Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A few good men (and women)

Today got me thinking a bit about some veterans I have known.

When I was a kid in Texas, 6 or 7 years old, I would go over to a friend's house two doors down, and right there in the foyer was a great big framed photo of his father in military uniform. It looked, already at that point, old-fashioned. Maybe it was black-and-white or fake sepia-toned.

Anyway, I never met his father, just saw him in that photo. He was a helicopter pilot who was shot down somewhere in (or around) Vietnam and classified MIA. His wife, my friend's mom, became an activist in the POW/MIA movement and never stopped looking for answers. They never found him and he was ultimately classified KIA. She's a minister now.

On the other side of our house, and just next door, was a little old British lady. I remember there was some obscure holiday we observed and prepared for in my elementary school class wherein you would leave a bouquet of flowers on someone's doorstep anonymously. As a class project we made little construction-paper containers for the flowers -- a big cone, with a handle to go over the doorknob.

I left the flowers at her door, rang the bell and ran. Somehow (I'm sure it didn't take a lot of detective work -- I was never too good with secrets), she discovered it was me, gave me a kiss on the cheek and promised to buy me "a big sucker." A lollipop, that is. And it was very big.

Not sure why I picked her, but I had learned at some point that back in Britain she had served as a block warden during the Blitz, helping make sure her neighbors were safe during the nightly air raids. I love the idea of everyone pitching in and getting involved in the war effort. Very few of us are directly, or even indirectly, involved in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that seems to be very bad policy. Not enough people are hurt or impacted by these wars and, as a result, they just sort of go on without a lot of guidance or input or protest from us.

Finally, there's Lt. Col. Donald E. Biesenbach (Ret.), who served 20 years in the Army, moving his family all around the country and the globe. He served a tour in Korea (post-truce) and Vietnam (right in the middle of "the shit," as they say).

The military gave him a college education and a career and in return he got some experiences that he could never bring himself to talk about and, possibly, prostate cancer. (A solid link between cancer and the Agent Orange that was generously dropped on friend and foe alike hasn't been established, but the Army did give him disability pay for it, so there was probably something there.)

I don't remember too much from his year in Vietnam -- I was three-and-a-half when he left. I do remember sending reel-to-reel audiotape "letters" back and forth, and the little sausages and cheeses we would pick out at the commissary to send in care packages to him.

Apparently when he returned, I urged my mom to check and make sure it was "really him." I guess I've always had a strangely conspiratorial mind. (When the British lady once offered me a ride home from the local convenience store, I declined, on the chance that she was actually a kidnapper disguised as my neighbor. I watched a LOT of TV.)

Mom says he was never the same when he came back, and I don't know if that had anything to do with their divorce a few years later.

There's a lot I don't know. And much I'll never have a chance to know now. But I think about him and the 20-year-olds today and the unbelievable horrors we put them through and wonder how anyone in that situation has a chance of ever again living a happy, "normal" life.

And it's times like this I'm reminded that in some very twisted way, Alzheimer's does bring a rare blessing or two.

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