Part 1 of 3

If you  can afford irony, you’re doing alright.

    Its not that the stretching hours between the two times didn’t matter. It happened, the collective events are part of the soul. It matters. Even calling passing out, finally, sleep, matters. PTSD is an equal opportunity destroyer, and it doesn’t care where or how you contracted it. And my story isn’t that much different than anyone else’, and the same story, the same events keep happening generation after generation, soldier after soldier, victim after victim, persecutor after persecutor. Most of the time you can’t identify its presence; its like a tape worm, you know something is wrong because something keeps sucking the life out of you, something keeps you on edge all the time, you can’t talk, or talk about it , or name it. But sometimes there is that few minutes an hour into the bourbon when you remember vividly and distinctly what it was to live with a clarity of functional mind. Not the adrenal hyper-vigilance it all seems to be these days, but the steady clear motive of action and you take up the hammer and shovel and go do the work. And it feels good. Sometimes, on the tail of a dangerous moment, Whitman comes through, saying, “Is today nothing? Is the beginningless past nothing? If the future is nothing they are just as surely nothing.”, like you wished it was supposed to be.

    And within those times some other dissolution's took place, inevitable, unstoppable, unmanageable by will or medication, the fractionated time of your existence, as if thoughts were molecules bombarded by emotional fission, blowing through you like entropy joyriding six white horses.  And you know you didn’t sign on for that one, a bullet through the heart, OK, but how do you make this anguish stop? How did you acquire a future of fifty years of silence? Was it the kamikazi that exploded  at the water line of your cruiser, and being the one who was charged to stop the Pacific Ocean from swamping the boiler room?  It might even be simpler to believe the soul sensation is the collective resonation of all the ghosts you know of, the ones closest to home the loudest. Ninety-channel panic is what we used to call it. It trailed in the vacuum of the artillery shell, in the screaming steel of the rapist’s stiletto. Its emanation was a broadcast cascade of mind-fragments hungry for a loving binder: disassociation is what the pros term it. Hard to make a friend behind that one, hard to keep one too.  In disappointment the loved boy is still seen: in disassociation the boy is a shadow singing from a well, open to manipulation and persuasion.

    I shook hands with a young soldier recently returned to Oregon after two contiguous ‘tours’, (fun, water features, scenic cruise?) in southern Iraq. He was lean and in deep shock, the drugs keeping his pupils a little too dilated. He felt like a keg of electric eels made of nitroglycerine. He was being tended by his mother, an attractive woman showing bone from stress, worried and out of her depth, still talking to the teenager because he was the only one she knew, and somehow she had been made responsible to not only heal him, but for failing in her duty to ready him to absorb the instruments of destruction. I said welcome home you’re gonna be OK, heartbreakingly sincere, but not real sure. I didn’t think I was that bad when I got home to the World, but the jolt of him found resonance everywhere in me, lighting me up as if hit with a Hanford power line. And I wasn’t alright. Not by a long shot.

    That’s when I bought the whiskey. ‘tis said it doesn’t help; but it does, and must, else it wouldn’t be so prevalent to balm the frequent wounds. The next week I had a total knee replacement, coming out of the empty sleep feeling like the character in “Little Big Man” who kept losing limbs as payment for his crimes.

    And his track was the same as mine, the trajectory easily recognized, he was just a war and a half behind me. He was a handsome, earnest and honest strong centered young man who might have become someone else.

    Coming ashore to the World it was clear and obvious that the re-adjustment was fundamentally impossible, the damage too deep to enable me to generate a family - too disassociated to consider that fact anything other than bad luck, hearing from a further room, “Oh him? He’s left me here to die alone. He’s gone to die at the old soldier’s home.”

     In some young men just home from the war their skin no longer fits, they aren’t seen or heard as they once were because they aren’t who they were and will never be again, and they soon become a case of missing identity who slipped a gear and crashed his car. He calls some lonesome night, he’s not all that happy with his new young wife, homesick for the imaginary home misremembered and and really only wanting surcease of the mental noise, using an alias, a name pieced together from family history, composed of some self they all knew but had never met, no doppleganger, the whole self-made man requiring inclusion, but all they can see was what they saw on TV. He sees the imagery flicker terrifying reality in their eyes, and they see his eyes too, crazed by the madness he just couldn’t shake. Because it can be described doesn’t make the rending of the soul less real. Blake’s infant curled in a leaf, the soul of the caterpillars’ dream Daliesque surreal.

    ‘I’ve been hit by a car, through three typhoons, shot at, mortared and grenaded, spent a double seven doing the hard work in the bad part of town, was married to a genuinely crazy woman, had a bunch of people I loved die, my unemployment record speaks for itself, but I keep coming. Just like you.’ I tell the kid with the old medic’s eyes. That I am there in the same dilapidated ex-military psychiatric waiting room tells him there ain’t no cure. Its hard to grasp who and where you might have been when holding yourself together enough to apprehend the currency of now keeps you exhausted.

    So inside your head, so disconnected from  the substantial reality that  there is nought but mind, I remember myself trying to exit a wooden gate at a friend’s house, after a party. I’m not very drunk - it took a considerable quantity of sauce to get through to me enough to make me stumble - but I can’t figure out how the gate works. My host makes derisive remarks concerning my abilities as a person, calling me disabled, see what war does to you har har har.

    Upon reflection, I was no different from any man who walked through the DVA’s psych department’s door: walking wounded long after the deed, a man who really couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag, nor keep up the fight for sustenance and shelter, too sapped of energy to rally even a supplicants contrition for defense. Still speaking out of the tension of being frozen in place and time, the time ‘tween then and now ephemeral as a monkey flower. I might have known where I was, but only by geographic location, the way a dazzled dog knows he’s standing lone against the cars in the street, but doesn’t know what a car is, or where the street is, or what makes a street. Blessed or cursed with sense (works both ways) deep down you know when you walk through that door, usually on referral from a professional assayer, you have reached stumble bum status, even if your clothes are clean and you still put your belt buckle in direct line with the zipper seam, and you have yet to beg for dollars at the on ramp to US I-5.

    Then spending your life energies trying so hard not to feel yourself, you try to turn into somebody else, imitating fashionable writers, splashy painters, cover musicians, or an uncle who had a job.

    The enduring few, old men corpulent with a half a century of self administration, return to Iwo Jima and break into tears, wheeling up the fat red crab littered tarmac path with their respirators, wheezing sobs. Their wives are still waiting back home in thin blue hours; its still life and death again. Is it quiet they wish for? Was the letting go selfless, a welcome finality?

    All those other men, the ones back from WW II, the Lost Generation, the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, discovering after the first shot was fired that the suburban bungalow spread wasn’t worth dying for, it is just jungle and volcanic rock time, they were winners who went through more violence than any people anywhere anytime and came back to be good citizens, hardly a peep from them, what with the G.I. Bill for a city college education and the world’s gratitude for throwing their bodies and souls into the murderous tyranny of  fascism, at least away from Europeans for awhile. Except for the ones you never saw, or drove the delivery trucks, or became janitors or did solitary jobs requiring consistent autonomy, their children the ones in school no one could remember.

    What happens? - You come back to the World, a world that has only seen you on TV, perhaps in a gruesome scene, acting in a murderous fashion, in full color with the camera jumping around like a bug on a skittle. But you are real. You are sure of that because you have survived the horror, been transformed into something, someone else by passing through that scene alive - and it isn’t any playschool roughhousing - a lifetime of maimed pain or utter death hangs on every microsecond of the event, opening channels of personal and universal awareness particular to the reflective consciousness that goes unknown by those not physically in the fight. “My PTSD? Oh, uh, Vietnam, long long time ago. Still here and still there, like you wouldn’t believe.” Showing up as an unshakable confidence, a muscular urgency to get done and get down to where it is safer, a belligerence that pops out when a boss says something stupid or egoistic that sounds just like it used to sound when the sergeant says ‘take that hill’. Even if you know the boychik is sensitive to his boss’ son position and that you’ve just lost whatever chache’ you’ve earned by obeisance and honest labor you still blurt it out, “You must be jokin’, mutherfucker.” Which is the universal code to all leaders that their authority is questioned, challenged, besmirched, threatened, and must be massively revenged. Some encapsulated registry of the reality you’ve participated through has been dislodged from its cortical grotto, and before you can stop yourself you blurt, “Then go. You ain’t happy here, go where you think you will be. ****, I’ll help you pack.”  teenage and banal, and irrevocable,  like the experiences of an adult lifetime have not succeeded in tempering the reality of human mayhem still locked in the central self. And, too often, those incidents cascade one after another in too rapid and too inevitable sequence, triggered by the same bellowing need to expand life in order to live it, but considered an unforgivable rend in the fabric of social manners. The professionals call it a crisis. Those on the receiving end call it callous disregard, insanity, maladjustment, social ineptitude, a disquieting and inappropriate disturbance of the shared delusion - yes, we know its a lie, but we all agree that its the best lie we have -  yours is an unacceptable reminder of our truer and more real selves. Those with PTSD call it the same old ****. Stifling a flash of draw-down when seeing a Vietnamese, or Korean, or Negro, or Arab who is slouching that insolent contemptuous slouch is adaptive self training. It doesn’t make the triggering response go away. It doesn’t quench the prescience of a smelly one window room in an crumbling brick hotel.

    Adrenal urgency cuts both ways. It really is only one or the other, no two ways about it, run away or fight, make them stop, kill them, survive. It’s built in  -  the organism knows the precise calculations. Four billion years of evolution still alive has learned something. High on war, or split to fight another day, the body has well defined neural routes through which to channel what is needed to restore itself to relative metabolic equilibrium. The shame felt upon reflection, no matter which way went the fight, is also built in. Something great and terrible has happened, some flesh rending chaos unsheathed, some unundoable fatal blunder.

    Even if you’re trained to be callous and inured, or declare for it with your machete, the despicable act has occurred to you. And as it occurs to you, you carry it home, packed tighter than a drum of dynamite, and you bend every possibility of relief to contain it, but it still gets out in a blurt or a fistfight or an attack spurred on an affront. Whole nations can suffer the results, and stumble somnambulant in a fever dream of excess for decades under the weight of its impoverishment's. Wives cannot find a trace of the boy and fear loss of control, the beverage industry is enriched, despair settles in mercury pools moating the casinos, it seems a thousand years until we can celebrate. They who have done the injury are never forgotten. Even reeling from the blows, Israel's resolve coheres like a diamond mountain. Its biology.

    The first time it showed up, the time when the idea of being a soldier firmed itself in the new mirror of yourself, a promise to your mother to be like unto your father, is the herald’s  call to glory, that anticipation of a sudden end, the maimed drunkard shouting from his wheelchair that life is unfair, he’s all despair, nobody cares.

    And it shows up again, after yet another lost job, The vet is working with a landscaping squad, rough boys whining about the work at hand, and he just looks at them with his you ain’t seen **** look and they shut up and get to work, nine of them hefting twenty feet of pine tree and 500 pounds of root-ball through a backyard gate. The grapestake gate is too narrow to allow the root-ball through. Five hundred pounds of root ball is as wide as it is everywhere on it. The vet is pretty sure they won’t be able to toss it over the six-foot fence, even with a siege engine. So, taking over from the crew chief, advises the homeowner to remove a post and a  foot of fence, and quickly, with a saw, and wanting the tree planted in the hole his kids could easily fall into the homeowner retrieves a Skil-saw and an extension cord and hands the saw to the vet, no inquiry needed. Ten minutes later the tree is in the ground and the hole backfilled, the crew in the trucks and the job is done. The crew chief registered no objection when his authority was superseded. “Vietnam vet?” he asked, friendly, boyish smile on his blond face. “It shows?” “Yeah, you guys are all the same. Its the way you work.”  Like the habit of knowing lives depended on your everysecond alertness which cannot be ignored, lest the disorder make all steps too perilous to take. Not seeing ‘right’ is a political matter, a muddy road.

    Of course everyone could tell, if they could slide out of their complacency and selfishness for the moment it took to  recognize another human being. There was no way to hide it. It, the hyper-vigilance, the moodiness, the beer and depression, pills and silence, purple rages, the sleeplessness and weeping, paranoia and self salvation was a clarion rippling the skin. It was posture, movement, get together and get it done, show me and don’t **** with me might have been the mark of Cain; but who’d you rather have on your side in a firefight? Cast against the easy pleasures of American greatness, the disease simply made most people suspect you as dangerous, spinning some into the gutter with a bottle of Tokay just to find a friend, or to some isolated safety, a woman perhaps.

    I am sitting in a dim room inside a Department of Motor Vehicles building. There are twenty or so of us waiting for some sort of counseling. None of us looks focused enough to operate a car in traffic. None of us look like we know where we are. We’re mostly the same age, early twenties, mostly poor boys working some jive job somewhere on some long avenue, most of us convinced of our unerring ability to negotiate any turn of events, but knowing something is terribly wrong, some sort of mental cancer has invaded our brains and no one is asking about that. A clerk in a short-sleeved white shirt and a black bow tie timidly passes out a questionnaire that is printed on grammar school grade paper. The printing is in English, but squirms like indecipherable centipedes. It is unsure if the questions regard revocation of our driving privileges, or pertain indirectly to our loyalty to the country, and wrong answers might lead us through the back door to where the firing squad is waiting. All things municipal, county, state and national were interconnected laws, violation of which in any form or to any degree of damage could ignite a chain reaction of events that could easily result in a life in San Quentin or being strapped to the gas chamber chair. And if that was the true nature of due process, a principle the most of us had sacrificed our lives or souls for quite recently, to believe or suspicion, that summary execution was possible was as believable as the California government establishing concentration camps for dope smokers and acid heads like us who drove ‘on automatic pilot’, a condition well known to the managers of the state’s arterial system. Somewhere in the back brain every cartoon you ever saw on television and the Bijou silver screen  as preludes to the cheesy cowboy flicks you believed enough to go to war behind are running simultaneously, and there is nothing you can do to make them stop, not even blacking out. Disney was an enemy of the People; Khrushchev must have chortled. You sigh into the realization that you may never actually sleep again.

    “Oh, I’m doing alright. How ‘bout you?”

    “Can’t complain.”

    You long for a state of grace you’ve never felt, the ease of manner a professional feels  when performing his art, the certainty of the craftsman plying his trade, a cool and floating euphoria that is a common state of mind, evidenced in the application to the university, its absence evidenced in the DMVs’ questionnaire where the questions begin: “Have you ever...”, asked in the dimmed light room to the minds of young men to whom each word whispered, uttered, written, implicated, was an unpinned grenade handed to you by a child. “Time past  and time present are time future.”  or something like that, confutes Eliot.

    “You’ll be OK. It’s not like that here.” a teacher says.

    “If the space shots and Martin are right, sure it is.”

    Run the faces of the captured German soldiers herded to sweep the battlefield of mines with their lives; now superimpose those faces upon the vet’s startle response. The men who waged that battle were the same soldier as he may have to be. Such a realization might initiate a blurt cast against the waked willingness to murder counting like ionized dice etherized upon a surgical table.

    “Well, what do you do with the anger?” the vet rose from the audience to ask the traveling psychobabble salesman. What chutzpa. With astonishing confidence he was generating his own income by demonstrating a stronger personality among an audience consumed by profound need.  He had the answers.  He had a beard and a vest made of velvet patches, wore a mala and a scholar’s glasses. He’d been around.

    “That’s  a good question.” he replied with a tone that said he’d heard that question a hundred times before, but this time the question was delivered with so much urgency that  for a second there it was one human being to another. No, ‘ not a good question. It’s a desperate question.  It implies that, no, its never going to be alright again. And perhaps it is so that once you let your anger go it fades away like it was never there, yet how can one forget the paths not taken, the love not made, the ease and comfort of a summer’s day knotted forever, and all those days rising out of the pain of an uncertain hospital bed, and that blast which wiped itself and most of you away forever.

    “Anger is...” Oh no, not another definition. I already know what it is and how it feels...”a poor position from which to negotiate. As we all know every interaction is a transaction and therefore a negotiation.”  ‘And you’re going to find out what anger really is in about thirty seconds, I’m asking a serious question and I want a serious answer. I bought the ticket, and you said you were the show.’ “Anger is a difficult emotion. Base and fundamental, if you will.” ‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure you’re right. That’s right, get angry and stay that way. Ginsberg said. A lot he knew. You don’t grow cathedrals to the earth with anger. Anger steps in front of every meeting and kicks *** so that nothing substantial can be said, nothing real acted upon, no shovel used, no hammer struck, no tractor harrows the soil, and allows no respect to seep between souls. Anger will not allow you to corner a big breasted red head at a party and induce her to wink yes. “it is often triggered by specific stimuli and discreet events. That being true, we can analyze...”

     ‘enough already. Slice and dice and codify when what I need is some sort of hydraulic iris valve, the kind they use on the Boulder Dam. Of course I know its counter- productive. Of course I also know that it is also you. That’s why I’m out here in Never-Never Land holding my dork and you’re up there convincing the New Age rubes their spats with each other can be amicably resolved. I saw a full grown handsome man of European extraction begging on one knee in front of a thin woman with expensive hair, bowing his head to her as if offering his neck to the executioner, to sell her a bunt cake for her afternoon tea. They were in a Lake Oswego bakery. Honor and dignity, please. So sickened am I by the whole damned slaughtering history of us when its easy to make plenty. Because you are not supposed to have the world that bad, it hurts other people, doesn’t mean you didn’t come by it honest. It hurt enough to be right about all of it. It hurt enough for all of it to be true. How much soul weight shall you bear?

    For most of us going along after release from school might have been taken as a matter of natural course. Getting up, moving on, learning what you liked and what would do you wrong, getting drunk and getting laid, going to work and getting paid. It was no longer possible to gather your being in the sheen of glitz, and excuse all the thuggery which ensued. Growed up fast, never even wondered what we might have been. The circumstance of live fire in the night intimated that you’d never quite wake up again, and never want to sleep again, either. Damn right the nightmares are savagely real.

    The recitation of the sins might help, but the stun of blurting is the secret that is revealed. It is the canyon between the question and the deeper reply (and the dare of its tone), the wounds unscabbed as pain inflicted exiting and entering, and that’s what brought on the trouble in the first place. There’s not a word that couldn’t spin a tale, and not an utterance that doesn’t carry the weight of the war in it. Like a goodly number of men before us and after us, a bombastic procession that is just stories about people, anyway. The nervous tic, the  eyes averted for a microsecond fast sign and understood before the lie is told and is what gets you into the trouble of knowing. Before you can stop it, the boss has just heard you call him the name he reserves for himself when he maunders into the vodka. What scares him is that he hasn’t told you, but you know anyway, and what is worse is that by knowing that part of his insistence his authority is undermined, his weakness for his narcissism is lighted, his power diminished. The last thing a bully wants exposed is his lurid weakness.

    Then you see the man marching in an exaggerated gait, dressed as Yankee Doodle Dandy in red/white/blue rags and a flack jacket, waving both a tattered flag upon a standard made of a crooked branch, and his fully automatic M-16, is still the same veteran of the same experiences as you. He’s shouting that his honor has been violated, that the culprits are those whose sacred trust is to moderate his self-destructive extremes. Naturally, the press shows up to snap his pic, which then enters the public consciousness as an obviously accurate depiction of the Vietnam veteran. And not only does it pull up a chair and take an emeritus seat in the public mind, it occupies the same seat in the minds of the doctors and psychologists who are tasked with ameliorating the displayed disorder. It also sometimes seems too true that every bad act depicted from the ten years of war, which occurred in both the minds and bodies of the Southeast Asians and the American bodysoul, attach to anyone who served any time there. The realization that I was the focus of the dismay being experienced by my fellow Americans, the dervish center of all that megadeath and destruction, its cause and its vector, made adopting the “I don’t really want to talk about it: Oh yes, we understand - (don’t let the screen door hit you on your way out)”  public persona an easy hiding spot.


    Meanwhile and later, the vet had answered the invitation from the bold and understanding old man who’d seen him pictured leaning into his shovel in the local newspaper. He insisted that the veteran had something to say to the men passing through the regimen, and it was a point of honor to their mutual past. How could he say no. This was a DVA function especially arranged for the benefit of the ex-soldiers passing through a new program designed to integrate these marginalized men back into the general populace that had rejected them enough that they showed up with their hands out and their brains aching. Prior to making his presentation,  before the collective sobs embarrassed every man in the audience - not one who would leave their buddy - or one who’d cop to the event in public, the thirty or so men who’d been invited and hence required to attend, the men had been seated around a square of cafeteria style tables, beige institutional laminate on metal folding legs. The aging NVA had homes and towns and families to return to; these men had only the repelling World.

    In the back of the room a skinny psychologist, a man you’d expect to find being the Skypilot’s aide, observes the group dynamic. Kindly enough, there is something absent from his posture; he’s never held a gun, he’s never defended himself, nor needed to. He is clearly the detached moderator, the man with the power of yes and no, the guy who runs the show. No one trusts him.

    Hump hard as you can. Stuff it all down back there in the inaccessible but through nightmare. Refuse to remember, hypnotize to disremember, train with yoga or martial arts or weights or beer until the memories are as indistinct as a wisp of smoke in a greying sky. You’re still cracking up. You still can’t hold a job. As loving as she is, she has grown weary and wary of your approach. You enter into a strange room and instantly recognize all the men’s faces though they’ve grow gaunt from disease and speed or jowled with comfortings and liquid medicine. Its the eyes turned inward and their lenses thickened with fruitless effort. A sob rises from the bottom of your spine. You don’t know where it is coming from, but as it does another choked sob fights its way out of another man’s medulla, and because men don’t cry, especially men who have been in combat and reached no internal resolution or found a way to not be around other men just like them, the other men in the room muffle their sobs until the room is thick and wavering, exuding an impenetrable emotional barrier. They are watching the vet who is making his presentation to these other strangers, who are as stranger to him now as if they’d never met in Asia, school, job, town, city, neighborhood, jail. The traits they share are somatic. Curiously, they are all around the same age, and all Caucasian. Every face is a challenge, every gesture defensive.

    That being the known  condition, the mild mannered psychologist sweetly asked him to stand and introduce himself, and state categorically exactly what he did. And though the audience would have understood a reference to the Pope of Tobruk, the vet parried, too familiar with Eliot’s pin, “I build free raised bed vegetable gardens for poor people.” he said, as firmly as a serious person could apprehend. Looking into the eyes of his collected brethren he saw that the concept had failed to penetrate the urgency for surcease. In the opening moment of the relationship with a clinician the supplicant is notified that he is under scrutiny and that there is never going to be a satisfactory acceptance of his existence. The psychologist had his thinking cap on, ready for the steady humiliation he’d found so useful among these men who thought they deserved special status because they weren’t man enough to accept the conditions of the punishment they had sought. Still wearing the party smile, showing the interested citizen sympathizing with the social worker, he responded with a cliche`. “Oh yes. Community Gardens. I’ve heard of that.”

    Continuing to reel from the sobbing emotional tumult he’d entered into, the unreconstructed self of thirty years thence in Paddy Land mix-mastered into perpetual incompetence by his inability to patch the leaking blood of a village he and the guys had just mortared he read the shrink right, hearing him say that because you are here you have no place in the larger scheme of the world and that is Our province and we’ll never allow your participation, or even leave access to our language. As is said, not wishing to offend, he mustered his composure and upon a simpering glare said, “No. I’m afraid you don’t get it. I build raised bed vegetable gardens in the back-yards of poor people, old people, sick people, me and you if we stay smart and get lucky. Soil frames, organic soil, seeds, starts, tomato cages, a trellis, fertilizer, onion sets, tools if needed, free to them.”  For him the merit of the idea and purpose had never been in question. How to wade through the thick headed self righteous egotism, that was a problem. Trying to catch up and congeal with the culture that had grown beyond them all was impossible, they all knew, being a way they’ll never be. For a second he saw a beam of history thread through a man’s eye, the Victory Garden and all the death metaphor clicking. Whether or not the notion would give a more illuminating turn to the question at hand was to be seen.

    “What do you mean?” asks the shrink, in perfect shrink.

    An iridescent feed-tube bubble of acid rose. A bile duct dilated. Brown boys picked spiders from vines over pure streams. The Tao advises answering broad questions with specificity - to avoid conflict and wasting time trying to find avenues of agreement. Trying hard to appear sane and well adjusted he avoided the bomb whistling shriek of “What do I mean? You want all of it?” he took the lecturers stance, saying instead, “It’s OK. Lots of people haven’t heard of this before, so sometimes its hard to get your mind around it.”  exposing himself as an experimenter in drugs and therefore invalidated, “The gardens consist of three soil frames five by eight feet, made of two by eights, filled with premium weed-free soil, and the rest of the stuff I just mentioned. I go to their house and build the garden for them in their backyard. I have a truck.”

    “And you do this for free?” the psychologist temporizes.

    It is a familiar question, the whole of the economy against the very idea of disconnecting property owners from the feedtube, the underlying predicate being that if you lived in a house and didn’t have enough money to feed yourself, you should sell the house and go live with bronchitis and booze in a mossy trailer some place, leaving the real estate for more energetic and deserving people. But to seem friendly and generous, a man with dry warm hands, he returned the foolish remark with a jocular thought.

    “Yes. It is free to the recipients. They own the garden after I’ve built it for them. But, no, too. Somewhere along the line everything has to get paid for (karmic ladder), and I have to get paid too. Don’t you think a man ought to be paid for his work?”     

    “Well yes, of course.” the shrink coyly pontifys.  He had been instrumental in developing the program in which these men were participating. They were to spend thirty days in barracks conditions, partake in therapeutic exercises, and do work around the joint, in military fashion, just like they learned before they became the men they were to become. Because their room and board were being taken care of by the tax-payers, and they were cutting into other government employee’s bailiwicks by mowing the lawns and sweeping the streets and swamping out the toilets, and because a man needed the dignity of money, they were paid thirty-six cents for every hour they worked. It was less than prison wages. There was a flicker of understanding of why this man was there that day, what he was up to, what he really wanted to say. The men’s program was acclaimed to be restorative, a period for decompressing, a respite from the self medicating and constant discord with society in general, a good for ya rejuvenation.     So this guy was trouble. He had his fingernails firmly imbedded into a potentially toxic root and was getting a good peek over the edge, fast fixed upon eternity, and that just wasn’t how it worked. That all these men were medicated into compliance was a plus. That the weeping that came on the heals of finally getting up courage enough to fight against the withering power of the sustained trauma in fact further compromised them, the iron discipline of the soldier another artistry, a secret give of sanity to one’s self. Humiliation could begin immediately.

    “I still don’t understand. Where does the money come from?” he asked. He knew where his came from, and he was gratified to be of service until something better came along. He was free to aspire in his expertise, gain the rewards, claim his rightful place and status, and better these odd clods, that snapping towel would be paid for.  His was an impenetrable nub of superiority. Damage was always the real currency. Just look.  See what kind of people these men have become.

    “I’m a non-profit. {I am not out for profit, I am not a dangerous predator, I have pretensions to the hair shirt.} I raise the money from charitable trusts and foundations. I also receive seventeen percent of my budget from a government fund directly allocated to ‘The Community’. That covers taxes. I pay myself and my helper twenty five percent out of the rest. The rest goes for operations and materials. There are a lot of good hearted people who really do understand, and they donate. Like tractor time. Rent. Plants. Mushroom compost.”

    “That sounds very well thought out,” compliments the shrink. “So, you’ve sort of made up your own job?”  he knived.

    “Bravo two eleven was never my scene. Too sensitive.” the veteran dissembled, counting coup on two pegs, awaiting for the next pretext of factual accounting. There were a few snickers from the left side of the table. Conversations were such complicated things. Not saying what they all probably knew about him and themselves, pinballing through time, staying inebriated somehow just to stay in his skin, waiting for all that god damn noise to stop, here to make payment on some actual arrears. Whether this idiot ***** liked it or  not.

    “That’s very interesting.” lunges the shrink powerfully. “Just for the sake of argument, how many of these gardens have you built?” he says, a touch of lilt in his voice like gardening is for women or faggots. Real men were out there making a killing.

    “Four hundred seventy six.”

    “You mean those soil frame things?”

    “No. Gardens, complete raised bed vegetable gardens. Three frames per garden. Four hundred seventy six, so far. I  only build in the spring time. No point in letting  a garden go unused over a winter.”  (Just because your employers created an Agent Orange desert populated for ten more generations with deformed children doesn’t mean the planets have stopped rolling.)

    “Well, that’s a pretty soft job, working one season out of the year. Thats better than being a teacher. That’s more time off than I’ve had my entire professional life. Heh heh.” (you lazy low-class lout), he says, laughing good naturedly. Some of the men at the table are calculating.

    “If you think humping two tons of soggy soil four times a day into every dogshit backyard in town is soft work, please, come to work for me. I have plenty for you to do.” the vet parried to the shrink’s condescending demure (I hear more bullshit than that every day around here).

    “Just so the men here will be able to understand your operation better, how did you start, and why do you do it? I mean, you really do work for the government, don’t you?”

    !How dare you judge me! I could ask you the same question, you supercilious dipshit O’Dell. Don’t lay that deserving self righteous keeper of the golden book on me. That you said you were against the war in Vietnam while you were hanging around the frat house beer and buds, doesn’t mean you’re innocent!  “Please let me disabuse you of a common misunderstanding. I do work that needs to be done and I work for anyone who calls, assuming they’re qualified. Being self selected and in need are the only qualifications. It might be your mother who calls, and me who shows up. So I work for you, too. Among my clients, ninety percent are women, and ninety percent of them have no one to ‘do’ for them.

    “I started this on the support of my wife and a federal grant. My original intention was providence and kindness. Now everyone seems to want my program to solve gang violence, over crowded prisons, diabetes, AIDs, cancer, old age, starvation, and the depression boredom of a fading life. So, I say, well, sure, it does all that too.” the vet  said, then, pausing to take a breath, decided to conclude with a grace note of illuminated compassion that would require the psychologist to rise to be included and regarded with the implicit respect, and thus be trumped. “You help these men. And that we’re each and all interconnected, they in turn help someone else. Its the best way for things to work. As to current achievement, I build over a hundred gardens a year.”

    But to the psychologist anything that countenanced liberation from the tyranny of PTSD was counterproductive, and a con, or so his Cheshire grin seemed to convey.

    “So, I see you have some slides. Why don’t you show us what you do?” Disappointed that the repartee had ended, but glad the psychologist was going to shut up, the audience sighed, and tail-end Charlie squelched the lights without being asked.

    The vet resented being used as a foil to persecute these injured men. He resented being made the example of how to take charge of your life and do work for the betterment of mankind and be duly rewarded. He wasn’t any different than any man in the room, except maybe the shrink, and the hours spent when not behind the shovel and the wheelbarrow were spent at the work board and the keyboard, for which he’d yet to be paid. All of his activities were self defined and predicated on singular expression, a way of defining his life in terms that would let him live with himself and not encounter too much flack. You could call it ‘Living Within The Tao’, but the impelling motive was like the centers of these other men, mending the rend. Just as Kerouac saying “It was then I saw that the freedom of eternity was mine forever.”, so were the lives they’d taken theirs forever. He could build a million gardens, and intended to, but the damage of the war would not end. The violence done could not be simply laid off to the vagaries of history. Someone had to carry the weight, and that was them.

    All the pictures were nice pictures. Old women, fat women, sour-faced and pregnant women, misshapen and smiling women, they were all smiling, and the smiles looked genuine, human, a little bit shy and heedful of this guy impinging upon their dignity for the price of a couple of boxes of dirt, asking for enlistment in his cause by posing, but they did it anyway - just to help back. And there was stuff jumping out of those boxes, all kinda tomatoes and corn and squash and beans and pumpkins, everything was either blooming, fruiting or deep green on bright sunshiny days. Black brown white yellow, the expressions were the same. Pride and joy. Some could see their ways clear to blackmail a loved one with vegetables. Others were just gladly mystified.

    Not a sufficient counteractive to the baffling escalating savagery of evolutionary warfare, but a nick back at it.

    As if any one of them were singly responsible for the manufactory of their own reality, the vet was pushed aside by the master of emotion, glad to be let off the hook in mid-sob. He took his place among the men, folding into the screens woven to partition themselves. The shrink’s nose crinkled in benediction. “So you can see, you can grow a garden anywhere. You can even grow one on concrete, like that one he showed growing on the driveway slab.” His smile was benevolently accepting. But every member of the audience is stifling their weeping, everyone is embarrassed to the core. They can’t wait to leave, get up out of their cheesy folding chairs, crash on through the double doors and out the ************* gate free at last. If they hadn’t committed to this jive program and been made to swear communal support just like back then just like yesterday, this could be a opportune moment for personal liberation, claiming themselves singular and capable and on their way to **** you money. If they never see each other again in life, that would be OK. If they could not be seen by each other, that would be better. The gatekeepers may say they are on the same wave length and just letting off a little steam, but they are each and all still holding themselves together with will and grit and hack it, now nothing can get in the way of having to cope. What a hump. Each one has the same story, the same symptoms, the same disease. Damaged meant broken, meant useless, meant burden, meant discarded, meant as outside as a convict, the keepers of a dirty little secret. Even if you had even tempered, well adjusted, sane go to work everyday down pat, doing the tamed tiger back in your hometown with as much grace and ease as the boss’s son, conducting ourself with civility and submission - there was still that nag back there, that instinct once wakened that refused to retreat, quick in the back-brain, black pajamas the mysterious door to the deep serious, the blind brutality of it all sickening to the bone.  And this guy, he might’ve been trying to prove life doesn’t have to be a knife fight, but the weed he’s been buying might mean he is lying; anyway, it could never come true.

    Nevertheless, like Kurt Vonnegut said, unexpected invitations are dancing lessons, and the invitation to offer up the Project as a method of creating jobs and serving the needs of the people to the DVA was a chance to bring the secret of the seed to biggest welfare system for men in the country. By the time they’re taking care of you you’re pretty ruined. A little redemption might be a way to go.

    Once at the conference the examples how to answer the needs of men who sought inner peace and the quieting of what the knew about themselves and their country were presented in three days of workshops and open forums.  Providing for the homeless vet was the theme. Providing for men who hadn’t given up, but were too sick and too exhausted to go anywhere else to save their lives.

    The most successful program described employed 240 veterans who manufactured pre-fab house parts, such as windows and door jambs. The man who had organized the business, using government start-up money, asserted that military discipline, including use of chain of command, was the motivational component that organized his system.     

    Another business relied on the courage and lust for danger presumed present in Vets, and detailed them out to do toxic spill cleanups, and decontamination of radioactive waste sites. The pay was good, but irregular, and the hours like those of going out on patrol.

    A large number of other reclamation strategies were offered by middle-aged men with laser pointers and slide show charts, until it was lunch time and we were treated to a one man show of Italian gangster body language performed by the head of the agency. A political appointee, and not a veteran, he ruled by intimidation - according to my friend, his chief underling.

    Lunch was served by Black waiters in a large hall where we delegates sat six to a table, listening to a once wounded Black congressman assure us that the DVA was certain, with our dedication, to solve the homeless problem for Vets, and hence be a model for other city managers. We were noshing on lamb, baby vegetables and mendacity.

    The earnest congressman was interrupted by a noisy clamor coming from the front of the building. The Italian in the black silk suit sneered his umbrage. The noise got louder. It was the angry voices of 200 middle-aged men pushing to get through the doors to have a face to face confrontation with the other men who were seemingly in charge of their fate. Security forces were called to brandish their nightsticks and uniforms and keep  these men driven mad by their souls being ripped open, out in the March cold in their tattered field jackets.

    “What is it?” I asked my friend.

    “Oh, we heard rumors of a demonstration. I guess that’s it,” he replied, casually. There were other leaders around, events were on schedule, and he felt no need to think or act. “Don’t worry about it. It’s being handled.” He dismissed my concern, implying that the men who were the reason for his role and his paycheck were the enemy and should only be seen by appointment.

    “They just want to be heard.  God knows they have plenty to say. But if you want them to quiet down, I’ve got a plan,” I offered.

    “We’ve all had enough of these guys. They’re what we do everyday. It’s them, not us. Most of the whole staff are vets. They bring drugs into the dorms, they’re incapable of regular work. They’ve been outside the system so long they can’t even speak the language.”

    And I knew them all. I knew how many adjustments had been made, how many trips to how many friends and doctors to find that repair kit that will let their minds be quiet and easy for a while, how many promises and decisions of will took place that would let them be at least partially visible to the loving part of women, and at ease enough to accomplish work. I knew because I was sobbing with a room full of us in our range of depression and disassociation, our reluctance to bend our energies to that system that so effectively damaged us, especially when no other relief than a paycheck was possible. The terror synapses tripped too often, stay open; the gore-made conscience synapses harden the chemical memory. Even twenty five years later, seeing yourself in crouching run through the rotor blown elephant grass on TV, the sensation deeply repressed now, clouds one’s self awareness, keeps us from engaging fully in life, the terror still there, still frozen and ready to be unleashed.

    “Tell you what,” I persuaded the convention’s second in command. “We’re all getting paid. Except for the loudmouth who was brought on to describe his experience of being homeless. Hell, I already know. I once woke up after a drunk and found I didn’t have a home to go to. But those guys out there haven’t had an avenue of hope in a long time. None of us here looks particularly malnutritioned, either. What say we all take our hot lunches outside and feed those guys? You know, hand them a plate of the good stuff, give them a fork, shake a hand, get a name, tell ‘em when to come in.”

    “Nice guy notion,” he said, but reflected the unwritten policy, saying, “but you miss the point. The only way to motivate these guys is to make it scarce, make ‘em work harder to get it. That’s what is missing in their lives, enough self value to live straight arrow. It’s like the stray cat and the cream.”

    The response from the seated department head when I shouted my plan to him was an annoyed moue, and a hand brushing me off his lapel, saying,

    “Naw, we gotta bunch a speakers coming on right now.”

    The idea of job creation by giving away vegetable gardens being integrated into the make-work wages paid veterans in the direct care of the DVA received pretty much the same response. Nice idea, but requires too much autonomy, it’s too risky. There’s no such category in our jobs description book, anyway. Another thinking policy maker told me that if there is a significant need, a nonprofit will arise, and if it performs adequately the need will be fulfilled; hence there was no reason to offer what was essentially a nonprofit task to men attached to an entirely different system.

    That the Vets were consistently treated as beggars without their experience of the country’s collective past rioting through their heads bespoke reassertion of the original posit of the relationship: that they were broken units, not man enough to withstand the unreconciled horrors delivered unto them. It was curious to me that the DVA staff was well integrated with Blacks and women, that those seeking therapy were mostly White, and that the homeless were predominantly Black. (Most were not completely homeless. They were billeted into barracks called shelters, with little or nothing to occupy their time alive; forty-five year old men back to boot-camp with the stoney rigor of the streets as drill instructor, the payment for their venting of the murderous heart of America weak soup and a required song at the mission, that same old favorite hymn, Onward...) From what racial demographics I’d discovered while building gardens, the Vets social status’ were unilateral, the governing belief systems consistently immutable.

    The second day of the convention was like a second date. The flush and excitement of all the new faces and the new ideas, the newly lighted minds and the bright eyes had turned to apprehension and weariness. I gave my presentation to a group of twenty hungover men, all of whom had someplace better to be at eight o’clock in the morning, and the only question I received from them was about my soil-mix. I think he was trying to say something about bullshit. So was I.

    For the money spent on airfare and rent-a-cars, lamb chops and piles of pastry, hotel accommodations and powdered egg breakfasts, I could have started two thousand men to work, ten man teams for two hundred cities working to rebuild the garden. Whether the collected staff was revitalized by the convention, I’ll never know. What I do know is that policy is just an idea, but a garden is a place to grow the fire of being.


    The best thing I heard during those three days came from a group of businessmen celebrating signing a contract to build 284 new locomotives for Venezuela.

    At our ten o’clock breakfast we were regaled by the drunkest group of men I’ve ever sat next to; the VFW was in town, reeling, bleary, grotesquely corpulent, conducting an organ failure lottery, loud in voice and wind, piling on the forgets, requesting funding to soon join the dead. And I was an honorary club member of the VFW, by blood. ‘twer ever thus.


    (No, please don’t make me explain. I’ve just met your family and no, I can’t compete with them, or bus their tables or save you from their grasping paws. Its not that I am not so equipped to  understand the situation and take appropriate action, its just that I’m too ripped up to do it. Sorry about that, I sure didn’t ask for it. If I could change it to a more  peaceful means of accomplishment than the one I participated in, I would with absolute resolution. Spooky understands, we used to say in the horrible dark. And so do I, and doubt that I could contain myself sufficiently to insure your family’s safety. Or defend them, or murder your father for you. Besides, I saw them sizing me up. No, they could never coerce me to murder, except perhaps theirs. No, no one, not anymore. I took Acid. I love peace. And that willingness is your price, a  job with your father’s mob is your dowery. Even if that is really the way the world works and I could find freedom from what ails me in its clutches, I still am combat ineffective, too wised up and too nuts to be trusted. What I mean by nuts is unable to form sane and accurate appraisals and take appropriate actions in the world, because most of them would land me dead or in jail. Its the true fact of the condition my condition is in. There are millions more just like me. Tens of millions. Perhaps it is so that by the conscious and convenient disavowal of the existence of PTSD by those who presume to be our masters we become discredited in society, and are thus discredited in our own self estimation. But now they admit to PTSDs presence in the American consciousness, even though they act like it should just go away, that we should just buck up and stuff it like a man - easy for them to say, they’ve never had to do anything that resembles what a man at war does.)

    The emaciated inebriant who has by some form of physical osmosis gravitated himself to me has lost all his teeth, and has sprawled his temporary slough of a body in front of my outdoor display of art. The swells with money will be repulsed, I argue to myself, as sorry for him as any of the hundreds of kind hearted people who have spent portions of their lives to help him, his stomach surgically attacked several times, his gall bladder removed, his spleen too, a shunt in his aorta.

    A clutch of his buddies on the other side of the park walkway are watching. They too are Vietnam vets. Or  purport to be. Of course my heart is with him. It would be my preference, if I could get it paid for, to give him comfort and ease until he decides to leave. But he starts talking, and its a redolent rant of non-sequiturs I curiously know the meaning of, like remembering the combination of a safe you abandoned thirty years ago. He is daring anyone with heartlessness enough to rid him of life. Pensioner on the Parisian corner, his medals and his cup, the leg and arm blown away, your pity your own. The same thought crosses everyone’s mind - what will he do, step on the sots’ neck, no one would really care, let him blather in front of him and his pitch for spiritual compassion, or return him to his fellows, dragging his limp compliance across the park walkway concrete to deliver him from whence he came? In India his human dignity would have let him fade long ago. In America eternal immortality is the national goal, each life critical to the national mass accomplishment, and his continued presence is a kind of surrogate receptacle of mercy. To interrupt his freedom to assemble wherever he wanted to, and to speak whatever he had to say was criminal. But I was no longer a representative of the state. I  refused the sword, and my dismissal of allegiance would cost. Again, like it is for every free person, it was my choice of me over the drunkard’s ravings. Moral dilemma back-burnered, I hoisted him by the armpits, letting his head loll against my forearm, and dragged him gently across the concrete, to lay him to comfort on maple shaded green grass before his fellow fallen comrades. The stones were waiting in the very air.

    “Take care of him? I can’t even take care of myself.”

    “Yes you can. By taking care of him you must care for yourself enough to accomplish the act.”

    “What do I get out of it?”

    “More than you have now.”

    In the end all that was served was a shifting of the pieces. No customers bought. A nun came to apologize for the crucified hobo, saying they’d tried everything and he refused to come around to a sober perception. The surgeries and counseling availed only more mercy, and that was a drying well.

    “Sorry for the eviction, but the light needs room, too.“ I tell her. “Mine may be a faint promise, but I promise that it is true.”  


        Going back, like wishing for a time machine so you could go back and undo       

what you did, and do what you didn’t do. As if the seconds passing now are any different that the seconds passing then, except that there is now the wishful illusion that the sudden end of all those passing seconds can be postponed by stress reduction, peaceful applications, anything to diminish the weight of the wearing down induced by your action in the war, those seconds at least slowed if you’re lucky or daring enough to locate yourself beyond the dimming stimulus of the city, exercising skill in the wood shop or archiving family photos as if freezing the moments and calling them history make them so. Its all the other wrenching stuff that occurs in those looming seconds that make the trouble.

    But, thanks to the mercy inherent in the existence of psyche there is also still enough of the core of you to want to go on, who knows how bad it really is, knows what’s been so wrong for so long. That is also when there is so little left of you, so much has been eroded, there isn’t enough energy to project yourself into anything meaningful, any activity that demands your attention powerfully enough to quiet your inner noise and that sensation that you’ll fly apart at any moment, a diamond so fractured an echo from a wind charm would shatter it into a nebula of atoms.

    It hadn’t been too long before that that I’d almost been young again: well muscled, lean and strong, an affordable kindness about me. I’d spent three months behind the wheelbarrow building free vegetable raised-bed gardens for poor people, then three more months revitalizing the house we’d bought with a 10.5% DVA loan. Then the original deterioration resumed. Too fewer the want you looks from women’s angel eyes, the vast depth of them saddenly narrowed. In the grey wisdom the disquietudes that had never really gone away began again. And who’s to say what stumbled me back to reclusing and wary silence? The temporary mountains, the city snarl the haunting pines of a left behind lover still encrusting my sight like barnacles, gunfire from a nearby housetrailer, the lack of someone I could trust with my life beside me, that ol’ safety of a round going into the chamber, another thousand trigger events or smells, or sounds could have done it.

troutlily troutlily
61-65, M
2 Responses Feb 26, 2010

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Wow, there is a lot of truth that scares me but IT dont matter.