A New Lease on Life

Jackson came home from Iraq with one leg. He also came home with a changed attitude. He was happy. He was carefree. Instead of the worrywart that went off to war. He and his brother sat in The Laughing Pony in a quiet corner booth, drinking their beers.

“It’s like the world has been lifted from my shoulders,” he told his brother. “I feel lighter than air.”

Montgomery was the older of the two. “When are you going to see Mom and Dad?”

“I’m not,” Jacks said. “At least, not anytime soon. I just can’t face the Night of the Sad-eyes.”

“What?” Montgomery couldn’t believe what his brother was telling him.

“I just can’t face the Night of the Sad-eyes.” Then Jacks called out to the waitress for another pitcher of beer.

Monty poured the last of the beer from the pitcher on the table. “The Night of the Sad-eyes?” There was anger in his voice. He knew how much his parents’ had worried about Jacks. When they got the call that he was going to live, they were so relieved. Then they turned their relieve into worrying some more about how Jacks would get along with only one leg.

When Monty saw Jacks walk into the bar, he knew their concern was all for naught. The VA had fitted Jackson with a prosthesis. After six months of therapy, there was little reason to suspect that he had a fake right leg. His gait was a little stiff as he walked over to Monty’s booth. But it wasn’t noticeable if you weren’t watching the walk closely. Sure, Jacks leaned a little more on his left leg but most of us favor one leg over the other.

“Guess what?” Jacks said when he got to the booth and took his seat. “I grew a new leg.” A boyish grin appeared on his face. He stuck his right leg out and pulled his beige khakis up to show off his prosthetic leg.

The waitress brought a new pitcher over and took their empty one. Jacks smiled at the waitress and touched her hand. “Too bad you’re already taken,” he said.

“I’m not taken,” she said and smiled.

“What time do you get off?” Jacks asked.

“Around eleven,” the waitress answered and carried the empty pitcher back to the bar.

Turning to his brother, Jacks said, “I think she likes me. Think it will matter when she finds out.” He tapped his fake leg.

“What do you mean ‘the Night of the Sad-eyes’?” Monty asked, frustration in his voice. He downed his beer. Then he slammed the mug onto the table.

Filling his mug, the smile dropped from Jacks’ face. “Careful there, bro. You know, those looks people give you when they’re feeling sorry for you. I saw a lot of that when I was in the hospital. I swore I wasn’t going to let that happen to me.”

Monty grabbed Jacks wrist. “You have to go see Mom and Dad. At least, for a few hours. They will be so upset.”

Jacks pried his brother’s hand loose. “I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to do. And, I’m telling you, I am not going to see them. At least, not now. That’s why I asked you to meet me here. To tell them.” He dropped his brother’s hand onto the table.

“Are you kidding?” Monty’s hand hurt from his brother’s grip. “I can’t tell them.”

“Well, then they won’t be told. Now excuse me, I have to go take a whiz.”

Jackson stood up and made for the restrooms in the back, his slow waddle not calling attention to itself.

Monty stretched out the fingers of his hurt hand and massaged them to make the ache go away. “Shit,” he said and filled his mug again. He made up his mind to get drunk. When he received the call from his brother earlier that day, he hadn’t expected the meet to go this way. This just wasn’t like his brother.

He looked up at his brother across from him. He was back in his seat and he was smiling again.

“Boy, you sure are changed,” he said to the stranger across the table from him.

“Yes, I know. For the better I hope.”

There was a lack of understanding on Monty’s face.

Jackson took a big gulp of beer, then sat the mug back on the table and his face went serious. “I got to Iraq and then they sent me to Fallujah. I was so lost. Very disoriented. Every day on pins and needles. Guess that is when I screwed up.”

“Screwed up?”

“Yeah, you let down your guard once and suddenly an IED is blowing the shit out of you. I lay in the dirt, unconscious. All the time I am laying there, I am hearing this voice and it’s singing, ‘Rejoice, rejoice. Live each day and love.’ It sounded just like that old Beatles tune. You know the one?”

Monty’s face was a question.

“You know the one. ‘Love is all you need.’ I remember Dad used to play it for us when we were kids. Only the words were different. You know what I did when I woke up?”

Monty couldn’t imagine. So he didn’t answer.

Jacks took a drink of his beer, then, “I was laughing. I must have laughed for at least an hour. I was alive. I could not believe it. Right then and there I decided I was going to live my life as full as I could. And I wasn’t going to hang out with no Frowning Nellies. No sirree. Not me.”

He took one final drink. Then he stood up. He looked down at the surprise on his brother’s face. “So tell Mom and Dad I will be in touch. In the meantime, I plan to get myself laid tonight. And who knows I might just marry that waitress.”

Jackson walked over to the waitress and said a few words to her. She shook her head, said something to the bartender and followed him out the door.

Monty called over to a second waitress, “Janice, another pitcher please.”

Uncle Bardie’s Movie of the Week: A Memorial Day Film

Once a week on Monday, Uncle Bardie shares a movie with his Readers he gives a big two thumbs up. It will simply be a short excerpt or a trailer. Uncle Bardie might even throw in a reflection on the movie. If so, it will make an appearance below the video. This week’s movie is “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946).

This selection “The Best Years of Our Lives” for Memorial Day was inspired by an interview with Sebastian Junger talking about his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

It seems the human race has had war with it forever.  Three of our oldest books, The Bible, Homer’s Iliad, and Sun tzu’s The Art of War gave accurate descriptions of war. It didn’t stop there.  Ancient Greek works like Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War and The Persian Expedition by Xenophon were very good at this. Again and again and again, our literature reinforces the belief that the humanity is a violent sort of being.

The Japanese got in on the act with such books as The Book of Five Rings. The Germans too contributed to the literature. On War by Carl von Clausewitz was an important work on teaching us how to do a better job whacking the soup out of each other. T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom screamed that Lawrence won World War I single handedly. Maybe not the whole war but, at the least, the Middle Eastern part.

On and on the list goes. Toward the middle part of the twentieth century, books saying war was not quite as nice as we all thought started appearing. This was the theme of All Quiet on the Western Front, Hiroshima and Catch 22. Still there were those novels and books that continued to argue against the realities soldiers experienced in the field. Those works told us that it was the patriotic thing to be gung ho when it came to sending our children out to fight the good fight.

This rah-rah attitude continued with the movies. Especially the World War II movies. Even today, Hitler and the Nazis continue to be the all-time bad guys. Nobody was nastier. Want to make a supervillain. Make him a Nazi.

John Wayne’s movies were good at this. Since the Duke won the West for us, it was a pretty sure bet that he could win World War II, and he would do it the hard way. On a Hollywood sound stage. After seeing “Sands of Iwo Jima”, “The Longest Day” and “The Fighting Seabees”, it became ever so obvious the Duke did a darn good job too. After all, he was the Fighting Kentuckian at the Alamo. Unfortunately, for the Duke, his contribution to the Vietnam War (“The Green Berets”) left a lot to be desired. It seemed to be that Old Duke Wayne no longer had the cojones to do the job. Maybe it was time for Rambo and John McClane to step up to the plate.

This attitude about war as the best way to solve international disputes began to erode as men returned from combat. We began to realize the real mantra for grunts on the ground in combat was: “I just want to get back home.”

One of the few movies about the toll war plays on a soldier’s psyche was “The Best Years of Our Lives”. “Best Years” is William Wyler’s great film about combat veterans returning to civilian life at the end of World War II. It chronicles the difficulty many, if not all, had re-adjusting to civilian life. It takes the viewer by the hand and gives an up-close-and-personal view of the psychological trauma these men carried with them after leaving combat. And the impact that return had on their loved ones.

The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture. One of the standouts in the movie was Harold Russell as Petty Officer 2nd Class Homer Parrish. He was one of two non-professional actors to win Academy Awards. The other was Haing S. Ngor for “The Killing Fields”. In addition to this, Russell had lost both hands in a training accident during the war.

The amazing thing is that the film was made at all. By the late forties and early fifties, Americans began to see World War II mythologically. There was little room for doubt in the mind of the public that World War II was the Great Crusade against Evil and that those who went into combat were heroes who stood tall. American society totally ignored the wounds war stamped upon its citizen soldiers. It took the War in Vietnam for our doubts to begin to surface. With films like “The Hurt Locker” and “American Sniper”, America is finally waking us up to the realities of the psychological damage war leaves on its participants. And makes us realize that war has no real victors.

When soldiers return home from combat the wounds are not always visible. For some, it takes years for those scars to show. And they always show one way or another.

On this day when we honor our veterans, the best thanks we can give those who went in harm’s way for us is to try not making war anymore. Instead of puffing out our chests with our “kick butt” attitude, our words of gratitude would be so much more meaningful if we embraced John Lennon’s sentiment when he sang “Give Peace a Chance”. Just think how much better our world would be if we poured half the effort and the resources into peace that we pour into war. Perhaps. Just perhaps. Anyway I would like to think so.