Wonders and Horrors

Growing up in Canada in the sixties, every night we watched news reports on television about the War in Vietnam. There were weekly counts of the numbers of young American soldiers killed and wounded in South East Asia. We watched protesting students on college campuses, activists burning draft cards, and champion boxer Cassius Clay being sent to prison for refusing to serve in the military. Hanging over it all was the shroud of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, capitalism versus communism.  So much talk of war, civil unrest and endless news coverage of it all. To an eleven year old child the world seemed like a very dangerous place indeed. When my father informed us we were moving to Texas, I was nervous and unsure.  America appeared to me a country torn by conflicting ideas.

In contrast Canada felt like a haven. Not immune, but less directly exposed to what appeared an inevitable showdown between the United States and the USSR. When I shared the news of my impending move to my friends at school, one of them, Jamie Thompson said, “You know the Russians have a super hydrogen bomb that just circles the earth waiting to be dropped on America when the war breaks out.”

Jamie, like most boys of our age, was prone to exaggeration so I wasn’t quite sure his remarks were true. But then again, satellites and men were routinely orbiting the earth. It was an age of wonders and horrors. The first heart transplant had taken place in South Africa.  The US and the Soviets were posturing and saber rattling, quickly building vast nuclear arsenals to ensure mutual annihilation. NASA was racing to land a man on the moon.  John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had all been assassinated. There was rock music and protest music and talk of war and talk of peace and love and drugs and to me it seemed we were either on the brink of a fantastical new world or cataclysmic destruction.

In the summer of 1969 my family moved to Texas.  The world continued to revolve. Wonders and horrors!  Men walked on the moon. Students protesting the draft and war in Vietnam were killed on the campus at Kent State. The NY Mets won the World Series.  The Beatles released their last album.  Woodstock!  President Nixon announced the withdrawal of 25,000 troops. A hand-full of soldiers were arrested for the murder of an entire village in Vietnam.

In 1972 I wrote a high-school term paper on the 1968 My Lai Massacre, one of the most infamous events in the history of the United States Armed Forces. Although the exact number of casualties was never determined, approximately 400 unarmed civilians, men, women, and children were brutally murdered. Twenty-two soldiers were charged but only Platoon Leader Lt. William Calley Jr. was convicted, serving but a few years under house arrest. Researching those events, the numerous newspaper and magazine articles I read, the retelling of the story, those things had a profound and lasting effect on me.

I wondered how I would have reacted had I been there. I wonder still. Would I have had the courage to stand up as three soldiers had done and try to halt the atrocities only to be shunned and branded as traitors in the months that followed? Or would I have stood by and done nothing, or even participated, afraid to challenge authority?  I like to believe I would have done the right thing, but war changes people. Heroes and villains often walk the same path distinguished by a single choice on a divergent road.

I don’t write of those events to disparage the countless brave men and women who have served and even given their lives for their country. I respect and admire those who have served with honor. I mean only to frame the years in which I came of age. I had classmates with brothers who served and some who lost their lives in the terrible conflict. During those years, military service was something many sought to avoid, by college deferment for those who could afford it, by refusing to register or leaving the country for those who could not. The draft system wasn’t fair. It was biased against low income and under-privileged members of society. By the mid seventies the country was sick of a war few wanted or understood and in 1975 TV broadcasts shocked and enthralled us once again.  This time the images were of terrified South Vietnamese gathered at the embassy gates, clambering for a place on the final departing American helicopters.

Registration for Selective Service ended with the Vietnam War in 1975 and did not resume until 1980. I turned 18 then 21 in the years between. Unlike other young men, I never faced the choice between conscience and military obligation.  The need to make a decision was eliminated.  But over the preceding years more than 125 thousand young men had gone into exile rather than fight a war that they could not personally support.  Finally in 1977, as one of his first official acts, President Carter granted amnesty to those who had failed to register or who had left the country to avoid military service. Ninety percent of those had found refuge and were given legal resident status in the country where I first considered the wonders and horrors of our time.  Canada, a haven for many after all!

A White Water Vision

HuecoMy friend Todd sat paddling in front of me and without warning he lept from the canoe. Whether he had lost his balance or his nerve I’ve never been quite sure but the sudden shift of his weight sent us both tumbling into the Guadalupe River. That year the river was running fast and deep with water released from rain swollen Canyon Lake and as I resurfaced, I could see Todd, our canoe, and all its contents disappear over the edge of the waterfall.

The rocks that crowd into the river on both sides of Hueco Springs Rapids are a common gathering place for white water enthusiasts to observe and encourage each other and several people were standing there.  Shouting and pointing, they directed me to the right side of the fall where the transition through the rapids would be easiest; but their voices were drowned by the roaring of the water and the swift current made navigation impossible so I had little choice but to try and remain calm and let the river take me.  The fall at the head of the rapids is not great, perhaps four or five feet.  The danger lay at the base, where the rocks on either side squeezed the fast moving river into a churning maelstrom.  I leaned back and went over feet first.

I was instantly disoriented.  The incredible force of the waterfall held me and dragged me down, pushed me under and rolled me over tossing me madly about.  I surfaced momentarily and gulped in a small amount of air, but the undertow quickly pulled me back below.  I kicked my feet, feeling for the bottom in hopes of pushing myself away from the grip of the fall, but the water was too deep and I was caught, suspended in the swirling power of the river that twisted me round and around like a load of laundry in an industrial sized washing machine.

I was a good swimmer and I could hold my breath longer than most, but the effort of my struggle and the lack of oxygen quickly left me exhausted.  I began to swallow water with each gulp of air frantically stolen when I cycled to the surface. The reality of my situation was clear. I was in trouble. I might not make it. I fought on, but I was too weak to break free.

There are moments when time becomes unrecognizable from our normal experience; when our attention is so laser focused on here and now that we lose ourselves completely.  Time becomes compressible and hours seem like minutes.  But time also stretches and events that occur in seconds can be shattered into fragments that can only be perceived, they are beyond our physical ability to react. Time also stands still, but in the seething water beneath the falls I lost all ability to tell the difference.

I’m so tired!  My arms and legs ached from exertion.  I’m going to die!

My lungs burned from oxygen starvation and I had reached the point where I could no longer hold my breath and soon I would either lose consciousness or give into the fatal overpowering compulsion to open my mouth and breathe in the water that was drowning me.

I was completely spent.  Oh my God, I am going to die!

I thought of my wife.  Who would give her the news?

I’ll never see my unborn son.

I had this weird sense of pity for those people downstream who would soon be pulling my dead body from the river.  Who should have to go through that?

My parents, my friends, I would never see them again. They’d never see me. I was concerned for all the things that I had left undone in my life.  For times when I had acted petty and self indulgent, for things I’d said in anger, for things I should have said and hadn’t.  And then…

And then I was concerned with nothing at all.

Powerless to save myself, tired beyond comprehension, I was enveloped by a sense of all encompassing serenity.  I stopped struggling.  My struggle was over and the weight of my existence was lifted from me.  It was as if I had given myself to the river and been cleansed of all pain and worry and care.  There was no fear.  I was there at the inevitable conclusion of all living things and marveled at the absolute calm of it.  I felt like a traveler at the end of a long and arduous journey, but now I was going home.

I am not a particularly religious person.  I don’t subscribe to any doctrine written by men claiming inspiration from God; but for the first time in my life I felt my own Spirit, not that my life was ending, but that it was about to begin. I was joyful beyond anything I had ever experienced.

I let go and I offered myself up and I stood at the edge of the universe and in that instant, a rope appeared in my hand and pulled me back. I was alive, but for the briefest of moments, strangely disappointed.

I miss…

I miss shuffling through

a red golden hue

of leaves the size of my hand.

Soft boiled eggs, mumblety- peg,

eating peaches straight out of the can.

The sound of galoshes

slushing through sloshes,

footprints on new fallen snow.

Santa and reindeer,

hot chocolate and root-beer

and presents wrapped up with a bow.

I miss slot cars and Slinkys,

toy soldiers and Twinkies

and running wherever I went.

I miss buttercups, clover

and playing Red Rover,

and rain on the roof of a tent.

I miss cool summer cottages

pancakes and sausages

and kites with their tails in the wind.

Garbage dump bears

and parking lot fairs,

cotton candy stuck to my chin.

I miss chestnuts on strings,

Cracker Jack rings,

marbles and balsa wood planes.

Teddy bear cuddles,

splashing in puddles

and dancing around in the rain.