The Colonel

Dad left when I was seven, or rather, Mom left him, and as far as I can tell, that is when he became a god, when he fulfilled the final requisite condition of the deity—absence.

He kept nothing but what he carried with him back to the green jungle of manufactured ideals, where men and boys died in waves and chunks and splatterings.

He pointed his compass at death and with precise steps began a hypnotic march away from the infidelity that burned a hell into the battlefield of his chest.

Surviving Vietnam was no trick for him, no death cheat; surviving life was the big deception, because hell was everywhere he looked: hell was at home, hell was in the jungle, hell was in the bile that rose in his throat, hell was flowing through his body, hell was dripping from his wounds, from every scratch and mosquito bite and dirt clogged pore, and it was hell that kept him alive and breathing infantry fire.

In December of ‘71, when he left Vietnam, a Major with green blood and the Army his raw aching life, he soaked himself in the Novocain of twelve-hour days, which the Army, recognizing little value in life outside its own ranks, blithely rewarded with Top Secret clearance, brigade command, and colonel’s wings.

It was all surreal to me, all toy soldiers, all snatches and bits, all pastiche reached at and gathered from a distance.

The book of his life, the one I wanted to grab, to read, to get in my head was shredded in a government basement, gone, but I know what it would have said, at least part of it, I think:

it would have mentioned the Vietnamese friend, who lost his mind in Dad’s lap—I mean, a booby trap blew off the back of his head, and Dad held in the brain, while gray-matter leaked between his fingers, just like his marriage—how he pinched and squeezed, but failed to hold the mass together;

it would have said Woman is a dangerous wind that blows across the icy flats of a Man’s existence, and we should love them, anyway;

it would have said pain-killers were not an option, and that it wasn’t Zen, just good old‑fashioned ability to endure pain without complaint;

it would have said, set an example, act like a leader, even if you have no idea where you are going;

it would have mentioned me and my brothers, how he missed us, and how he missed his chance to deploy us, like good soldiers,

how he visited, and took us to restaurants, saying, “order anything on the menu,” and how we loved it when he tipped big and got old musicians in exotic places to play Frank Sinatra,

how awed we were when he crossed his legs, ordered Cognac, and puffed on a black Padron after dinner,

how we attempted to mirror his deeds, to create the man, the god, in ourselves,

how the women thought it was cute, and how this had its value for Dad,

how as we grew older it was more complicated, more abstract, less cute,

how I, the oldest son, was un-ambitious and over-sexed, how I went through college spinning vice on my fingers like dinner plates, and how, if I were with him, it would have been different,

how that one, perched eyebrow, raised like a cat in the act of pouncing, quickly purged the rodents of disorder from his house—“Yes Sir!” I’d say, when I came to visit, and that was that—

how I was selfish, like most boys, with the swagger of a colonel’s son,

how I never wrote, and how he would send me birthday cards at college that said, “Surprise me with some news on how you are doing,”

how he knew my voice changed when we talked on the phone, how my back stiffened, and how I paid attention to every syllable I uttered,

how the phone began to hurt our ears, as we sweated and waited and blurted nothings, hoping for a luminous moment to rise out of the static,

and how at times I was stricken deaf and mute by the round pad of his giant thumb, reaching over the miles,

how we both remembered, when I was a child, I would go to sleep, leaving glue and toothpicks and half-finished model airplanes on the kitchen table, and how he worked on them all night, so I would wake to a camouflaged Corsair or a silver F-111, gleaming and ready to fly.

I hung those model airplanes from my bedroom ceiling by the dozen.

He was a sort of god in those days, long ago, and although, today, he is no longer divine, when I look at the fading pictures of a young officer, backwashed in olive drab, with the medaled terrace of his chest all silver and bronze, he does signify something, something sacred, something I could never quite reach.


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