there are some very hateful ways to say that hate is a very bad thing.
I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, trying to find out who we are and it has become very clear that if everything we say we are working so hard to eliminate – the hate the prejudice the racism the sexism the violence
my God I think especially the violence!
if all of those things we march against and wave signs against and rally against and throw rocks at and beat people up over and lie to keep alive were somehow magically eliminated tomorrow
we would bring it back yesterday because we wouldn’t recognize ourselves without it.
If we won we would be lost.
I’ve been looking at the news for a while now, and my family still sleeps somewhere above me and I pray that when they wake up I don’t somehow take this all out on them
the way I see everyone else take it out on each other, every day, for love.
Guard against the joylessness –
the sloganed cry.
Guard against the chanted curse
and truthful-seeming lie.
Guard against the joylessness –
against the sheepish fright.
Guard against the mirthless marches
that wilt without the light
(a truly righteous Army thrives
even out of sight).
Guard against the joylessness –
the bluebird’s noose.
Guard against the flashing placards
that turn a lynching loose.
Guard against the joylessness –
against the textbook heart.
Guard against the low momentum
of the classroom’s faded arts
(the ivory’s crumbling fastest
at the over-polished parts).
Guard against the joylessness
my girl child,
by suiting up in Mother’s grace
and by wielding Father’s smile.
I kind of didn’t want to write about this, because in a way I see it as marking me guilty of the same kind of enemy-making that I accuse our modern social justice movements of doing. Trampling the Good in the pursuit of the Right. Also, I remind myself that what’s missing from the discourse on contemporary social issues is generosity. If I cannot employ it where others don’t, then I should keep mum (but that sounds rather ungenerous itself).
In the end I have to remember that I cannot control responses or reactions. I can control my own words, and I can know what I am on about, but I cannot, in a single sentence or paragraph or essay, sharpen the distinction between statement and judgment, knowledge and belief, or especially reason and purpose, to the extent that someone untrained to know the difference will suddenly come around. I can only write (with very intentional capitalization), and endure misunderstandings, willful or otherwise. But I promise to work with you on them.
I made it to my first class of the new quarter yesterday. Encountering Intercultural Literature. Social narratives have been built, at this point, in such a way that we all know immediately that the word “intercultural” is why we’re here. And that’s because it has become evident over time that the word “culture,” especially when appended and prefixed to “intercultural,” is one of those many weaponized words that we’ve come to employ and discharge as we engage in our own inward-looking marches towards the eschaton (which will, of course, be
televised tweeted). It is evident from that word alone that this will not be a simple compare/contrast of different literary styles or themes from various cultures during a particular historical period. It doesn’t work like that anymore. “Culture” is simply not allowed to stand as an innocuous concept that can be studied dispassionately. It is a battleground, where lines are drawn and sides are taken, and every statement is weighed for valuation of virtue tariffs.
Students – young students – get excited for classes with words like “intercultural” in the title because they are smart enough to know that in that class is an environment where other Good People are, who will say The Right Things. A place of unambiguous intent, where it is easy to know what to say without any measurable worry of incredulity. What they may not be keying into immediately is that it is a place where the ostensible material is the study of cultures across geography and history, but the real material is the concrescence of the ideologies of their own current culture. The ossification of the unbelievable strictures of right think, and a carefully designed backdrop against which thoughtcrime announces itself like a claymore. That they’re really studying or creating a gossamer version of their own culture which, incidentally, they don’t believe in. When asked, yesterday, what our definition of “intercultural” was, two students stated unequivocally that intercultural study must exclude the West. High school taught them that we are either too vile and criminal a thing to be considered alongside Noble Distant Others, or we simply do not pass the sniff test to qualify for the title of “culture” at all. It is immaterial, either way.
I try to remember to be a little careful in that class. Not because I look down my grisly nose at other cultures and am afraid my grade will suffer if I make it known. Rather, it is because people have utterly lost the ability to discern between understanding and support, such that if I question anyone’s understanding of the subject matter, I will be accused of supporting some Hateful Ideology. In the Academy – indeed, in the neighborhood, on the streets, on the Internet – you either say the Right Things, or you are the enemy. There is no room for general disinterest or passive acceptance. There is only the protest marcher or the cross burner, and your classmates, neighbors, and friends will not let you live between the two for long.
Yesterday, and for the next week or two, we are into Lieutenant Nun. Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. It’s a fun read in the adventurous vein of Don Quixote or Robinson Crusoe, and generally as believable as either of them (but I’m a born skeptic). Half an hour of discussion centered almost entirely on pronouns. What should we call…this person who is credited with writing the story? The consensus landed on “they,” to which I simply swallowed my objections about grammatical reality (you cannot pluralize an individual, credibly, popular usage be damned), as it’s hardly a hill worth dying on. And never mind the fact that, absent any knowledge about what the author herself preferred to be called, any modern day “consensus” is really just a small tyranny – a passive-aggressive instruction that this is the way we do things, here (there are few English phrases as pregnantly pernicious as “we have all agreed”). I only mentioned at one point that we could not continue to laud this as a piece of feminine literature if we could not agree to call the author a woman. The breathing reader will note the judgment-free logic of this. The Professor professed agreement, and nobody else commented. I sit in the front row, so I could not see if there were any looks of approval or disdain. But I speculate, because I think it is fair to do so in this case, that that simple logical clarification was enough to mark me as a Bad Person in a mind or two in that classroom. The subject matter of the discussion was transgenderism and I said something not explicitly supportive, which, if not quite the same as setting the cross ablaze, is at least as bad as walking towards it with a can of gasoline.
It would be one thing if I was sitting in that room (and this is really very much the case everywhere I go in the University, and in the city) as a true opponent to their causes. But I am not. Of course it is called Social Justice so that it can be said that you either agree completely or you don’t believe in social justice at all, a thing which is simply not true of any but the most ridiculously irrelevant wastrels of society. But the marches and the protests go on under the presumption of some powerful enemy amassed and assembled against it out there somewhere. And if you are not actively, conspicuously in the march, you are, by default, out there. They believe in the enemy far more than the enemy believes in them, because the enemy does not substantively exist. Except in the case of those wastrels, those marginal extremists (they’re called “extreme” for a reason, and it isn’t because of their teeming membership) who become synonymous with people like me by dint of the fact that I am not issuing high-fives and posterboard to the sign-makers and hat-wearers, the gender-includers and the intersectionalist line-drawers.
I would sit here and say that I am ok with things. That I will call you whatever pronoun you wish to be called, and will only object if your request begins to smell a little like antagonism. I would say that I have no ill judgments towards transgendered people or gay people or people of color or Muslims or of any protected class you can drum up. That I respect everyone equally until they demonstrate that they don’t deserve it. That I am every bit as tolerant as you, and in truth probably quite a bit more (just think of what you think of me right now, for instance). I would say a lot of things, but I am afraid they would not be worded strongly enough to pass for inclusion among the Good People who are on that ever-shrinking Right Side of History. Acceptance is no longer acceptable – it is deemed too flaccid a response to progress, and so the minimum expression of acceptance has become passionate vehemence. Neither is tolerance any longer tolerable – it is deemed too temporary and shallow a response to difference, so the minimum expression of tolerance has become celebratory self-loathing. If you doubt me on this, please come to class with me, where the students look around themselves and believe, passionately, vehemently, self-loathingly, that the only place they see a culture, is out there.
The kids have story writing every Thursday. They’re given a writing prompt and some gentle help moving their work along. The Boy has said often that he doesn’t like it, but he’s a left-handed writer and I’m told that it is pretty normal for the lefties to be annoyed by the act of writing for the first few years, what with all the physical rebellions against mechanical standards and procedures. And also the smudging.
The Girl generally says she does like it. She’s a natural speller and focuses well and has a head full of scampering whims and intentions, so she can sit down and churn out plenty without getting too bogged down. She is a bit literal and straight, though, and she moves between sentences like a bowling ball between pins. This will all be ironed out with practice and guidance. She has the unteachable knack of taking it very personally, too, so there’s a chance that writing can make her crazy eventually, meaning that she might be very, very good at it.
Yesterday’s writing prompt was “hope.” The Girl has asked me not to read hers. Too personal, too revealing. She can’t bear for me to know. Of course I’ll read it the first chance I get.
The Boy, on the other hand, said “Papa, make sure you go in tomorrow and read my story.” He is the self-promoter that I have never been. I strutted with them both through the hall this morning, cocky as all get out because I know I am a better parent than any of these people, and my kids are far more useful already than theirs. Before I entered the classroom, one parent had already told me that she loved The Boy’s story. In the classroom, both teachers said “I hope you’re here to read his story. It’s wonderful.” This was getting interesting.
I floated past the 1st grade scrawlings and pictures, passing Chloe’s and Connor’s and Vera’s and Milo’s (Meatloaf, he likes to be called, says it’s Spanish), and found The Boy’s. Atop the page is a sickly, uncomfortable red and black marker drawing of a big building that looks like a moldy hospital, but says Seattle University across it. Spelled properly, score. The first sentence said “I hope that I go to a great college.” This, it turned out, was the entirety of what all of these people thought was so exceptional. They may not have read past that line. To my eyes they looked like they were relieved, all these adults, made to feel safe by the thought that a 7 year old has already emerged from the great die-cutter, ready and eager to take his place in the procession that has produced everything that they put their faith in. And of course the most certain thing is that they all now think that, because he said he wants to go to college, he must have pretty good parents who are sitting at home and telling him the Right Things, because they are Good Persons, and no doubt on the Right Side of History.
He does. He has incredible parents, but not for those reasons. And he has an amazing sister who I already know will fight his fights for him until he is fighting hers. But that he wrote that he wants to go to college is nothing special. He sees what I am doing, and I talk about it, and like a good boy he wants to do what his dad is doing. If I was a drunk he would want to be a drunk, too. When the mother of one of his friends said “That first sentence is amazing: ‘I hope that I to go to a great college,'” I said “I just keep trying to make sure he knows he doesn’t have to.” Because he doesn’t. But if I don’t tell him that, it’s possible that nobody ever will. And if he eventually finds out that college is not his cup of Kool-aid, he’ll feel as smoked out and useless as I did when that happened to me. College isn’t everything. I’m only doing it now because it is free and I am missing some piece of self-determination that I thought going to college could help me pop the clutch on. So far it has been a raging success for me, but if I was in my twenties or a B/B- kind of student (or God help me, both), I would be miserable. Wasted for the future and needing another path. I will work hard to make sure that my kids don’t rest all their expectations on an artificially clean run through the Academy.
With his teacher standing next to me and sounding more like a proud parent than I did, I moved her attention down the page. “Here,” I said, “is the best part.” He has had a cold for a few days, was probably wiping snot with his sleeve while he wrote his story, and the sentence said “I hope this sickness runs from me soon.” He didn’t do it on purpose, of course, but it’s loaded with meaning, it’s rhythmically neat, terse and tidy, and it’s all grown up. Having built such a simple, direct sentence with a bit of anthropomorphism and the subtle flourish of metaphor, intentional or no, is a far more heartening indication of his innate potential than any sophomoric declaration of a desire for college.
We’re going on and on as we can only do. I’m starting to look at MFA programs and getting a little more serious about pushing my work around for publication. If all goes well the kids will eventually be able to see that college has worked for me because of qualities that I possessed or lacked, not because of the infallible utility of the university itself.
They’ll be able to see, most importantly, that you don’t really know anything if you only read the first sentence.
My God I want to get some good music that makes me feel like I’m ten different kinds of victory and loss, trading off and making life as giant, shaky, and indefinite as insomnia. I want the kind of music that makes me look at you like a movie, that slows you down and makes me a little bit scared of all the love we can’t seem to get our fingers into. Oh, but those fingers… I want the kind of music that plays when slapping a woman is justified, you know, because sometimes you gotta hit one, if it’s a movie. And the kind of music that says yeah, she hit him too, ‘cuz hittin’ him’s what he lives to have done. Hittin him’s how he knows this love’s about a four minute screw from being over, and a four day drive from starting over.
“We can’t stay here Tommy. I can’t stay here. It’s no good.”
Tommy sips coffee. “It sure isn’t good enough,” he agrees. “We’re what, like one county over? Supposed to be leaving home, and we haven’t even driven far enough to see anything unfamiliar yet. Which way’s the ocean again?
“I don’t know. We’re in friggin’ Kansas. It’s like, literally halfway between both of them. Plus it’s the middle of the night and I’m sitting on a toilet and I can’t even tell which way is West or East or any damn thing from here.”
“I know what state we’re in, Amy, and I know the ocean’s West.”
“The other one’s East.”
“Right, like the Atlantic counts. West is California, Mexico. What’s East? Like Cape faahkin’ Caahd or something? You ever heard of a badass and his girl running off East? To New England? They probably don’t even have sharks out there.”
“They have sharks, tough guy.”
“But they don’t have the desert.”
I want some good music that makes fast forward the same as slow motion so that when we’re in this thing it’s like a window down and a mute highway and the sound of the engine is only something we think we’ve heard because the engine is us, and it’s revving towards a bed in the desert like a dog growling at a bone you’re holding a few inches from his nose. Sit. Stay. It’s a tease. The speed is a tease, all six speeds are a tease. But it’s in with the air, out with the exhaust, and a tense, mute highway. This ain’t a movie, we’re not on the run, we didn’t rob nobody but our ancestors for the cache of birthright that we’re abusing out here on the 80, West past Green River and on, knowing the Salt Lake is just another thing we’re gonna leave behind. Bonneville a heathen lure, Vegas a comma.
“We’re not special, you know?”
“What is this, now?” Tommy asked her as he reached for his wallet.
“We’re just not. We’re driving West all fast in your cool car, and we’re staying in shitty motels and smoking cigarettes – like anyone does that anymore -”
“Smokes real cigarettes. Actual paper and ashes cigarettes. Everyone walks around with those ridiculous giant things that they hold like a duck caller and billow out enormous clouds of sick vanilla smoke so it’s like they’re smoking car deodorizers. I want to say thank you or give a high five or something to anyone I see smoking a good old fashioned Camel, smelling like something’s burning and like they might actually die. That’s why we’re smoking these. But it still isn’t anything special. It’s too much. Too obvious. Like bad language and obscene violence in a Tarantino film – there’s so much of it that it loses any chance of having an impact. All we’re doing is trying too hard. We’re going to wind up in California, having tried real hard and done nothing.”
“Done nothing? We’re doing something. The thing is the thing, and we’re doing it.”
“We’re somewhere in friggin’ Nevada, eating gas station sandwiches on your Dad’s debit card.” She started rummaging through her purse.
“At least I stole the card, you gotta give me that, at least.”
“It’d be cooler if your dad had bothered to cancel it three days ago when he found out.”
Yeah, we got a ’68 Cyclone and a thin story, a goal set for the ocean and an unwhispered knowing that a little breakdown in the desert is where our literate romance wants us, but we’re still scared of anything that isn’t home. We haven’t fought anyone for real. I’ve never been stabbed. The cops never heard of us. But I still want the music that makes us both shut up for at least the space between rest areas so that I can go a half hour on the road without saying or hearing anything out loud about how spectacular the country really is – I’ll get sick if I have to hear anything that sounds like tourism. The country will get spectacular enough if we can do something better than graduate from college, and so far that’s all we got. The loudest noise we made so far is just the one when we tried to sound the same as all the rest – what if we got quiet.
“So you stole your daddy’s debit card. Good for you. I stole something, too.” She was elbow-deep in her purse.
“Oh yeah, tough girl, what’d you steal? Your mama’s lipstick? Daddy’s watch?
She opened her mouth, held it that way for a second, then closed it again. “Never mind, Tommy.”
“No, really, what did you steal? I want to know. I’m on pins and needles here.” He pulled out some bills to pay for the motel room.
“Nothing. I didn’t steal anything. I was just messing around.”
“That’s what I thought.”
What if we got quiet like a window down and a mute highway, with the tires screaming and the cabin, the windshield seals getting tested by pressure at about 85 miles per hour, right where the suspension starts to feel like it’s doing what it was made for, like it’s finally giving the chassis that bedding down that they were made to do together. The windows down and the tires on the road and so much white noise that we know we’re being told to shut up by something that man and God did together and it’s the kind of music I begged for, and that’s why at that last motel just past Battle Mountain, I finally showed you what I stole.
“I didn’t leave my home and my family” Amy’s hand stopped moving in her purse “to bounce across the country on some glorified field trip.” She pulled out a small handgun. It pointed at the floor, hanging from her arm like it would rather not have been dragged into all of this. She looked at Tommy.
“Holy Jesus, Amy!” He took a step back and dropped the money he was going to pay the clerk.
“We’re not special, you know.”
“We don’t need to be special, Amy! Why do you keep saying that? What are you – I can’t -” He bent towards the money on the floor, searched blindly for it with a hand while he kept his eyes on the little round, black emptiness at the front of the gun. “You brought a gun? A fucking gun? I never said we were special. Why do you keep saying that?”
“Why are you paying him?”
“Why am I – what?”
“Him.” She stabbed the gun in the direction of the clerk. “Why are you paying him? You should be taking his money. Isn’t that what we’re doing here? Taking risks? Breaking free? Getting some God damned separation?” She did not lower the gun.
“Separation? It’s just a fucking road trip, Amy! We go from one place to another in a car! It doesn’t mean anything else!” He was panicking, starting to cry, looking from the clerk to the gun to the money on the ground. “We’re not robbing people, and we’re sure as hell not shooting them.” His hand, palm up, waved generally towards the front desk. “We’re just driving, for chrissakes. Now please, Amy, put the gun away.”
Amy looked at Tommy a little disappointedly, a little like she pitied him. She turned her head to look at the clerk, where the gun was still pointed. Nothing moved. A radio didn’t play, a clock didn’t tick, a cat didn’t pad across the lobby. At the end of Amy’s leveled arm quivered a chambered silence bigger than the highway, bigger than the desert, bigger than the ocean. Without taking her eyes off the clerk she said “We’re not special, Tommy” and set the silence free.
And so mutely to the coast we drive.
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.