We used to know each other.
I always wondered what happened to you, where you ended up, what you became, how your life turned out.
My memory isn’t what it once was, but I still remember you, I do.
Despite the years, decades even, I’d still recognize your face in a crowd – at least I think I would. Probably.
It’s been a long time though, hasn’t it?
We were friends, you and I. Once, long ago.
Maybe we were inseparable or maybe we just sort of knew each other like people do, either way there was a time I would have counted you among my friends. Yes I would have and I don’t say that lightly. I have a lot of acquaintances but by design I don’t have a lot of friends; I treasure the ones I do have. I treasure the people who made a difference in my life, even if they exist only as memories now.
I remember you and the times we shared fondly.
I remember that I looked up to you and valued your viewpoint and opinion. I had a hard time finding myself when I was young, I wasn’t the most pleasant person or the most easygoing back then. I tend to live a bit louder than the average and I truly valued your patience with me. I respected you and you should know that you helped to shape my worldview though maybe not in a way you expected.
We were schoolmates maybe, growing up together during a childhood that is much further away now than either of us like to acknowledge. We grew up in the same neighborhood. Or maybe we were boy scouts together. We met at summer camp, or on the baseball diamond, or at the lake. Maybe we were co-workers decades ago, back before I left Michigan to see the world. Sure, we slung hash and bussed tables together, we lusted after the same hot waitresses in their cheap polyester skirts who wouldn’t give us the time of day and we hated the same jerk managers and made fun of their silly comb-overs and crappy two dollar clip-on ties. We worked side by side on the paint line at the car factory, sharing a Marlboro Red during break to get the stink of burning metal and wet enamel out of our noses (Dumb? Sure, but back then we were positive that we were immortal. And why shouldn’t we have believed that? Nothing had killed us up to that point). We bailed hay and drove tractors and shoveled cow manure together. We drank cheap lousy beer from a keg around a bonfire at a party in somebody’s backyard surrounded by faceless people that I have long ago forgotten. Or maybe we met in the service. Two and a half decades in uniform, a dozen deployments, one quick month-long war and two endless decade-long ones, a half dozen ships, a dozen duty stations, six continents and seven seas, I met a lot of people. We might have been shipmates, you and I. Maybe we stood the watch together on some Cold War cruiser off the coast of Africa or Russia or Greenland, or maybe we crossed the Pacific together and sailed through the Straits of Malacca or Indonesia or Hormuz. Maybe we went on liberty together, drinking and swearing and raising hell as only Sailors can through the streets of Mallorca and Tel Aviv and Athens and Rome and Cairo and Sidney and Hong Kong and Singapore and Nairobi and Freemantle and two dozen other places and countries that I no longer recall. Maybe we hunted pirates off the Horn of Africa, sweating our butts off in that goddamned inhuman heat or maybe we chased drug smugglers in the Caribbean or down off the mysterious Galapagos Islands under the light of the Southern Cross. Maybe we served together at some long gone duty station in some forgotten part of the world, trying to figure out what the hell we were doing in such a miserable godforsaken place, stuck in the festering armpit of the universe surrounded by people who hated our stinking guts or maybe just the opposite, hell and gone from the rest of civilization and so close to the edge of the world that you could see it. Maybe we slogged through the same warzone together, wondering if we would ever make it home again, miserable and sweating and afraid and wondering what we ever did to deserve such a fate or witness such devastation.
Maybe we shed tears over the same fallen comrades, the same lost friends.
I’ve got a box of old faded photos around here somewhere, because back when I knew you cameras still used film. I’ve still got those albums, and I’ve still got those pictures. You know the ones I’m talking about. I’ve seen you piss drunk and I seen you cold sober. I’ve seen you scared and tired and hungry. I’ve seen you laugh and I’ve seen you cry. You once told me about your dreams and what you hoped to get out of your life. I remember that you wanted to open your own restaurant, or maybe it was a bar and grill (even going so far as to draw up floor plans and menus and pick out locations), you wanted to be a singer (I heard your demo tape, the one you cut when you were 19, the one you scraped together $500 bucks to make at some fly-by-night studio with a drunk session keyboardist and a second-rate soundboard and a broken microphone. It was terrible, goddamn was it terrible, but hey, it was you and you know what? Even though you can’t sing for shit and I haven’t seen you in decades, I still have that tape and some day, if I can find a working cassette player, I’m going to upload it to your kid’s Facebook page), you wanted to be an orthodontist (honest to God, what kind of kid dreams about being a dentist? But that was you), you wanted to be a poet, you wanted to drive a taxi, you wanted to go back home and be a small town cop. You wanted to be a doctor, you were going to do good, save people, serve in the Peace Corps. You were going to be a priest, you were going to walk in the footsteps of Jesus or Gandhi or Indiana Jones. You showed me pictures of your kids and your spouse and your butt-ugly three-legged dog (or maybe that was your new baby, it’s been a long time, I forget).
We were going to change the world, you and me. Make it better. Wasn’t that what we were taught? Service above self. Respect. Duty. Honor. Be trustworthy and loyal. Integrity. Help others. Heal the sick. Clothe the poor. Feed the hungry. Help little old ladies across the street. Leave only footsteps, take only memories.
You worked with others, of all faiths and none, maybe you believed and maybe you didn’t and maybe you just didn’t care one way or the other but you didn’t make an issue out of it. If you talked about your faith, or lack thereof, you weren’t an ass about it, you didn’t proselytize, you didn’t try to witness me, and you didn’t try to force your beliefs on me – because if you had, well, we wouldn’t have been friends, would we? You didn’t hate others for believing differently, or if you did you never said so out loud and that was good enough.
You used to believe in taking care of the planet. Remember when we were Scouts? Leave no trace, isn’t that what we practiced? You taught me that. Remember when we were kids and that commercial about keeping America beautiful, that one with Iron Eyes Cody and narrated by Robert Conrad? Remember the Exxon Valdez and Love Canal? There was a time when we, you and I, believed that we were stewards of this world and we wanted to leave it better than we found it, we wanted the next generations to know the forests and the lakes and the beauty that we knew.
In all the time I knew you, I never heard you call people who were different traitors or un-American or enemies or lazy parasites who were destroying America, I never heard you call people socialists or fascists or Nazis (Nazis for God’s sake. Nazis) just because they didn’t belong to your political party. And the only people you called commies were communists, not the 208 members of Congress who happen to have different political beliefs than you.
We used to talk about science. Of course we grew up in the same decade when men walked upon the moon. We believed, you and I, believed in science, in technology. In education and learning. We read the works of Heinlein and Asimov and Clarke and we wanted to go, and hell, we even believed that we would. Someday.
I never knew you to buy into crazy conspiracy theories and obvious nonsense and hysterical talk radio bullshit.
I don’t remember you being afraid all of the time, afraid of everybody and everything.
I don’t remember you thinking that guns and violent revolution and theocracy were good ideas.
I don’t remember you ever using a racial slur, or demeaning women or minorities. You were the guy who would have spoken up, who would have put a stop to it and, man, back then I wished that I had half of your courage.
I don’t remember you hating people.
Hell, you used to enjoy meeting people who were different, people like me for example. You accepted people the way they were, people like me for example, and that was so unusual in my personal experience that it profoundly changed how I viewed the world – and how I treated others.
I didn’t know there were people like you and you have no idea how much I admired you for being you.
You helped me grow up.
That’s one of the things I really, really respected about you.
Even after all these years that’s the thing I remember most about you. Your face grows hazy in my memory and maybe I really wouldn’t recognize you in a crowd after all, but I will always remember the way you treated others, people like me for example. I’ve always carried that lesson with me and I’ve always tried to live up to your example – even if I haven’t always been as successful at it as I’d like.
Maybe I’m remembering it wrong.
It was a long time ago and a lot of water has gone under the bridge since we last saw each other.
But, you know, I remember plenty of folks from the same time who hated others, who were bullies and jerks and hysterical fools. I remember those who were small minded religious bigots. I remember those who thought they could solve every problem with their fists, believe me I remember those people very clearly – despite the various head trauma I’ve suffered over the years that part of my brain, the part that stores those memories, remains solidly intact. I remember those who were racists and xenophobes and haters. I remember those who treated people who were different, me for example, with contempt and scorn and mockery.
I don’t remember you being one of them.
Maybe that’s why I was so glad to hear from you again after all these years.
You found me on Facebook or saw my Twitter feed or you came across my name listed at TogetherWeServed. A friend of a friend of an acquaintance forwarded you something I wrote and you realized you used to know me. You saw a link to something I wrote in the national media or on a blog or via StumbleUpon or Reddit or on Google Plus.
You did a web search and somehow you ended up here at Stonekettle Station.
One way or the other, we reconnected after ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years.
And that’s when you found out I wasn’t the person you imagined I was.
Don’t feel bad, the discovery was mutual.
You, whoever you are, always start your message the same way. You tell me how smart you thought I was, how much you used to respect me or how funny you thought I was. What a card, what good times we had. But (and there’s always that but isn’t there? I can always see it coming. But. I used to really respect you, but… I used to admire you, but… I remember what a smart guy you were, but…). You read something I wrote and you were appalled. Now to be fair, you gave me the benefit of the doubt, or benefit of your denial, whatever, and decided that I was just misguided. You could straighten me out if you just quoted Rush or Glenn or the Savage Wiener at me. When that didn’t work, well, then you couldn’t wait to tell me just how utterly disappointed you were in the way I turned out.
I’m not the guy you think I should be.
Sorry about that.
But hey, it turns out you’re not the person I thought you were either.
I guess that makes us even.
Nowadays you call yourself a Patriot or a True American or a Constitutionalist, implying of course that I am not, despite the fact that I’ve spent my entire adult life sworn to uphold and defend that same Constitution, that same America and despite the fact that I’ve put my life on the line to uphold that oath.
Somewhere in the intervening decades, you stopped believing in science and started believing that science is some vast conspiracy theory, a dodge, a con game to make scientists rich – the fact that you’re surrounded by rising seas and melting glaciers and dying species and the fossil record and can’t point to very many rich scientists doesn’t seem to deter you at all. If the filthy rich guy in the the multi-million dollar temple of glass and steel and gold says it’s true, well it must be so.
Somehow, somewhere, you gave up your dream of being a teacher and started sneering at education. Like scientists, teachers seem to deserve only your contempt and scorn. Our parents dreamed of their children having a better education than they did, you demand that your kids, and mine, have less.
Somehow you went from accepting those that were different, like me for example, and started surrounding yourself with people just like yourself. You’re the guy that turned the Boy Scouts from an organization that once included all, into a small withering outfit that is largely defined today by those that they hate and exclude. Don’t. Don’t bother to try and tell me different, I’ve seen exactly what it became with my own eyes when I tried to introduce my own son to an organization I once dearly loved. I remember a guy we once called a friend, one of the best scout leaders we ever knew, a guy that lived up to the Scout Oath and the Scout Law every single day – a guy people like you kicked out of Scouting because it turned out he was gay. He died of cancer a while back, with his lifelong companion by his side, and all those Scouts he helped and guided and mentored over the years, well, they pretended that they didn’t even know him. So much for loyalty and courage and doing the right thing.
Somehow environmentalism became a dirty word for you. Leave No Trace somehow became Drill, Baby, Drill. Conservation became Consumption and anything else is just plain unpatriotic. Our children can live without the forests and the lakes and the beauty we knew, so long as they can still buy an SUV.
Somewhere along the line you stopped believing in bearded happy robe-wearing Jesus, that guy who welcomed all and admonished you to do onto others and love your neighbor as yourself. Instead you took up with the Mirror Universe Messiah, the angry goatee wearing soldier Jesus who carries a high-capacity 9mm H&K concealed in his cammies and hates pretty much every goddamned body. Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, heal the sick, love your neighbor, that hippy garbage is for suckers and socialists and people who want to enslave us all. You’re all about America being a Christian nation run by militant Christians in accordance with Christian values, just as long as that means government can use Jesus as an excuse to dictate a woman’s reproductive and healthcare choices, but not when it comes to having a government that does what Jesus specifically commanded you to do – because charity, of course, is about individual choice. I guess it’s a whole lot easier to shoot an abortion doctor than it is to feed and care for the tens of thousands who go to bed hungry and cold and sick every night.
You used to be fearless, but somehow you ended up afraid all of the time. Afraid of everything and everybody, afraid of change, afraid to hope, and afraid of anybody different, people like me for example. You live in the freest nation in the world and in a time of nearly unlimited opportunity, you have enough to eat and a warm place to sleep and unfettered access to endless information, you’ve got fresh water and healthcare and a sanitary place to take a shit without it ending up in your food supply and you’ve got all the goddamned guns you can afford. Your worst damned day is better than what ninety percent of the world’s population will ever experience, ever, in their entire miserable short brutal lives. But you’re still afraid. Maybe it’s because you only listen to people who tell you to be afraid, dimwitted small minded fearful haters who make a profit on your fear, folks like Ted Nugent and Allen West and Sarah Palin. Maybe it’s because you only listen to people like Rush and Glenn and Sean instead of actual scientists, engineers, economists, or people who have actually gone more than fifty miles from where they were born, people like me for example.
Maybe it’s because you want to be afraid.
For all the things I once admired about you, for all the things you taught me, for all the glad memories we share, it saddens me that it should be so.
We used to know each other.
I always wondered what happened to you.
I always wondered where you ended up, what you became, how your life turned out.
Now I know.
And I wish that I didn’t.