Veterans Day observation

‘I’d never sign up for that’

Still, I felt guilty about leaving—until I got out to the road home on Highway 1 where the vistas of Estero Bay shimmering in the noon day sun opened before me in all their splendor. Photo illustration by Stacey Warde

I felt guilty about leaving work—until I got out to the road home on Highway 1 where the vistas of Estero Bay shimmering in the sun opened before me in all their splendor. Photo illustration by Stacey Warde

by Stacey Warde

I struggled to give myself permission to celebrate Veterans Day, even though I served and put my life on the line as an Army Ranger, jumping out of airplanes, traipsing through steamy jungles and frozen forests as part of my training for what was then known as the “Soviet Threat.”

Our mission, given there wasn’t an actual war, was to be in a constant state of readiness against all enemies—mostly supplied with Soviet weaponry, we were told—real and imagined, who might attack us at any moment. We were called on frequent alerts, awakened in the wee hours of the morning to pack gear and board planes before the sun came up and be on our way to an unknown destination.

Usually, we flew to the desert in California or to a mountain plateau in Colorado, and conducted operations in Europe, Canada, and Panama, all training sites where our mission was to jump out of those planes, rally ourselves on the ground and secure an airfield, rescue hostages, decommission a bomb or ambush supply convoys. In a few short hours, we received our warning order, plans of attack and contingencies, geared up for action, and set out for our targets, parachuting into our areas of operation under cover of darkness. We were always ready for action.

With a fool’s determination, I overrode my initial hunch to stay home to observe the holiday and shuffled off to work.

Fortunately, we never saw actual combat but were fully prepared for it. In the years since, the United States has engaged in several wars and many good service men and women have died or returned home with wounds that left some badly burned, blind, without limbs, sacrificing their bodies for cherished notions of freedom and security.

For some reason, on this occasion, a national holiday to honor those who served in uniform, I felt more compelled than ever to actually take the day off. Usually, as many Americans, I just power through my obligations—work and family life—giving the day and those to be honored little more than casual reflection. I might give a tip of the hat but only on my way to work.

With a fool’s determination, I overrode my initial hunch to stay home to observe the holiday and shuffled off to the orchard where I work, plugging holes drilled into the trees, which had been recently injected with nutrients. I started pulling out the injectors, then attempted to mold a small round of bees wax to fill the holes. My hands were shaky and my mind occupied only with veterans I’ve known and respected.

I thought about how poorly they are often treated, how one Vietnam veteran wearing a Screaming Eagles cap from the 101st Airborne Division, once took my hands in his, looked me in the eye, and urged me to get the health care I needed and, more importantly, deserved from the Veterans Health Administration when I couldn’t afford insurance coverage.

The wind was biting and the wax stayed hard in the cold and I couldn’t shape it to plug the holes. I tapped the little ball of wax with a metal tap into a hole and it squirted something, tree sap or residue from the injector, into my eye. I stumbled over fallen tree limbs and windblown young avocados on the ground. I paused. This isn’t going so well. I felt compelled to leave, drawn to a day of reflection.

I thought of other veterans who also put their lives on the line and wondered, would they be working today? Who actually gets the day off?

“Why am I doing this?” I finally blurted aloud.

I felt a fool to be working when so many others were given the day off to acknowledge veterans like myself. I fought the urge to fret over what the boss might think, but finally decided to leave early, just before lunchtime, and take the rest of the day off.

Still, I felt guilty about leaving—until I got out to the road home on Highway 1 where the vistas of Estero Bay shimmering in the noon day sun opened before me in all their splendor. I’d spend my day remembering, and enjoy this little bit of freedom.

***

Toward the end of my senior year in high school, my father, concerned about my future, since I’d done little to secure one, came into my room and handed me several recruiting brochures for all the armed forces. I looked at the brochures and handed them back.

“If you think I’m going to join, you’re crazy,” I said.

I grew up believing that with hard work and a commitment to the pursuit of happiness, one could enjoy the fruits of his labor and the freedoms and security guaranteed in a republic such as ours. I’d built a sense of patriotism on the idea that men and women were equal under the law, even though in reality they weren’t, and could pursue their dreams unmolested by their government. Besides, all through high school we were the bicentennial class of 1976, marking the 200th year of the American Revolution in which the colonists revolted against tyranny.

Toward the end of my senior year in high school, my father, concerned about my future, since I’d done little to secure one, came into my room and handed me several recruiting brochures for all the armed forces.

But what did I know? I was just a high school kid with an elementary understanding of government and history. Watergate played fresh on the minds of adults more attuned to the news and the workings of Capitol Hill than my young mind could handle, and President Richard Nixon had recently resigned his office in disgrace over his illegal attempt to sabotage the Democrats. He was a crook, even though he claimed he wasn’t, intent on undermining the democratic process. Revolution sounded like a good idea and I even mentioned it to the recruiter who had been working with me to gain entry into the Army.

“Good luck with that,” he said before suggesting the delayed entry program in the new all-volunteer Army that emerged from the ravages of the draft-intensive war machine in Vietnam. The people were tired of war. No more drafts, they said. The military responded with the all-volunteer model. “With delayed entry,” he continued, “you can sign now, and go active in six months but you’ll need your parents’ consent.” I was only 17, not old enough to sign on my own. My parents gave the consent I needed on the grounds that I was willing to defend my country.

***

Before leaving for work in the morning, I visited the Veterans Affairs website to see what events were scheduled. I could justify taking the day off, perhaps, by attending an observance. Nothing scheduled, not here in my neighborhood. As far as I could  tell, it was just another day. I scanned the list of mediocre food and coffee chain outlets offering free meals or coffee and doughnuts to vets. None, of course, were available where I live, nothing but mom and pop shops here, which is fine with me.

First stop after leaving the orchard, I decided, would be Ruddell’s Smokehouse in Cayucos where I could eat a salmon taco for lunch and figure out what to do with the rest of my day.

“What are you up to?” Adam said from behind the counter as I was about to order.

“I decided to take the rest of the day off,” I told him, feeling liberated. “I did my service. Why shouldn’t I take it off?”

“You’re right about that,” he said, informing me that lunch was on him. “Thanks for your service.”

Boy, this is great, I thought as I sat down to eat. What a glorious day! This is how it should be, true freedom!

The streets were unusually quiet, little of the hectic holiday and tourist and event traffic that seems to go year-round now, a perfect, quiet, peaceful day. I walked up the block to the coffee shop and ordered a cappuccino. This freedom to go where and order what I wanted felt great. Maybe I’d go home and read a book, go to my little mini-home castle in the sticks and retreat where no one could bother me.

At the coffee shop, a little boy, about 8, with a tablet or pad, I can never tell which, sat alone at the table by the window. A bench was open on the other side of the table and I sat down on it while waiting for my drink. The boy looked up and asked, pointing at a light fixture on the ceiling above us, “Do you think that’s a camera?”

A young couple at the table next to ours perked their ears, seemed interested in the question. “I don’t think so,” I said to the boy, “it looks like a light fixture to me but you never know these days, kid, cameras are everywhere. Do you worry about cameras?”

The barista gave a hearty laugh from her station at the espresso machine, “Oh, he does that,” she said, “he worries all right. I’m his mother. He’s a very smart little boy.”

I told the kid maybe he could develop a “camera-finding” app for his tablet, then he would know where the cameras were. He smiled, and the dude at the table next to us turned and piped, “You worried about cameras? What have you got to worry about? If you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t have to worry about cameras.”

My mouth dropped open and I wanted to finger-snap his ear. First, he butted in on a pretty good conversation with the kid, which was none of his goddamn business. Second, I could feel the warm glow of this rare Veteran’s Day freedom swiftly turning cool.

“That’s a false argument,” I snapped. “I don’t want anyone in my business and I don’t like being watched. This is supposed to be a free country, right?”

“That’s right!” said the barista.

“That doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want,” the guy answered.

“I can if I’m not hurting anyone,” I said.

“Everything you do has an impact on someone,” he responded, referring to the butterfly effect of quantum physics in which we are all like so many cells in a huge organism where every little movement, such as the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings, can stir up a storm.

“As a responsible human being,” I answered, my temper rising, “I will make amends wherever possible. That’s my moral obligation, right? But that doesn’t give you or anyone else the right to monitor my behavior.”

Eventually, the barista got upset and threw the interloper out. He complained that he wasn’t doing anything wrong and left.

The little boy looked up at the light again. “Are you sure that’s not a camera?”

“Pretty sure,” I said.

***

I’d never sign up for that, I thought on the drive home, where I’d break out my books, pop open a beer and watch the wild turkeys before they scramble clumsily into the air, beating wings, crash landing in the sycamore tree above me for their evening roost, their moral obligation to get free and clear of nocturnal predators already prowling the nearby hills. I’d never sign up for less freedom. §

Stacey Warde is a farmhand and publisher of The Rogue Voice.com. He can be reached at roguewarde@gmail.com.

One comment

If you've got an itch to say something, say it!