Thursday, October 19, 2006


sunset on the beach, originally uploaded by I, Puzzled.

The other night, we had our traditional end of the season party at work. Though I don't show up on the job anymore, I was there for the party. My friends loved pointing that out.

But the truth is I'm the kind of person who has to be dragged to a party--and then, once I start talking and laughing and drinking my beer, I'm the last to leave.

"What--so early? We were just getting started here... " I say as the door slams behind me.

The other night was no exception. I'd agreed to my friend's cajoling on one condition: we would stay no longer than an hour. A quick drink, something to eat, and we'd be out of there.

A sneaky little smile appeared on her face as she promised we'd be home before nine. Friends who know you better than you know yourself can be so annoying.

Anyway, it was great to be with my co-workers, to see them in their jeans, looking unharried by crazy kitchen stuff, beer in hand. The theatrically lit sea behind us felt like a visceral reminder of the great drama that underlies the most ordinary lives. Lives like ours, for instance.

When I first started working there, a boy of about fifteen washed dishes after school. Michael. He was quiet and polite, and in the five years, we worked together, I only penetrated that reserved exterior a few times.

A couple of years ago, he brought his younger brother in for a job. And shortly thereafter, Michael appeared in the kitchen in a Navy uniform. He looked proud and happy.

There was nothing for him on Cape Cod, he said. He was going to get a skill and begin a real career. Somewhat trepidatiously, we wished him well.

"At least, he won't be sent to Iraq," we said after he left.

I loved the younger brother from the start. He slouched perpetually, as if to deny the lanky truth of who he was becoming, and turned crimson if you said so much as hello to him.

When people gathered in the "break area," which consists of a picnic table by the dumpster, the younger brother was always standing at the periphery, looking uncomfortable.

His was a stance, a way of being in the world, that I understood all too well. I would always go over and try to pull him into the conversation. When he reddened and fled, I understood that too.

By this year, however, the younger brother had taken possession of both himself and who he was in the work place. He joked. He initiated conversations. He loved to give hugs.

It was great to see him the other night on the dance floor, flailing his arms and legs wildly in flagrant celebration of the cliche "white men can't dance" .

When I ran into him near the bar, he gave me one of his famous hugs.

"Thanks for being so friendly to me when I first came here," he said. "My first couple of weeks, you were the only one who talked to me."

I asked him if he'd seen the "free hugs" video, and told me it always made me think of him. He hadn't, but promised to check it out.

Then the talk drifted to the subject of his brother. By then, we all knew that enlisting in the Navy was no protection from being sent to Iraq.

Michael is now in his second tour. People at work have written to him regularly, sending him goofy pictures of the antics that go on in the kitchen, cartons of Cape Cod Potato Chips, and socks. He always seems to need socks.

"We haven't heard from him in over a month," the brother said. "We don't even know where he is."

"Your parents must be so worried," the mother in me blurted out. It was probably the wrong thing to say.

The younger brother's eyes changed, but he didn't look away. "It's all they think about. Really, it's all any of us think about."

Then he hugged me again. But this time the hug felt different. This time I could feel the anxiety that this high school senior lives with every day.

It was still with me when the party ended. Sometimes the war in Iraq is not what you hear about in the news, not a bumper sticker sentiment, not a political sound bite. It's one kid, who hasn't been heard from in a month. One worried family.


Zhoen said...

I'm crying. Such helpless tears. At the loss and the stupidity, the pointlessness. I grew up with a brother in the Air Force during Vietnam. I went to Gulf War I. I cannot allow myself to think about all the people over there, or I can't get up, can't stop the tears.

Please pass on my heartfelt anguish for him, and his brother, and his family.

The Curmudgeon said...

It is scary.

I have a cousin, a Captain in the Naval Reserve, who joked that he joined up because -- even if you got sent to war -- you'd have a bunk, clean sheets and food. Much better than a ground pounder in the infantry.

This "Dirt Sailors" concept -- that's what sailors in Iraq are being called -- messes that theory up entirely. I have a client who just came back -- a CPO -- a cook by trade, so far as the Navy was concerned. He was guarding truck convoys in Iraq and Kuwait. He has marksmanship medals. (Which for one thing means you'd probably better not complain about his cooking.)

Because Iraq is a war without a front line, even "support personnel" are truly in harm's way, all the time.

Not getting political here: I just hope and pray for the safe return of all our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in combat areas.

Anonymous said...

With a son nine training flights away from being "battle ready" flying F-15s ... I dread the days when this young man's story will be mine. I am glad you are all supporting him by being so kind.

Anonymous said...

The war has taken on a personal face through the story of this young man and his brother. My heart goes out to his family.

Sky said...

this post is heartbreaking, just like the war we are fighting in iraq. i wish michael safety and health and a homecoming fit for a king.

Sustenance Scout said...

Ditto, Patry. Another memorable story; let's hope it has a happy ending. Please be sure to post when you hear news about Michael. Your readers might like to send cards to soldiers stationed abroad through Curmudgeon's reference to Iraq being a "war without a frontline" is so sad and true. K.

Anonymous said...

This post and the comments gave me goose bumps! In Canada, we worry about our soldiers in Afghanistan, another place "without a frontline". Praying for happy endings all round.

Patry Francis said...

zhoen: It's healing to cry together, though the frustration remains. I knew you would understand.

curmudgeon: You make a number of good points--especially when you say that it is a war without a frontline, thus you never know where the danger may occur. I'm with you--praying and hoping for those young and not so young service people to return safely.

becca: One of the things I hate most about this war is the invisibility of those who are making the greatest sacrifices. I'm hoping that at least, within their own communities and workplaces, all the soldiers are feeling the kind of support Michael has. Many good thoughts and prayers go out to your family, and especially your son.

coll: I think that's what we often don't see--the personal face of the war.

sky: Thanks for the obviously heartfelt words. "A homecoming fit for a king." Yes, I hope for that, too.

karen: I will definitely post whatever I hear about Michael, who I
plan to write to tonight. Thanks for noting the Website for those who feel inclined to offer some support to a soldier. It's definitely a worthy thing to do.

marja-leena: Thanks for the reminder that it's not only Americans who are
caught up in this war without a frontline--or a clear end.

MB said...

Patry, there is a song we dedicate to those overseas when we perform it. Those we know, relatives, friends, and those we don't know, and those who are waiting to know, are held in my heart every time. Thank you for writing this.

NoVA Dad said...

Thank you for sharing that -- I can only echo Coll and say that this has been given a more personal face through this story.

On a happier note, it sounds as if you and I would do very well at a party together: I dread going through the process of getting ready and going, but once I'm there you can't drag me away!!

Patry Francis said...

mb: I don't know if it's possible, but if you put up a link to that song, I'm sure a lot of people would love to hear it.

rdl said...

I hope that they hear soon!! and that he is well.

donna said...

Sigh. Just interviewed today for a consulting gig with a company doing VR headsets for simulations as a part of PTSD therapy. Their paper said 16-17% of Iraq vets are coming home with PTSD symptoms.

Even for the survivors, there's a great toll from this war.

Mindy Tarquini said...

My nephew's a second lieutenant. He'll be deployed next summer.

It'll be okay. It'll be okay. It'll be okay be okay be okay be okay beokay...

Patry Francis said...

r: Sons are so precious. How well we know...

matt: Glad to know there's someone else out there who shares my schizo attitude toward parties. And thanks for your well wishes for Michael!

donna: I'm actually surprised the percentages aren't higher.

m.g.: I'm echoing your chant for your nephew...and for all the men and women in his situation. Peace to you.

Anonymous said...

God, I hope they get good news. You know that feeling when your child is even a half hour late coming home from school?

I can't imagine this.


Patry Francis said...

Tish: How well I know that feeling. The late school bus. The child who momentarily disappears in the mall. Listening for the car the first time they stay out past midnight in high school. What could ever prepare you for this kind of waiting?

Anonymous said...

The 'peacekeeping mission' or whatever they're calling it right now, became a lot more than the nightly news last month when my younger daughter's close friend from middle school was killed in Iraq. It becomes so much more personal when you know one person's story. She was a reader, a dreamer, an artist - that just wanted to make enough money through her tour to go to fashion design school. These recruiter's promises and incentives, for young people...Why don't we have some other type of government service for kid's to earn education dollars, other than putting themselves in a war zone?

As much as that shook me - all of our family - up, I can only imagine how these parents must be feeling.

I'm praying all's well with your young friend's brother.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post.

Being ex-Canadian military, I have friends in Af and I hold my breath whenever there's a NATO fatality announced, until I know if it's someone I know.

Having also a pile of kin in the USA, of whom three are presently in Iraq in various services, I never seem to get a full breath before I am holding it again.

I really, really hope that my friends and family have people like you giving emotional support to them and their family members during these anxious days.

Shannon Hopkins said...

My daughter's friend is being pursued by a recruiter who senses her ambivalence about her prospects. He's making her all sorts of promises: "Don't worry. The war will be over before your training is done. You won't get sent to Iraq. If you join the x/y/z, you won't get sent..." He calls her, takes her to lunch, tells her she's so smart she'll be an officer and never be near the action. I tell her, "It's lies. If you join, you'll end up in Iraq or Afghanistan or somewhere violent and dangerous, and you'll come back someone else. There are other ways to go to college. Please don't fall for it." I think it's a disgrace that recruiters are allowed in the schools. They march the hallways in their shiny uniforms and bright medals, and kids without money or support for college feel it's their only option. I pray for all the troops abroad, and for all the kids who join the military thinking one thing, and then find out another.

gerry rosser said...

It is incredible to me that my country initiates war against those who, if we but took reasonably easy steps, would not have the ability to harm us, and who probably don't have the intent to do so anyway.

Patry Francis said...

tinker: What a heartbreaking story, and what a loss for everyone who will never have the opportunity to know this young woman or be blessed by her talents.

jeb: I find it hard to believe that friends, co-workers, and neighbors wouldn't offer whatever support they could to the soldiers caught up in a war they didn't begin and have no power to end. Wishing peace and safety to your family and friends. And to all of us.

tarakuanyin: One of my son's friends was successfully recruited in just such a way last year. Though he joined the army, he was told it was very unlikely that a person with his skills would be sent to Iraq. Guess where he is now?

gerry: It seems obvious now that the invasion has created more danger than it quelled.

Writertobe said...

I sincerely hope the young guy will get back to his family safe and sound.

My Iraqi friend just told me that one of her cousins died few days ago. He left behind six little kids.

That is the ugly face of war.

Let's pary it will stop soon.

Anonymous said...

sereeb: Thank you for reminding us of the incalculable losses the Iraqi people have suffered in this war. Please convey my sorrow to your friend for her family's terrible
loss. And yes. We must all pray and work for peace.


(for some reason blogger isn't accepting my password today)

Kay Cooke said...

What can I say? I feel for the parents ... It just makes me feel sad and powerless.

Lorna said...

I wish George W could read this post and its comments. Hell, I wish George W could read.

Dave said...

Thanks Patry - and everybody - for an eye-opening post and message string.

But the truth is I'm the kind of person who has to be dragged to a party--and then, once I start talking and laughing and drinking my beer, I'm the last to leave.
I, too, chuckled with recognition at that.

robin andrea said...

It's the anonymity of war that keeps it safe and off our radar screen. We don't see the flag-draped caskets. We may hear a name on the news, if the soldier, sailor, reservist happened to live in the community. Our lives are so untouched. Then I read about someone named Michael, and I remember that while I'm enjoying the fall colors, watching the sun rise through a light fog, there is a war our country tries to hide. I wish all the Michaels could come home safely. Now.

Patry Francis said...

chiefbiscuit: "Sad and powerless"--that speaks for so many of us.

lorna: It's been said elsewhere and better, but if those in power had to send their own children to the war, I wonder if the sound bites would roll of their tongues so easily.

dave: The comments here have been enlightening to me as well. They've given a glimpse of how many people--in various parts of the world--are enduring the same anxiety Micheal's family is experiencing.

robin andrea: The anonymity is deadly--and heartbreaking. Thanks for being there.

Anonymous said...

Whew! Patry, send this somewhere. Maybe a commentary for the Globe? It so needs to be heard ... distilled down into this human truth.

Anonymous said...

That's so true--and we have to keep making it personal. Otherwise we numb ourselves to the staggering numbers of losses we hear recited on the news. Over the 4th of July, we took a quick road trip to Oregon and on impulse decided to drive back through the central part of the state. A young man from one of those small Central Oregon towns had been the victim of not just the war, but had been one of the ones who'd been tortured first. We stopped along the chain-link fence on the main drag where many had left flowers and stuffed animals and candles. And it really, really hit home what a devastating loss EACH of those deaths is.

paris parfait said...

Oh, wow! That really puts things in perspective. It just breaks my heart how these kids have to grow up so fast and face such terrible anxieties. Thanks for sharing the story of the party and your friends and co-workers.