Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day 2017

Note:  The original title said 2018. That was a typo, not some subtle message. It’s been corrected, though this essay it will likely apply to 2018 as well // Jim

Last night the air was torn apart by the flash of lightning and shook with the crash of thunder.

I slept fitfully and dreamed of war.

This morning the world has gone silent.

Cold rain falls and the sky is the color of gunmetal.

This seems fitting to me. This quiet melancholy day, leeched of color.

For this is the day we Americans are supposed to pause and remember those many who have fallen in service to the United States.

Memorial Day isn’t about honoring veterans.

No, it’s not.

Not the living ones anyway.

Memorial day is about the dead.

This is the day some dutiful Americans visit the graveyards and the military cemeteries to place flowers and flags and to remember husbands and brothers and wives and mothers and sisters and sons and daughters who wore the uniform and came when called and gave the last full measure. My own father lies out there, under the cool white marble of a military cemetery, and today I dearly wish I could stop by for a visit – but it’s a thousand miles away and too far. Dad would understand.

Today is a day when we will lay the wreaths and sound the lonely trumpet and shed a tear and a salute for those comrades long gone.

Today is about the cool gray ghosts who still wander the countless battlefields of America, from Lexington to Antietam, from the Ardennes to the Chosin Reservoir, to Tet, to Basra, to Kamdesh, and all the terrible battles yet to come.

And come they will.

Oh yes, come they will, those new battles, in this endless and unending war.

For that is our nature, we Americans. This is who we have become, a nation of endless war.

Once this day was called Decoration Day in honor of those who died during the American Civil War.

Later the holiday became a day of remembrance for those killed in all conflicts.

Today, Memorial Day supposedly marks the passing of those  who died in uniform, both in peace and in war – but it’s been so damned long since there was a peace, the distinction is moot.

Today is supposed to be about those who gave their lives for freedom and liberty, for justice and right, for the ideal of a more perfect union.


But in reality, it’s not the soldiers we remember. It’s the endless war.


Do you realize that it’s almost two decades now, now since those terrible days in September of 2001?

Seventeen years of war and death and sacrifice and the supposed Global War on Terrorism.

For our children, this most recent generation, the ones just now reaching the age of reason and awareness, they have never known an America not at war. 

They have never lived in a nation at peace.


Think on that. No, that’s not a rhetorical statement. Think on that. Think on how this conflict has shaped them, this generation, how it defines their worldview during the most formative years of their lives and how this world will shape the one they create a decade from now for their own children.

For them, this new generation, war has become so commonplace, so ubiquitous, that it’s simply business as usual.

For them, war simply is.

For them, war is just another aspect of American life, like plumbing and electricity and the flow of money, invisible and all around. The dead come home from conflict invisible, hidden, silent, returned to their grieving families in quiet ceremonies far away from the public eye, unlamented and unnoticed by a nation grown jaded and bored with slaughter. America does not see the dead, not until days like this one, when the bodies are safely hidden away under slabs of white marble and fields of green manicured grass and draped in words of patriotism and valor.

For them, this generation, war is normal.

And those of us born in the 1960s? Well we certainly can’t tell them that this is wrong.

We certainly cannot tell this generation war is not the normal state, that normality is peace without conflict. 

See, because we grew up in a nation at war too.  By the time I was seventeen, America had been fighting in Southeast Asia for my entire life.  The media was daily filled with images of blood and death, body counts, mangled and maimed soldiers, of burning helicopters and a terrifyingly incomprehensible enemy.  We were told we would go next, that we had to, or the enemy would come here, to America, and slaughter us all.

Back home? Well, back home, the streets were filled with violence and unrest and it seemed that America was about to tear itself to pieces in a clash of violently opposed ideologies – because no matter how much the enemy might despise us, we hated ourselves, our neighbors, our fellow Americans, even more. 

And how did that shape our worldview, the world we have given to our own children?

For us, war is the normal state of affairs too.

And our parents?

They remember a brief period of idyllic America, the perfect peaceful 1950’s, sock hops and ducktails and white picket fences, providing you lived on the right side of the tracks, providing you were white – while Korea raged unseen and ignored in the background and at home they dug fallout shelters and waited for the Soviet bombs to fall and saw commies hiding in every shadow.

Their parents had World War II, and before that … well, the list goes back a long, long way and perhaps war is a normal state of affairs for us Americans after all.

There are a lot of dead to remember on this Memorial Day.


And so it goes, this endless cycle.


Today there are those who instead of picnicking  with their familiars, instead of working in their yards or enjoying the day, will be patrolling the dark and dangerous corners of this world.  They’re out there, right now, walking the bitter broken mountains of central Asia. They’re out there right now standing the long watch on and below and above the seas. They’re out there in the fetid festering jungles of South America, in the dry dusty deserts of Africa, in the blistering heat of the Middle East, in lands so remote you’ve never even heard of them – and wouldn’t believe the descriptions of such places if you did.  They are out there right now, as far away as a cold airless orbit high above the Earth and as close as local bases in their own states and the armories of their own home towns.  

Some of these men and women will not live out today.

Some will most certainly come home to Dover Air Force Base in a cold steel box beneath the draped colors of the Stars and Stripes, their war over, their dreams ash, soon to be just another restless ghost in America’s legion of the dead.

Today, there are those who wear the uniform, but can no longer serve – their duty stations are the crowded and forgotten wards of military hospitals around the world. They won’t be working in the yard or grilling out today either. Some will spend the day with family, even if they are unaware of it. 

Soon too their last battle will be over.

Today there are those who no longer serve, no longer wear the uniform, but they still fight. They fight the nightmares of Vietnam and Beirut and Mosul and Firebase Alpha and a thousand other battlefields you’ve never heard of.   They are the walking dead, killed in action only they no longer have the wit to know it and so they haunt the streets of America, the forgotten unseen discarded cold gray ghosts of war and conflict, poisoned by nightmares, by pills and alcohol and poverty, slowly fading away.

And today, of course, there are those who no longer fight, no longer struggle, no longer remember.  They lie entombed in the soil of foreign nations, at Normandy, at Tunis, at the Ardennes, at Brookwood and Cambridge, at Flanders and Lorraine, at Manila, Mexico City, in the Netherlands, the Somme, and many other places whose names most Americans no longer remember or never knew. One hundred and twenty four thousand, nine hundred and nine American servicemen lay interred forever in twenty-four cemeteries on foreign shores and there they will stay, never to return to America.  They were the lucky ones, if you can call it luck, found and honored and laid to rest by their fellows.  Others, well, their bones are myriad and they litter the sea floor beneath all the oceans of the world or are lost in the jungles and deserts on all the world’s continents, their resting places unknown and unremembered. 

Today, here, within the boundaries of the United States, there are one hundred and forty-six national military cemeteries, and more than a million Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Guardsmen lie beneath the cold white granite, my own father among their brave company.  And one day I will join them.

Their battles are long, long over, even if the war still rages on.

They, all of them, came when called, some of their own free will and some not, and did their duty and no one, no one, can ask any more of them.

For them, for all of them, for those who have fallen or will fall in this lousy war, and for all those who have fallen in all the conflicts we’ve fought lo these many years, for those who will fall tomorrow, today raise a glass and give a nod towards the flag.

Remember them.

Remember those cool gray ghosts.

If only for a moment.

Monday, May 1, 2017



Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.

You notice things.

I spend an hour each morning on my bike.

I ride quiet low-traffic roads, mostly through residential neighborhoods.

My daily route varies, but always includes both city and rural areas.

I’m riding for exercise, fitness, and mostly just because I enjoy it. It helps me write. It gives me time to think.

I ride a minimum of 60 minutes each morning, more if conditions are good. I typically cover 12-20 miles (further on the ultra-lightweight racer, less on the heavier hybrid). If I ride in the evening too, I might cover 25 to 30 miles in a day.

You notice things.

You notice things on a bike that you don't in a car. At least I do anyway, both because of natural inclination and by dint of training.

You travel further on a bike than you can on foot. But like being on foot, you're closer to your surroundings, unenclosed, unprotected. You can feel it. You can smell it. You study the landscape, the houses, the buildings, the yards. The dogs. You say hi to people you pass. They wave back, some of them. Others just stare suspiciously and frown, it’s that kind of place.

You've got time to think, time to process what you see, while your legs push you over the tarmac and through the thick sweltering air.

And you notice things.

See, I live in Florida, a little town called Milton, in the Panhandle.

This is the Deep South.

This is old Florida.

And Milton is, well, it's a very old, very Southern, backwater town.

In this case "backwater" isn't metaphor or allegory. Well, okay, it is, but it's also the literal truth in that Milton (Once Mill Town due to a long ago vanished logging industry, also Hell-town, Jernigan's Landing, Hard Scrabble, and Scratch Ankle) is tucked into a bight of the Blackwater River, surrounded by swamps and bayous and boggy mosquito-infested wetlands, cut off by the Inland Waterway. This is the South of ancient enormous oak trees festooned with hanging Spanish moss, alligators, steam bath humidity, and Confederate flags. Now that summer is upon us, I very often have to dodge snakes, some small, some as big as a large man’s leg, some harmless and some emphatically not, sunning themselves on the warm morning pavement like leathery sausages broiling on the grill at the local Circle-K.

Go east, go west, along the Gulf Coast and the Redneck Riviera  and you'll find bright and glittering tourist towns, from Orange Beach to Panama City, full of wrinkled sun-browned retirees and happy young people on summer break, all drinking and dancing and turning boiled-crawdad red in the unrelenting sun.  There are hundreds of great restaurants, Gulf seafood places mostly, of course. Nightlife. Music. Boardwalks. Festivals. Wonderful beaches. Sailing, surfing, fishing.

Salt Life they call it.

But not Milton.

Time and the Salt Life just sort of passed this place by. It's a tidy little town. It’s the county seat, the courthouse is here and the government offices. It’s a got a certain charm, but it’s a bit crumbly around the edges, full of working poor and lower Middle Class, military retirees (mostly Navy, but a lot of Air Force types too, leavened with some Coast Guard migrated over from Mobile looking for a lower cost of living). It’s the prototypical rural South, peanuts and cotton, a bit off the highway. There's a tiny Navy base, Whiting Field, where they train helicopter pilots. Tourists don't come here because there's nothing much to do. No beach, no clubs, no boardwalk, no kitschy little shops, no casinos. The shiny little Navy ensigns have to drive to Pensacola or Mobile for entertainment. There's nothing here but cheap fast food joints, pawn shops and second hand stores, redneck dive bars, and a lot of Baptist Churches. This is the kind of place you take a vacation from, not a trip to.

You can count ten billboards for ten different accident lawyers within fifty yards, a density of ambulance-chasers unmatched anywhere else in the world.

Here, churches are like hermit crabs. Any empty building, no matter how small or how large, will eventually house one. Abandoned gas stations, a falling down barn, warehouses, former grocery stores, an old mobile-home, a large enough drain culvert, and a congregation newly molted and homeless scuttles in to try on the accommodations. Sometimes the itinerant preachers go through a dozen places until they find one that fits – like a crab proudly wearing a soup can for a hat. And religious signs sprout in profusion among the palmetto shrubs alongside the roads. There are almost as many of those as there are advertisements for lawyers.

Other places, a little town like this would be a bedroom community, but Pensacola is across the bay 30 minutes away via a highway that is perpetually in various states of demolition and while there's certainly commuting there's none of the daily mass migration to new urban developments you'd find elsewhere. There are dozens of empty buildings that once housed some kind of small business and now are empty and fit only for hermit crabs. The last real growth this place saw was back in the 70s and most of the homes date from that time – or before. The neighborhoods are old and overgrown, poverty often jumbled together with modest wealth. You routinely see huge well maintained homes on a dozen acres next door to a squalid one-bedroom shack.

And that's what I ride through each morning.

That weird Deep South Panhandle disparity.

And you notice things.

One route takes me through a neighborhood of huge houses set back from the road on large lots. Homes of the well-heeled local gentry. Doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, as my mother-in-law says, recalling both the old jump-rope rhyme and the popular Hoagy Carmichael song of her childhood.

Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.

The houses here are well kept with manicured lawns. In the morning as I roll past, there are always trucks and trailers identified with the logos of various lawn services parked alongside the road and the buzz of hedge trimmers and the muted roar of lawn mowers fills the air with the smell of cut green things. The houses here are new, modern, large.  You see a lot of columns and fancy gabled windows and large porches and screened-in Florida rooms. Almost all of the homes have in-ground pools in the backyards, surrounded by white picket fences and flanked by stylish patio furniture. If the owners are young there will be a late model SUV in the drive, if they’re older it’ll be a Lincoln Town Car or some other large luxury sedan.  The people here aren’t particularly rich in the grand scheme of things, most of them anyway, but they’re not poor either. They are overwhelmingly white. Many of them are doctors and lawyers. Sometimes they wave as I ride past, usually they just ignore me.

Another route takes me through a predominantly black neighborhood.

The houses here are smaller. Closer to the road – close enough to smell dinner cooking in the evenings or backyard BBQs on the weekends, almost always strong enough to make my stomach growl in hunger. Here it’s mostly modest brick homes built in the 50s and 60s. All similar floor plans set on half or quarter acre lots. The tiny single stall garages are almost all long ago converted into living space. It’s Florida, these people don’t need a garage as much as they need another bedroom. Car ports are common. Most of the places are neat and tidy, with well kept yards and small gardens. Here, people mow their own grass and if there’s a pool it’s usually an inexpensive above-ground. The cars are a few years older and there are more vehicles that double as both family transportation and work trucks. This place is firmly lower middle class, a workingman’s neighborhood. People are much more friendly here, they almost always wave or shout a greeting as I cruise past.

Sunday morning I rode sixteen miles through town and out into the rural countryside.

You notice things.

7:30 AM, in a more affluent neighborhood, a grizzled old white man sprawled in a lounger on his front porch surrounded by empty beer cans. He was shirtless and doughy and sallow and gray hair grew in patches on his chest like fungus. He wore bright pajama bottoms decorated in cartoon characters and unidentifiable stains and he was as drunk as a preacher in a whorehouse on Saturday night. He cackled at me as I rode past, mouth gaping open in intoxicated mirth so wide I could see it was empty of teeth. An older woman in a flowered robe sat on her porch across the street reading the paper and drinking coffee. A large black and white cat sat on the steps near her feet watching me with yellow eyes. The woman never looked up. Not even when the drunk shouted something unintelligible and threw an empty beer can in my general direction. It fell far short and came to rest in the middle of his manicured yard.

A half hour later in a much poorer neighborhood I passed a small house, the yard filled with weeds and the rotting hulks of old cars, the eaves sagging, the paint fading and in need of a new coat. Not a dump, just the kind place where people are too poor and too hard worked  to worry much about what the neighbors think. On the cluttered porch were two young African-American boys. Nine or ten. Both wore crisp perfectly pressed white dress shirts with ties, black pants, polished shoes. They were seated opposite each other at a small table, staring intently at a chessboard, the pieces arrayed for battle. From inside the house a woman’s voice asked if they were ready for church. One of the boys answered in the affirmative and they both waved to me. Good morning, Sir, one said. Good morning, Boys, I answered. Enjoy your game. We will, Sir, have a blessed day.

I’m not much of a religious person but I’d rather be offered a polite blessing than an empty beer can any day.

In another neighborhood, on a road I hadn’t been down before, an older brown brick house was surrounded by a chain-link fence, with a mesh gate closed across the drive. Dogs. You can always tell. So I was ready for the furious barking when it came. And I damned near lost control of my ride and crashed into the ditch howling with laughter when this tiny ball of fury came at me out of the flowers. I thought it was a lawn gnome at first. There was Chihuahua in its pedigree and something else, maybe Mexican jumping bean. The creature couldn’t have weighed more than a pound, it had a little dog shaped round head with bulging eyes glowing with the kind of kaleidoscopic madness you only get from a hundred generations of dedicated inbreeding. And it was wearing, I swear to you, a tiny pink dress. But what did it for me was the sign on the gate: Beware of Dog. I lost it. I swerved and nearly went over the handlebars. I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe in the thick air … and looked up as an older woman in curlers and a pink housecoat and giant fluffy pink slippers appeared in the drive. She grinned hugely at me and waved. I grinned and waved back. She was clearly enjoying the joke.

You notice things.

You notice the lack of things.

These neighborhoods are the middle. Poor or modest or moderately wealthy, this is the center.

These neighborhoods are all very different, but they have at least one thing in common.

There are almost no political signs.

There were plenty of signs before the election, Trump, Clinton, various others, and not always where you might expect. But by the end of November they were nearly all gone. And now I can ride for blocks through vastly diverse neighborhoods without seeing a single political sign. 

They have moved on.

Now, I don’t mean they’ve surrendered to the current situation, and I don’t mean they haven’t. What I mean is they don’t feel the need to advertise an allegiance to one side or the other of an election that’s long over.

They’ve moved on.

Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.

But then there are the other places.

The edges.

The extremes.

And in those places, the signs are still up.

They want you to know they are on the winning team.

Far down a back road, unexpectedly, is this … house.  

The road is very rural. The lots are large, the houses aren’t fancy. Old ranch style mostly with Spanish influence. Large yards, many fenced in for horses – oddly I almost never see an actual horse, though one place has a whole herd of miniature donkeys.

And then you come to a wrought-iron gate.

It’s massive. Custom made. Old. Locked with a heavy chain. There’s a sign that says “East gate closed, use west gate.” Not other gate, west gate. Because it’s so far away, they have to give directions to it using the cardinal points of the compass. You ride west along the fence, past a row of huge old palm trees. The house is enormous, a vast sprawling red brick edifice. Google Earth shows that it’s shaped like a C, with two large wings off the main structure wrapped around a courtyard and an Olympic sized pool hidden from the road. The place must be nearly 10,000 square feet. There’s a huge garage and an even larger barn and what appears to be a guest house big enough for Charlie Sheen. I count at least a dozen outbuildings, maybe more, some as big as the house. The football field sized yard is shaped around century old oak trees and paved drives, there are fountains and flower beds and sculptures. There’s a large white cross prominently affixed to the central oak. Past the “west” gate are acres of what look to be vineyards gone to seed, punctuated by tall sprinkler systems that look as if they are no longer used. The place is a little seedy, as if the wealthy owners sold out to a retired Mafia hit man who just wants to die of anonymity and natural causes. The security cameras are hard to spot, but they’re there and new and professionally installed. As are the no trespassing signs.

And on the gate posts?

Brand new Trump/Pence signs.

A few miles away, I pass another place.

This place could not be more different, the complete opposite, as far removed from the mansion as if it was on the far side of the world.

The house is a shack, and that’s probably an insult to shacks. The place is literally falling down, the roof sagging and buried under sickly looking moss. The paint is not peeling only because it long ago fell off leaving behind exposed mildew speckled wood. On the eaves, the soffit boards are missing and you can see into the attic and the gray dry-rotted ends of the roof joists. Most of the shingles are gone, replaced with various patches of tin and tarps and tarpaper. A window is covered with warped and buckling plywood and the carcass of the missing frame complete with broken glass is laying in a mangled heap under the window where they dropped it (or it fell out). The yard is choked with weeds and garbage, a half dozen decaying truck engines dead beyond any resurrection short of the divine, the carcass of some unidentifiable vehicle from the previous century sunk to the top of the wheel wells into the soil, the twisted springs of at least a half dozen different mattresses, broken furniture, shattered blocks of concrete, empty paint cans, those horrible mass produced blow-plastic children’s playsets faded by the unrelenting sun to dull pink and sickly green and diseased yellow like the stiff corpses of giant dead birds, and piles of other less identifiable detritus. There’s a leaning carport packed full of random castoff trash, the kind of worthless junk that’s important to people who don’t have anything of value and never will. Places like this, they don’t have security cameras, they have dogs. Not some toy breed in a pink dress, but pit bulls or some diluted version of a Rottweiler, usually tethered in the junk with a chain and a padlock, abused, neglected, half psychotic, and you can smell the piles of dog shit from a hundred yards away.

And there, on the rotting mail box post?

Brand new Trump/Pence signs, likely the only new thing in the place.

I pass other mansions and other shacks. All with Trump signs. These are the extremes, the edges, the antipodes of society and wealth and opportunity and education here in this little town, and yet they share this strange similar viewpoint. Four months after the election. Trump/Pence. Make America Great Again.

The mind bending part here is that these people, these opposites who share Trump as their only commonality, are more than anything else terrified of each other.

The people in that giant mansion?

What does make America great again mean to those people?

I don’t have to guess, Trump himself told us in his speeches and at his rallies. The wealthy told us what makes America great to them, they do so in TV interviews with famous personalities, they never shut up about it.

They’re terrified that some black gangbanger or some white trash bottom feeder is going to kick in their door and murder their families and steal all their stuff. That’s what the wall and the gates and the security cameras are for. These people, they love the idea of a wall around America, of course they do. They voted for Trump because they’re mad, certain they’re being ripped off, held at gunpoint, paying too much in taxes, forced to support the lowlifes and the freeloaders who live just down the road.

The people in that moldering shack?

What does make America great again mean to those people?

I don’t have to guess, I watched them cheer Trump’s talking points. I read the slogans on their shirts and their social media posts.

They’re terrified some rich guy is going to come kick in their door and enslave their families and take all of their stuff. That’s what the “Protected by Smith&Wesson” window sticker and the pit bull are for. These people, they love the idea of Trump sticking it to the “elites,” of course they do. They voted for Trump because they’re mad, certain they’re being ripped off, held at gunpoint, their rights and their jobs stolen by illegal immigrants or shipped overseas by the rich sons of bitches living just up the road.

These people could not be more opposite in station, in fortune, in economic opportunity. They are the most unlikely – and impossible – of allies.

These people are almost literally terrified of each other.

And yet, there it is, the thing that binds them together, that bridges the vast, vast gap between them. Donald Trump.

You notice things.

If you look carefully.

Trump appeals to the edges, not necessarily the edges of political ideology, but the edges of society. Those who live in the mansions and those who live in the shacks. See, both the rich and the poor, they think Trump is somehow not only going to make America great again, he’s going to make America great specifically for them.

Think about that.

Think about how utterly impossible that is.

The policies and ideologies that make America great for the people who live in those mansions, well those things almost never benefit the people who live in the shacks. In fact, it’s often just the opposite when the effects of deregulation and a lack of environmental protections and the empty promises of trickle down economics become fully realized.

And the changes necessary to lift those shack dwellers permanently up out of their poverty? Education, healthcare, adequate nutrition, decent safe jobs with benefits, equality, access, opportunity, those things almost never benefit the wealthy. The wealthy and privileged have those things already as a birthright and if they were willing to share, well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Trump pandered to the extremes. He continues to do so. But it’s the middle that has pragmatically moved on.

This, this right here will be Donald Trump’s Waterloo.

It is impossible to make America great for these two opposites, because what each really wants is to take from the other.

Trump will have to choose. The only way forward for him is to sacrifice either the rich or the poor.

And he cannot make that decision.

He can’t.

It’s impossible and he’s starting to realize it.

He wants to throw in with the mansions, like Reagan and Bush and his billionaire friends.

But he can’t abandon the shacks, because his ego needs their cheering more than his wallet needs the billionaires’ money, that’s what the rallies are all about. That’s why he daily contradicts himself – because he’s trying to tell each what they want to hear and those things are mutually incompatible.

And so he won’t choose. He can’t.

He’ll try to please both extremes and end up pleasing nobody.

Let this be a lesson, an opportunity, for those who would be president.

It’s not the edges that matter.

It’s the middle.

But you must take the time to notice.

Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.

This children's rhyme was chanted during recess almost every day that weather allowed us to play outside. I remember hearing older girls chanting as they jumped rope, but I cannot recall the first time that I was included. Jumping rope was a favorite activity because there were many paved sidewalks and play areas at the Cherokee Indian School. Those of us who attended the school were from homes without side-walks and paved roads. Some of us day students only had opportunities to jump rope on school days, while boarding students had access to paved areas even on weekends.

We jumped rope, chanted the rhyme, and laughed when we missed a jump on any one of the "occupations" named in the rhyme. We knew it was a game because we did not read about or know any women who were doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs. I do not think we even thought of what it was to be a rich man, poor man, beggar man, or thief. Yet we were amused with the game because we thought it might somehow predict our future.

- Carmaleta L. Monteith
Doctors, Lawyers, Indian Chiefs: Indian Identity in the South
Cultural Diversity In the U.S. South (Anthropological Contributions to a Region in Transition)