Thursday, July 4, 2013

Independence Day

What is liberty, freedom, independence? We all know, I mean good God we know, but what about them? Do they have any idea what it means to be a free country, an independent society or a liberated culture?

In Egypt this week they overthrew the theocracy of Mohamed Mursi and the military took over the reigns of government and in that troubled country and that was a good thing. The people trust the military which has ruled since the early fifties and they do not trust the religious fanatics who have lately been working so hard to take Egypt back into the sixteenth century.

We of course wouldn’t stand for that here. The military ruining the government, the only organization less likely than Congress to be able to run a bake sale is the military. They haven’t yet figured out how to protect the service women from sexual assault and that seems to be fairly simple. We do it in civilian life most of the time.

So what do we think about when we think about liberty, freedom and independence?

Do you see the faces of George, Tom and Ben superimposed on an American Flag, fifty star version, with the Star Spangled banner playing softly in the background?

I’m afraid that just won’t get it, talk to one of the troops back from the Sand Lot and see how often they thought of Tom, Ben and George.

Like a lot of people thrown into a situation where life is at risk every moment and the days are unrelieved misery, they mostly think about how the hell they can get out. And no I do not mean any disrespect for our military, when you are getting your ass shot off or blown up that pretty much takes up all of your free time.

Now I know you’ve seen the jolly television programs filled with happy soldiers doing all sorts of interesting things, chasing tail, smoking dope and smuggling contraband so that they can make a nest egg for themselves when they get the hell out. And I am sure some of that happens but I am also sure that the vast majority of our troops do not have a jolly time in the combat zone.

But don’t take my word for it go talk to the lucky ones who came back. Don’t be surprised if they don’t want to talk or if they are wary and standoffish, what they went through as not the stuff of happy dreams.

The troops who make it back come in all sizes and varieties. Some are battle scared and shell shocked, some are just hollow on the inside and some, the lucky ones come back with no wounds inside or out.

But all of them have a story.

Maybe you can help them get it out. It will help them kill off the demons and it will make you feel like you actually accomplished something.

An artist has a unique ability to express in visual terms emotions a person may not even know they have. How do you describe the loss of a whole patrol, the pain and guilt of surviving and horror of knowing that on any other day you would have been the one dead and someone else would be feeling the gut tearing agony of guilt, guilt, guilt.

Any of the guys guilty? In the whole course of the war yes, probably, but for the average soldier no way, no chance, not ever. They went in to do an impossible job, with so many rules that they had their hands tied behind their backs and they did it for the most part and lived to tell the tale.

That is nothing to feel guilty about.

But if you don’t believe it look into the eyes of the next veteran you encounter. They have a way of masking their pain and making it to sundown in spite of the pain, but they can’t keep it out of their eyes, the dull, hooded, haunted eyes of someone who has seen far too much, been asked to do far too much and been treated to far too little praise for doing it.

How about trying to capture that look? You’re an artist surely you can do it. You may have to actually approach the subject and talk to them for a while to establish a working bond, but wouldn’t it be worth it?

Many years ago, when I was young and stupid I worked as an orderly at the county hospital. One of the people I met and a met a clutch of wonderful, genuine people, was a surgical nurse. Now she did most of the meeting, I was going through a severely autistic phase and wouldn’t have recognized an invitation from a traffic citation. This nurse used to run into me in the halls of this monolithic county hospital or in the surgical elevators or in the morgue and she’d tack a clamp to my shirt and be gone before I could say a thing.

This went on for sometime and eventually I caught on and managed to speak and discovered that she was a Brit who had survived the Blitz and later fell in love and married a Luftwaffe pilot. Needless to say things at home were a little tense for such a romance so they came to North America where they could live like human beings and not have to worry about some drunk starting a fight every time they went out.

I was lucky, I got to know Gunner fairly well, he was a soft spoken, descent sort of guy who had done what every other young man in Germany had done he joined the military. He spoke about how things where s much better in America and how he and Bette could now make a life and I listened and did my young and stupid best to be understanding and supportive.

But I could see in his eyes that the memories of what he had done in the war would never be totally gone and they would follow him night and day for the rest of his life and that was when I knew that even the lucky ones, the ones who make it back, the ones with all of their arms and legs intact, they never really heal.

I think every artist in Coos County should make it a priority to record the faces of our vets and get those expressions locked down so that they can be seen by the friends and families who are struggling to understand. They went to a hell hole so that we could barbecue.

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