Monday, April 07, 2003

ghosts of war.

I can’t write about the war.
The words fail me and as soon as I start to take them out, I find I’d like to put them away again. Maybe it has to do with the isolation that I feel.
Recently, I moved to a small town in Wisconsin where the population is under 3000 and the ethnic makeup is just about 100 percent white -- 90 percent or so of one particular European extraction. Solidly Christian and God-fearing and anti-abortion and Republican. I stick out like the proverbial sore thumb here. You can already guess that there are no protests being conducted here. Instead, you see homemade signs in windows and on front lawns. “Support our Troops, Support our President.” “U.S.A.”
Looking down my street, which is the center of town, the American flags outside the houses and the handful of businesses are strikingly abundant. Our house, lacking a flag, feels conspicuous. Everything else looks just like the Fourth of July except for the bare trees and snow on the ground.

I need to tell you, I’m a sensitive person. A person who suffers from depression, a person whose defense mechanism often consists of shutting out painful truths. The war has been one of these painful truths. And so I don’t watch the news because of my fear of exposure and my vulnerability to internalizing it all.
I am feeling such heavy sorrow. Raging, when I let myself, against the injustice of this campaign. Remembering that my own mother lived through Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II, and knowing that she is haunted by stories she would never dream of sharing with her daughters. Stories of seeing people in her town led away to public executions. Babies being bayoneted. Things she waves off in dismissal if I try to ask about.

“What is the use of talking about the past?” she says.
My mind travels tonight to a time I collided randomly with a stranger’s haunted past.

I was a DJ and music director at the time, for a community radio station in a college town. The SST band Das Damen was in town on tour, and as part of my job I had interviewed them on the air and offered them my apartment to flop for the night. The owner of a few local bars had provided me with some free passes to take the boys out after their show. Being a geeky social anxiety-stricken girl, I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of entertaining these fact, I was slightly petrified. But they were nice and polite. And, beer always helps blunt the edges of my socially anxious tendencies.

We are hanging out in the Bluebird, in a narrow space between the bar and the wall, drinking and shouting above the music. I have been noticing for a while that a scraggly-looking, long-haired, forty-something guy in an army jacket is staring at me from behind our group. He makes his way over to us on wobbly feet, clearly smashed. His glassy eyes wander, looking for a place to land, until they look right into mine. He pushes his way into our circle, facing me. He seems to be whispering something and I can’t make it out and one of the guys in the band leans over and asks, “What.”
The scraggly guy hisses at me. I clearly hear the word. “Vietcong!” The nostrils flaring slightly, breath fouled by beer and whiskey.

I think no at first. That can’t be what he is saying.

I start shrinking inward. I can feel myself departing almost physically, but not mind starts to remove itself and the voices grow softer and more distant, but my feet remain rooted to the ground and the man and his rage are still right there, inches from my face. I can feel a sort of steam, a sweat wafting out of his pores, and breathing it, I start to gag.
The guys in the band still don’t seem to get what is unfolding, don’t understand what the messed-up vet is saying or what it has to do with me. The vet’s eyes widen and he looks wildly at the nearest guy in our bunch and grabs onto the shoulder of his leather jacket.

“Look at her, dude. Look at her. She’s hidin’ somethin’, man, LOOK.”

The guy from the band is nodding, he is trying to calm and soothe, smooth things over. He lets the vet’s hand remain where it is, gripping his shoulder. “She’s not hiding anything...hey. She’s not doing anything, she’s just fine, just a nice sweet girl not bothering anybody.”
The vet, agitated, starts to shout, in his Dennis-Hopper-in-Easy-Rider voice. “You look under her skirt yet, man?” I know I heard what he said, but I can’t quite believe it and so I continue shrinking. I try to inch away but there isn’t really anyplace to go. One of the other guys in the band is standing behind me and I’m pressing back against him, just trying to create some more space between me and this increasingly raving man. The guy behind me places both his hands on the outside of my upper arms, squeezing them reassuringly. I am holding my breath.

The Das Damen guy says, “Now this is no way to talk, is it? Isn’t it time that you just went on home and stopped bothering nice people who aren’t bothering you.”
That’s when the guy I am assuming is a vet snaps. And yells, “Pull up her skirt! I’m telling you, she’s the f**king Viet Cong, man! She’s got a knife up under there man. She strapped it to her thigh. She’ll cut your f**king throat!” And he starts, heroically, to lunge for me. But the guy from the band reacts quickly, inserting his body between us and pushing the vet back towards the wall so that he ends up toppling on his unsteady feet. He goes down. And that’s when I notice that the shoulder of the Das Damen guy’s leather jacket, where the vet had been holding onto him, is sticky and darkly stained. And I look down at the vet splayed on the floor, his eyes going in crazy directions, and his hands are smeared with blood. I don’t know from where. Maybe he was in a fight earlier, or maybe he fell and injured himself. I am not yet seething at the bartender who had gone on for who knows how long serving this guy who can barely even stand. At the moment I am still shaken and sorry to have been drawn into this man’s delusions and made into a spectacle.

Sorrier, though, for him. For the likelihood that he would not be able to remember anything the next day but some dread vision of a knife wielding enemy woman that he was unable to subdue. Sorry that demons were haunting him. Sorry that someone who had perhaps seen combat duty and horrors I could not begin to imagine, was so obviously suffering. Sorry for my own powerlessness. Depressed and guilty and feeling that the whole incident was my fault for looking like I do. For being a reminder.

We got the bartender to call the guy a cab. Went home to my apartment and broke out the sleeping bags. Everyone apologetic about what happened, talking about what a mess the guy was and how crazy it all was. Ensconced in my bed, I can’t wait for it to be morning, for the tears to stop falling, for the guys in the band to get out of my place and get in their van and get back on the road. Tears, thinking about war wounds.
This was three years before the Gulf War. At a time when I was quite certain in my brain that there would never be another American-instigated war. Firm in my thinking that the lessons of Vietnam had been learned and learned well. Sure that we would never revisit such horrors against another nation and another people, nor inflict the traumatic events of war on our own citizens, our own troops.

That’s what I thought to myself that night. How I comforted myself.
I was younger then, and hopeful.
[cross-posted at cocokat in slumberland.]

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