Reality fractured so fast and deep that when we headed to Missoula last week, the first town we drove through was Yanny (and don’t let anybody tell you different). They hadn’t even had time to change the highway signs.
In Missoula, a high school student was suspended for wearing a sweatshirt with a Confederate flag design. He said he wore the sweatshirt in defense of the First Amendment, apparently so broken from reality as to be unaware that the soldiers who fought under that flag hoped to shred the America that had enshrined his right to free speech.
At least that was an improvement over the Billings brouhaha about releasing the names of cops accused of having sex on the job. Ed Kemmick has outlined the sound journalistic reasons why the names ought to have been released, and I don’t disagree with a word of it.
But what good is journalism when reality itself is broken? Deep in my heart, I really didn’t care about those police officers’ names. I was just glad to hear that cops were having sex instead of adding to Billings’ unenviable history of police shootings.
I had been blaming our nation’s fractured reality on the Chicago Cubs for winning the 2016 World Series. When the Cubs are champs, the center cannot hold. But my daughter set me straight. It was the death of David Bowie that fractured reality, she said; he had been the only thing holding reality together. The Cubs’ championship was a consequence of broken reality, she explained, not a cause of it.
My personal grip on reality had more to do with Margot Kidder than David Bowie, but I couldn’t argue with my daughter’s logic. I also suspected that reality had broken long before. My wife has a cousin in East Texas who married a man who completed 13 months as a Marine rifleman in Vietnam at about the same time I joined the Army. He has just written a privately printed book, “The Nam Within,” about his experiences there and the long road back.
It was a hard book for me to get into for two reasons. First, I was trying to read while watching my 3-month-old granddaughter take in the world around her. The written word can’t compete.
Second, I have been reading “1915: The Death of Innocence” by Lyn Macdonald, part of her multi-volume history of World War I told primarily through the memoirs, recollections and diaries of British soldiers. I had skipped ahead to the chapters about Gallipoli, the ill-conceived and ill-executed Allied attempt to wrest control of the Dardanelles from the Turks.
From there I plowed through to the end, which covered the Battle of Loos, one of so many failed and futile offensives aimed at breaking the deadlock on the Western Front that it’s hard even for the dedicated military history buff to keep up with them all. Reality snapped in two for those doomed soldiers, who died in wave after wave for reasons that historians are still trying to figure out.
After reading so many tales of unimaginable courage in the face of almost certain death, I wasn’t sure I was up for another Vietnam memoir. But Leonard Reese’s book was well worth the pain. He tells a story familiar to generations of soldiers. He sees buddies – he calls them brothers – with part of their faces blown away; he sets off Claymore mines that kill two enemy nurses; he records the faint smile of an enemy soldier who realizes that he will not be able to fire in time to beat the bullet from Leonard’s rifle. At one point, he and his brothers make a desperate attempt to carry a dying Vietnamese child to medical care, fearing that they will never be human again if they don’t at least try.
Then there is the long recovery: too much alcohol, too many drugs, too many late-night phone calls, too many sleepless days, too many starts at an unexpected sound. After 17 years of not even discussing the war with his wife, he eventually finds steps toward reconciliation: a post-war return visit to Vietnam, reunions with fellow soldiers, a scholarship for a fallen comrade, a good job and family. At the end of the book, nearly four decades after the war, he writes that he has “professional verification of being 30% sane.”
“The government that I raised my right hand and swore to ‘preserve, protect and defend,’” he writes, “the government that trained me to ‘kill … kill … kill!’ as we thrust fixed bayonets forward and across an invisible enemy, has deemed my craziness so.”
Leonard writes that when he was in Vietnam, he referred to America as the “real world,” but when he got back home he realized that the real world had been Vietnam. He had become disconnected, lost, terrified of the country he grew up in. Reality had fractured.
I have known Leonard not well but for a long time. He was at my engagement party and pig roast in Nacogdoches, Texas, where we became engaged in a chess match so protracted that I walked off and took a nap. I think it took him half an hour to notice.
We went to horse races in Shreveport, Louisiana, and went to parties at his house in Tatum, Texas. We have talked briefly at funerals of Tatum friends and family. His wife, Cindy, used to send an email every Veterans Day to me and other veterans she knew, thanking us for our service. That phrase is a commonplace now, but she was the first and for many years the only person I ever heard it from.
Through my wife’s Tatum connections, I had heard that Leonard’s life had a dark side, but I never saw that fractured side of reality until now. To me, he always has been amiable and gregarious, with a quick wit and a knack for cutting to the heart of whatever issue was on the table.
I turn from the book and look at my granddaughter now, and watch moods sweep across her face like clouds across a plowed field. One moment, she looks as if she hasn’t a clue about a single thing in the whole world; the next, her eyes seem to contain all the wisdom of the ages.
I think that if ontogeny really does recapitulate phylogeny, as they told us in college, then I ought to be able to see in those eyes the entire history of the human race, from our earliest ancestors huddled in caves to the Egyptian pharaohs, from Roman centurions to those damaged soldiers at Gallipoli, from Greek sailors to even those grunts pounding the rice paddies in Vietnam. No wonder she looks confused.
But I get a different view from my grandson Arthur, now a charming toddler whose emotions swing constantly, sometimes within the same minute, from amazement at his ability to alter how the world works to frustration at his inability to dictate it.
We go to a party where he plays with older boys. One boy gets scared and begins to cry. Arthur, with a vocabulary of only a few words, reaches out to comfort him, following behind and trying to place his hand as high on the boy’s shoulder as he can reach.
You can’t teach that stuff. Humans may have broken reality, but our instincts are still good. Maybe those instincts can save Arthur and his generation of American warriors.