I am not The Owner.
I am not The Cook.
I am not The Menu.
I am just the waiter, serving you all.
I am not The Light.
I am not The Dark.
I am not The Rainbow.
I am just the eyes, looking for you all.
I am not The Man.
I am not The Woman.
I am not The Child.
I am just the soul, touched by you all.
I am not The Leader.
I am not The Follower.
I am not The Revolution.
I am just the teammate working with you all.
I am not The Father.
I am not The Son.
I am not The Holy Ghost.
I am just the brother, loving you all.
There was a man I once knew who refused to salute the flag, take the pledge or sing the anthem. He was about 12 years old when the linked photo to the right was taken. Like many of my relatives, my uncle rejected any physical or verbal overt act of obeisance to national symbols on the grounds of idolatry. This was because his religion forbade such displays. By refusing to salute the flag, he believed that he was respecting another clause within the same decalogue which forbids the killing of another person. To him, the commandment against the worshipping of graven images took priority over demonstrating patriotism along with the crowd.
As a lifelong pacifist myself, I know these things must have made it difficult for my mother’s brother as World War II grew closer to his life. Then again, maybe not. Because even though he conscientiously objected to killing another human, he decided to join up anyway – starting around the age of 17. While my grandmother made him wait another year, he was drafted and served as a medic across many of the fiercest battles in the South Pacific. I remember his stories vividly – first because he was reluctant to share them. But then, when he did tell one, one would watch him relive it all in a way that no movie can portray. Even as many were dying around him, he worked so others could be saved. And it was the souls that he couldn’t save which haunted him until he passed around twenty years ago.
My Uncle Daniel, World War II Veteran
Yes, I remember my uncle describing how he waited on an island’s hillside as the firefight raged around him all night, hoping, praying and pleading with the Almighty to keep one particular young man alive until morning when his unit expected to be able to evacuate the wounded. But around 3:00 am that morning, the young man in his arms passed away in pain and my uncle then began a rage against the heavens, cursing and calling out back to God to explain what the hell had just transpired. He walked over to a cliff and looked down at the rocks on the beach. and for a second, he told me, my uncle thought of going over…
But then he decided just why he would not. The only way he could see it would matter was to make it through the rest of the war. And then to come back home and forever appreciate the little joys of life that the 18 year old who has just died would never know. And my Uncle Daniel would never forget that soldier. Ever.
As he was when I first remember him, my Uncle continues to be renowned for his joy of life and happy demeanor. To the day he died, he brightened every room he entered and had the enviable ability to make everyone around him feel special and loved. He often said that many people seemed to admire him just because he had learned to like himself. But when he told of the moment in 1945 where he stared down at those forlorn boulders on a nameless Pacific beach, his face revealed the painful torment of a spirit almost crushed. He never forgot the dawning of that next day either.
There is a comic book version of history that too many people seem to have read. And many of its fans demand superficial litmus tests so they can evaluate and judge the patriotism of others. But life is so much more complicated than these people seem to understand. My uncle never talked to me about anyone’s patriotism, including his own. Yet, I would put his love of countrymen up against the entirety of 100,000 people – all singing “God Bless America” together and with beer in hand.
“The day that any one of you can touch any one of my family is over. The next time you try to injure one of us, this what is has now changed. I have grown up, I am no longer an infant or somebody’s kid. Nor am I that weak, helpless, fucking teenager. “
But that is not how it went down, that is not the way it could have gone down. That is the once living nightmare trying to reconcile itself across time, that is the now distant thought of revenge braying to my always present ego. That is an ethereal daydream and within it I am addressing a rabble of mocking violent phantoms or one solid crusty white trash jackass with a loaded gun, or that same bigoted drunk who is holding a running chainsaw. And he is locked into fore-ever while threatening to cut off the head of my own sweet dog. Or I am breaking another man’s wrist that I have just met while just shaking his hand.
That is the hopeless and lost portion of a dichotomy that can live deep inside even a lifelong pacifist. The circumstances change whenever it decides to retells itself to itself, when it decides on another could-have-been plausible ending. No. Never an ending. Maybe just a second act.
But it never happened that way, it could never have happened that way.
At the end of the industrial age, I stood between a chair and my office window , gazing at the Christmas shoppers fourteen stories below. I had just been asked a fairly technical question by my boss and mentor and so I was looking out the window to reflect. And I was preparing a response, or more accurately, a translation, that my boss could follow.
My Mother, with an Uncle and Aunt
Taken in the early 1950s
When, suddenly,…down there…among the crowds, I saw my grandfather. I recognized him because of his thin brimmed hat and the brown cardigan sweater barely covering his suspenders. His gait also confirmed his identity, still a bit stiff on the right side because of the stroke he had survived in 1959. And then, as she came through the glass door, I was able to make out that my mother was also with him, the key here being her silver hair and her soft plumpness covered by her raincoat, with the belt hanging unbuckled on each side. They had just left the Sibley’s department store through the Clinton Avenue doors and as they came to Main Street, together they turned in the opposite direction of my office and slowly walked out of my view. My impulse was to immediately bolt from the office, run to the stairwell and down all 14 floors to join the crowd and search for them.
When I found you your star,
Alphecca to the Arabs, but Gemma,
always from then to you and me,
The Alpha Diamond of Corona,
shining in the Crown of the North on
those summer evenings. The back patio.
To smell fresh cut alfalfa hay, the peepers
and the Fireflies, when the screen
door creaked to say that you
were coming out to the tranquil dark,
sometimes to ask “Show me my star!”
When your sister gave us the gift,
four places of Silver and that note,
A charming tale you both exchanged,
As each family outgrew more settings
that neither could afford. Later I smiled.
But then, momentarily left the wedding party,
with her words “once your mother’s”, for
the empty, tranquil dark yard to bawl in,
Standing with the massive western sky,
First the handle’s Arc to Arcturus and then
upward to Hercules and Corona,
always to hear: “Show me my star!”
When I met your grand-daughter,
her first 15 minutes, eyes intently
scanning a populated new world.
You know she’ll never stop honoring
those, her unknown generations’,
unfilled yearnings to share their love.
But did my sister know when
choosing just a middle name,
it would close a celestial circle?
That on an urban summer evening,
the coals now cooling and
we guests well fed and yes,
the Fireflies have come back.
When my niece, catching my
glances upward towards Corona,
sometimes to ask: “Show me my star!”