March 17th 2021: DEROS + 50

DEROS=Date Expected Return (from) Overseas

Fifty years ago today I came home from Vietnam. On March 17th 1971 I left Cam Ranh Bay for Seattle, and then a short bus trip to Ft. Lewis where I left the army. My first official act that day, after leaving the plane and finding my duffel bag, was calling my mother. I stood in line waiting for a pay phone to become available. Standing in line had become routine for me; in the military that’s almost a job description. When a phone booth opened up, I called home, and when mom answered I greeted her: ‘Top-o-the-mornin’ to you, mother’. I said. She was, of course, thrilled to hear from her son safely home from the war. I told her I planned to fly to LA, visit with my Uncle Dick, her brother, then come home to Ohio. Above, I’ve just arrived at LAX where my uncle met me, and then it was on to Columbus.

My return from Vietnam was a strange time for me, a time lacking in direction or purpose. As dispiriting as the war had been, at least my tour in South Asia had given me a solid, unwavering purpose, a singular goal that kept me going day after day: Get out of Vietnam alive.

Pictured above, the day before I left Vietnam. I’ve gathered up my military-issue company gear, prepared to hand it in, and leave Vietnam. I’d reached my goal: I’d survived!

Combat assault Vietnam 1970

Back in Ohio I had no goal, no particular purpose. In many ways it feels like that today, almost as if I still seek that purpose. I won’t speak for my Vietnam vet colleagues, but the war left me adrift for a long time. It’s passing strange that a year in the orient should lead to such disorientation. Kipling was right about east and west when he wrote ‘ne’er the twain shall meet’.

One thing my year in Vietnam brought me was an urgency to question everything I’d ever believed, or thought I did, or was told I did. For the past fifty years I’ve questioned everything, abandoned things, embraced others, and still question many more. I wrote about what Vietnam did to and for me. In A Vietnam Anthem, What the War Gave Me, I describe a few of the changes and adjustments the war offered, and the role it played in making me the man I am today, both good and not so good.

The things I’ve discarded I will never miss. The only regret I have about them is the time I wasted trying to fit square pegs into round holes. Those things I’ve retained give me purpose and hope; indeed, those treasured things have steeled and supported me. Here are some of those items, kept and discarded, and my observations on these topics fifty years after Vietnam:

Love: I’ve found the love of my life. That’s all I need to say concerning the woman who shares my life, my bed, my kitchen, my values, my thoughts, and my dreams. I am the richest man alive. Period.

Children: Three beautiful women I’m overjoyed to know, and who rock my world in ways I knew they could. They give me hope that the future is female, and it’s in good hands.

Grandchildren: I have five of them now, and though I can’t begin to match those tiny humans’ energy level, they fill me with wonder as they interact with their world. They’re unencumbered by traditional obstacles and impediments, the myth and magic that constrained me at their age. They’ll have far fewer items to discard, I’m guessing. I marvel as I envision the world they’ll see, the wonders and astonishments that await them.

Religion: Religion’s cultish habits are some of those constraints I endured growing up, and that I’ve discarded. When I was a child, I spake as a child, as 1st Corinthians has it. Now that I’m no longer a child, I’ve unshackled myself from childish beliefs like god, and religion, and make-believe beings adrift in the sky.

For many years I tried to make sense of the religion I was immersed in, but I no longer pretend it makes sense, because it doesn’t. I don’t malign anyone’s beliefs; if religion provides comfort and solace to some, I’m happy for them. Since Vietnam and our subsequent ill-conceived wars, especially since 9/11 and the debacle that followed in Iraq, I’ve abandoned such blind, often fanatical devotion to religion. I now believe it is and has been the single most corrosive and divisive force in human history. Shedding my religious branding was painful, and it didn’t happen overnight, but I’ve broken its chains. The feeling of relief is immense.

Race: W.E.B. DuBois said the twentieth century in America would have race as its principal marker. In this new century, little has changed. Black Americans continue to be marginalized, beaten, and killed solely for having an abundance of melanin. Those people are martyrs—call them what they truly are—in the ongoing battle against Caucasian privilege in America. How Black people continue to maintain their belief and patience in this country is a mystery to me. We should be glad their demand is only for equality, and not for revenge.

The only hope I have that America will finally overcome her race-based madness came to me, ironically, out of the ridiculous ‘birther’ nonsense concerning Barack Obama. Here’s the irony: The theory almost had me convinced of its validity, simply because I’m not at all certain America in its color-phobic state had the capacity to produce such an exemplary human being as Mr. Obama. Thus, I once thought, they’re right; he could not have been born and raised here. But America did produce him. Perhaps we’ll be okay after all?

Equality: Despite our shameful history, and our seeming intransigence toward becoming ‘a more perfect union,’ the U.S. slouches forward toward the nation we’ve long claimed to be, but never have been. Women still lack full equality and agency. LGBTQ+ Americans are still marginalized. Trans Americans still fear for their lives in 21st century America! These egregious sins are both astonishing and dispiriting to me. Surely we’re better than this. Aren’t we? Please tell me we are.

Politics: As a life-long democrat, my position did not change because of Vietnam; it hardened. Recently, I’ve heard fellow progressives like me maligned for our views: Namely that racial & LGBTQ+ equality, fairness, justice, a living wage, sensible gun legislation, quality education, universal healthcare, full voting access, renewable energy, climate equity, criminal justice reform, accessible housing, veterans’ assistance, and transparency in government are radical ideas? I don’t know how else to respond to this indictment except to say that I believe the dismissal of these items is the truly radical idea.

Current affairs: Reading the above one might conclude that I’ve given up on America. I have not. It’s just that, since Vietnam, I truly understand what America means. And it’s not what a lot of people think it does. If people persist in the definition of America as a country, or a jaunty-looking, somewhat priapic-appearing parcel of real estate nestled between two oceans, we’ll never be able to have nice things.

Here’s my definition of America: It is not a country. Yes, there’s a bit of real estate involved, a priapic-shaped slice of dirt tucked underneath Canada, while resting heavily atop Mexico—in more ways than one. But that’s not what/who we are. America is an idea. That’s all it is. I don’t wish to minimize that, because it’s a fine and truly radical idea: Some years past, in the fading years of the eighteenth century, for the first time in human history a group of people decided—decided, mind you, they weren’t forced—decided to gather together, to put aside their tribal, and cultural, and linguistic, and religious, and other divisive aspects and form a collaborative society. They surrendered and discarded previous nationalistic conventions to embrace a whole new label: American. America is an experiment that had never been attempted before, not ever.

Sadly, a few of my fellows apparently nodded off in civics class, and labor under the false belief that America is just another country, a parcel of property like all others, and it ‘belongs’ to them, or folks who think like them at all events. It isn’t a country; America is an idea, and a darned good one. In fact, it’s such a wonderful idea that I think we ought try it sometime. Either that, or we should change the documents we claim to revere, those sacred papers residing in our national archive that speak of life, liberty, equality, the rule of law, and the pursuit of happiness. This may be the most dispiriting thing I’ve encountered since coming home from Vietnam, the hypocrisy of it all, the cognitive dissonance between what those founding documents claim we believe, and what we do in the public street. What was I fighting for and defending half a century ago in Vietnam? Please don’t tell me it was all for nothing.

Fifty years ago today I left Vietnam. In that half century I’ve been filled with hope that we’re progressing. And I’ve been filled with despair that we’re regressing. At times I’ve wondered if perhaps I’m just too damned idealistic, if my yearning for a better, more equal, gentler and fully functioning America is a pipe dream? With our national disgrace of war in South Asia, and the embarrassment and shame I felt from my participation in it, I have no choice but to question everything. We all should.

You could say it took me fifty years to write this piece. Now I must hope that, having lost our way all those years ago, that someday, I hope, in the short years I have remaining to me, that America will find its way, address the unfinished business right here at home, and become the nation we’ve always claimed to be. I hope I didn’t answer the call to fight for a country that won’t look at its own history, and then refuse do the hard work of setting things right for all of its citizens. I hope we can find the courage to finally do that. Fifty years from now my grandkids will know the answer to that question. Here’s hoping the changes are some of those wonders and astonishments that await them.

Thank you for reading my blog. And top-o-the mornin’ to ya!

Book Review: Loonshots

Here we have a book delving into ‘phase separation,’ and ‘dynamic equilibrium,’ and the Bush-Vail theory, in other words, a book that promises to be technical…and is. But it also explains why society moves forward once we get out of our own way, and let the lunatics have their chances. Loonshots could be their chance.

Loonshot launchers don’t seem to restrict themselves to technology, either. The author ranges over several disciplines & characters: Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Vannevar Bush, Theodore Vail, WW-2 and the transistor, why we speak English and not Chinese, Papin & his ‘digester of bones.’ There’s something in this book for every nerd and every geek.

It explains the difference between P-type loonshots, based on existing products, and S-type loonshots that are strategic initiatives. It also shows why certain companies & products once seen as invulnerable crash and burn, despite attempts by their principles to right the ship. Pan Am airlines is the example given. That once proud, and dominant airline, the largest and most venerable line in the world, failed in such spectacular fashion once deregulation came along, that industry experts are still scratching their heads.

After reading Loonshots, I can’t say I truly understand the importance of its premise, but I am convinced that we’d be worse off without them. And we’d likely be speaking Chinese. Pan Am captains once had people asking for their autographs. That’s how popular their employer was, and the esteem Pan Am held in the world. Within a few short years the airline lost that exalted status, and sank into oblivion. Anyone born after 1960 won’t remember when Pan Am ruled the skies.

Loonshots explains how that happened, and will continue to happen, unless societies lunatics are free to take their shots. Four stars only because the book became a bit too technical in the middle.

Book Review: The Happy Bottom Riding Club

In recognition of International Women’s Day, a review of one of my favorite books, from Dr. Lauren Kessler a woman who is one of my favorite authors, about another woman who is perhaps the most fascinating, mystifying, irritating, engaging, and colorful characters in aviation history. Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes was… Well, here’s the review of The Happy Bottom Riding Club..

Here we have a biography of a woman who was, arguably, one of the more colorful, outrageous, and engaging characters of her time, or perhaps any time. Referring to Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes as an early feminist would be akin to calling Mary Shelley a good author, or Gloria Steinem a decent magazine editor. Pancho Barnes grew up immersed in monetary wealth, but she made a conscious decision early on to live her life free of the trappings (pun intended) of that wealth. Indeed, Ms Barnes’ most endearing, or perhaps most aggravating trait seemed to be her disdain for money, and her conscious effort to spend it faster than it arrived in her pocket.

Inheriting her carefree attitude from a beloved grandfather, she emulated the fellow all her life. Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe made a name for himself as the first to fly a balloon in the Civil War. Grandpa Thaddeus adored young Florence, and the feeling was mutual. He told his darling granddaughter that she would fly one day, but Grampa Thaddeus had no idea just how far, and in what fashion the future Pancho Barnes would do so. She idolized her grandfather, and vowed to go well beyond his exploits.

Here’s how far. Pancho Barnes came by her name on one of her many daredevil adventures in Mexico, one of several forays she embarked on in her rush to escape the boredom of her staid, circumscribed life in moneyed California. She became one of the first women in America to fly her own airplane, married early and often, the first time to a preacher, then took several men as her lovers, and married three others. She traveled the world looking for the next cure for her restlessness, refusing to submit to the conventions of her time, particularly those concerning female deportment.

The author has succeeded in painting a portrait of a life lived at the edges, and without regard to social approval. She’s written the book with care, and with a well developed sense of the journalist’s style, refusing to judge, leaving that to readers. Just the facts, ma’am, is the mantra here, and Kessler holds that line throughout. The writing is expositive without being breezy, informative without adulation, and well researched in its insights and detail. This is a history book without meaning to be. Anyone curious about the background of aviation in America and/or womens’ place in it will latch onto this book and explore it cover to cover. Pancho Barnes wasn’t just present at the creation of womens’ aviation history she made a lot of it. In any scene at her club in the Mojave Desert, where icons of early aviation gathered, Pancho Barnes is close by, slapping backs, filling shot glasses, sharing flying yarns with the likes of Chuck Yeager, Jake Ridley, Ike Northrup and many other test pilots. She’d done her share of those exploits, and was accepted among those men as an equal. Why women don’t figure more prominently in aviation history is even more curious considering the activities of Pancho Barnes and women like her.

Rich man’s daughter & granddaughter, aviator, songwriter, lover of countless men, movie actor/stunt pilot, screenwriter, land speculator and creator of The Happy Bottom Riding Club, Pancho Barnes crafted a life that never stopped until the day she died. Not exactly a positive role model for young women perhaps, but, maybe so… As the author has done, we leave that to readers. Five stars, and I don’t award those very often.

Book Review: On Living

Here we have a book by a counselor to the dying, someone on the front lines of the end of life battle. Egan’s book is full of anecdotal essays that range from the profound with a fellow named ‘Reggie’, who offers Egan a connection based on Saltines and strawberry jam, to the near-comical with ‘Gloria’, (though her story will give anyone’s heart a painful tug), to the revelation we gain from ‘Cynthia’ that we must accept our bodies as they are. Gloria demystifies the dying process, explaining that it serves to remove any filter we may have, allowing us to speak freely. This is a valuable aspect of dying, however difficult it may be to listen to certain stories. For example: Gloria explains this by referring to a delicate bodily function she can no longer do, since she’s convinced herself that she lacks the aperture associated with it! We learn a lot from Egan’s small, but expansive book: that people don’t typically talk about a god, but about their families; that counseling the demented is both the hardest & the easiest assignment; that we must be willing to follow up people’s stories, but that doing so may alter our own lives; that regardless of how strange and exotic others’ end of life beliefs may be, we must accept them as they’re delivered, and meet people where they are. One of the more important takeaways from On Living is that counselors to the dying, and that may be any one of us in time, must absolutely meet people where they are. The author refers to a phenomenon called Pareidolia, a human tendency—scientifically documented—that causes us to see human faces and forms in inanimate objects. It explains why some people see angels, Egan explains. She goes on: Who’s to say they’re not real? The most important message in On Living is this: Stories are what have defined the lives of the dying, and what have assigned value to those lives. In dismissing anyone’s story, we devalue their life, claiming that whatever they have done with it didn’t matter. There are no ‘nonsense’ stories; everyone’s story is central to who they are, and instead of an imposition, listening and hearing those end of life stories is a privilege. Egan has learned to listen very well.

Book Review: Pilots Write Poetry?

Whimsical, and Wonderful

I didn’t know much about Haikus before reading this little book of them, but it made me want to read more. The inscription in Latin verba volant; scripta manent (spoken words fly; written words endure) may seem almost backward for a book about aviation, which this book mostly is. But the meaning is clear: words are important either way, and since pilots’ words, especially over radios and in cockpit communication are vitally important in their trade, it’s good to see them compiled in poetry for a change. A delightful little book, with illustrations by children of pilots, and haikus in 6 different categories: poems about empathy, affirmation, the beauty of the earth, and the wry humor that exists among airline crews. There’s something for everyone. Plus, proceeds from the book help aviation folks get through the pandemic, which has disrupted their industry, causing furloughs and uncertainty. So good for Captain Linda Pauwels for putting this together, and adding to the collection of flying tales in such a whimsical way.

Book Review: Hamnet

The source of Shakespeare’s Passion?

Hamnet is the most captivating and well crafted novel I’ve read for a very long time. O’Farrell’s wonderful tale of love, and seduction, passion and death, myth and medicinals, plague and playhouses in 16th century England grabbed me from the first page, and would not let me go at the last. I will carry Agnes, the tutor, Susanna, Judith, Bartholomew, Mary, John, and most especially Hamnet with me forever. This story is wrenching, insightful, and quite possibly true as source material for the greatest play in the English language. We can only speculate what might have been had young Hamnet lived to follow his famous father. Would those plays have entered the canon? Or would the famous father not felt such overpowering grief to write them? It’s a question that perhaps only young Hamnet himself might answer. This simple, unread and unschooled eleven-year old may have been the catalyst for the torrent of literary marvels his father obsessed himself with, his death at such a tender age awakening the muse that brought us a flood of immortal works. Five stars only because there aren’t ten to give!

Review: The Book of Calamities

Human suffering through the ages

Here we have a book that takes us into the depths of all that comprises human suffering. Five questions, each with its own painful and diligent explanation/answer, read almost like the various circles of Dante’s hell. Why me? How do I endure? What is just? What does my suffering say about me? About God? And finally, What do I owe those who suffer? The author cites several characters throughout history who we’ve come to associate with suffering: Boethius, Gilgamesh & Enkidu, Joan Didion, Victor Frankl, Simone Weil, Thich Nhat Han, and several others who declaim from their own perspective.

Trachtenberg circles around one particular cause of all human suffering, religiosity and its singular mission to, as the author says, ‘…raise human beings to heaven on a tower of corpses.’ He examines this further, concluding that our attraction to religion derives from the fact that humans are ‘order seeking animals’ and that religion is ‘man’s revolt against mortality.’

This book may be singular insofar as, for this reader at least, its author seems more interesting than his topic. Trachtenberg appears to have written this work largely from his own deep dive into the very depths of misery described here. His conclusion seems to be that, to answer any of the five questions, human beings must experience misery, perversion, violence, and depravity first hand. Those of us living modern, sanitized lives quite possibly cannot understand this most basic of human queries: As Gilgamesh asks, ‘Must I, too, lie down like him (Enkidu) and never rise again?’ Caution, readers, you may want a dictionary close by. Example: To scry = to foretell; Oubliette = a secret dungeon. There are others.

EOL: The Chat We’re Not Having

No need to be alarmed, friends, and no need to pay keener attention if you happen to be a beneficiary to my laughingly meager estate. I’m as healthy and sound as any near 73-year-old might be, and probably sounder than most, if perhaps a bit grumpy and too quick to snarl at certain things, hopelessly confusing digital products and republicans, for example. I’m fine. Really. Relax.

But yes, there is a common theme to the books pictured above: We’re beginning an endeavor, first at the local level, later on, we hope, with a broader reach, to encourage people to tend to their end of life wishes, desires, specifics, and loose ends. It’s a long story.

Suffice to say that both Mariah and I, having worked in the vineyard of emergency medicine for several years, have seen far too much flagrant inattention to the details of our collective demise, too much ignorance (Ignore-Ance) of the way that we in our hyper-medicalized society always seem shocked and unprepared for life’s ultimate inevitability. Did you know that you’re going to die? Astonishing, isn’t it? I know, I was amazed to hear it myself. Who knew?

About the book picture: One thing you’ll see posted here on a regular basis is book reviews, not just about EOL issues, but about the literary works I’ve been drawn to recently, and a few not so recently. It is indeed one of retired life’s deepest pleasures to have (almost) sufficient time to read what one wishes, without the aggravating interruptions of modern life, kid concerns, career distractions, loud noises, and the incessant social obligations that once defined our younger years. I’ve become resigned, even thrilled by the lack of interest of late in discussions of my bladder issues, or my real feelings about the new hearing aids, or remembrances of favorite TV shows of yore, Lassie, and Laugh-In, and the ever popular, madcap antics of Andy & Barney & Aint Bea & Opie. I’ve discovered that the fastest way to clear the room may be asking who shot JR? Life is good at 73.

THE 3 MASKETEERS

The picture above is Mariah and me, and mom Rosie. We 3 Masketeers live together in relative harmony here in the middle of the country, in the middle of an Iowa winter, in the middle of the apparently waning pandemic. We navigate the standard discomforts of shuffling around each other, making the adjustments called for in any family setting. All that, plus Rosie’s advanced age, the winter of her life, have given us added motivation to focus on EOL stuff.

So here’s your homework, dear readers. In my diminished sentience & inattention to such things, I no longer know to whom I’m writing. If you’d be so kind, take a moment to advise me #1, if you did indeed receive this post, and #2, if you’d like to continue receiving them.

And I suppose number three might be this: If you’d like more info on EOL, end of life issues, and/or you have an interesting and valuable story pertaining to that topic, we’d love to hear about it. Speaking of EOL stories, in my next post, and with deference to HIPAA guidelines, I’ll mention a fellow named Daniel, one of my helicopter patient/passengers some foggy years hence. Daniel’s story will chill your arms, I guarantee it. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading. Please let me hear from you. Many thanks.

The Senate Must Convict

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The U.S. Senate has the unenviable task of trying an impeached (former) president, deciding whether or not to convict him, thereby erasing any future plan he may have to hold public office. This is one man’s opinion of why the senate must convict Donald Trump, and make his banishment real, and permanent.

First of all, Trump’s incitation of those who committed insurrection against our symbols and structures of government is clear to any reasonable person. The lit match was not struck on January 6th 2021, but much, much earlier, as far back as Charlottesville in August 2017. The fuse may have been 4 years long, but it led from Trump to those terrorists and their nihilistic assault nonetheless.

Secondly, the most sacred edifice in our democratic republic was assaulted by an unruly mob intent on subverting our democracy. This was the biggest crime against ‘We the People’ ever to have been perpetrated by residents of this country. Why are we even discussing its criminality, or the degree of it? That was not an out of control frat party. It was a crime. Against all of us.

Thirdly, those men who took to the streets at Trump’s behest had clearly abandoned fealty to the U.S. in favor of loyalty to him. The last time enemies of our state breached such a symbol of our national existence those ‘thugs’ were wearing red coats, and serving under the aegis of King George the 3rd. Would we be debating the level of their crimes? Might we be contemplating how egregious their breach was? Those men invading our Capitol in January were American citizens, you say? Were they? Were they really? Their actions do not fit my definition of citizenship.

Thirdly, any hesitation by GOP members of the senate to convict Donald Trump would be an act of desperation and venality, an effort more to secure standing and electability than patriotism to the country they claim to serve. Let this be a litmus test, simple documentation of just how seriously members of that august body take their oath to preserve and defend the U.S. Constitution.

If those GOP members need fig leaves, the polite adornments of many cowardly and self-serving politicians over the years, here are readily available articles of drapery: Mr. Trump cost the GOP two seats in Georgia, the state itself, Arizona, a GOP bastion, numerous members of their party who are defecting, and recently the support and monetary indulgence of numerous previous big dollar donors. In addition, the man those self-styled commandos marched down Pennsylvania Avenue for once again remained embunkered, due to inflamed bone spurs no doubt. His rabid and ragtag army have now given themselves over to be prosecuted for their misguided loyalty. I feel certain that GOP members who hesitate to convict Trump can use this laundry list, spun in whichever way they choose, to thereby retain their seats.

I hesitate to add this factor, but I must: If those criminals Trump incited had been black men and women, there would have been a bloodbath in our Capitol’s hallowed halls. If we’re serious in this nation about addressing the scourge of white supremacy, can there be a better, more propitious moment and circumstance to prove the gravity of our intent? Convicting the phosphorescently white Donald Trump of inciting his mob of caucasian lackeys will send a clear, unmistakeable signal that the words of equality under law in our sacred document are real, and true, and enforceable on all, without exceptions based on pigmentation.

Lastly, the senate must convict Donald Trump to send a clear and immutable message down the ages: Those who choose to undermine our sacred institutions, or to attack the governing mechanisms we hold dear, will be punished to the law’s full extent. If this signal is not sent, we will in some future place and time see another charismatic leader, one much smarter and craftier than the stupid and unimaginative Donald Trump, succeed where he did not. The senate needs to act in unambiguous fashion, with its full authority, and with haste. The U.S. Senate must convict Donald Trump, and remove him from ever serving in elected office again.

Thanks for reading. Please contact your legislative leaders.

Blood & Stitches: An Allegory

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When I was a strapping 11 year old bumpkin, I was riding my Huffy 3 speed bike one lazy afternoon alongside a row of parked cars, enjoying life as only a foolish young boy can, in other words wholly thoughtless and oblivious to reality. At one point, for reasons still unknown to me lo these many decades hence, I decided to try a little trick riding, just to see what might happen. Pedaling along, I switched hands, right hand over left on the handlebars, to test whether or not I could maintain control of the bicycle in such backward, criss-crossed fashion.

Dear reader, I could not. The very next thing I remember I was crawling from under a parked ’57 Chevy, my somewhat disheveled Huffy 3 speed wedged beneath the car, and with a stinging road rash tormenting my right knee. Plus, and this took a bit of time to discover, I was dripping blood. A throb in my cheek grew in intensity, becoming more urgent by the second. I probed my cheek, tracing the source of the blood—there was a substantial amount of it—soon landing with an attending yelp on a deep gash just under my left eye.

I stood, knees wobbling, slightly disoriented, more than a little confused as to why I was in fact bleeding profusely, my cheek now on fire with pain, with my bicycle oddly ensconced under a ’57 Chevy. What in the name of all that is sane and sober, or least explicable, had happened to me?

Then I saw the shards of plastic. Scattered about my feet were several pieces of red plastic, the reason for their placement there a mystery to me, until the fog in my addled brain cleared a bit, and I looked at the back of that vehicle. The Chevy’s left rear turn signal housing had been shattered, its red plastic pieces and parts now in a random pile where I stood. I began piecing together (not the plastic parts, that was an impossibility,) but the previous minute or so of my trick-riding life, and the event that had resulted in all that busted plastic. Evidently, in my adolescent insouciance, when I’d criss-crossed my mitts on the handlebars I’d immediately lost control, and vaulted off the bicycle, smashing face first into the car’s rear light display, breaking the turn signal housing, with said plastic pieces in turn carving up my face.

Knee and cheek throbbing, blood blinding me, I managed to free the bike from its entrapment, rejiggered the somewhat wonkerjawed handlebars, checked to see if my attempted heroics had been witnessed, (they had not been, as far as I could see), and rode home straightaway. My mother took one look, ordered me into the car, and grabbed the keys. One hour, and ten stitches later I was resting at home, not much the worse for wear.

My collision with that plastic taillight assembly happened six decades ago. The stitch mark is long healed, its once obvious scar no longer in evidence. But I still cannot explain the why and wherefore of my chuckleheaded attempt that day to drive my Huffy by using opposing hands on its guiding mechanism. What ever was I thinking? Such youthful misadventures explain, I suppose, why 11 year olds heal faster than their elders, and perhaps also why women live longer than men, though that reasoning would have escaped me at age 11.

I thought about this incident in my childhood just this evening, as I stood under a hot shower contemplating the events of the last two days in the U.S. It seemed a fair allegory, lending itself to America’s reckless and disheartening, albeit bumpy and chaotic ride during our recent past. It will take us a fair amount of time to fully understand and process exactly what happened to us as a people over the course of the past four years: Why our national norms and traditions seem just now to be littering the street like so much shattered plastic; why nearly half a million of our fellows lie lifeless as if unsaddled by a viral pandemic; why our collective conveyance of unity and civil dialogue lie twisted and wonkerjawed: and why we need, in the midst of all of the crisscrossed messaging and innuendo to stitch together our national confidence and idealism.

As I watched our new president recite his inaugural, I sensed a new and better mood creeping in, a refreshing wave of honest if harsh reality entering our national consciousness. Once blinded and wobbly by what has happened to us—even now we’re not entirely certain what it was—I sense that despite the busted pieces and parts, despite the bloody evidence and aching throb of disappointment, despite the confusion and bewilderment just now we can see our way home. And something else: We know there are stitches in our future, perhaps a lot of them.

We’ve picked ourselves up. We’ve traced the source of our injury, we’ve yelped a bit if we’re honest, and though the pulsing pain may grow worse for a time, we know it will soon abate. We understand now, if we understand nothing else, that criss-crossing our once confident hands atop the rudders of guidance, our traditional tillers of honesty, decency, truth, and reverence for science and reality, those steering methods are thwarted at our peril.

We know something else as well. That unlike that addled, feckless youth who relied on untested and radical maneuvers, that the staid and solid system we’ve built works just fine, even after attempts to foil it. It steers us straight, and safe, and sure. It leaves us unharmed, and unbroken. It honors the dignity and property of others. Unlike that callow youth’s experience that day, we know that our collective criss-crossing was observed by many millions of others, that the resulting, one might even say inevitable collision was indeed witnessed by many astonished and disheartened allies, but also by emboldened and encouraged adversaries as well.

As I rested quietly that embarrassing afternoon of blood and stitches, my mother’s ice pack soothing the pain in my cheek, watching escapist kid fare on black and white TV, I tried to piece together the event that had put me there. Was it embarrassing? Yes, it was. Was it confusing? Indeed. Was I certain to never ever do such a thing ever again? Boy howdy. I was grateful I’d escaped it with as little injury as I had.

As oblivious as I was at 11 I understood how it had affected people around me. My mother had no need of a trip to an ER that afternoon, and as well no need or desire to pay for my medical attentions. My siblings, already tending toward jealousy, had little need or inclination to see me pampered, if only for an evening. My father was forced, by mother’s attentions to me, to prepare his own dinner, poor man. And the fellow whose Chevy I’d disfigured with my recklessness had no time or desire to replace his broken taillight. (Yes, I did dutifully inform him in the coming days that it was I who had done the damage.)

Back to the allegory: I believe we must now stand again, wobbly though we may be, broken and bleeding as we are, and stitch ourselves together once more. We must report our misdeeds and carelessness with openness and courage. We must fess up to the imposition we’ve caused, and make necessary amends. And we must, in the poetical cadence of a truly precious young woman named Amanda Gorman ‘…lay down our arms…so we can reach out our arms…to one another.* No more criss-crossing; no more trick-riding with our sacred values; no more tempting fate with the fragile and vital experiment we’ve been launched upon and entrusted with for 245 years.

I believe, dear friends, that this is the only position of any value for arms attempting to guide us.

Thank you for reading. Comments welcome.

* The Hill We Climb, Amanda Gorman