Saturday, November 11, 2006

Veteran's Day

My oldest son was born on Veteran's Day 33 years ago today but I don't think of him nearly as much as I think of the men in my life who have been touched by war and death. I wish my son a happy birthday but those men haunt me on Veteran's Day as I remember what it was like growing up with and without them.

I was named for my mother's brother, Jack, who died of leukemia five years before I was born, the year my parents got married. He was a sailor with a wife and two children, none of whom I have met because there was some kind of rift between them and my grandmother. He fought during World War II but it was cancer that took his life five years after he returned home triumphant. Mom took me to decorate his grave ever Memorial Day an Veteran's Day.

My cousin, Lacey Prater, was a fun loving, happy man with haunted eyes and deep twisted scars like ropes around his thumbs. He survived the Bataan Death march. Every time he came to visit he'd tell funny stories and laugh. While everyone else's eyes were filled with tears I looked into his eyes and just for a moment saw dark haunted shadows. One time he caught me looking at him while everyone else was looking away or bustling around fixing dinner and he knew I had seen past the careful mask he wore. I asked him about the scars and what the death march was like and he smiled a smile that never touched the deep shadows in his eyes. A joke died on his lip and tears glistened in his eyes as he shook his head. I knew he couldn't go back there or it would trap him forever. He pulled me onto his lap and kissed my cheek. "I lived," was all he said. His eyes haunt me in the middle of the night when I can't sleep and darkness is shattered by the scream of an owl or the howl of a dog when the night train whistle moans.

My grandfather was too young for World War I and too old for World War II. My father didn't serve in World War II because he was too young but he mustered for Korea twice. He sent lots of pictures of his friends and the places he saw in the aftermath of the war but he doesn't talk about his time at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). He did have an evil looking knife someone nearly stuck into him, but he doesn't talk about that either. I see shadows flitting in his eyes from time to time and I know he saw the relatives of the demons in Lacey Prater's eyes.

It was my boyfriend from high school who gave me a better glimpse of those demons one night when he wasn't high or drunk. It was Christmas and he was on the DMZ. Red and green tracer fire like Satan's idea of Christmas tree lights flew back and forth. Bursts of automatic and machine gun fire ripped through the black void on that frozen winter night when his best friend's head exploded all over him, decorating their entrenchment with glistening red and white shreds wrapping the twisted olive drab metal of his helmet. A hysterical scream of fear and rage played counterpoint to the a devil's hymn of gun fire while the night sky bled red and green tracer fire. The smell of burnt flesh filled the air as his gun glowed red hot in his hands. I wasn't there. I didn't see what happened. I saw his eyes when the haunted shadows nearly overwhelmed him while he screamed his fear and rage unaware of the mug that shattered in his hands or the blood that dripped slowly onto the floor.

My son is 33 years old today and he has never known war. None of my sons have known war, but there have been important men in my life who have seen the demons and lived to tell about them. It is them I remember most of all. It is them I celebrate and honor because they made it possible for me to celebrate the birth of my son.

Thank you all.

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