On By Michele Lee
A young man marching
carrying what is unseen
fighting his own war
Several years ago, one of my students visited me after school to talk about issues he was dealing with. Not criminal in nature but serious struggles that would challenge even the strongest adult. We talked for a while and I offered him resources that I thought might be helpful. After our conversation, I periodically checked in on him. I have not heard from him since graduation, until recently. The nature of our conversation had a completely different tone this time. He told me about the overwhelming challenges he went through after high school, and some he continues to work through, but his life looks completely and positively different now. I could not be more proud of him and honored to hear from him. Although this post is inspired by one student, the details of this scenario could describe several students I have had the honor of working with through the years.
Our conversation made me think about the many “things” that people might carry, that are invisible to everyone else. That would describe most of us. Those thoughts reminded me of a book I love to teach, The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. Because the book is set in the Vietnam war, it is dark and graphic at times, but throughout the book O’Brien’s writing is descriptively and poetically beautiful. The first chapter shares the title of the book and describes the many tangible things men fighting in the Vietnam War had to carry, like weapons, food rations, and mosquito repellent, then the chapter moves into the intangible things men carried. After reading that chapter my students had to write a poem about the things they personally carried, both tangible and intangible, and then present their poem to the class. The final poems were moving and revealing and created a sense of community in my classroom.
I will not ask you to write a poem, dear reader, but I will share an excerpt from the “intangible” section of Tim O’Brien’s outstanding book. Edited for language and strong content, however, if sensitive to the realities of war this passage may be a trigger.
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
excerpt from Chapter 1~ audio Link
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment. They crawled into tunnels and walked point and advanced under fire. Each morning, despite the unknowns, they made their legs move. They endured. They kept humping. They did not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close the eyes and fall. So easy, really. Go limp and tumble to the ground and let the muscles unwind and not speak and not budge until your buddies picked you up and lifted you into the chopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world. A mere matter of falling, yet no one ever fell. It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards.
By and large they carried these things inside, maintaining the masks of composure. They sneered at sick call. They spoke bitterly about guys who had found release by shooting off their own toes or fingers… It was fierce, mocking talk, with only a trace of envy or awe, but even so the image played itself out behind their eyes.
And they dreamed of freedom birds.
At night, on guard, staring into the dark, they were carried away by jumbo jets. They felt the rush of takeoff. Gone! they yelled. And then velocity—wings and engines—a smiling stewardess—but it was more than a plane, it was a real bird, a big sleek silver bird with feathers and talons and high screeching. They were flying. The weights fell off; there was nothing to bear. They laughed and held on tight, feeling the cold slap of wind and altitude, soaring, thinking It’s over, I’m gone!—they were naked, they were light and free—it was all lightness, bright and fast and buoyant, light as light, a helium buzz in the brain, a giddy bubbling in the lungs as they were taken up over the clouds and the war, beyond duty, beyond gravity and mortification and global entanglements—Sin loi! they yelled. I’m sorry… but I’m out of it, I’m goofed, I’m on a space cruise, I’m gone!—and it was a restful, unencumbered sensation, just riding the light waves, sailing that big silver freedom bird over the mountains and oceans, over America, over the farms and great sleeping cities and cemeteries and highways and the golden arches of McDonald’s, it was flight, a kind of fleeing, a kind of falling, falling higher and higher, spinning off the edge of the earth and beyond the sun and through the vast, silent vacuum where there were no burdens and where everything weighed exactly nothing—Gone! they screamed. I’m sorry but I’m gone!—and so at night, not quite dreaming, they gave themselves over to the lightness, they were carried, they were purely borne.
Tim O’Brien is a Pulitzer Prize winning author and engaging speaker who did serve in the Vietnam War, but his novel is fictional. One can’t help but wonder, when reading his book, what actually happened and what details are a product of his imagination, or are blurred war memories. If war stories interest you, I highly recommend the book and suggest watching one of his interviews. I find his views on story telling particularly interesting.
Thank you for reading and listening. Be free. Be well. Michele
Reference: O’Brien, T. (1990). The Things They Carried. New York: Broadway Books. 21-23.
Photo 1: by Pixabay (Pexels) Photo 2: my image taken in Newport, Oregon
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© 2021 Michele Lee Sefton.