Two sides, one grandson on Veterans Day

By Justin Mitchell

I’ve never thought that being a veteran was a big deal as the only fighting I saw was mostly GIs versus GIs in South Korean bars, battles over bar girls and assorted inebriated nonsense. But I was quietly surprised and grateful for my son’ Julian’s tribute to his late grandfathers who were on opposing sides during World War II.

Their stories were compelling, with the Korean grandpa’s mutiny, slaying of Japanese commanders and harrowing escape from an insignificant island, and my father’s front-row view of the dawning of the Atomic Age.

Julian’s South Korean grandfather was conscripted by Japan as the Japanese had colonized Korea and the two Koreas didn’t yet exist. He was sent with other Korean cannon fodder — commanded by Japanese officers — to an island in what I believe is in or near Micronesia. He was a bright, well educated man, but never knew where the posting was. But from his descriptions of the natives and climate, it’s a fair guess.

During the end of the war US troops were wiping up Pacific islands and the supply chain for his group had run dry. Hungry and angry, with the aid of the natives they rebelled, killed their Japanese overlords, happily surrendered to US soldiers and sailors, and eventually made it back amid more travails to Korea.

Julian’s US grandfather was a submariner in the South Pacific shortly thereafter on the USS Pilot Fish and saw no real action, except during the sub’s minor place in US Navy history as one of several vessels decommissioned for the atomic bomb tests at Bikini island in 1946.

When my father dropped the fact on me in the 1980s I was astonished.

“You saw an A-bomb go off? What was your protection?”

“Nothing except sunglasses,” he replied laconically, a la Robert Mitchum.

“What about the radiation?”

“Well, none of my kids glowed in the dark.”

True Confessions: single and looking for Mr. Right



By Susan Stewart

I’m afraid the dating service people are mad at me. They’ve called a couple of times already this week to find out why I’ve stopped coming in to look at videotapes of eligible bachelors. The first time they called I told them I’d been out of town. The second time I told them I was leaving town. If they call again I will tell them I am mentally ill. Some would say this is true.


I don’t think I was mentally ill when I was first assigned this story, just after Christmas, but I must have been on the right track. When the editor told me to go out and try to meet men in Dallas, I jokingly suggested my expense account should cover a few trips to a psychologist. Therapy in developing successful interpersonal relationships, that sort of thing. The truth is I was just like very other single person, convinced I was leading a miserable life but unwilling to do anything about it. This assignment changed all that.


For two months I have doggedly explored every avenue toward interpersonal relationships Dallas has to offer. I have gone to parties held by singles’ groups for single people. I have attended singles’ Sunday School classes and singles’ nights at singles bars. Thanks to a hefty cash advance from the editor, I have gazed for long hours at videotapes of single men, and gazed at a handful of them in person, across tables at places like San Francisco Rose.


I spent an afternoon in the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, there for the art, of course, but working, always working, keeping an eye peeled in case some sensitive hunk should happen by. “When she first saw him he was studying a Rothko, a whimsical private smile playing across his craggy features. She noticed the cut of his tight, faded jeans, his neatly trimmed mustache. Perhaps sensing her interest, he glanced at her. She smiled …”


If you think I have also been reading Redbook fiction, you are right. In Redbook fiction, timid heroines often show a talent for picking up handsome strangers in unlikely places such as museums and supermarkets. The stories end, if not in fairy-tale bliss, at least with some realization about Life. If this story achieves neither, it is not for lack of effort. In the interests of better journalism, I actually changed grocery stores. I left my middle-aged North Dallas friends to their white bread and macaroni and headed for the fern-banked aisles of the Olde Towne Tom Thumb (Tomme Thumbe?), putatively Dallas’ hottest singles’ mating ground. Naturally, all I picked up were groceries.


While I can’t say I have learned anything from this grueling social foray that I didn’t suspect already, i.e., it’s a jungle out there, I have developed a certain resignation about the whole business I didn’t possess pre-dating service. But before resignation came other things. I will start with them.


It all began in January, when I signed up with the dating service. The dating service people rent a little office that is separated into tiny rooms where you sit and look at men on a Sony videocassette recorder. They give you earphones if you want listening privacy. It works this way: you make a five-minute tape telling salient facts about yourself, and if somebody likes your tape and you like theirs, you have what is called a Mutual Video Match. Mutual Video Matches exchange phone numbers and occasionally end up married to each other. The dating service people are on your side. They like you to look at lots of tapes before you make your own, so you’ll get the idea and not make a fool of yourself. I sat and looked for more than an hour.


I looked at Jeremy (which is not his name, since I am changing all the names in this story to protect myself), a lapsed Catholic Gemini condo developer who likes “creative type people” and is himself a “very up-front type person.” I looked at Pete, a Catholic Aquarian AAMCO manger who likes to work with his hands. “That’s what I do all day is work with my hands,” Pete said, sitting straight in front of some wood paneling and a droopy dracenea. “I work with my hands all day, then when I get home, I work with my hands again. I make model ships.”


I must have looked at two dozen tapes. I noticed two things about all the men I looked at. One, they were all sports fanatics. A Lutheran Leo inventory control supervisor listed his favorite sports as “dirt-bike racing, sports-car racing, motocross, drag-racing, swimming, hiking, and camping.” And two, they all made strange clicking sounds. This was a real puzzle. The guys came in assorted sizes, shapes, and zodiac signs, but they all clicked. I watched and watched. Finally it hit me.


Tic Tacs. Every one of them was sucking on a Tic Tac, or some similar little nodule of wintergreen or cinnamint or fruit-bouquet breath freshener. This was reassuring. Despite their macho sports interests and the fact that, in terms of sexual innuendo, about half of them came on like gangbusters, these guys were plenty nervous. They were so nervous they were afraid of offending me, the anonymous onlooker, with halitosis. All they could think to do was pop a mint. They failed to realize that sweet breath does not translate on the screen, and all that came across were those annoying clicks.


I was so pleased about the breath fresheners that I didn’t mind when Alice, the lady who asks the questions off-screen during the taping, suggested that I was not suitably dressed for my own taping. I was wearing a black turtleneck. Alice offered to lend me something a bit more décolleté. I declined. Let them see me as I really am, I figured. I did let Alice choose some lipstick for me, her effort, I suppose, to make some part of me voluptuous. The lipstick was neon pink; it lasted for hours.


The taping itself was forgettable, except for the fact that Alice kept coming back to the topic of my “hobbies” and “leisure” activities, and I kept insisting that I have none. Sports went better, because on my application form, under the heading, “Sports I Enjoy,” I had listed every sport I had ever watched on television: tennis, basketball, football, baseball, skiing, competitive diving, etc. I enjoy none of those sports, but I was desperate.


I was also suspicious. If all those guys really enjoyed all those sports and leisure activities, what were they doing at a dating service? I, for one, was there because I have no leisure activities. It seemed like a vicious circle. To meet men, you have to be accomplished in leisure activities, but to be accomplished in leisure activities, it helps to know a few men. It all seemed terribly unfair. I went home and worried about the evening.


That evening the schedule called for a singles’ event at a local restaurant-bar. The sponsor was a group called “Creatively Single,” which puts out a monthly calendar of events like this one, drinks-cum-discussion. The idea, apparently, is that in this misery-loves-company atmosphere, mating is easier than in singles bars. The discussion topic, led by a social worker in private practice, was “Why Can’t I Find Somebody to Love Me?” The people who had come to seek an answer to this question included a New York transplant who said “Dallas doesn’t relate to my consciousness.” The first thing we all had to do was write down a list of necessary traits in a potential mate. I thought my list was modest: “humor, taste, ambition, loyalty, intelligence.” Those are the first five. I put down 15 traits. Naturally, the social worker told me and everybody else we are dreaming. The whole evening was a lesson in diminished expectations.


But there were some interesting exchanges between the male and female portions of the group. They were highlighted by Mr. Over-Medicated, who earned his name by saying that his own problems stem from the fact that he was “over-medicated” for years. Every time Mr. Over-Medicated spoke, the women booed.


Over-Medicated asked this question: “Now how many people here would marry the person they married if they’d lived with them a while?”


An old man raised his hand. “Yeah, I’d have married her, but I wouldn’t have married her if she’d lived with you and me both.”


The women cheered. The old man was the hit of the evening. He described his own marriage, which ended a few years ago with his wife’s death.


“My entire married life could not have been more perfect than it was. There was love, affection, understanding. There was normal sex. It was 50-50. I didn’t come home and sit in my La-Z-Boy and say, when the hell are you going to have supper ready? This TV, movies, free love, that’s not – and I’ll refer to Him – that’s not what God intended.”


Everybody clapped, but I had the feeling I was the only person there who understood him. I thought for years that the sexual revolution was only a media trend, like disco, and I stood idly by, smirking, while all my friends enlisted enthusiastically in the revolt. Was I ever wrong. The sexual revolution is, mark my words, more important than disco.


These people hadn’t made my early mistake. They were sophisticated, often wounded veterans of the sexual revolution. They talked of doing things most people only read about in Cosmopolitan. There was a lot of talk about how people change, probably because most of them had been divorced. “I was married for 19 years to someone I never really knew,” one woman said. I couldn’t figure that out. To be fair, I must admit that I have been neither married nor divorced, so I speak in ignorance. But I don’t see how you can stay married even nine years to somebody you don’t know. I don’t like to meet for coffee unless I know the person I’m meeting.


Which brings us around to the topic at hand, dating. Dating has always seemed to me to be the most awkward of social conventions, often more uncomfortable for its participants than a funeral. At a funeral, your schedule is pre-determined and you don’t have to say much, and you don’t have to worry about whether you’re going to have sex with the participants afterwards. Too, the natural solemnity surrounding funerals precludes any question of what sort of facial expression one should adopt. A serene frown takes care of it.


On a date, on the other hand, solemnity is taboo, and you worry constantly about your facial expression. If your natural physiognomy is of the type that makes frowning easy, you are in trouble. I am like that. Often at college football games, when the score was, say, 31-0 in favor of our team, my date would throw a beery glance my way and inquire, “Hey, whatsa matter with you? Aren’t you having fun?” I was usually having loads of fun, a state I express best by grimacing.


But I digress. Dating is awkward because, according to the Platonic view, it wasn’t meant to be that way. We were, in some earlier and superior incarnation, born as bisexual creatures, with two sets of arms and legs and all the necessary equipment for procreation. We traveled by cartwheel. We mated ourselves. We did not date. Something happened, and we were sliced in two. Since then mankind has gloomily wandered the planet, walking dully on his feet, looking for his other half. The “yolk and the white of the one shell,” the “one true love” idea. This idea is charming in its simplicity and it explains “love at first sight” and if it were true, mankind would never have had to invent the blind date.


But something went awry, and now, when you are 25 and single and you move to a new city where you know not a living soul, you lead a grim existence, experts say, for four to six months. If you are serious in your desire to make a full, rich, and rewarding life for yourself, you go out with every goon who has the good taste to ask you out. And you spend a lot of time alone.


Big deal. Spending time alone cleanses your mind of extraneous social matter, like thinking about anybody but yourself, and you learn a lot of things about your personality, like how boring it is. If you get enough practice, you can go two, three days without uttering a sound. Then when the phone finally rings, and it’s some relative in another state, you will squawk and croak as your vocal chords whir into life, and your relative will think you are sick, and will say warm, loving things to you. One thing about all this solitude is depressing, however; if you die in your apartment on a Friday night, nobody will find your body until, say, Tuesday, when they realize you’re not at work. You will be stiff as a board.


But I digress. While I was thinking about all these things, my fellow singles were hot on the trail of the perfect relationship. They were talking about values. The social worker leading the discussion said this: “There’s a common conspiracy in our culture. Nobody’s helping us to get in touch with our real values. They’re telling us what our values should be.” She advocated “helping a child explore and find out what his values are.”


I couldn’t figure this out, either. Now, if by “values” we mean weighty decisions like whether you should use your raise for a down payment on a condominium or blow it on a Club Med vacation, I can see how we have some room for discussion. But if “values” means moral choices like whether little Johnny should shoot his grandmother with a BB gun, all this hashing over is pointless. Some things are just wrong.


But of course, the singles were not talking about crime and punishment. They were talking about sex. And by leaving the word “moral” out of a discussion on sex, they left a lot more room for discussion, since all the decisions connected with sex then become problematic, even economic ones, as easy to argue as the condo-Club Med question.


Despite the new amorality, the singles couldn’t stay away from the old morality. A girl with glasses and a frizzy permanent stood up. “I’d like to know what men think of a woman who goes to bed with them on the first date. One of the things on my list I circled was ‘enjoy sex’ because I do.” The men hooted. “But I’m 34, and when I go out, I still don’t know what men expect.’


“You just told us,” Mr. Over-Medicated yelled.


“Don’t’ worry about what men expect,” the social worker said. “Just do what you feel like doing.”


They started talking about where singles go to meet other singles. “Church,” said the woman who enjoys sex, “has been very good for me.”


The bartender entered the conversation at this point. “A lot of people have a problem with the whore/Madonna syndrome,” she said. “I’m having a problem with it. I’m not a whore! I’m not a Madonna! I’m somewhere in the middle.”


“I think she’s drunk,” the woman beside me whispered.


“Why can’t she be a whore in the bedroom and a Madonna in the living room?” Mr. Over-Medicated shouted. The social worker decided it was time to end the discussion, and we all began collecting our coats. Then two surprising things happened. A man about my age walked up cold, introduced himself to me, and said, “I’d like to meet you.” I could barely hide my amazement. I gave him my phone number.


Then, since I had been picked up myself, I thought the least I could do would be to pick up somebody else. I walked over and introduced myself to a pudgy fellow in this 30s who had, during the discussion, said he loves to talk to his dates about such wide-ranging topics as “philosophy, music, the future of the human race, the creative process.” I had to meet this guy. He was pleased, and called me twice the next day. We met at San Francisco Rose, but not before a lot of detailed juggling of time slots. Bert was a precision conversationalist. “How is traffic southbound on Central in the 4:30 to 5 p.m. time slot?” he asked me, while we were juggling. “Don’t be surprised if I’m not perfectly punctual,” he cautioned.


He was late, but that was okay. Bert turned out to be quite brainy, so intelligent, in fact, that he has a hard time with ordinary human relationships. We talked about this for a while. Talking with Bert was interesting because he knew so many things. “Do you realize that roast beef has virtually no taste at all?” he asked at one point. We talked about human relationships (Bert, like every man I met, knew from the start that I was working on a story. I don’t want some maniac to see himself in this story and decide to even up the score in a dark parking lot). Meeting women, he said, “is a randomized process. I expect to have to meet a lot of people before I find two or three I really enjoy.” I left Bert in the bar to continue his search and dropped by the dating service.


I noticed a bookshelf in the waiting room at the dating service. I’m Okay, You’re Okay, Think and Grow Rich, Body Language, How to Run a Small Business. I looked at tapes.


I looked at Randy, a Pisces computer science instructor who loves to roller skate. “I put about 50 miles a week on my skates: speed, disco, free-form. If I’m with friends I don’t wear my stereo headphones.” But when he skates alone, Randy said, he wears the headphones. He described roller-skating to private piped-in music as something close to nirvana. “I’m really in touch with myself then.” To each his own, I thought, noticing that I was wearing headphones myself.


I kept going by the dating service, watching tape after tape, for weeks and weeks. The dating service people were nice, and the guys on the tapes were interesting, but something was not clicking. Each week had its own special store of disappointments. One day I waited anxiously for Number 198-01, because the man on the tape had watched mine and indicated his interest in meeting me. He turned out to be a divorced Baptist Leo metallurgist, wearing a striped Ban-Lon shirt. He seemed agreeable, but I didn’t think we would have enough in common to get through an evening. I wondered, over and over, what do these guys see in me? And, what am I supposed to see in them?


These were grim thoughts. One afternoon as I left the dating service, “Eleanor Rigby” was playing on my car radio. This would have thrown a maudlin cast over the scene had I not been so angry. I was angry because it was the only emotion left. I had no cause for self-pity, I wasn’t in love, I wasn’t exactly bored. I was just plain mad. Mad at the guy at Diamond Jim’s who’d told me he was in love with me when I nudged him over to get to the door, mad at Pete at the dating service who’d called me up one afternoon and said, “Hey, baby, this is Pete. Aw, you know. Pete. The good-looking guy with the great personality. Does ‘White knight, come to sweep you off your feet’ ring a bell?”


But mostly, I was mad at myself. Mating is like driving a car; it’s difficult and dangerous but everybody knows how. Why was I having so much trouble? I was doubly concerned, about my life, and about the story I was allegedly reporting. If Gay Talese had been this cautious, Thy Neighbor’s Wife would be about three paragraphs long. What was the answer?


More research, I thought grimly, turning in at the Olde Towne Tom Thumb. I quickly cased the store – two couples, three single women in jogging suits – and drove home, with a bag of Lorna Doones. I checked my mail. A bill, and a fat envelope full of pastel flyers from the singles’ Sunday School class. The “Becomers’ Class,” they called it. I munched moodily. What, I wondered, was I becoming? What would become of me and Bert and Pete and the whole confused, Tic Tac-clicking mass of us? I turned on the TV. A “Happy Days” rerun was playing. Those kids really did look happy, swiveling around the pizza parlor in their dumb grins and bobby socks and collective virginity. Ah, the simplicity of Eisenhower-style mating. There seemed to be none of the complexities that haunt us now. Instead of a class ring and a drive-in movie date, I had a lot of phone messages. The messages were terse. “Ron called.” “Call Buck.” Usually I had no idea who Ron or Buck were. They were men I knew from a furtive glance exchanged during Sunday School or a quick character assessment on the basis of a video-listing of favorite sports. But they had my number. I was starting to think about carrying a purse-size can of Mace with me in parking lots. I needed friends.


Besides, I had another problem. I realized, starting on the second row of Lorna Doones, I was getting fat. All those trips to the Tom Thumb had taken their toll. I had started patronizing the store honestly enough, only to meet men, but in order to protect my cover, I’d taken to picking up a few items while I looked. It began innocently, a crispy bunch of asparagus here, a mango there, but soon I moved into carbohydrates and refined sugars: steaming crullers, whole-wheat doughnuts, individually sliced cheesecakes. If this kept up, I would scarf my way into a lonely and obese middle age.


But hope springs eternal. Tomorrow was Friday, and I was to meet a date at T.G.I.Friday’s. It is some measure of my sickness that I was excited because Friday’s has great food. Baked-potato skins aside, however, the restaurant-bar deserves a paragraph for its ceiling decorations alone. Exposed-beam ceilings dribbling décor from on high are in vogue these days, and the ceilings at Friday’s franchises around the country represent the trend at its highest form. The things that hang from the ceiling at the Olde Towne Friday’s include: a cello, a stuffed-grouse-like bird, a toy car from which a stuffed duck and a fern protrude, a kayak.


I got there early and stood at the bar, studying the stuffed-duck-in-toy-car. The guy beside me found it interesting as well. “To kill something and then eat it, that’s okay,” he mused. “But to kill something just to be killing, that’s wrong.”


I stood there for quite a while, picking up bits of conversation from the crowd, which consisted mainly of well-dressed young executives. “I’m trying to talk her into letting me mount the speakers on the ceiling.” “ARCO tries to keep you mentally stimulated.” “You’re going to think this is strange, but I don’t own a television set.”


Dan arrived, none too soon. Like Bert before him, Dan was a near-genius who found that his intelligence gets in the way of normal human relationships. But he’s working on it. The weekend before he had attended a psychology workshop where the participants broke the ice “relating tactically to each others’ hair.” “I want to be able to selectively use the analytic portions of my mind,” Dan told me. We had a nice little chat, during which he drew a diagram of the damped sinusoidal motion, which he said explains harmony.


Inspired by his words on harmony, I invited Dan over to dinner. I also invited two other couples. Dan’s first mistake was not helping me put out the fire. The fire was in the oven, and consisted of a huge pan of over-roasted almonds. Dan stood there and analyzed the chemical composition of the fire while I frantically poured water all over the kitchen floor. His second mistake occurred after everyone else had left. Dan plopped down full-length on the sofa and said, “Well, you know any other girls?” Dan, it seems, is hell-bent on a beautiful relationship, and my desire for a simple friendship irritated him. He explained the problem. He said he doesn’t particularly want to be friends, because friendship he can get anywhere. And so if his chances for something more are dim, we might as well call off the friendship. He talked about how hard it is, being a single guy.


“I’ll tell you why nice guys finish last. I sort of read part of this in a book, The Art of Manipulation. You can be nice to girls for years but it just doesn’t work. You end up being just friends. So if I’m going to be nice to you what I’m going to do is give you continued positive reinforcement. I’ll be no challenge, and you’ll take me for granted. So what I should do is give you intermittent reinforcement. That way you’ll have to earn my affection.”


Dan did not help his cause then, or a few days later, when he phoned me up. He must have been trying the intermittent reinforcement route when he said he doesn’t ask girls out if they’re “too attractive, because then they’re unreliable.” I may not be “too attractive,” I thought grimly, but I’m damn sure going to be unreliable. I did not like the person I was becoming. But I had to face it, even if Dan had told me I was the most sultry woman who had ever crossed his path, it wouldn’t have revived our wilting relationship. I threw a hairbrush at the wall and hauled out the Lorna Doones. Putting out kitchen fires is a lot easier than extinguishing the flames of passion, however dimly they may burn.


The question of my own attractiveness was becoming an obsession, thanks to the Lorna Doones and Dan’s last remark and the fact that most of my Mutual Video Matches had said things like “What’s inside a woman is more important than what she looks like on the outside.” I decided to look at my own tape.


I sounded great. I sounded very Southern, and reasonably intelligent, and I used words like “conventional” and “gregarious” with a certain flair that stopped short of pedantry. I was amusing yet gentle, assertive yet feminine. There was only one problem. I looked like I had been pumped full of Cortisone and force-fed Lorna Doones for six months. I looked sick, and very ugly. Was it video distortion? I asked one of the dating service people anxiously: Did they use a fisheye lens? He smiled slyly. “Oh, everybody thinks they look worse on tape,” he said. I decided he was lying, and that they do use fish-eyes. I listened again, this time not looking at the bloated vision on the screen. I decided I like myself.


Then I looked at a tape of a guy who had said he was “possibly” interested in meeting me. Perhaps because of that blasé “possibly,” I was plenty interested in meeting Blake, a divorced Unity Capricorn interior designer. Blake wore a suit and said he likes “taste, class, charm and intelligence, along with a certain degree of spirituality” in women. He didn’t say anything about looks, which concerned me. But I think I possess “a certain degree of spirituality,” so I got in touch with him.


Blake was fun to talk to, and by now I sensed that the waitresses at San Francisco Rose knew me. The only awkwardness about our meeting was my acrobatics with my cigarettes. Blake had said, “Deep down in my heart, I really do mind smoking,” but there was no way I could get through a drink-after-work without a cigarette. So I blew up, I blew down, I blew into the draft. Somehow all the smoke seemed to drift into Blake’s face, but he insisted he didn’t mind. We talked for hours. “I look at the eyes first,” Blake said. “Eyes are the seat of sexuality.” Blake spelled “weltschmerz” on a cocktail napkin. The word means “world weariness,” and I knew it would come in handy eventually. Blake told me about all the women he’s met through the dating service.


One was a woman a few years older who told him on their second date, “Look, I really like sex. I’m sick of men who can’t satisfy me.” Old Blake apparently passed muster, for they spent the rest of the summer engaging in sex “more or less as an athletic exercise. It gave the satisfaction that an athletic exercise gives, which is not what you want from a personal relationship.”


Blake said lots of his dates were more interested in television than in him. One wanted to be back by 9 p.m. on a Friday night to watch “Dallas.” One fell asleep while he was talking. For one reason or another, Blake seemed to think most women are afraid of men. “Sometimes you walk up to a woman and the thing you see in her eyes is, ‘What’s he going to do to me’?”


As we parted, Blake cast a Delphic glance across the table. “I think you have a terrible attitude toward men. In the paranoia you may have is reflected the idea that men are the chief doers of evil.”


I shuddered. Of course, I knew he was wrong – me, paranoid? – but that comment struck a nerve. Only the day before I’d had lunch with a man who owns the restaurant where my singles’ Sunday School class meets for brunch. The Christian dating service I’d signed up with to supplement the video-dating service had been burglarized. Somebody had stolen all their files, so some member of the criminal element now knew my home address and zodiac sign. Things were closing in on me, the shadows deepening. Everyone I met seemed to know somebody else I’d met. Some might say this means I was making a “network” of friends, but I know a conspiracy when I see one.


That was in February. Blake never called back, and things, which had hardly started out on a high note, began going sour. Oh, I had dates. I had plenty of dates. I wasn’t sitting in my apartment waiting to die on the weekends; more likely I could be found in some fashionable fern bar, wishing I were dead.


The interesting men never called back, but the awful ones did. I started writing “interested” on fewer and fewer videotapes, and the dating service people started losing patience. “Oh, have we got one for you, Susan,” they’d say on the phone. I’d come in and take a look and shake my head. I shook my head at Presbyterian Libras and Baptist Virgos, meat-packers and owners of Western-wear stores. I felt guilty about my negativism, so I stopped going by there so often. I noticed I wasn’t going to singles’ Sunday School class anymore. Had I lost my faith? I bought the Mace canister for my purse, but since I had stopped going anywhere after dark, I never had occasion to use it. Nevertheless, I was always looking over my shoulder.


And one day I looked over my shoulder and nobody was there. That was when I realized I had given up. I didn’t care what the people at the dating service and the singles’ clubs thought of me anymore. With this thought came a luxurious yawn and a sudden sense of power. I had a friend in college who told me that one day she was sitting in history class and she had an urge to stand up and yell, “I am Me!” I laughed then, but now I know what she meant. When you like yourself, you don’t need constant reinforcement from others. So solitude doesn’t bother you. You learn, as they say, how to be your own best friend. And this is lucky, because you start spending most of your time alone.


I’m alone again. I’ve stopped visiting the dating service, the singles’ clubs, the bars. It’s as if this weird social nightmare had never taken place. No more jovial phone calls, no more elusive messages from Mutual Video Matches. No more frantic weekends, just a long, slow easy 64 hours of padding from the kitchen to the bedroom and back again. Very little human contact.


Oh, they’re still trying to get in touch with me. The pastel flyers from the singles’ Sunday School come in the mail, and Dan calls me occasionally to update me on his sexual odyssey. At last word, he had met two girls in one day, one at a Mensa meeting and one at the popcorn counter of a theater. I smile benevolently when I hear Dan talk about life on the outside. For me, there is none of that. No more pressure. No more small talk. Who needs it? I if want to hear small talk, I turn on an old “Happy Days” rerun. If I want romance, I watch “Love Boat.” If I want a Lorna Doone, I eat a Lorna Doone.


Of course, I still go to work, and to the Tom Thumb. The casual passerby might not even notice the difference. But should you see me walking down the street, a bovine girl with a placid smile, and should you remark that I seem different from all the other singles, less tense, more in touch with myself, and should you ask me how I got this way, I would tell you my story. And then I would tell you what I have discovered: It’s a jungle out there. Stay inside.



Polishing the worm dishes

After working in China for several years, Justin Mitchell considers himself fluent in the nuances of Chinglish.


One of the joys of turning Chinglish into English as a “foreign native English-speaking polisher expert” are the times when the material’s garble mystically morphs into prose that comes close to genius.
Often it’s just a sound-alike vocabulary or grammar slip, as in a story about a ferryboat “col-lusion” rather than collision, or “from a distance the village looks like a piece of silver as many stoned houses makes the village look shining far away.” The writer meant “stone houses,” of course, but perhaps he was also inhaling.
“Cold and worm dishes offer various specialties.” Although, if it was a southern Chinese banquet, maybe worm dishes were not so far off the mark, given the local habit of eating everything bar the table at meals.
Or “the colorful cultures of ethnic groups also add lust to the city.” I think the writer meant “luster.” Or maybe not. Some of those Yunnanese girls certainly look hot in their native dress.
Overwriting is common as in this description of a charity fundraiser – or possibly an orgy. “The evening was characterized by vibrant atmosphere ventilating godlike excitement as guests enjoy the coming together of friends.”
Some may be awkwardly phrased but you get the point and it’s almost better than when it’s “polished.” “Some netizens hold a similar understanding that ‘Happiness is the feeling a cat gets when it is eating a fish; it is the feeling a dog has when it is enjoying meat, and it is the thing Ultraman feels when beating monsters!'”
And this, which is from a description of an ethnic minority dance that could pass as American square dance calling with a little tweaking. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven – crash your neighbor’s crotch and then going on to the music: one two three four five six seven!”
“The more hard a guest of Primi minority was crashed on his crotch, the more warm welcome he received in our village. Three Primi young people dancing with their five Yi ethnic counterparts in the last program Dance of Crotch Crashing for the special performances of Guarding the Forest.”
And there are the times when the writer reaches for her or his trusty Chinese-English dictionary, which might have been last updated in the 1970s by Russian editors. Terms pop up that are either outdated or so obscure that I have no idea if they’re real or not, as in: “Venezuela has been declared territory free of analphabetism.”
I looked up the last word and found it has nothing to do with unusual sexual practices but is a real word that means illiteracy. How analphabetic did I feel then?
A colleague of mine, James Palmer, and I were discussing this recently and he came up with the “Is it James Joyce or Chinglish?” test. Here’s a sample. Pick Joyce or Chinglish for each selection. No Googling allowed.
A: The creating cabin called as time tunnel.
B: He lifted his feet up from the suck and turned back by the mole of boulders.
C: He is easily taken apart from his hometown fellows when he makes some utterance.
D: Wonder what kind is swanmeat.

A and C are Chinglish. B and D are Joyce.

In that spirit I also offer the “Bob Dylan or Chinglish?” quiz as Dylan is due to bestow his Bobness upon Beijing soon.
A: With 100 eyes of 100 Hamlets, the mountain crawls under the paintbrush of 100 artists.
B: His hindbrain hit by electricity as he orders four treasures.
C: The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of her face.
D: With his businesslike anger and his bloodhounds that kneel, if he needs a third eye he just grows it.

A and B are Chinglish. C and D are Dylan.

Sometimes Chinglish becomes near-poetry, or perhaps inspiration for a children’s book: “Now the Changsha Zoo is selling tiger’s whispers which raises citizens’ curiosity. Some Chinese characters written with chalk on a blackboard in the zoo says, ‘There are some tiger’s whispers for sale, and ‘specially for drivers and children.'”
The writer meant “tiger whiskers” but I think tiger whispers is infinitely better, even sublime – especially for drivers and children. I’ll take two boxes, please.

Hard truth: Rufus and the Vietnam War Memorial

This essay was written in 1982 for Westward magazine.


I was standing in the wind before the black marble wall of the Vietnam War Memorial the day before the dedication ceremony. Surrounded by the crowd but completely alone as I found your name – Rufus Hood – the first of so many best friends I’ve had to bury along the trek that brought me here. I was weeping softly, politely, staring at the wall and trying to hold myself together.

The picture that got me was of us sitting out on the fire escape back of the barracks at Fort Polk. High Louisiana summer at Polk. Let’s see, we came in on the 4th of July 1967. You were killed 8 January ’68. That means you only had about six months left on Earth when I knew you. I thought about that, and I remembered how you had this thing about my handwriting, and how you used to dictate all these randy letters to your ladies, and how I’d copy them out longhand and sign your name with a flourish, like on the Declaration of Independence you used to say.

I told all this to a guy from the Big Red One, who had seen me having trouble and come up to help. He coaxed me through it, even closed in to give me cover in case I needed to hide my face. I didn’t.

I mean, that day at the wall there were all kinds of people overcome, each in his own private ritual, with emotions that for years they’d had no time and place to feel. There was a guy from some outfit that had taken heavy abuse, lighting candles before a dozen names on the wall, and a group of Sioux from South Dakota danced by for their dead. And a lot, I don’t know how many but a lot, of people like me, just standing and weeping. And when the guy from the Big Red One saw I was going to be able to do this alone, he took my hand in a thumb-to-thumb Sixties Soul Shake and said, “Welcome home, brother.”

Now, Rufus, ordinarily that scene would be way too honest for Washington, D.C., but there were 100,000 of us in town that week, all hard-looking middle-aged men in cammies and field jackets, a presence that demanded watching just by being there. We could make up our own rules, you see, because there wasn’t anyone around to tell us it was unseemly to cry, unmanly to comfort each other. If we were doing it, then it was proper and right, by definition.

We had all come to mourn men we’d known for a few weeks, months at most, more than a decade ago. Between us we’d buried 57,939 best friends, and now we’d gathered in their names. That may have puzzled outsiders, and that day anyone who hadn’t been to ‘Nam or fed a brother, son, or husband into the war was an outsider. But no one felt the need to explain it: In a generation known for its commitment to causes, we were the only ones who’d staked lives, fortunes, sacred honor on ours. So the attitude was, if you didn’t understand what was happening here in your guts, bones, very soul, then explanations were useless. That felt really good, Rufus, not to have to explain.

I got to tell you about that. See, there was more to the war than just fighting it. I mean, that was just practice. After the war, or after we’d DEROSed, we were scattered like dandelion seeds, and this great freeze settled in on us. We carried our ghosts in silence, for there was no one to tell it to. They – not the enemy, but not exactly friends, either – they still treated us like children, for one thing. Hell, we were children, practically. Teen-agers with old men’s eyes. And, if you talked about it at all, people kept wanting you to explain things that were obvious to anyone with one eye open, or they sat there like stones while you tried to make some sense out of the things that counted. Like naming the dead. And we were alone, with no one there to back us up, to say, “That’s right, listen to the man.”

I got out of the Army and enrolled in college the same day. Straight shot from Fort Polk, where I did my terminal tour, and where I learned you’d been killed. Anyway, I was in school, maybe three weeks after mustering out, this one morning in January when I was walking to the Student Union for breakfast. It was so cold it hurt your lungs. There was this kid out front, shivering in a flannel shirt and no jacket, passing out leaflets denouncing the war. I was going inside where it was warm, so I pulled off my field jacket – which at the time still carried all my colors – and gave it to him to wear while I was inside. I mean, that’s what you’re supposed to do when you see a kid in the cold. Right, Rufus?

Anyway, I came back and he was still there, and we chatted while I got back into my jacket. Then this friend of his came over, pimply kid in a Navy pea coat with a Chairman Mao button. He looks at the patches on my field jacket like he’s just found a clue at the scene of the crime.

“Hey, were you in ‘Nam, man?”

“Yes, in ’68.” Like he’s going to know what that means.

“Did you ever kill anyone, man?” He asks this like a deputy associate district attorney. They all asked that, sometimes as an indictment, sometimes just for titillation.

“Uh, no, I was a combat philatelist. I collected enemy stamps.”

“Now this is what I call a real pig, man,” he says, turning to the kid I’d loaned my jacket to. “I mean this guy doesn’t even care.”

That was bad flashback, Rufus. I still get them, thinking about all the crap I had to take off these kids with their Mao buttons. But what else can you do, you know? Punch out one of the little buggers and you’re just making their point. And besides, you don’t go around hurting people for what they think. It’s not that important. It’s just important enough that when you choke it down, it stays there in a hard knot and never goes away.

There were lots of knots like that untied in Washington during veterans week. We didn’t talk much about the combat, which was different for everyone: some were grunts who’d lived on the edge the whole time, some like me who had just seen institutional craziness. We talked mostly about the homecoming, which was the same for us all. Don’t get me wrong, Rufus, I’m not complaining, certainly not to you. I would have come smiling home to drought, famine and a plague of locusts just to get out of ‘Nam with my hide and my honor intact. My hide was preserved, but if you weren’t careful you lost the honor as soon as you got back to the World. We had to take the rap for losing the war and for all the sins and excesses pursuant thereto. Either that or start turning on each other, blaming our buddies. I still have people telling me to my face, people who are old enough to know better, that the whole thing was a farce and I was an idiot to have gotten into it.

You can take that if you’ve had practice, if you know how to skate the old Zen razor, to control the scene an instant at a time. I mean, I didn’t have that much invested in the war: I only saw my death coming close a couple of times. Mostly for me it was just arrogant brass, babbling staff officers, vile weather, vermin, rodents and a Dear John. I can blow that off … okay, maybe it was all for nothing.

But if I accept that, I also have to accept your death as waste, Rufus. I can’t do that. And even if I could, I’m not going to. And that explains the Wall. This was something we did ourselves. The first thing we all did together. Maybe the first step toward setting things right, toward getting the outsiders straightened out and squared away.

The government, older and wiser as they were, had given us a monument across the Potomac in Arlington Cemetery. A GI standard Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, one each, like the ones for the wars they’d been in. But it’s an empty monument, Rufus, because we have no unknown soldiers. Somehow the older and wiser missed that point. We may be the first American army to lose a war, but we’re one of the few armies since Homer’s time to name all our dead. So we started finding each other a couple of years ago, led by former Spec. 4 Jan Scruggs, and built our own monument, to all our dead individually and severally. And we put it in the most hallowed ground we could find, between the Washington and Lincoln memorials, so no one’s going to forget your name Rufus. Not while Washington, D.C. is standing. By God.

Which brings us to the gathering. That gathering itself was history, Rufus. You could feel it. I don’t know where it fits, but it’s going in there somewhere. People’s history, not politics, a sort of Vietvet’s Woodstock. It frightened people. It even frightened me, at first. Scruggs, who’d come home from a tour as a grunt in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade to do graduate research in psychological trauma among Vietvets, said it even frightened him.

It needn’t have. Oh, it’s true a lot us had trouble handling the freeze, and skated off the razor into self-destructive meltdowns. A lot of the heavy combat victims, guys who’d taken the fry bigtime, had to do it in little pieces, skimming over for the time being and going back later to act the whole ordeal through. Like happens with nightmares: you tamp the terror down for the moment, then bring it back up again when you’re asleep, undistracted, and can face it full on. It’s a hard drill. They say there were as many deaths from suicide as from combat, and I believe it. And a lot of trouble handling jobs, keeping families together, all the problems that arise from having your energy directed inward, which is what you do when you’re carrying a heavy load of rage and you’re public spirited enough to keep it choked down.
Of course, practically nobody noticed us doing that. It was another unacknowledged achievement of our Army, maintaining solitary silence all those years, avoiding the pimply kids who clustered around like flies every time we spoke up. So instead of talking to us, the press mostly reported the same things it had reported on while the war was going. So what you got was this stream of studies that showed conclusively, based on a sampling of 35 or 50 or 116 or however many it was, a sampling of ‘typical’ Vietnam veterans, that all 2.8 million of us were sick and violent and ready to explode into gross violence at any moment. You know, “Vietnam veteran holed up in local apartment. Film at six.” They’re still doing it. And all this time, we’re scattered, and I imagine a fair number of us figured well, I’m harmless, but maybe everyone else who was over there is really a ticking bomb. I mean, it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing to come out of ‘Nam.

Rufus, we blew that stereotype to hell in Washington. The emotion was running high-volt, high-amp from the moment you got on the plane to go. If anyone was going to freak out, it would have been there and then. And no one did. We wept and marched and partied. We talked through pain we’d been carrying our whole adult lives. We abused substances, damn near drank Washington dry, got real loud and real sweet, but we were never dangerous.

I was sitting there in the hallway of the Sheraton Washington, at the reunion of my old outfit, the 9th Division. Down the hall was the Americal. The two outfits had taken over the second floor. There was this guy from the 173rd Airborne – I had his name but someone borrowed my notebook and never found me again – and we were sipping brew and passing smokes, just being brothers, talking this kind-of-Vietnam shorthand, compressed speech that really isn’t speech at all, but a reel-to-reel arching across circuits we’d all found fused into our crania.

He’d been to Dak To. I told him all I knew about Dak To was that coming home, a one-year tour nearly to the day after the battle, that two-thirds of the people on the plane were 173rd, obviously replacements for casualties a year earlier, and that you could read in that that Dak To must have been a real meat-grinder. “Yeah, you got it right,” he says. “That’s all there was.”

That was all we said about the war. We talked mostly about feelings, discovering on every turn of phrase how much we had in common.

“I told my old lady, ‘Honey, I got to go to Washington’,” he says. “And she says, ‘What you want to go up there for and bring all that up again?’ and I says, ‘Honey, you don’t understand. I got to go’.”

“There it is, brother. Same thing at my house. She didn’t understand why, but she could see I had to go.”

This was the second night, Saturday, the day of the parade. We’d marched ten blocks, about 15,000 of us, with people lining the streets six, eight, ten deep, cheering for us, Rufus. I mean, none of us ever in our lives expected to hear that sound. It was sweet; sweeter still was being among the brothers. I’ll probably hurt some feelings by saying this, but since Washington, their esteem is all that counts. They are, after all, the only ones who have proved themselves.

And by that night, outsiders started flashing to this, too, after seeing how fine we were, how we took care of each other. The first night, Friday, the outsiders kind of kept their distance, slipping down the halls, eyes darting around for trouble that just wasn’t there. By Saturday, the party had changed from a wake to a reunion. Sammie Davis, a 9th Division Medal of Honor winner, was there playing his guitar while his wife sang for us. And the outsiders started getting sucked into it: there were children wandering around, listening to our stories while their parents drank our beer; a Japanese businessman came out to listen to Sammie play; there were even a couple of school teachers in their 50s, in town for a convention.

“I’m sure glad we found you boys,” one of them told me. “Your party’s sure a lot more fun than ours. This is the nicest place in Washington to be.”

And it was, by God. Being around people who not only wanted to help but who knew what to do. I mean, here we’d been told, at best, that we were forgiven for being the lowest humanity could sink, and we discover that an inordinately high number of us have showed up in nurturing professions – nursing, teaching, counseling – and all performing on demand, carrying each other through sorrow and anger like we’d carried each other through malaria and trauma wounds.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot, Rufus, trying to pin down what makes us different. I think I’ve about got it figured out. What happened to us in ‘Nam was that we saw the truth. We’d gone over there with a head full of Children’s Crusade ideas, and we’d all gotten them blown away, totally and utterly. Remember John Wayne’s version of the war, the Green Berets? Remember where he walks off into the sunset, holding the Vietnamese kid’s hand, telling him, “You’re what this war’s all about.” Well, what would he have done if the kid had thrown a grenade at him? What would the war have been about then?

I had to ask those kinds of questions, as I sat there in the briefings, listening to the staff planning the evacuation of Khe Sanh around how it would look on television. Talking for hours, while we lost one Rufus Hood a minute. It popped all the illusions like so many soap bubbles: they preached duty, honor, country, and they practiced greed, fear, ignorance. They tried to sell us manhood after the General Patton/Vince Lombardi model, which meant winning, and making someone else lose. And they spent flesh and blood like subway tokens for something as vague as National Honor.

Some guys were blinded by the light, and they came home burnt out and wasted. I saw it with your eyes and that’s what saved me. You probably wouldn’t even remember the day we were coming back from the rifle range. It was the day after we’d pulled off the bandages on our feet and those silver-dollar-sized chunks of hide came off with them. The day they let us ride in the Jeep to give them time to heal.

I still recall the moment, maybe a dozen times a day: dust from the boots, heat from the sun and sand and asphalt, a real convection-oven of a day. The Jeep was trailing the company to police up sunstroke victims, with about five of us stuffed in the back, and little Jimmy Crotts up ahead of us, falling farther and farther behind the column. Remember Crotts, 80 pounds wringing wet, no one could figure out what he was doing  in the Army? And that big fat lieutenant – what was his name? – bullying Crotts along, kicking him to his feet every time he fell.

I thought I was going to have to restrain you from running up to that lieutenant and ramming your M-14 into the first orifice you came to. I mean, Rufus, I saw rage, first time I’d ever seen you mad, about 20-years-at-hard-labor’s worth. I tried to explain the basic-training concept, and the chain of command, and all that other airy intellectual crap, and you looked at me like I was crazy and said, “No, listen carefully white boy, there’s nothing happening here but a big old dude bullying a poor little fellow.”

So when I got to ‘Nam and had my childhood burned clean away I had something to fill the vacuum, that fragment of truth you left me like a legacy that day on the road: that you have to watch the people. Nothing else is real. What’s good for people is good, what’s bad for people is bad. And you never, repeat never, let yourself sacrifice people in the worship of concepts. It’s so obvious that reverence for people becomes a definition for sanity.

But if you bring that definition back to the world, you’re really screwed. People here babble about principles and precedents. Like the kid in college: He’d try to make sure your ideology was correct, but it’d never enter his mind to give you his coat. I mean, the twisted, greedy, vicious lunacy runs so far and so deep you find yourself shrinking from it, you want to just dig in, barricade yourself somewhere and hide.

Well, we don’t have to do that anymore. Since Washington, the impulse to cherish and protect that was the high point of ‘Nam is back in vogue. We got a chance to reverse the trend that runs through this whole century, where the warriors have won the wars and the politicians have lost the peace. This time the politicians lost the war, and it’s up to us to win the peace.

That old obsession with macho – the eyeball-to-eyeball ethic that got us into Vietnam and made it such a horror – just has to go. We’re the ones wearing all the medals, and when the country was in a jam, we’re the best they find to pull it out. We don’t have to be men of steel. Steel is strictly 19th Century: we’re some weird new space-age alloy that doesn’t melt in the heat, doesn’t shatter in the cold, doesn’t lose flexibility no matter how many different ways you screw it around. Just the sort you need to get everyone else into the 21st Century.

I think we’re going to pull it off, Rufus, as soon as we get used to the idea of setting the standard. It took ‘Nam and the long freeze to get us in shape for it. That gathering in Washington was the first sign that we’d won. It was a terribly expensive way to rehabilitate the American man, but if it gets us out of the trap we’re in, it may be worth it. So you didn’t die for nothing, Rufus. You saved me, man, Rest easy, now.

A price of war

This essay was written in 2003 for a magazine-writing assignment.


I’m on the last cigarette of the night, lost in thought outside my apartment as the neighbors’ lazy conversation drifts down the hallway from their drunken, end-of-semester celebration.  They’re playing Bob Dylan.  The song Dom loves so much and played obsessively the last time I was in Connecticut, back when our relationship seemed normal, when life seemed normal.
He’d sing along on occasion, and ask me what I thought of this great musical genius who has been a favorite of his for years.  I couldn’t understand what the hell Bob Dylan was saying.
And I still can’t, I realize, as I strain to hear the last lingering notes of the familiar song. I wonder if Dom ever thinks of it while he’s in the Middle East, patrolling the hot, desert-encircled city streets.  If he ever has moments like this when a single, random memory becomes so vivid he can feel the chill of Connecticut’s late-February air.  Or if he blocks the memories because he has to:  It’s his job, first and foremost, to stay alive.
I find myself calculating the hours between Dom and myself, an unconscious habit I do throughout the day.  He’s starting his shift.  I’m headed to bed.  And I’m sitting here smoking, trying to clear my head of the day, and the headlines, and the 11 o’clock live broadcast of the flag-draped coffin arriving at McGhee Tyson Airport.  I don’t remember the soldier’s name.  But he was in the Navy, just like Dom was before he signed up for the highly lucrative – and highly dangerous – work as a government contractor.
CNN can be an unexpectedly powerful addiction.  Dom’s plane probably hadn’t even touched down at his war-torn destination before the news channel became a permanent presence in my room.  Numbers reeled in a continuous loop on that yellow and black snake of announcements at the bottom of the screen – the number of dead, number of wounded, the number from today and the building number from a year’s involvement in this war.  And I would watch, transfixed, with a new sense of attachment to a godforsaken patch of land halfway across the planet.
When someone you love is in the midst of the chaos and fighting, those numbers take on a new meaning:  Each one is a face, a life, sometimes of a man who didn’t even see his 20th birthday.  And each had someone, a wife – or a girlfriend – who, like me, hasn’t strayed far from CNN and those numbers scrolling across the screen. Whether the rest of America supports the war or opposes it, they can’t comprehend what it’s like to race to the phone on the first ring because they don’t know where their loved one is.  Or what an empty, unnerving feeling it is, especially during those first few days, not to know.

DOM SPRANG THE NEWS two days before my birthday.
After attending the funerals of more than one friend killed on a government contract, he had flatly dismissed the lucrative paychecks promised by private security companies as his four-year stretch with the military reached its final months.  He was 25; he wanted to buy a house in Fairfield County where he grew up, to have a family one day, to fulfill his longtime dream of going to culinary school.  While in the Navy, he watched many of his friends’ personal lives unravel into divorce, one by one, as the strain of long-distance relationships took its toll. It was why he didn’t re-up for another four years with the Navy SEALs, even though he had endured some of the most grueling training of all the military.
In October, Dom picked me up at the airport in Virginia Beach with a glowing smile in his dark eyes and the announcement that he was moving home to finish his degree.  It was the happiest I’d seen him in awhile, and we shared the sentiment because I knew how much college meant to him.
But October turned to January, and as spring approached and military funding for his education failed to materialize, the former Navy SEAL who served nine months in Afghanistan found himself at home, on his fourth month of doing nothing.  So Dom signed a two-month contract with Blackwater – the first of many he would sign, I was informed. He could see himself doing this for five years, maybe even more. In what seemed like an overnight decision, my other half chose a career that will keep him overseas more than he’ll be at home, doing some of the most high-risk work of the war and doing it without the protection of the U.S. military.
It would pay well – more in one contract than his friends made in a year, he claimed, as if that would change my resentment toward the job. Suddenly the concept of money seemed to take command over all form of reason, to become somewhat of an addiction in itself.  It crept into every conversation.  It instigated fights over subjects that didn’t even relate to the contracts.  It became the guiding priority in his life, the way to buy that house in Fairfield County and retire before he was 30.
If he came back alive, I’d remind him.
Dom couldn’t even tell me what country he was going to.  “Classified information,” he would insist, growing defensive at the onset of another heated argument:
Iraq’s a big country.  So are Pakistan and Afghanistan. He’s telling me he can’t at least let me know which country he’s going to so I can narrow down, however slightly, what to worry about on the news each night?  It was because I loved him, not because I wanted to threaten national security, that I pushed the subject, but I don’t think Dom understood that.
He was not going to Iraq.  That’s about all I could get from him.

TWO WEEKS LATER, the gruesome pictures of that burning American truck in Fallujah filled the screen on CNN all evening.  They weren’t airing the most graphic footage, broadcasters reported.  But images of billowing flames that swallowed the truck and consumed the four contractors inside recounted their death at the hands of a gleeful mob of Iraqis in brutal detail.
The contractors were with Blackwater.  They were part of Dom’s company, doing the same job, and now their remains were hanging from a bridge, murdered by the people they were sent to help.
For hours, I sat motionless in front of the TV, a sinking knot of reality settling in my stomach as I watched the same footage repeat in succession. I knew it wasn’t Dom.  I knew he wasn’t in Iraq.  But I kept picturing his face, his hands – these were men in his company.  It just as easily could have been him.
I mourned the little boy somewhere who was watching his daddy hang from that bridge without knowing it was him. I felt the swelling anger toward that surreal, exuberant mob that seemed beyond human, and decided that the whole country could be bombed off the planet for all I cared at the moment.
Mostly I wondered what was running through the minds of those four contractors as the fiery walls of their truck closed in.  It’s safe to assume that they weren’t thinking of the money they made with the job.
CNN became more than a 24-hour war bulletin to me.  It became a story of the people behind the conflict, the lives that were changed by the decisions of a single man in the White House.  Would George W. Bush still have that confident smirk that’s become a trademark of his speeches on conquering the “enemies of freedom” if his daughter Barbara served in the National Guard with the Witmer sisters?  Did he think of his own family – his own daughters – as the two surviving girls bade a tearful goodbye to 20-year-old Michelle during the national broadcast of her funeral?
The President can send his condolences to the wife of the captured civilian contractor who was imprisoned for A MONTH as a tool of negotiation, but his own family is home safe in the White House. The assurance that Thomas Hamill was defending freedom hardly could have brought comfort to a family who didn’t know where he was, or if he was even still alive after the deadline set by his captors passed three weeks.
The man’s eyes held a frightened vulnerability on the television footage from Iraq that still lingers in my mind.  Here’s a father of two, a dairy farmer from Mississippi, just trying to earn money to feed his family.
I wonder how Dom reacts to the news of Tom Hamill, or of his fallen Blackwater colleagues, or of the scores of other contractors who were lured by the money but lost in the end.  Do these people cross his mind during the long, solitary hours on night watch?  I’m not sure if he even thinks of me.  He’s said it before:  Over there you either maintain your focus or risk getting killed.  So I keep these questions to myself, along with all the other churning emotions that I’m dealing with, alone, on the other side of the world.

IT’S ALMOST A YEAR AGO to the day since Dom returned from his nine-month deployment in Afghanistan and we first met.  He was in perfect shape, confident, full of stories and pictures from the war.  But the more time we spent together, the more I realized that the military was a part of him he would never completely reveal.  He hated the adulating hero treatment he’d get whenever someone would find out he had served abroad.  He grew uncomfortable whenever politics became a topic for bar discussion, or if people wanted to know how many terrorists he’d killed or how much action he saw.
“It’s my job,” he told me once. “People shouldn’t make such a big deal out of it.”
Dom went through some of the toughest training in the world to get where he was, 25 weeks of  brutal endurance tests that only a handful in the class would see to the end.    He shared pieces of his BUD/s training with me:  About reaching the brink of hypothermia, the hallucinations that came with only four hours of sleep during Hell Week, the nights he and his buddies would down a bottle of Jim Beam despite the day’s physical exhaustion.  BUD/s and Afghanistan were things I knew about him — but only to a point.
He was trained not to feel, and I know the wall is up during his shift even as I write.  The lack of emotion carries over to the daily e-mails and sporadic phone calls that keep us connected, however tenuously, to each other’s life.  Last night it was 11 minutes and 29 seconds, hardly enough time to get used to hearing Dom’s voice, much less analyze the feelings behind it:  Whether he’s scared and lonely or truly happy, or if he’s just telling me that to keep me from worrying.  “It’s not that bad over here,” he says.  “Really, it’s great.  Feels like home.”
I ramble on about my day as if we’re separated by several hundred miles instead of the Atlantic Ocean and several time zones.  I want to ask him where he is, what he’s doing, what he had for dinner last night.  I want to tell him the dirty joke I heard at work without it feeling as inappropriate as cursing in church.  Instead, we continue a relatively bullshit conversation about the weather and his pending return date, acutely aware of the government presence monitoring the call from some cubicle deep inside the Pentagon.
“Don’t ask about anything that goes on over here,” he warned before he left.  So I don’t.  And I try not to cry, or to raise my voice at him for leaving me with a relationship that has become a grand understatement of “long-distance,” one he expects me to keep up single-handedly.
He’s been gone for a month and has another to go.  CNN is still my addiction.  But I’m becoming more preoccupied with how life will be when he returns because I’ve learned to trust when he says he’ll be OK over there.  How can someone go from the security of America to guarding his life with a gun on the unstable outskirts of a foreign city, then back to America in the course of three months?  I visualize what he’s doing when he’s alone more than I do about his hours on patrol.  I wish I could be some sort of comfort, to hold him and tell him everything’s all right.
But it’s not, because nothing’s fair about the situation he left at home.  I wasn’t a factor in his decision to make these contracts a career.  Dom wasn’t sent to fight as a Navy SEAL; he went on his own free will, as a civilian contractor. He knows that the months apart are going to be hard, that it will get worse before it gets better. But he refuses to face what it’s like on my side of the world, to be completely in love, obsessively anxious, yet increasingly angry that he expects me to maintain a relationship based entirely on those once-a-week phone calls when he’s the one who created the predicament.

AT NIGHT DOM WOULD often twitch as he drifted out of the reach of consciousness.  I’d lie awake watching his trembling eyelids, wondering what he sees when he sleeps.  Are there nights when he’s transported back to Afghanistan to relive the things he can’t talk about?  There’s a side of him I’ll never know; these two months will pass by unspoken between us, to join that part of his life.
I’m scared that he has changed over there, that the instinct to close off emotion will be brought home along with his luggage and guns when he steps off the plane May 22.  I want to see the same tall, easygoing Italian with his lovably sarcastic sense of humor and see him smile at me the same way he did a year ago. I want to resume the conversations we had in Little Italy over pasta and wine about hopes and dreams, to dance to Frank Sinatra without saying a word, completely at ease with each other. Maybe Dom will one day realize that his talents offer a future beyond a series of government contracts. I cling to this hope, refusing to acknowledge that separation may become a way of life.
More than anything, I hate these empty conversations over miles of ocean and the feeling that we’ve lost each other after only a month.  I hate the war.  And I hate that thousands of other women are going through the same thing, watching CNN and silently hoping it was someone else who was killed today.  Dom is oblivious of the warring emotions he left me with that sometimes seem more intense than the fighting in Fallujah – and that’s what I’ve grown to hate most over the past six weeks.
I’m 21. I should be worried about finals, not the June 30 turnover of Iraq, and whether that will ignite a new wave of violence, since Dom is set to return to the Middle East in July. In the remaining days of this first contract, all I can do is wait and pray that he’s safe. And quietly wish that something will change his mind and keep him home.

Can you say … “Hero”? — Fred Rogers has been doing the same small good thing for a very long time

Tom Junod’s profile of Mr. Rogers was the cover story of the November 1998 issue of Esquire magazine. Junod is a writer-at-large at Esquire.


ONCE UPON A TIME, a little boy loved a stuffed animal whose name was Old Rabbit. It was so old, in fact, that it was really an unstuffed animal; so old that even back then, with the little boy’s brain still nice and fresh, he had no memory of it as “Young Rabbit,” or even “Rabbit”; so old that Old Rabbit was barely a rabbit at all but rather a greasy hunk of skin without eyes and ears, with a single red stitch where its tongue used to be. The little boy didn’t know why he loved Old Rabbit; he just did, and the night he threw it out the car window was the night he learned how to pray. He would grow up to become a great prayer, this little boy, but only intermittently, only fitfully, praying only when fear and desperation drove him to it, and the night he threw Old Rabbit into the darkness was the night that set the pattern, the night that taught him how. He prayed for Old Rabbit’s safe return, and when, hours later, his mother and father came home with the filthy, precious strip of rabbity roadkill, he learned not only that prayers are sometimes answered but also the kind of severe effort they entail, the kind of endless frantic summoning. And so when he threw Old Rabbit out the car window the next time, it was gone for good.

YOU WERE A CHILD ONCE, TOO. That’s what Mister Rogers said, that’s what he wrote down, once upon a time, for the doctors. The doctors were ophthalmologists. An ophthalmologist is a doctor who takes care of the eyes. Sometimes, ophthalmologists have to take care of the eyes of children, and some children get very scared, because children know that their world disappears when their eyes close, and they can be afraid that the ophthalmologists will make their eyes close forever. The ophthalmologists did not want to scare children, so they asked Mister Rogers for help, and Mister Rogers agreed to write a chapter for a book the ophthalmologists were putting together — a chapter about what other ophthalmologists could do to calm the children who came to their offices. Because Mister Rogers is such a busy man, however, he could not write the chapter himself, and he asked a woman who worked for him to write it instead. She worked very hard at writing the chapter, until one day she showed what she had written to Mister Rogers, who read it and crossed it all out and wrote a sentence addressed directly to the doctors who would be reading it: “You were a child once, too.”

And that’s how the chapter began.

THE OLD NAVY-BLUE SPORT JACKET comes off first, then the dress shoes, except that now there is not the famous sweater or the famous sneakers to replace them, and so after the shoes he’s on to the dark socks, peeling them off and showing the blanched skin of his narrow feet. The tie is next, the scanty black batwing of a bow tie hand-tied at his slender throat, and then the shirt, always white or light blue, whisked from his body button by button. He wears an undershirt, of course, but no matter — soon that’s gone, too, as is the belt, as are the beige trousers, until his undershorts stand as the last impediment to his nakedness. They are boxers, egg-colored, and to rid himself of them he bends at the waist, and stands on one leg, and hops, and lifts one knee toward his chest and then the other and then … Mister Rogers has no clothes on.

Nearly every morning of his life, Mister Rogers has gone swimming, and now, here he is, standing in a locker room, seventy years old and as white as the Easter Bunny, rimed with frost wherever he has hair, gnawed pink in the spots where his dry skin has gone to flaking, slightly wattled at the neck, slightly stooped at the shoulder, slightly sunken in the chest, slightly curvy at the hips, slightly pigeoned at the toes, slightly aswing at the fine bobbing nest of himself… and yet when he speaks, it is in that voice, his voice, the famous one, the unmistakable one, the televised one, the voice dressed in sweater and sneakers, the soft one, the reassuring one, the curious and expository one, the sly voice that sounds adult to the ears of children and childish to the ears of adults, and what he says, in the midst of all his bobbing nudity, is as understated as it is obvious: “Well, Tom, I guess you’ve already gotten a deeper glimpse into my daily routine than most people have.”

ONCE UPON A TIME, a tong time ago, a man took off his jacket and put on a sweater. Then he took off his shoes and put on a pair of sneakers. His name was Fred Rogers. He was starting a television program, aimed at children, called Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He had been on television before, but only as the voices and movements of puppets, on a program called The Children’s Corner. Now he was stepping in front of the camera as Mister Rogers, and he wanted to do things right, and whatever he did right, he wanted to repeat. And so, once upon a time, Fred Rogers took off his jacket and put on a sweater his mother had made him, a cardigan with a zipper. Then he took off his shoes and put on a pair of navy-blue canvas boating sneakers. He did the same thing the next day, and then the next … until he had done the same things, those things, 865 times, at the beginning of 865 television programs, over a span of thirty-one years. The first time I met Mister Rogers, he told me a story of how deeply his simple gestures had been felt, and received. He had just come back from visiting Koko, the gorilla who has learned — or who has been taught — American Sign Language. Koko watches television. Koko watches Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and when Mister Rogers, in his sweater and sneakers, entered the place where she lives, Koko immediately folded him in her long, black arms, as though he were a child, and then … “She took my shoes off, Tom,” Mister Rogers said.

Koko was much bigger than Mister Rogers. She weighed 280 pounds, and Mister Rogers weighed 143. Koko weighed 280 pounds because she is a gorilla, and Mister Rogers weighed 143 pounds because he has weighed 143 pounds as long as he has been Mister Rogers, because once upon a time, around thirty-one years ago, Mister Rogers stepped on a scale, and the scale told him that Mister Rogers weighs 143 pounds. No, not that he weighed 143 pounds, but that he weighs 143 pounds…. And so, every day, Mister Rogers refuses to do anything that would make his weight change — he neither drinks, nor smokes, nor eats flesh of any kind, nor goes to bed late at night, nor sleeps late in the morning, nor even watches television — and every morning, when he swims, he steps on a scale in his bathing suit and his bathing cap and his goggles, and the scale tells him he weighs 143 pounds. This has happened so many times that Mister Rogers has come to see that number as a gift, as a destiny fulfilled, because, as he says, “the number 143 means ‘I love you.’ It takes one letter to say ‘I’ and four letters to say ‘love’ and three letters to say ‘you.’ One hundred and forty-three. ‘I love you.’ Isn’t that wonderful?”

THE FIRST TIME I CALLED MISTER ROGERS on the telephone, I woke him up from his nap. He takes a nap every day in the late afternoon — just as he wakes up every morning at five-thirty to read and study and write and pray for the legions who have requested his prayers; just as he goes to bed at nine-thirty at night and sleeps eight hours without interruption. On this afternoon, the end of a hot, yellow day in New York City, he was very tired, and when I asked if I could go to his apartment and see him, he paused for a moment and said shyly, “Well, Tom, I’m in my bathrobe, if you don’t mind.” I told him I didn’t mind, and when, five minutes later, I took the elevator to his floor, well, sure enough, there was Mister Rogers, silver-haired, standing in the golden door at the end of the hallway and wearing eyeglasses and suede moccasins with rawhide laces and a flimsy old blue-and-yellow bathrobe that revealed whatever part of his skinny white calves his dark-blue dress socks didn’t hide. “Welcome, Tom,” he said with a slight bow, and bade me follow him inside, where he lay down — no, stretched out, as though he had known me all his life — on a couch upholstered with gold velveteen. He rested his head on a small pillow and kept his eyes closed while he explained that he had bought the apartment thirty years before for $11,000 and kept it for whenever he came to New York on business for the Neighborhood. I sat in an old armchair and looked around. The place was drab and dim, with the smell of stalled air and a stain of daguerreotype sunlight on its closed, slatted blinds, and Mister Rogers looked so at home in its gloomy familiarity that I thought he was going to fall back asleep when suddenly the phone rang, startling him. “Oh, hello, my dear,” he said when he picked it up, and then he said that he had a visitor, someone who wanted to learn more about the Neighborhood. “Would you like to speak to him?” he asked, and then handed me the phone: “It’s Joanne,” he said. I took the phone and spoke to a woman — his wife, the mother of his two sons — whose voice was hearty and almost whooping in its forthrightness and who spoke to me as though she had known me for a long time and was making the effort to keep up the acquaintance. When I handed him back the phone, he said, “Bye, my dear,” and hung up and curled on the couch like a cat, with his bare calves swirled underneath him and one of his hands gripping his ankle, so that he looked as languorous as an odalisque. There was an energy to him, however, a fearlessness, an unashamed insistence on intimacy; and though I tried to ask him questions about himself, he always turned the questions back on me, and when I finally got him to talk about the puppets that were the comfort of his lonely boyhood, he looked at me, his gray-blue eyes at once mild and steady; and asked, “What about you, Tom? Did you have any special friends growing up?”

“Special friends?”

“Yes,” he said. “Maybe a puppet, or a special toy, or maybe just a stuffed animal you loved very much. Did you have a special friend like that, Tom?”

“Yes, Mister Rogers.”

“Did your special friend have a name, Tom?”

“Yes, Mister Rogers. His name was Old Rabbit.”

“Old Rabbit. Oh, and I’ll bet the two of you were together since he was a very young rabbit. Would you like to tell me about Old Rabbit, Tom?”

And it was just about then, when I was spilling the beans about my special friend, that Mister Rogers rose from his corner of the couch and stood suddenly in front of me with a small black camera in hand. “Can I take your picture, Tom?” he asked. “I’d like to take your picture. I like to take pictures of all my new friends, so that I can show them to Joanne…. “And then, in the dark room, there was a wallop of white light, and Mister Rogers disappeared behind it.

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a boy who didn’t like himself very much. It was not his fault. He was born with cerebral palsy. Cerebral palsy is something that happens to the brain. It means that you can think but sometimes can’t walk, or even talk. This boy had a very bad case of cerebral palsy, and when he was still a little boy; some of the people entrusted to take care of him took advantage of him instead and did things to him that made him think that he was a very bad little boy, because only a bad little boy would have to live with the things he had to live with. In fact, when the little boy grew up to be a teenager, he would get so mad at himself that he would hit himself, hard, with his own fists and tell his mother, on the computer he used for a mouth, that he didn’t want to live anymore, for he was sure that God didn’t like what was inside him any more than he did. He had always loved Mister Rogers, though, and now, even when he was fourteen years old, he watched the Neighborhood whenever it was on, and the boy’s mother sometimes thought that Mister Rogers was keeping her son alive. She and the boy lived together in a city in California, and although she wanted very much for her son to meet Mister Rogers, she knew that he was far too disabled to travel all the way to Pittsburgh, so she figured he would never meet his hero, until one day she learned through a special foundation designed to help children like her son that Mister Rogers was coming to California and that after he visited the gorilla named Koko, he was coming to meet her son.

At first, the boy was made very nervous by the thought that Mister Rogers was visiting him. He was so nervous, in fact, that when Mister Rogers did visit, he got mad at himself and began hating himself and hitting himself, and his mother had to take him to another room and talk to him. Mister Rogers didn’t leave, though. He wanted something from the boy, and Mister Rogers never leaves when he wants something from somebody. He just waited patiently; and when the boy came back, Mister Rogers talked to him, and then he made his request. He said, “I would like you to do something for me. Would you do something for me?” On his computer, the boy answered yes, of course, he would do anything for Mister Rogers, so then Mister Rogers said, “I would like you to pray for me, Will you pray for me?” And now the boy didn’t know how to respond. He was thunderstruck. Thunderstruck means that you can’t talk, because something has happened that’s as sudden and as miraculous and maybe as scary as a bolt of lightning, and all you can do is listen to the rumble. The boy was thunderstruck because nobody had ever asked him for something like that, ever. The boy had always been prayed for. The boy had always been the object of prayer, and now he was being asked to pray for Mister Rogers, and although at first he didn’t know if he could do it, he said he would, he said he’d try, and ever since then he keeps Mister Rogers in his prayers and doesn’t talk about wanting to die anymore, because he figures Mister Rogers is close to God, and if Mister Rogers likes him, that must mean God likes him, too.

As for Mister Rogers himself … well, he doesn’t look at the story in the same way that the boy did or that I did. In fact, when Mister Rogers first told me the story, I complimented him on being so smart — for knowing that asking the boy for his prayers would make the boy feel better about himself — and Mister Rogers responded by looking at me at first with puzzlement and then with surprise. “Oh, heavens no, Tom! I didn’t ask him for his prayers for him; I asked for me. I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God. I asked him because I wanted his intercession.”

ON DECEMBER 1, 1997 — oh, heck, once upon a time — a boy, no longer little, told his friends to watch out, that he was going to do something “really big” the next day at school, and the next day at school he took his gun and his ammo and his earplugs and shot eight classmates who had clustered for a prayer meeting. Three died, and they were still children, almost. The shootings took place in West Paducah, Kentucky, and when Mister Rogers heard about them, he said, “Oh, wouldn’t the world be a different place if he had said, ‘I’m going to do something really little tomorrow,'” and he decided to dedicate a week of the Neighborhood to the theme “Little and Big.” He wanted to tell children that what starts out little can sometimes become big, and so they could devote themselves to little dreams without feeling bad about them. But how could Mister Rogers show little becoming big, and vice versa? That was a challenge. He couldn’t just say it, the way he could always just say to the children who watch his program that they are special to him, or even sing it, the way he could always just sing “It’s You I Like” and “Everybody’s Fancy” and “It’s Such a Good Feeling” and “Many Ways to Say I Love You” and “Sometimes People Are Good.” No, he had to show it, he had to demonstrate it, and that’s how Mister Rogers and the people who work for him eventually got the idea of coming to New York City to visit a woman named Maya Lin.

Maya Lin is a famous architect. Architects are people who create big things from the little designs they draw on pieces of paper. Most famous architects are famous for creating big famous buildings, but Maya Lin is more famous for creating big fancy things for people to look at, and in fact, when Mister Rogers had gone to her studio the day before, he looked at the pictures she had drawn of the clock that is now on the ceiling of a place in New York called Penn Station. A clock is a machine that tells people what time it is, but as Mister Rogers sat in the backseat of an old station wagon hired to take him from his apartment to Penn Station, he worried that Maya Lin’s clock might be too fancy and that the children who watch the Neighborhood might not understand it. Mister Rogers always worries about things like that, because he always worries about children, and when his station wagon stopped in traffic next to a bus stop, he read aloud the advertisement of an airline trying to push its international service. “Hmmm,” Mister Rogers said, “that’s a strange ad. `Most people think of us as a great domestic airline. We hate that.’ Hmmm. Hate is such a strong word to use so lightly. If they can hate something like that, you wonder how easy it would be for them to hate something more important.” He was with his producer, Margy Whitmer. He had makeup on his face and a dollop of black dye combed into his silver hair. He was wearing beige pants, a blue dress shirt, a tie, dark socks, a pair of dark-blue boating sneakers, and a purple, zippered cardigan. He looked very little in the backseat of the car. Then the car stopped on Thirty-fourth Street, in front of the escalators leading down to the station, and when the doors opened–

“Holy shit! It’s Mister Fucking Rogers!”

— he turned into Mister Fucking Rogers. This was not a bad thing, however, because he was in New York, and in New York it’s not an insult to be called Mister Fucking Anything. In fact, it’s an honorific. An honorific is what people call you when they respect you, and the moment Mister Rogers got out of the car, people wouldn’t stay the fuck away from him, they respected him so much. Oh, Margy Whitmer tried to keep people away from him, tried to tell people that if they gave her their names and addresses, Mister Rogers would send them an autographed picture, but every time she turned around, there was Mister Rogers putting his arms around someone, or wiping the tears off someone’s cheek, or passing around the picture of someone’s child, or getting on his knees to talk to a child. Margy couldn’t stop them, and she couldn’t stop him. “Oh, Mister Rogers, thank you for my childhood,” “Oh, Mister Rogers, you’re the father I never had.” “Oh, Mister Rogers, would you please just hug me?” After a while, Margy just rolled her eyes and gave up, because it’s always like this with Mister Rogers, because the thing that people don’t understand about him is that he’s greedy for this — greedy for the grace that people offer him. What is grace? He doesn’t even know. He can’t define it. This is a man who loves the simplifying force of definitions, and yet all he knows of grace is how he gets it; all he knows is that he gets it from God, through man. And so in Penn Station, where he was surrounded by men and women and children, he had this power, like a comic-book superhero who absorbs the energy of others until he bursts out of his shirt.

“If Mister Fucking Rogers can tell me how to read that fucking clock, I’ll watch his show every day for a fucking year” — that’s what someone in the crowd said while watching Mister Rogers and Maya Lin crane their necks at Maya Lin’s big fancy clock, but it didn’t even matter whether Mister Rogers could read the clock or not, because every time he looked at it, with the television cameras on him, he leaned back from his waist and opened his mouth wide with astonishment, like someone trying to catch a peanut he had tossed into the air, until it became clear that Mister Rogers could show that he was astonished all day if he had to, or even forever, because Mister Rogers lives in a state of astonishment, and the astonishment he showed when he looked at the clock was the same astonishment he showed when people — absolute strangers — walked up to him and fed his hungry ear with their whispers, and he turned to me, with an open, abashed mouth, and said, “Oh, Tom, if you could only hear the stories I hear!”

ONCE UPON A TIME, Mister Rogers went to New York City and got caught in the rain. He didn’t have an umbrella, and he couldn’t find a taxi, either, so he ducked with a friend into the subway and got on one of the trains. It was late in the day, and the train was crowded with children who were going home from school. Though of all races, the schoolchildren were mostly black and Latino, and they didn’t even approach Mister Rogers and ask him for his autograph. They just sang. They sang, all at once, all together, the song he sings at the start of his program, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and turned the clattering train into a single soft, runaway choir.

HE FINDS ME, OF COURSE, AT PENN STATION. He finds me, because that’s what Mister Rogers does — he looks, and then he finds. I’m standing against a wall, listening to a bunch of mooks from Long Island discuss the strange word — χáρις — he has written down on each of the autographs he gave them. First mook: “He says it’s the Greek word for grace.” Second mook: “Huh. That’s cool. I’m glad I know that. Now, what the fuck is grace?” First mook: “Looks like you’re gonna have to break down and buy a dictionary.” Second mook: “fuck that. What I’m buying is a ticket to the fucking Lotto. I just met Mister Rogers — this is definitely my lucky day.” I’m listening to these guys when, from thirty feet away, I notice Mister Rogers looking around for someone and know, immediately; that he is looking for me. He is on one knee in front of a little girl who is hoarding, in her arms, a small stuffed animal, sky-blue, a bunny.

“Remind you of anyone, Tom?” he says when I approach the two of them. He is not speaking of the little girl.

“Yes, Mister Rogers.”

“Looks a little bit like … Old Rabbit, doesn’t it, Tom?”

“Yes, Mister Rogers.”

“I thought so.” Then he turns back to the little girl. “This man’s name is Tom. When he was your age, he had a rabbit, too, and he loved it very much. Its name was Old Rabbit. What is yours named?”

The little girl eyes me suspiciously, and then Mister Rogers. She goes a little knock-kneed, directs a thumb toward her mouth. “Bunny Wunny,” she says.

“Oh, that’s a nice name,” Mister Rogers says, and then goes to the Thirty-fourth Street escalator to climb it one last time for the cameras. When he reaches the street, he looks right at the lens, as he always does, and says, speaking of the Neighborhood, “Let’s go back to my place,” and then makes a right turn toward Seventh Avenue, except that this time he just keeps going, and suddenly Margy Whitmer is saying, “Where is Fred? Where is Fred?” and Fred, he’s a hundred yards away, in his sneakers and his purple sweater, and the only thing anyone sees of him is his gray head bobbing up and down amid all the other heads, the hundreds of them, the thousands, the millions, disappearing into the city and its swelter.

ONCE UPON A TIME, a little boy with a big sword went into battle against Mister Rogers. Or maybe, if the truth be told, Mister Rogers went into battle against a little boy with a big sword, for Mister Rogers didn’t like the big sword. It was one of those swords that really isn’t a sword at all; it was a big plastic contraption with lights and sound effects, and it was the kind of sword used in defense of the universe by the heroes of the television shows that the little boy liked to watch. The little boy with the big sword did not watch Mister Rogers. In fact, the little boy with the big sword didn’t know who Mister Rogers was, and so when Mister Rogers knelt down in front of him, the little boy with the big sword looked past him and through him, and when Mister Rogers said, “Oh, my; that’s a big sword you have,” the boy didn’t answer, and finally his mother got embarrassed and said, “Oh, honey, c’mon, that’s Mister Rogers,” and felt his head for fever. Of course, she knew who Mister Rogers was, because she had grown up with him, and she knew that he was good for her son, and so now, with her little boy zombie-eyed under his blond bangs, she apologized, saying to Mister Rogers that she knew he was in a rush and that she knew he was here in Penn Station taping his program and that her son usually wasn’t like this, he was probably just tired … Except that Mister Rogers wasn’t going anywhere. Yes, sure, he was taping, and right there, in Penn Station in New York City, were throngs of other children wiggling in wait for him, but right now his patient gray eyes were fixed on the little boy with the big sword, and so he stayed there, on one knee, until the little boy’s eyes finally focused on Mister Rogers, and he said, “It’s not a sword; it’s a death ray.” A death ray! Oh, honey, Mommy knew you could do it … And so now, encouraged, Mommy said, “Do you want to give Mister Rogers a hug, honey?” But the boy was shaking his head no, and Mister Rogers was sneaking his face past the big sword and the armor of the little boy’s eyes and whispering something in his ear — something that, while not changing his mind about the hug, made the little boy look at Mister Rogers in a new way, with the eyes of a child at last, and nod his head yes.

We were heading back to his apartment in a taxi when I asked him what he had said.

“Oh, I just knew that whenever you see a little boy carrying something like that, it means that he wants to show people that he’s strong on the outside.

“I just wanted to let him know that he was strong on the inside, too.

“And so that’s what I told him.

“I said, `Do you know that you’re strong on the inside, too?’

“Maybe it was something he needed to hear.”

HE WAS BARELY MORE THAN A BOY himself when he learned what he would be fighting for, and fighting against, for the rest of his life. He was in college. He was a music major at a small school in Florida and planning to go to seminary upon graduation. His name was Fred Rogers. He came home to Latrobe, Pennsylvania, once upon a time, and his parents, because they were wealthy, had bought something new for the corner room of their big redbrick house. It was a television. Fred turned it on, and, as he says now, with plaintive distaste, “there were people throwing pies at one another.” He was the soft son of overprotective parents, but he believed, right then, that he was strong enough to enter into battle with that — that machine, that medium — and to wrestle with it until it yielded to him, until the ground touched by its blue shadow became hallowed and this thing called television came to be used “for the broadcasting of grace through the land.” It would not be easy, no — for in order to win such a battle, he would have to forbid himself the privilege of stopping, and whatever he did right he would have to repeat, as though he were already living in eternity. And so it was that the puppets he employed on The Children’s Comer would be the puppets he employed forty-four years later, and so it was that once he took off his jacket and his shoes … well, he was Mister Rogers for good. And even now, when he is producing only three weeks’ worth of new programs a year, he still winds up agonizing — agonizing — about whether to announce his theme as “Little and Big” or “Big and Little” and still makes only two edits per televised minute, because he doesn’t want his message to be determined by the cuts and splices in a piece of tape — to become, despite all his fierce coherence, “a message of fragmentation.”

He is losing, of course. The revolution he started — a half hour a day, five days a week — it wasn’t enough, it didn’t spread, and so, forced to fight his battles alone, Mister Rogers is losing, as we all are losing. He is losing to it, to our twenty-four-hour-a-day pie fight, to the dizzying cut and the disorienting edit, to the message of fragmentation, to the flicker and pulse and shudder and strobe, to the constant, hivey drone of the electroculture … and yet still he fights, deathly afraid that the medium he chose is consuming the very things he tried to protect: childhood and silence. Yes, at seventy years old and 143 pounds, Mister Rogers still fights, and indeed, early this year, when television handed him its highest honor, he responded by telling television — gently; of course — to just shut up for once, and television listened. He had already won his third Daytime Emmy, and now he went onstage to accept Emmy’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and there, in front of all the soap-opera stars and talk-show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms, he made his small bow and said into the microphone, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are … Ten seconds of silence.” And then he lifted his wrist, and looked at the audience, and looked at his watch, and said softly, “I’ll watch the time,” and there was, at first, a small whoop from the crowd, a giddy, strangled hiccup of laughter, as people realized that he wasn’t kidding, that Mister Rogers was not some convenient eunuch but rather a man, an authority figure who actually expected them to do what he asked …  and so they did. One second, two seconds, three seconds … and now the jaws clenched, and the bosoms heaved, and the mascara ran, and the tears fell upon the beglittered gathering like rain leaking down a crystal chandelier, and Mister Rogers finally looked up from his watch and said, “May God be with you” to all his vanquished children.

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a little boy born blind, and so, defenseless in the world, he suffered the abuses of the defenseless, and when he grew up and became a man, he looked back and realized that he’d had no childhood at all, and that if he were ever to have a childhood, he would have to start having it now, in his forties. So the first thing he did was rechristen himself “Joybubbles”; the second thing he did was declare himself five years old forever; and the third thing he did was make a pilgrimage to Pittsburgh, where the University of Pittsburgh’s Information Sciences Library keeps a Mister Rogers archive. It has all 865 programs, in both color and black and white, and for two months this past spring, Joybubbles went to the library every day for ten hours and watched the Neighborhood’s every episode, plus specials — or, since he is blind, listened to every episode, imagined every episode. Until one night, Mister Rogers came to him, in what he calls a visitation — “I was dreaming, but I was awake” — and offered to teach him how to pray.

“But Mister Rogers, I can’t pray,” Joybubbles said, “because every time I try to pray, I forget the words.”

“I know that,” Mister Rogers said, “and that’s why the prayer I’m going to teach you has only three words.”

“What prayer is that, Mister Rogers? What kind of prayer has only three words?”

“Thank you, God,” Mister Rogers said.

THE WALLS OF MISTER ROGERS’ Neighborhood are light blue and fleeced with clouds. They are tall — as tall as the cinder-block walls they are designed to hide — and they encompass the Neighborhood’s entire stage set, from the flimsy yellow house where Mister Rogers comes to visit, to the closet where he finds his sweaters, to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where he goes to dream. The blue walls are the ends of the daylit universe he has made, and yet Mister Rogers can’t see them — or at least can’t know them — because he was born blind to color. He doesn’t know the color of his walls, and one day when I caught him looking toward his painted skies, I asked him to tell me what color they are, and he said, “I imagine they’re blue, Tom.” Then he looked at me and smiled. “I imagine they’re blue.”

He has spent thirty-one years imagining and reimagining those walls — the walls that have both penned him in and set him free. You would think it would be easy by now, being Mister Rogers; you would think that one morning he would wake up and think, Okay, all I have to do is be nice for my allotted half hour today, and then I’ll just take the rest of the day off…. But no, Mister Rogers is a stubborn man, and so on the day I ask about the color of his sky, he has already gotten up at five-thirty, already prayed for those who have asked for his prayers, already read, already written, already swum, already weighed himself, already sent out cards for the birthdays he never forgets, already called any number of people who depend on him for comfort, already cried when he read the letter of a mother whose child was buried with a picture of Mister Rogers in his casket, already played for twenty minutes with an autistic boy who has come, with his father, all the way from Boise, Idaho, to meet him. The boy had never spoken, until one day he said, “X the Owl,” which is the name of one of Mister Rogers’s puppets, and he had never looked his father in the eye until one day his father had said, “Let’s go to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe,” and now the boy is speaking and reading, and the father has come to thank Mister Rogers for saving his son’s life…. And by this time, well, it’s nine-thirty in the morning, time for Mister Rogers to take off his jacket and his shoes and put on his sweater and his sneakers and start taping another visit to the Neighborhood. He writes all his own scripts, but on this day when he receives a visit from Mrs. McFeely and a springer spaniel, she says that she has to bring the dog “back to his owner,” and Mister Rogers makes a face. The cameras stop, and he says, “I don’t like the word owner there. It’s not a good word. Let’s change it to ‘bring the dog home.'” And so the change is made, and the taping resumes, and this is how it goes all day,  a life unfolding within a clasp of unfathomable governance, and once, when I lose sight of him, I ask Margy Whitmer where he is, and she says, “Right over your shoulder, where he always is,” and when I turn around, Mister Rogers is facing me, child-stealthy with a small black camera in his hand, to take another picture for the album that he will give me when I take my leave of him.

Yes, it should be easy being Mister Rogers, but when four o’clock rolls around, well, Mister Rogers is tired, and so he sneaks over to the piano and starts playing, with dexterous, pale fingers, the music that used to end a 1940s newsreel and that has now become the music he plays to signal to the cast and crew that a day’s taping has wrapped. On this day, however, he is premature by a considerable extent, and so Margy, who has been with Mister Rogers since 1983 — because nobody who works for Mister Rogers ever leaves the Neighborhood — comes running over, papers in hand, and says, “Not so fast there, buster.”

“Oh, please, sister,” Mister Rogers says. “I’m done.”

And now Margy comes up behind him and massages his shoulders. “No, you’re not,” she says. “Roy Rogers is done. Mister Rogers still has a ways to go.”

HE WAS A CHILD ONCE, TOO, and so one day I asked him if I could go with him back to Latrobe. He thought about it for a second, then said, by way of agreement, “Okay, then — tomorrow, Tom, I’ll show you childhood.” Not his childhood, mind you, or even a childhood — no, just “childhood.” And so the next morning, we swam together, and then he put back on his boxer shorts and the dark socks, and the T-shirt, and the gray trousers, and the belt, and then the white dress shirt and the black bow tie and the gray suit jacket, and about two hours later we were pulling up to the big brick house on Weldon Street in Latrobe, and Mister Rogers was thinking about going inside.

There was nobody home. The doors were open, unlocked, because the house was undergoing a renovation of some kind, but the owners were away, and Mister Rogers’s boyhood home was empty of everyone but workmen. “Do you think we can go in?” he asked Bill Isler, president of Family Communications, the company that produces Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Bill had driven us there, and now, sitting behind the wheel of his red Grand Cherokee, he was full of remonstrance. “No!” he said. “Fred, they’re not home. If we wanted to go into the house, we should have called first. Fred …” But Mister Rogers was out of the car, with his camera in his hand and his legs moving so fast that the material of his gray suit pants furled and unfurled around both of his skinny legs, like flags exploding in a breeze. And here, as he made his way through thickets of bewildered workmen–this skinny old man dressed in a gray suit and a bow tie, with his hands on his hips and his arms akimbo, like a dance instructor — there was some kind of wiggly jazz in his legs, and he went flying all around the outside of the house, pointing at windows, saying there was the room where he learned to play the piano, and there was the room where he saw the pie fight on a primitive television, and there was the room where his beloved father died … until finally we reached the front door. He put his hand on the knob; he cracked it open, but then, with Bill Isler calling caution from the car, he said, “Maybe we shouldn’t go in. And all the people who made this house special to me are not here, anyway. They’re all in heaven.”

And so we went to the graveyard. We were heading there all along, because Mister Rogers loves graveyards, and so as we took the long, straight road out of sad, fading Latrobe, you could still feel the speed in him, the hurry, as he mustered up a sad anticipation, and when we passed through the cemetery gates, he smiled as he said to Bill Isler, “The plot’s at the end of the yellow-brick road.” And so it was; the asphalt ended, and then we began bouncing over a road of old blond bricks, until even that road ended, and we were parked in front of the place where Mister Rogers is to be buried. He got out of the car, and, moving as quickly as he had moved to the door of his house, he stepped up a small hill to the door of a large gray mausoleum, a huge structure built for six, with a slightly peaked roof, and bronze doors, and angels living in the stained glass. He peeked in the window, and in the same voice he uses on television, that voice, at once so patient and so eager, he pointed out each crypt, saying, “There’s my father, and there’s my mother, and there, on the left, is my place, and right across will be Joanne…. ” The window was of darkened glass, though, and so to see through it, we had to press our faces close against it, and where the glass had warped away from the frame of the door — where there was a finger-wide crack — Mister Rogers’s voice leaked into his grave, and came back to us as a soft, hollow echo.

And then he was on the move again, happily, quickly, for he would not leave until he showed me all the places of all those who’d loved him into being. His grandfather, his grandmother, his uncles, his aunts, his father-in-law and mother-in-law, even his family’s servants — he went to each grave, and spoke their names, and told their stories, until finally I headed back down to the Jeep and turned back around to see Mister Rogers standing high on a green dell, smiling among the stones. “And now if you don’t mind,” he said without a hint of shame or embarrassment, “I have to go find a place to relieve myself,” and then off he went, this ecstatic ascetic, to take a proud piss in his corner of heaven.

ONCE UPON A TIME, a man named Fred Rogers decided that he wanted to live in heaven. Heaven is the place where good people go when they die, but this man, Fred Rogers, didn’t want to go to heaven; he wanted to live in heaven, here, now, in this world, and so one day, when he was talking about all the people he had loved in this life, he looked at me and said, “The connections we make in the course of a life — maybe that’s what heaven is, Tom. We make so many connections here on earth. Look at us — I’ve just met you, but I’m invested in who you are and who you will be, and I can’t help it.”

The next afternoon, I went to his office in Pittsburgh. He was sitting on a couch, under a framed rendering of the Greek word for grace and a biblical phrase written in Hebrew that means “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.” A woman was with him, sitting in a big chair. Her name was Deb. She was very pretty. She had a long face and a dark blush to her skin. She had curls in her hair and stars at the centers of her eyes. She was a minister at Fred Rogers’s church. She spent much of her time tending to the sick and the dying. Fred Rogers loved her very much, and so, out of nowhere, he smiled and put his hand over hers. “Will you be with me when I die?” he asked her, and when she said yes, he said, “Oh, thank you, my dear.” Then, with his hand still over hers and his eyes looking straight into hers, he said, “Deb, do you know what a great prayer you are? Do you know that about yourself? Your prayers are just wonderful.” Then he looked at me. I was sitting in a small chair by the door, and he said, “Tom, would you close the door, please?” I closed the door and sat back down. “Thanks, my dear,” he said to me, then turned back to Deb. “Now, Deb, I’d like to ask you a favor,” he said. “Would you lead us? Would you lead us in prayer?”

Deb stiffened for a second, and she let out a breath, and her color got deeper. “Oh, I don’t know, Fred,” she said. “I don’t know if I want to put on a performance …”

Fred never stopped looking at her or let go of her hand. “It’s not a performance. It’s just a meeting of friends,” he said. He moved his hand from her wrist to her palm and extended his other hand to me. I took it, and then put my hand around her free hand. His hand was warm, hers was cool, and we bowed our heads, and closed our eyes, and I heard Deb’s voice calling out for the grace of God. What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella. I had never prayed like that before, ever. I had always been a great prayer, a powerful one, but only fitfully, only out of guilt, only when fear and desperation drove me to it … and it hit me, right then, with my eyes closed, that this was the moment Fred Rogers — Mister Rogers — had been leading me to from the moment he answered the door of his apartment in his bathrobe and asked me about Old Rabbit. Once upon a time, you see, I lost something, and prayed to get it back, but when I lost it the second time, I didn’t, and now this was it, the missing word, the unuttered promise, the prayer I’d been waiting to say a very long time.

“Thank you, God,” Mister Rogers said

Copyright © 1997-2007 by the Hearst Corporation.

MONTANA FADING OUT — The end is near. What does the world’s greatest quarterback do with the rest of his life?

Tom Junod, winner of two National Magazine Awards, was GQ Magazine writer-at-large when he wrote the following, which was the cover story of the September 1994 issue.

I HEARD THAT JOE MONTANA was traveling to Brunei at the behest of the royal family, and I had an awful dream. I dreamed that Joe stood alone on desert sands in his helmet and shoulder pads and jersey, surrounded, at great distance, by oil barons in their Mercedeses and Rolls-Royces. And one by one, the barons got out of their cars, trudged up to Joe and demanded “Do me like you did Dwight Clark.” And Joe couldn’t say no, because the barons were paying extravagantly for his time, and so again and again, until day passed into night and the only lights were the headlamps of luxury automobiles, Joe was compelled to roll right, the way he did in his first NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, and lob a high, lumpy spiral to leaping oilmen … who, encumbered by their robes and lack of experience, dropped every pass and became humiliated and wound up abandoning Joe to the winds that scour the desert clean at night.

Never mind that I had no idea where the hell Brunei was and that the next morning, when I looked at the map, I saw that it’s in the South Pacific, on the island of Borneo, and what I dreamed was desert is in fact occupied by rain forest. The dream spooked me. It carried the weight of omen, and when I finally met Joe, I asked him what he had done there. He had gone with Herschel Walker, he said. He had stayed at the sultan’s palace. He had played a lot of golf and had made a lot of money. He had been paid to throw the football to the sultan’s nephew and to teach the nephew’s children how to play the American game. The nephew had purchased equipment for the occasion, and he wanted Joe to suit up. Suit up?  Well, sure – Joe was a football player, and so here, in the oil-rich Islamic sultanate of Brunei, Abode of Peace … here, across oceans, time zones, languages, religions, cultures … what was waiting for him was shoulder pads and gleaming black helmets … football stuff. C’mon Joe – suit up! But Joe told the sultan’s nephew that by the terms of his contract with the Kansas City Chiefs he was forbidden to wear the uniform of another team, any other team – it was a fib, but it worked – and so Joe and Herschel played in shorts and T-shirts, while members of Brunei’s royal family, augmented by the strongmen of the state security force, ran around in the brand-new helmets and shoulder pads.

I was frightened by the force of premonition. Yes, I know I should have been pleased for Joe; after all, not everyone can make a killing teaching monarchs how to throw a spiral. Still, the idea of Joe, Joe Montana, in a role of lucrative servitude … especially after that dream – well, it was unseemly. It was grotesque. It was the Mick drying out at Betty Ford, Ted Williams hawking his wares on QVC, Joe Willie hoofing in a dinner theater, Joe Louis  squeezing hands at Caesars, Joe DiMaggio shilling for Mr. Coffee. As a young man I could never watch a Mr. Coffee commercial without feeling a pang of misery; I had never seen the Yankee Clipper play, but I imagined that he must have been great then, because he sure wasn’t great now – he looked bereft, like a defrocked priest: Joyless Joe DiMaggio. I did not feel sorry for him, however, as much as I felt for those who loved him, who had adored him and had believed that his ineffable and defining greatness would somehow last forever.

Now it was time to feel sorry, in a strange way, for myself. You see, I’d had another dream about Joe – our Joe, my Joe – and his journey to Brunei, and this was the dream I had invested with my own hope and belief. I had dreamed that Joe had gone to Brunei on a mission of dire importance; that the sultan had summoned him personally, not for instruction or diversion but rather for survival, to quell an insurrection of infidels. I dreamed that he did not fail, because Joe, well, he never fails; that what Joe did on a football field, he would keep on doing, outside of football, outside of sport, forever; that he would just keep playing, in ever greater and more important arenas … diplomacy, espionage, politics, art, literature, music, whatever … and ride the whole supercool, super-clutch mystic mojo of his own greatness – which, after all, is partially our greatness – into history …

I felt sorry for myself, of course, because once I’d met Joe Montana I realized that, as the cost and condition of his greatness, he had purged his brain of grandiose and debilitating dreams and that the only dreams he had left were dreams of refuge – from history, yes, and also from us.

TO EXPLAIN WHAT I MEAN about the costs and conditions of Joe’s greatness, I would like to tell two stories about him, both of which happen to concern Tim Barnett’s ears. The first is about what makes Joe legendary and the second is about what makes him – efficiently, impressively, triumphantly, magically – limited. That both stories have an aural leitmotiv just goes to show how, in Joe’s case, what is legendary and what is limited are intertwined and, in the end, indistinguishable.

Tim Barnett is a wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs. He has unusual ears. While unremarkable in size, they are whorled and flared, distinctly shell-like, and they are joined to his head at an angle that makes them look like after-thoughts. Once Joe became a Chief, he made it immediately clear that they amused him. He called Barnett “the Doberman,” and Barnett, in truth, found some comfort in Joe’s mockery. Joe had joined the Chiefs from the San Francisco 49ers, where he had won four Super Bowls and had worked with the finest cadre of pass-catchers in football, and Barnett was frankly afraid that Joe would turn up his nose at what the Chiefs offered in the way of wideouts. Now, here was Joe Montana, who was the greatest quarterback ever, calling Tim Barnett “the Doberman,” and here was Tim Barnett – who was, well, Tim Barnett – calling Joe “Pinocchio,” on account of his prodigious beak. On his very first day in Kansas City, Joe Montana, had, in Barnett’s mind, become a full-fledged member of the Chiefs.

THE FIRST OF OUR JOE MONTANA stories takes Tim Barnett’s ears to Sand Diego, where, toward the end of last season, the Chiefs were playing the Chargers in a game crucial to Kansas City’s play-off hopes. The Chiefs were behind by a field goal late in the game and had to score a touchdown to win. Now, as everyone, including Tim Barnett, knows, dire situations are Joe Montana’s métier, and adversity is to Joe what spinach is to Popeye; still, a touchdown is a touchdown, and, as Barnet says, “when you’re behind, it distracts you.” It is rather like a twelfth man has sneaked into the huddle, a gloomy, twitchy, pessimistic character who, as the quarterback calls the play, shakes his head and frowns and says “That’ll never work.” Well, in San Diego on that day, the twelfth man had taken his place in the huddle and Chiefs were looking at him and he was making faces and Joe … well, it was like Joe didn’t see him, or if he did see him, he didn’t let on. The San Diego crowd was whooping it up, flexing its din muscles, and Joe said to his teammates “Don’t’ worry about the clock, don’t listen to the crowd, and let’s have some fun.” Then he looked at Barnett and said “Sorry, Tim – I guess with those ears you have to listen to the crowd. I guess with those ears, you can hear the press box. What are they saying up there?” The twelfth man, of course, was not amused; he slunk out of the huddle, took his seat on the bench and watched the Chiefs win the game.

The second Joe story takes place in a middle school in Kansas City, where Barnett’s ears, in theory, should have had little relevance. Joe was there – along with Barnett and backup quarterbacks Steve Bono, Matt Blundin and Alex Van Pelt – as a favor to the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator, Paul Hackett, or, rather, to Hackett’s son Nate, a seventh grader. As part of a fund-raiser, Nate had auctioned off an opportunity to eat lunch with Joe Montana and the Chiefs. The five kids who had come up with winning bids now sat in a little clubroom with their proud teachers, and when Joe entered, what they saw was this: a handsome man with broad shoulders, skinny calves, tanned skin, suspiciously blond hair, a slightly frayed hairline, a broad white grin, an extremely large nose, two sled-dog blue eyes centered in webs of white squint lines, a long, shiny, meat-colored scar across his right elbow and untied sneakers. The kids were not jocks; they were, for the most part, slouchy, brainy and quiet, and Joe took a seat next to a blonde girl who seemed to be the shyest of them all. For about two minutes, he spoke quietly to her, plying her with his smile; then he noticed Barnett across the table and said to the little girl, loudly, “Have you ever seen ears like those? Doesn’t he look like a Doberman?” The little girl smiled but did not say anything. Joe folded his own ears forward. “Anybody have a knife?” he asked. “You can sharpen it on his ears.”

Now, for a long time I thought of Joe Montana as a “thinking man’s quarterback,” a “cerebral athlete” whose game – a greedy, hungry, gobbling thing, based miraculously on patience, restraint, even passivity – was an expression of some kind of Zen mastery. Naturally, when I first heard the story of the huddle in San Diego, I believed that Joe had made fun of Barnett’s ears for calculated effect, to relax his team. I no longer think so. I have seen Joe and Tim Barnett together several times, and Joe has never failed to make fun of Barnett’s ears. I am convinced that he cracked the joke in San Diego simply to get a laugh, just as I am convinced that – at the beginning of the last-minute ninety-two-yard drive that beat the Cincinnati Bengals in the 1989 Super Bowl – he pointed out John Candy in the stands simply because he had spotted John Candy and wanted to share his find with his teammates. He is innocent of calculation. He is free of ulterior motive. He is unburdened by history. His Zen is not Eastern but, rather, Western Pennsylvanian. His Zen is the Zen not of the brainy but of the blessed.

“He isn’t complicated,” says Bill Walsh, the coach who presided over Joe’s rise to professional glory. “People look for another agenda – it really isn’t there. He just loves football. He loves to play the game. He plays with a smile on his face.”

He plays with a smile on his face because in football he has found the magical alembic by which to turn the lead of his limitations into the gold of his legend. He loves football not because it frees him to create but because it constrains him to react, and he is very good at reacting. “A lot of people,” he says, “try to do more than they’re able to, than they are capable of. I don’t.”
I once asked him if, during those famous moments of crunch time and crisis, when his team is behind and the clock is running, he tries especially hard to complete his first pass, because then he knows that the defense starts thinking, Oh, no, her comes Joe …. And Joe answered that no, he tries to complete his first pass because it’s always better to compete a pass than not to complete a pass. He feels the same way about the second pass, and the third. He is a simple man who plays a simple game, and “his simplicity,” in the words of 49ers president Carmen Policy, “is his genius.”

“He is able to operate on a simplistic level and come to decisions that others would think of as very complex,” says Policy, who ought to know, because, in the most painful event in the history of his franchise, he traded Joe to the Chiefs, and admits that he was outwitted in the process. “It’s like dealing with a person who walks into a crowded party and works the room and has everybody loving him. And you say ‘How do you do that?’ But it’s nothing you can train for, not a muscle you can develop … It’s not physiological. It’s probably not even psychological. It’s probably spiritual.”

I have my own theory about Joe, of course. I have come to the conclusion that, at the moment of conception, Joe was spared the tiny whirring gear of doubt and introspection that at once hobbles, vexes and enriches our lives; I have come to believe that his mind-set is a matter of circuitry, biology, evolution and destiny, and that when, at the end of this season, Joe Montana retires from football, he will become a fugitive from the very game – the very purpose — for which he was created.

WHAT, YOU HAVEN’T HEARD? He’s retiring after this, his sixteenth season in the NFL. Walking away at age 38. This is it, folks – the last campaign, the grand finale, the final episode of the Joe Show. No more perfection in desperation, no more final-second thievery, no more long passes when logic dictates that he should throw short, no more short passes when it’s clear he absolutely must throw long, no more soft little flares that settle into a receiver’s hands at the precise moment he is ready to run forever … no more Joe. Oh, sure, people have been talking about Joe retiring for years; now, however, Joe is talking about it, to his wife, Jennifer, to his parents, to his agent and friends, to other retired athletes, such as Roger Staubach and Reggie Jackson …. No, he won’t come right out and say it, because he’s always resented the sporting press’s counsel in the matter of retirement, but he makes it clear that he wants to get out before he has to get out, before his last game turns out to be like last season’s play-off in Buffalo, when the Bills clanged his head against the frozen turf and he sat on the sideline with a coat over his shoulders and nothing in his eyes, looking so pale, so puny.

“Oh, he has to,” says Bill Walsh when asked about Joe’s retirement. “You lose some of your quickness; you don’t move and avoid people as well as you once did, and you start taking punishment.”

Of course, Walsh is justified in his concern, because, as even Joe admits, Montana has taken some shots over the years…there have been a few injuries…well, a lot of injuries…indeed, enough traumatized tissue to warrant surgical invasion of Joe’s body on a scale more often endured by medical-school cadavers.

“I thought after Buffalo that would be it, but he wasn’t ready,” says Joe’s mother, Theresa Montana. “But I hope this is his last year, for his sake. He needs the rest.” Yes, that’s it, the kind of thing a mother says, and knows: that more than anything else, her son is tired. How long has been playing football? For as long as Joe has been at his life, he has been at his game; his mother remembers him wearing out his grandfather, playing catch with him all day long, at age 2. “He liked it,” she says. “You and I walk down the street; Joe picks up a ball and starts playing just like you and I walk down the street.”

He was born to play and raised to compete. He was an only child, and when his parents discovered within their son some great, hulking jones to win at whatever game he played, they did whatever was necessary to feed it. To give Joe a taste of pressure, his father, Joe Sr., exposed him to the best competition possible when Joe was 7 or 8, driving the boy all over the state of Pennsylvania to play in basketball tournaments. To make sure that Joe had the whitest pants on his football team, his mother didn’t just wash them, she cleansed them. “One day Joe came home and said ‘Mom, I don’t know how you do it but my pants are whiter than anyone else’s.’ I took him down to the basement and showed him the old-fashioned washboard. I said, ‘This is how you do it. First soak ‘em in cold water with a little bit of Tide. Then rub ‘em. Then throw the water away and soak ‘em in bleach and hot water. Then rub ‘em again. Then throw them in the washer.’ I didn’t have the new kind of washing machine, either – I had the old fashioned wringer when I was doing his clothes.”

No wonder he’s tired. Metaphorically, at least, he has been wearing the whitest pants on his team for virtually his entire life. In the little leagues…in high school…at Notre Dame…with San Francisco and now in Kansas City…he has always had this blinding glow, he has always been the great Joe Montana, and now, well, as his mother says, he needs a rest. The thing is, I don’t think he’s tired of wearing the whitest pants on the team; in fact, I think he likes wearing the whitest pants on the team. He’s just tired of everyone else getting them dirty.

IT’S LIKE SOME FREAKING bad dream. Joe doesn’t want to wiggle, but winds up wiggling anyway. He tries to tell the others that he doesn’t want to wiggle, but they are too tall, or too beautiful, and they can’t hear him. So he wiggles. He is onstage, with Brooks Robinson and Joe Willie Namath and Veronica Webb and Danny Manning and Miss U.S.A. and Dikembe Mutombo, in the basketball arena of the University of Arkansas, at a rally of Wal-Mart stockholders. The air smells vaguely of meat, and the stockholders are in full throat, demanding that the athletes and models do what they do, every morning, if they work in a Wal-Mart store: the Wal-Mart cheer. Joe is fourth in line; Joe is the hyphen, and the hyphen must wiggle. W! A! L! Now it is Joe’s turn, so he drops into a kind of crouch and shakes his fanny as though he’s performing an ethnic dance back in western Pennsylvania. The crowd roars its approval – Joe! – and later a goodly number of women approach him and say, winkingly, “Nice wiggle, Joe.”

In a limousine, he goes from the university’s new basketball arena to its old one, where Hanes – a Wal-Mart vendor and one of the companies that pay Joe to license his name – has provided him a table at which he is to sign autographs. In anticipation of his arrival, a line has formed, a line that hums with the sound of America, that hums with appreciation of Joe.

“Is this the Joe line?”

“This is the Joe line.”

“Me and him – like this!”

Then a wife: “You guys have the patience to stand on line for an autograph but you don’t have the patience to stand with us when we’re shopping?”

“Hey—it’s Joe.”

“This man is God.”

Then Joe comes in, and the wife fans herself. “Oh, is he a cutie. Oh, is he cute.”

Joe is wearing a sharp olive-colored suit, and his eyes are blue and steely. He is chewing a piece of gum, hard. He sits down at the table and begins signing black-and-white photos of himself smiling above the Hanes logo. He smiles as he moves his pen across the photographs, but the smile is pickled and guarded, one per customer, and as he chews his gum, his jaw muscles grab his cheek like a claw.

The line moves. People ask Joe to sign jackets, footballs and pennants, but he politely declines, because he can sign only licensed paraphernalia. People try to take pictures. “No pictures!” snaps a Hanes representative. A man asks Joe to sign two photographs. “Just one,” Joe says. “One?” the man says. “One,” Joe says firmly. His eyes have a hunted look, and a vague air of resentment has settled over the line. A man complains that Joe wouldn’t sign his Canadian flag, and his wife says, “He’s not friendly at all. He looks miserable.”

As a matter of fact, he is. Joe knows that nobody at an autograph signing is getting what he wants. He knows that what the people want is a moment with Joe Montana, some little frisson of commonality, some indication that he sees them, and he knows that he has no moments to give. He is always gracious and always polite; he tries, however, to save his moments for his wife and four children. Quite often, his fans try to have some kind of moment with him when he is trying to have a moment with his children, and the result is a camera or a video camera thrust into the face of one of his little boys or girls, and Joe’s miserable realization that his children have a better time in public places when Daddy stays home.

He would like to stay home, forever. He has never understood the intensity of public adoration, the sheer need. As a child, he never even had posters of athletes in his room, because he didn’t want to watch or worship them, he wanted to be them; as an adult, he has always considered football merely a “fun job,” and he really would have preferred playing it in empty stadiums, just him and the guys. In truth, the game he loves is already receding into the past, and his future is here, signing photographs of an old smile, among people who call him God and yet resent him for his distance, making money by learning how to wiggle.

THE PLANE RISES SLOWLY into the sky. I pray, because I am afraid of flying. Joe smiles, as is his habit. Joe has a dazzling smile, a theme he plays with variations. I assume, at first, that this is his interview smile – helpful, hopeful and eager-to-please, even in the face of impatience and befuddlement. I am asking him what he’s going to do after he retires. Broadcasting? No, he is a positive person and can’t imagine being paid to criticize his fellow ballplayers. Coaching? “Successful coaches tend to be players who can be satisfied succeeding through someone else. I’m too competitive for that. I can’t stand not being in there.” Politics? “Politics are too political.” Books? “I started working on a book once, with a writer who probably would have done an excellent job – but it was too much time and effort.” Business? “I’m not really a businessman, not yet. I feel like I don’t know enough about the business world to make my own decisions.”

No, what Joe dreams of is, in fact, what’s making him smile: flight. He dreams of taking Jennifer and the children, with their billowing blond hair, in his own airplane and then into the sky, away from the people who want him, want them… He dreams of coming down, behind gates, behind fences, on a landing strip all his own, on a ranch all his own, and riding horses out to the grapes he grows, for the wine he makes, for the restaurant he runs, for the friends he has chosen, for the world he has created, all his own.

This is, of course, a rich man’s dream, and Joe is, of course, a rich man. He is already taking flying lessons, searching for land in the Napa Valley and talking to winemakers about starting his own label, though “nothing too serious.” He collects wine and is said to have discerning judgment. Joe has a “sensitive side,” Jennifer Montana says, and she hopes, paradoxically, that the public will begin to see it, and appreciate it, once her husband gets out of football and regains his privacy. A lot of people have high hopes for Joe’s retirement. His father hopes that he will compete on the senior golf tour. Bill Walsh hopes that he will coach. Roger Staubach hopes that he will go into business. I just hope that he doesn’t turn into Joe DiMaggio, and so I ask him what he thinks people will be saying about him ten years from now, what he wants people to say about him ten years from now. We are flying. We are drinking wine. Joe is smiling.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “How about ‘Where is he?’”

I AM LISTENING TO JOE TALK about his trip to Brunei and wondering where greatness goes. Joe is in the Chiefs locker room with some of his teammates, and he is taking practice swings with an imaginary golf club and speaking about his host, the sultan’s nephew, whom he calls “Akeem.” “Akeem didn’t have to do shit,” Joe says appreciatively. “When he played golf, he held out his foot and his valet tied his shoes. When he was ready to tee off, his valet put the ball on the tee. He didn’t have to do shit.”

Where does greatness go? I have been following Joe to come up with some kind of answer. I have been following Joe to determine if greatness is, like a bus ticket, transferable, from his world, the world of football and holy innocence, to our world, the world of unholy complication … if it is indestructible, like matter, subject only to transformation, rather than extinction … or if it is as perishable as a perfect tomato, strictly of its moment, of our moment, and then gone. Now, however, I am thinking that Joe is trying to tell me something: that greatness goes wherever it wants to go; that it goes to Brunei, if the money is right; that it doesn’t have to do shit. Then Joe’s teammates leave, and I ask Joe a question of great concern. I am very superstitious, and the day is Friday the thirteenth. Severe thunderstorms are galloping in from the western plains, and I am scheduled to fly out of Kansas City at the same time they are scheduled to arrive. I ask Joe if, under the same conditions, he would get on the plane.

He smiles and looks me directly in the eye. He does not answer yes or no but instead leans forward, as though telling me a secret, and says, “Friday the thirteenth? Thunderstorms? That just makes it better, doesn’t it?”

I get on the plane two hours later. Like Tim Barnett in San Diego and, for all I know, the sultan’s nephew in Brunei, I have had my Joe Montana Moment. The plane rises quickly, easily; behind me, to the west, there is an insurrection of thunderheads, glowering like infidels. To the east, though, where I’m headed, the skies have been cleansed of all dark dreams, and greatness follows me home.



On leaving Beirut

by Zaina Budayr

July 29, 2011

When I step off the plane after it lands in Beirut, the past I have experienced comes rushing back in a swirl of sounds, smells and flashes of memory. In the past I had to focus really hard to keep those away from everyday life, because they were that intense and meaningful. Time has definitely helped with healing the wounds. Being Arab-American, the strain of politics has always played a huge role in my life. My father, a survivor of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut and of the Lebanese civil war, told my sister and I shocking stories when we were younger.

Growing up in the U.S. makes it difficult to relate to such an extreme form of politics where people are harmed and broken and loved ones are lost. As children we thought politics was just banter that happened among old people. “Listen to this guy and his crazy tales,” we would say. But in the summer of 2006, I had my own first-hand experience with that world.

Every summer, my family of five (the “traveling tribe” as my mother called it) would go overseas to spend six weeks with my extended family in Beirut. This voyage became such a fun tradition that I would begin planning my summers starting from the summer before. I lived every waking moment waiting on the time when I could see my cousins, friends, family and neighbors.

The summer of 2006 started as normal with the exception of my father not being able to accompany us. He was drowning in work and couldn’t take an extended vacation to the Middle East. Since he wasn’t going, and I always did have such a blast, I decided to take my high school friend, Sarah, who had never been out of the United States. As we landed in Beirut, her eyes were wide and filled with excitement. “Zaina, this is ridiculous,” I remember her saying. I couldn’t help but agree, even after being to Beirut more than twenty times in my life.

Beirut is a city that refuses to sleep, a city always in motion. Her streets are jammed with carts full of fresh fruits, vendors beckoning people to look at their goods. Beirut rests right on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, the ocean always crashing on her shores, wafting the sea smell into every nook and cranny of her narrow, winding streets. I never felt like I could get enough. Beirut was the place that inspired me and made me feel like I was home.

As my family quickly embraced Sarah as an “adopted Budayr,” she instantly felt the same. At meals they would insist she keep eating, even after she was full. Plates of grape leaves, tabouli, and meat were passed around the table with family members of all ages and sizes grabbing food as the plates zigzagged around. My friends also took a liking to her. We were having the best summer of our lives. I was getting to share a piece of my history and my happy place with someone who had never experienced it before.

On the eve of my 17th birthday a week or so before our scheduled departure my cousin and I were falling asleep in bed. Each summer, my cousin Lynne would tell me “I hope something happens so that you don’t have to leave. The summers go entirely way too fast.” Every year I agreed, every year I hoped and prayed that something would happen, and every year that time would come and go. That night was no different. As we sighed with disappointment, little did we know that events were soon to make our yearly wish come true.

The morning of my birthday, I unexpectedly woke to my mother screaming.
I heard her footsteps quickly stomping closer. Within a matter of seconds the light was snapped on and her distraught face was clear.

“Get out of bed right now! There has been a huge air raid all morning. Go look outside! How did you sleep through that? The airport is lit up with smoke!”

As my cousin and I fumbled our way to the balcony we couldn’t believe our eyes. The airport was indeed smoking with bombed gasoline tanks spewing a thick, black fog up into the sky.

Smoke from bombs -- the view from our balcony

Fire from bombs, from our balcony

Within a couple of hours, the entire sky went from being the beautiful clear Mediterranean blue to a grey blanket of gloom. Even the weather started to turn somber.

We realized that our week of fun was no longer taking place, so we tried to make do. We were stuck in our apartment complex. My birthday was ruined. Luckily, most of my friends and family lived in the same complex. Our wish had come true. We couldn’t leave. All we could do was wait. But with time the waiting became suffocating.

The television news made it worse as the country’s panic became more apparent. The previous day, the Lebanese group Hezbollah had captured two Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining tokens for the release of the many Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners that Israel held captive. Israel’s anger over these captured soldiers had turned into a heated match. Clearly, we were being overpowered. Nobody knew what would happen next. All we could do was wait.

After four or five days, the excitement of being trapped had worn off. We all had cabin fever, and the Israelis were continuing their bombings. They were now targeting bridges, so all traffic was being stopped and travel by car was being discouraged. Trapped in the house, we had nothing to do but watch television. Each report brought nothing but bad news; each development meant more confinement in our houses.
Then the situation escalated. The Israelis claimed they knew there were terrorists functioning in Dahee, a town on the outskirts of Beirut. Within a couple of hours they had started to barrage the city with high intensity bombs; rumors of poison gas were quickly spreading. I had a hard time understanding their reasoning for this cruel and explosive method of getting what they wanted, for just days before I had been in that town and didn’t notice any people who looked like “terrorists.”
With each bomb, our windowpanes shook and our building trembled. My family and I would line up in the corridor next to our bathroom. One of my closest friends, Adonis, had been sitting with us moments before the bombardment. When he realized his town was being bombed and that he had left his family at home, his face turned pale. Within seconds, before we could stop him, Adonis bolted out of the door. “Ado!” I screamed, “Come back! Its so dangerous!”

He didn’t even look back for a second. In true Arab mentality, family comes first. His life didn’t matter. The act of getting back to his mother, father, and brother were more important. In that instant I had no idea if my childhood friend would be okay, nor did I know if we were going to be okay. All I knew was that I was in a dreamlike state. I took a look around me. All twenty of us were pushed together; everyone was crying, and guilt washed over me as I realized Sarah was here.

The Lebanese are notorious for waltzing with death and still trying to find one last minute to have a good time. It is like a desensitization of sorts. Sarah, on the other hand, was new to this culture and came from a place where safety was always available. It was because of my actions that Sarah was now in this situation with us. I had put her in a real-life game of chance.
As these thoughts flooded my mind, I looked up to see my cousin Lynne staring at me. As we stared at each other for a moment, looked around us, and then looked back at each other, we began to laugh. Not only did we start to laugh, but we became hysterical. In our own moment of insanity, we clearly understood each other. This moment was surreal, and in its terrifying nature, Lynne and I only saw a funny sight coming from a movie that we shouldn’t be in. We had stepped back so far from reality and were so close to what we felt was the end that our understanding of each other made us laugh.
People always say that courage is in physical ability or might, that courage is when you step in the face of danger and scoff at it. However, for me, courage was finding humor in severity, finding light in the dark, and finding the positive in the negative. Realizing that I had the capability to make a terrible situation into something more positive is something I find is one of the best life lessons I have learned. From that one laugh, we took our own “held-as-captive lives” into our own hands.
Clearly we survived. And Adonis and his family got through okay as well.

The next morning, all the people from the next-over neighborhood had run to our area to escape the atrocities of the night before. Cars, families, and children of all ages jammed the streets. People were sleeping on dirt, women carried all of their belongings, and people were wailing. We couldn’t open the gates to our apartment complex because everyone was so hungry that they were storming doors. Everyone was afraid, and we were literally locked into our house.

Finally, relief came. After waiting day after day for news of some sort of evacuation route, we heard rumblings that the U.S. had finally decided to evacuate us. I was getting frustrated at this point. Not only had countries like Sri Lanka and Brazil already evacuated their citizens, but the U.S. hadn’t even mentioned coming to help us. I was shocked that a country I had been raised in didn’t find this invasion severe enough to aid its own citizens. I felt betrayed and my anger was simmering. But finally we were told to meet at the seaport the next morning to board evacuation vessels.

Normally getting to that port was about a 45-minute drive, but since the Israelis were bombing bridges and streets, now we had to go a back way through the mountains and around to the other side on winding dirt roads. Taxi drivers were charging triple their normal rates, due to the risk associated with these drives. That night we drove down to my grandfather’s house in Beirut. It was a ride that lasted for what felt like years. I could tell my mother was tense because she was silent for the entire trip. Spending the night in my grandfather’s house knowing that we were soon going to be leaving my beloved Beirut was bitter. I didn’t feel good about it and my sleep was restless. I was dreading morning.

With the sun just barely rising, we packed our bags and jumped back into the taxi. When we arrived at the port, thousands and thousands of people were standing there in a jumbled frenzy. Guards with megaphones were yelling directions, the people were screaming back at them. Everyone was afraid and everyone wanted out.

We waited all day, baking underneath the now cruel sun. After hours of waiting, the guards told us to go home. Everything was disorganized and no one was being allowed through. Before we left they handed us a number and told us that maybe it would help in the morning. The pit in my stomach continued to grow. As we worked our way back to my grandfather’s house, all was quiet. The once boisterous streets of Beirut were now silent. My family was quiet as well as we waited for the next morning.

That next day Sarah, my mother, brother, sister and I shuffled back to the port with our suitcases and bags. The sight we met was disheartening. Thousands of people were waiting, the scorching sun was still there, and people were tense. Thankfully, since we had waited the day before and received a number, we only had to wait a couple of hours before we made some sort of progress.

After working through the lines, being processed, and making it past the Lebanese army, we finally reached the point where the U.S. Marines took charge and got us onto the rescue vessels. I was overjoyed to be greeted with a “hey, little lady, want me to take your bag for you?”

Then I finally saw it; the USS Nashville. The Marines were carrying old women on board, and we were soon packed on the ship like sardines. As we sat there, Mom started talking with the man to her left. It was chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who had been filming an episode in Beirut when the war broke out. If you go to YouTube and punch in Anthony Bourdain Beirut 2006, you can watch the entire saga from his point of view.
As our ship sailed off and I saw my city of Beirut grow smaller and smaller in the distance, I oddly didn’t feel a wave of relief. I felt guilty leaving. I didn’t want safety or to see my friends back in the U.S.

Sailing away, Beirut in the background

Sailing away, Beirut in the background

I didn’t want a Big Mac or a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream because I felt like it was my duty to stay in solidarity with my people. This is the place where my friends and family were. The pit in my stomach continued to grow. I tried not to think about my feeling of guilt.
As for Sarah, after the initial fears, she was starting to feel better at the prospect of getting home. “When we got to Cyprus I felt some amount of relief,” she says now. But, she adds, “I couldn’t stop thinking about the conflict in Lebanon and how it was tearing apart this gorgeous country I had recently fallen in love with. I was worried about my new friends and [your] family.

And the experience was enlightening, she adds. “The trip to Lebanon deeply molded my worldview, and particularly affected the way I feel about international policy. It helped open my mind in so many ways, exposing me to a rich culture and forever branding my mind with powerful memories and images.”

On board the ship that night and through the next morning we tried to forget the tragic situation we had just left, playing card game after card game with the Marines. We laughed and had fun in the midst of chaos. Even though I was leaving my country, the Lebanese mentality of enjoying life through the most tragic of times is something I’ll always have.
Life is a funny thing.

On the top deck of the ship, headed to Cyprus

On the ship’s deck, headed to Cyprus

One can never know what the fates will decide and where the pieces will fall. What I believe is that life experiences happen for a reason. Life is supposed to be unexpected, and in an odd sort of way, these experiences build character and strength in the ones who survive them.

Beirut is a part of my life and always will be. Going through such a stressful ordeal with the people I loved most is one my family, friends and I still talk about. The situation challenged my judgment, tested my courage, and opened my eyes to a harsh reality that many people live through every single day. From that experience on, I have tried to live my life in a way that enlightens people about overseas policies, what the experience was like, and how I benefited from it.

Zeta Tau Amazon: a sorority girl learns a lesson in the jungle

by Annie Pace
October, 2010

Summer 2009

I can’t remember how to drive a car. I can’t remember what Burger King French fries taste like. I can’t even remember what it feels like to take a warm shower. As my hair is tied back in a sloppy ponytail and matted to my forehead from sweat I try to recall what it was like to have perfectly curled hair for sorority meetings. I look down at my feet and see a distinct flip-flop tan line somewhat faded by the layer of dirt gathered from walking barefoot. I try to remember what it felt like to wear high heels. Squishing the moist rainforest dirt, as black as coal, between my toes, I don’t know why I wanted to put my feet through high-heel torture to begin with. I look back towards our hut and see a child climbing a palm tree to get fruit for me. As she swings back down easily I laugh as I try to recall what it looked like to see children playing on monkey bars back home. Children in the Amazon rainforest play in the monkey’s homes, among the monkeys themselves. A month ago I would have thought these people had nothing. Now, I realize I envy what I once saw as “nothing,” and am so thankful these people brought me into their life, and made me see everything contained in that “nothing.”

It has been more than a year since I was in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. As far back as I can remember my anthropologist dad had wanted me to accompany him on a research field study. In the spring of 2009, when the time came to make my decision, I decided I was ready. I had been away at college for two years, gotten accustomed to doing my own laundry somewhat regularly, had learned to cook a decent grilled cheese sandwich without setting off the fire alarm, and realized the importance of saving my money instead of buying that really cool bubble machine.

I finally felt mature enough to handle an entire summer in another country, thrown face first into a different culture. Always one for trying new things just to get the experience and to live life, I was excited. However, I was also fearful. I was scared I would miss out on a summer at home with friends. I didn’t want to come back to school feeling regret. In fact, this fear would materialize as I found myself sitting in my room in Brazil listening to country music and missing home.

As a 19-year-old girl, my college life, friends, and sorority sisters were all I knew, and, worse, all I thought I needed to know. I didn’t realize what else the world could offer. It’s ironic that it took the wisdom of a three-year-old girl to make me change my mind. And, in fact, to change my life.

Her name was Edwarda. She was the first person I was introduced to in the small town of Gurupa, Brazil.

We had spent two days on a boat on the Amazon River to get to Gurupa. The boat was no cruise ship. Bedrooms were non-existent; we slept in hammocks hanging every which way on an open deck.

Sleeping quarters on the boat deck

Sleeping quarters on the boat deck

Expert boat travelers would scramble amongst the colorful chaos, the sardine-packed crowd, to hang hammocks above hammocks, just to create a spot away from the intense sun. Bathrooms worked half the time, and the other half they would overflow just below our hammocks. Showers were available, but you tended to smell worse after using them.

The engine in the boat failed constantly, and when we finally got to Gurupa it was the middle of the night. After an uncomfortable few hours of sleep in the sticky Brazilian humidity, I woke in the morning in an unfamiliar house. I scrambled out of my hammock, took a cold shower – all that was available, of course – and sat down, disoriented, at the table. That’s when a little barefoot girl wearing only underwear, hair a tangled black mess, ran up to me. I couldn’t help but think she looked like a young female version of Mowgli from The Jungle Book, a wild rainforest child. Our eyes met, she smiled slyly. Then she grabbed my breakfast roll, and ran away screaming. This was Edwarda.

After that stolen roll, we bonded. For the rest of the summer, every time I would feel scared in the jungle, she would go ahead of me and show me how things are done. Anytime I would feel out of place, she would hug my leg and call me her sister. She was independent and wasn’t scared of anything.

Gurupa, on the Amazon River island of Marajo

Gurupa, on the island of Marajo

She loved what she had with all her heart and wouldn’t let anything endanger that love. One time a stray dog came up and sniffed my hand as we were walking down a dirt road. Edwarda, thinking it might hurt me, took off her flowered flip flop and, holding it high in the air, started chasing the dog, screaming in Portuguese for it to get away from her sister.

My new family didn’t have a car, didn’t have much clothing, or very much of anything. But Edwarda made it fun to ride around on a bike instead of getting to places in a timely matter with the air conditioner blowing. She made it fun to get down in the dirt then wash it off by playing in the rain, not caring if you looked like a mess at the end of the day. She didn’t worry about people judging her or living up to someone else’s expectations. She didn’t even know what that meant.

If we wanted fruit, we’d climb a tree and get it. Then we’d pick enough for the rest of the kids in the town. If we wanted to go for a dip in the swimming hole, we’d catch a bike ride from a friendly neighbor and walk back with new friends.

Edwarda with her new sunglasses

Edwarda with her new sunglasses

If we wanted an adventure, we’d paddle down a creek in a tiny wooden canoe, frequently  with the sporadic but intense Amazon rainstorms pounding down on us. Edwarda lived life on a moment’s notice, and held my hand and dragged me along for the ride.

When I came home from Brazil my friends and family greeted me warmly, and I realized at that moment I hadn’t missed a thing. Yes, maybe adventures in Tennessee occurred while I was gone, but I had my own adventure of life and self-discovery. And my friends and family were waiting to hear all my stories and welcome me back.

I also learned from a small person with a large personality that it’s fun to be yourself, get a little dirty, and that material things are not as important as I thought.

Edwarda, with only three years of life wisdom, understood what was important, and she protected it. Now anytime I walk around campus at night with a friend, I will have that flip flop in the air and ready.

Memories from a long journey

by Kate Greer

February 19, 2010

If everything goes as planned, I will be one of several thousand students receiving diplomas from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville this spring.  Like the other graduates, I will be handed a piece of paper representing several years of hard work. But my journey to reach my degree started differently than that of the other graduates.
It started in Vietnam, where the equatorial sun hangs heavy and unmoving in the sky year-round.  Where the tropical heat suffocates strangers but the sun-beaten peasants toil endless hours, scratching out a living from the soil beneath their feet.

Like our rural neighbors, my family worked the ground as well.  We were farmers of every kind of produce in the unremarkable village of Bien Hoa, just north of the capital, Ho Chi Minh City.  At the time, I was too young to work the fields.  I couldn’t walk yet, but my sisters, about three and four years older, were already helping my parents with the crops.  They harvested what the land brought forth and what kept malnutrition at bay.
But then our mother unexpectedly died from a lightning strike. Our father mourned the loss of his wife and the loss of the extra pair of working hands. The farm began to fail and our household fell apart. Without my mother’s smiling face, our roadside shack was no longer a home.  My sisters took over my care while my father struggled to find a new way of living.

For a while, our father sent us to live on our grandparents’ farm.  But their household was already full and there was little room for three more children.  Our next stop was a nearby orphanage. This foreign place with whitewashed walls became our home.  The orphanage was operated by Catholic nuns who schooled us in their religion as they provided a basic education.  The facility was primitive – a pocket of wildness in this era of civilization.

Flanked by my sisters, Kelsey and Haley

Flanked by my sisters, Kelsey and Haley

The toilets didn’t work and the older children were expected to help the nuns with looking after the smaller children.  My oldest sister has the worst memories of having to wash the cloth diapers used and reused by the babies.  The cloth diapers, along with the rest of our laundry, was dried on clothes lines in the courtyard.  We ran barefoot underneath them to the cafeteria, where a stockpot sat with whatever the nuns could cook during the babies’ nap time.

But most of my memories from this chapter of my life are lost to space and time.  I was about five and my sisters were seven and eight by the time we were adopted, according to the official documents from the orphanage.  Older children were next to impossible to adopt away, and for someone to adopt three or more siblings together was unheard of, but we suspect that the nuns’ wish for a better life for their wayward children led them to lie about our ages.  By Vietnamese standards, we were normal size, but an American family looking at us would see puny children who could pass for much younger than their birth mother would proclaim.

Though my memories from this time are few, there are some bright splashes of color that seemingly have no significance but are more vivid to me than the faces of my biological parents. I can remember our father coming to visit us regularly at the orphanage.  With his motorbike, he would take us out to eat on the streets, which in Vietnam is a cornucopia of food vendors, their offerings ranging from wild game like monkey to the traditional Pho noodle soup. As the youngest of the sisters and the puniest, I always sat on my father’s lap with the gas gauge underneath while my sisters clung to our father’s back, our raven hair waving in the wind. Those visits were the only times I’ve ever been on a motorcycle.

But for me, the most vibrant memory of that time was running to meet the lady with the smiling round face who weekly came to sell delicious noodles, a treat for the kids at the orphanage.  We ate the noodles like American children would eat candy.

Our father’s second wedding, with his new wife, also remains with me.  The new woman was well-off by the standards for our small Vietnamese village, which meant our father was no longer playing a game of Pick-Up Sticks with poverty.  They married while we were at the orphanage.  My sisters and I were invited to the wedding, and although most of the traditional, ceremonial things happened, I only remember a white frou-frou dress that cocooned my body into a walking, talking cotton ball – until it met its demise when a traditional red dipping sauce was spilt down the front.

I do not recall much else.  The task of remembering is like looking at a photograph from the 1800s, faded and yellow with no smiles on anyone’s faces.

My sisters and I were growing up, a joyous process for most children, but it meant it would be more difficult for the three of us to be adopted together.  But Tim and Pam Greer from Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, a 30-minute drive outside of Chattanooga, decided to adopt all of us. It was an expensive and time-consuming process.

With my new mom and the doll she made me

With my new mom and my new doll

But finally, September 6, 1994, we arrived in America, now our home.  Our new mother, clever with her hands, had made each of us a doll to commemorate the event.  Our parents drove to the airport with three inert dolls buckled into their newly purchased mini-van.  They came home with three animated girls, no bigger than their doll toys.

It was that simple.  Our father had found himself a new wife and family to belong to, and so had my sisters and I.

From this moment, my life truly began.  I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to be raised in America with all of its chances to grow as an individual, chances that Vietnam could not offer.  The Chattanooga airport was our Ellis Island – it held the hope and promise of a better life.

America gave me a chance to complete my education, a chance to choose a career outside of the home, a chance to not live day-by-day scratching out a meager existence. Instead, I’m receiving my Bachelor’s of Science in Communication for journalism and electronic media from The University of Tennessee May 2010.  I could never be where I am today without the courage of my adoptive parents to save my sisters and me from the empty life we would have lived in Vietnam.

My opportunities have opened my eyes and heart, and I have made it my life’s ambition to return the favor that adoption has given me to the rest of the world.
I believe correct information can empower people and ignorance is the strongest weapon the enemy has against us.  In this manner, I hope that my career as a journalist, and whatever else my future might hold, can educate and improve the lives of as many people as possible.

After graduation

After graduation

As an international journalist, I could reach out to more people.  My dream is not of fame or riches but of leaving a lasting impression upon the world that not all hope is lost.  This is my aspiration, but I have many miles to go before I sleep.

Somewhere inside all of us lives our younger and better self.  As I graduate college and begin searching for the next chapter of my life, I feel more like the scared little girl that I started out as, unsure about what is in store. It is in these moments that I remember my heritage and my unique story.  Although my doll, carefully sewn with love and embroidered with my name and anniversary of coming to America, might not have been my favorite plaything growing up, today I cherish its significance.