Monday, May 26, 2014

Mitigating Factors

Mitigating Factors: Dame Marjorie Chardin, P-876954, and Nathan Hale

Do you remember Uncle Victor, Harold's one-armed relative, the sleeve of his dress uniform folded neatly and rigged to a mechanized salute? The one described as "General Bradley's right hand man"?

The one who said: "The two best wars this country ever fought were against the Gerrys. I say get the Krauts on the other side of the fence where they belong. Let's get back to the kind of enemy worth killing, and the kind of war this whole country can support."

While I wasn't exposed to statements like that, as a military brat, I did grow up tapping my toes to the tune of regret. Regret that the average soldier was more interested in the benefits promised after a few piddly years of service; Regret that black men were enlisting in disproportionate numbers; Regret that the military found itself more and more in the position of a finishing school for people that never really even had a start.

I am still confused about my father's view of war. He did not love it or hope for it, though he did wax poetically nostalgic about the unity war supposedly gifted to this country prior to, say, 1950.

Brilliant, in some ways, my father rationalized his involvement in the decision to kill other men and women. It was, thought he, inevitable that they should die. Therefore, he served proudly as their personal Mitigating Factor.

As Mitigating Factor, he transformed what might otherwise be seen as -- simply -- sanctioned murder, into the cleanest, quickest, most painless death possible.

He was a pilot, of course. Dropping bombs (and other things) -- not onto people but onto strategic targets. Eliminating those targets would advance some battle plan or other, and the smooth advancement of that plan would likely have a domino effect of smoothness on the overarching blueprint for the war.

Fewer of "our boys" would die. The "conflict" would be shortened, the enemy thereby benefitting as much as our own valiant selves. Collateral Damage, meet my Dad, the Mitigating Factor.

I think he was only at peace in the sky, flying high. He didn't become a Total Fart until they pulled him down from up there so as to better pick his brain for its brilliance in organization and logic.

His logic could, and did, drive people crazy. Foundational logic. As if it were so decreed by the Boy Scout Manual, he never did or said anything without the sturdy tripod of an unassailable foundation.

This liberated him from responsibility and guilt, and rendered him always right. He had a heart, and he loved deeply, but those emotional twinges couldn't compare with the imperative to be always right.

Someone who drops bombs on people cannot afford to entertain the notion of being wrong.

So it only followed -- oh, how tired I grew of everything following, everything proceeding logically -- So it only followed that when his 20 year old son, a tall, good-looking, and terribly smart piece of Collateral Damage, bared his soul to reveal that he did not have enough money for food, my Dad, his Mitigating Factor, replied, "You once told me to get out of your life, and I have."

He named the date, complete with day of the week, added a time stamp, and noted the locale of that blurted bit of adolescent pique.

In the world of a Bomb-Dropper, choices and options appear but once and you don’t have the luxury of “opting out” of your choice. It’s all or nothing, black or white. The bombed people are either dead or alive, never wounded, never forever barely there, pursuing promises in prosthetics the way a hormone-driven boy might pursue a twitching skirt.

At the age of 16, I marched into the living room one evening and opined that I would like to, possibly, maybe, if it wouldn’t upset World Harmony overly much, visit my Mother -- from whom I had been separated for roughly a dozen years. It took more courage than I actually had to stand in that precisely decorated room and make that particular request. I clearly had not considered how it might be transformed by Foundational Logic, or how I might be promptly and expeditiously molded into Collateral Damage by the very dominant Mitigating Factor.

“I will get your luggage down from the attic, you can pack all your things, and leave now,” he answered. Within minutes, he had the trap door and rickety stairs pulled down, and my soft-sided, blue-plaid luggage set came flying and bouncing down, tossed one right after the other: 3 suitcases of graduated sizes, an overnight bag, plus one hard-sided makeup case that I inherited from my step-mother.

I've never much enjoyed arguing either side of nature versus nurture. I see my father's same frightening intransigence in myself, and therefore understand my nagging need to place my absolutism clearly in the Realm of That Which is Good.

And Right. Good, and Right.

I am sure that you can probably find there where I fly above it all and drop bombs for the furtherance of conquest, as well. Excuse me for excusing myself from that much insight.

I haven't seen or spoken to the man since 1989 and since he laid down on the couch, curled up, and died two years ago come July, I never will, I look at pictures of his father in old age and figure that he must have looked roughly the same. My aunt, his sister, exploded the myth of that grandfather as kindly some time ago. For some reason, my reaction has settled into complacency. I am not gifted with logic, for my thinking goes something like this:

Granddaddy was not the kind and gentle man I [thought I] knew. He terrorized and beat his children. So it makes sense that he was an orphan. That he was an orphan explains everything.

Huh? Do you follow that? I don't and I am the one thinking it.

Dad did not just bomb the life out of people. He also did brave things like fly a huge, lumbering (indefensible) aircraft very low over enemy territory so as to rescue a group of injured compatriots. We called them "hospital planes." They were converted C-141s, not exactly lithe and agile aircraft.

He was practically the Patron Saint of Hospital Plane Jockeys, and there were large numbers of female flight nurses who adored him. They would hoot and holler at him when he rode around base. He ate it up.  It was the only time I saw him act like the rest of us mere mortals.  He even blushed if his beloved bride was in the Cadillac (The only car worth driving; He hammered into my head: "It only costs 10% more to go first class." -- How shocked he must have been by his end. Too bad he missed Mitt's "47%" as that would have been rich fodder for the man.)  The flight nurses were young and cute, all booby, and calling: "Hey! Wild Bill! Happy landings! Woo hoo!"

There is a remarkable photo essay, I suppose it might be called, that the Denver Post published on the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, April 30, 2010. It is called "Captured: A Look Back at the Vietnam War."

In the middle of all these words, I had to stop and look at something. I trust the visual, even knowing that it, too, can be manipulated. I needed to feel sweltering tropical heat again, that heaviness, that being-under-water feeling. In the Philippines, every rainy-seasoned afternoon at tea-time four, I would sit on the porch and watch the line of fierce rain travel across the rice paddies, the verdant hills. We lived right next to the Perimeter Fence. Negrito women who could not take care of their newborn babies threw them over that fence in the hope that an MP would find the tiny thing and take him or her to the hospital. Such was our thanks to those who saved USAmerican flyers from dying in the jungle in World War II.

For some reason, an image formed in my mind of an MP with a wee enfant skewered on the end of a bayonet. That never happened, of course.

I find myself increasingly tired of people and their antics, even as a weird encompassing love for people is born in me. We are so foolish, so full of ourselves. So fundamentally fucked up.

Harold says to Maude: You sure have a way with people." She famously responds: "Well, they're my species!" -- and we all smile to ourselves, indulgent.

Of course, she waltzes through the film with a number (P-876954) tattooed on her forearm, as well. This is supposed to make the odd, beloved character an even greater life force, of course, careening toward suicide with unparalleled joie de vivre and Cat Stevens crooning "trouble..." in the background.

(A Curiosity: I have noted, over these many years of forcing my friends to watch Harold and Maude, that there are two, and only two, types of viewers of my acquaintance. There are those who come away chattering about daisies, and incessantly blathering about how they "feel that much of the world’s sorrow comes from people who are this [point to a daisy] yet allow themselves be treated as that [gesture to a field of daisies]." Then there are the people who realize that Maude's munificent world view was born of essential and terrible hardship, and maintained in spite of naked and recurring evil. It scares me sometimes that I, and people of my ilk, do not engage in any synthesis. One is either a daisy-pointing dolt or a sarcastic bit of Damaged Goods.)

I have dreamt about that film often enough. In my succinct dream style, the film just has a few scenes, pretty faithfully reproduced.

There is the moment where Maude announces, "I took the pills an hour ago. I'll be gone by midnight," and we see the horror of comprehension spread across Bud Cort's young face and hear his scream coalesce with an ambulance's siren.

Not quite superimposed, more like... overlapping, is the scene where Harold's modified hearse flies over the cliff.

But, annoying as a computer popup screen, is interspersed Uncle Victor, the stump of his right arm flying up into a salute, crying: "Just like Nathan Hale... That's what this country needs -- more Nathan Hales."

© 2013 L. Ryan

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