A Letter Home
by Aubrey Elliot
Hello you! God, I miss your face and your smile. I keep thinking all those times you made me laugh at some silly joke usually at my expense. Do you remember the time we went walking in the park and watched the kickball teams? Or all the times we hung out on the patio of the bar down the street with the sun in our faces as we sipped wine from cool, crystal glasses? I think about the parties we went to where we made fun of everyone there including ourselves and loved every minute of it. There seems to be something every day now that brings back some memory or another. I can’t wait to be back in the states and to laugh with you again.
Today is Memorial Day, well for you anyway. I’m betting you went to a barbeque and probably showed up late. I can just smell the charcoal heating up; the red embers licking at the grill, smoke filled with lighter fluid and fat drifting on the air. In my mind’s eye, I see white clouds just beneath a translucent sky bright with sunlight. You are sitting just to the side in a less than stylish Hawaiian shirt with a beer in your hand trying to make small talk. If I were with you, I would probably want to fuss with your crazy mop of hair. Did you think of me while you were sitting there?
Yesterday, we had a Memorial Day service which was touching and beautiful and served exactly the purpose for which it was intended, to make us remember the dead. It was certainly not a Memorial Day I’m used to. I’m not exactly sure I want to do it again, either. There were prayers and speeches, songs and salutes. By God, there was even poetry – “In Flanders Fields” by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. It starts like this:
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
And ends with a call for the living to take up arms against the foe. It is a lovely poem. I heard it first when a friend and I visited the World War I museum in Kansas City. We were standing on a plexi-glass balcony over rows and rows of poppies. I remember loving the idea of the dead calling to the living to justify their deaths by defeating the enemy and holding him to account.
I don’t like this poem much anymore, though. I don’t like it because right after it was read, we recited the names of the dead – seventeen American names, two French, and I think a few Bulgarians. In fact, all the flags of our Coalition were at half mast – The United Kingdom, Romania, Mongolia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Canada, Bulgaria, and Afghanistan. We all have lost someone to this war, standing side by side, and I failed yesterday to believe the dead felt strongly that we stayed to continue, so instead of being sad, I just got mad especially when we shot off the twenty-one gun salute which made me jump for each of the three volleys as they punched into the air.
In one of the speeches, our General mentioned fighting for freedom, fighting so others do not have to. I want to share a secret with you. I want to admit something to you because I really have to share this with someone. I have never really understood what fighting for someone else’s freedom really means. All my life wars have been somewhere else, happening to someone else, for someone else’s reasons and purposes. What did all that have to do with my freedom? It came to me yesterday, though. I think I started to understand. It is just hard to accept, and I don’t like it much. To understand the phrase, you have to accept that war is a natural part of the human condition. We are not peaceful creatures. It is not our nature. We are fighting here because if it was not here, it would be there. If it was not me, it would be you. Given those options, I am glad that I am here, and it is me. I suppose the dead would say the same, so it was good to remember them. I’m glad that I could be part of something that honored them.
Please don’t let me leave you with the thought that it was all doom and gloom yesterday or the last few days in fact. Yes, I’ve told you how we are in the Dog Days of our deployment. All the energy of the first few months has waned – projects completed or forgotten or simply pushed aside. Now, we go to work and follow up on emails, take reports, and give briefings, our hours settling down to around nine maybe ten hours of work in a day. It is routine, but there have been some little surprises, little bits of magic happening in the hours between work and sleep.
The other night, I was walking to the latrine with the vain hope that going before I went to bed would help me stay in bed most of the night, when I heard music like a whisper coming up over the scrawny trees. It was real music. I could understand the words. I walked back a few steps and looked over the rail. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were five guys sitting on the porch of our rickety Welcome Center building. One was playing a fiddle, another a guitar, and a third (I swear) was playing a ukulele. They were playing some good old fashioned country music. Well it was so unreal; I had to get someone to hear it with me. I grabbed one of my friends and said “you’re not going to believe this.” We stood on the balcony until one of the guys saw us. Of course, it was the one with the ukulele which looked like a child’s toy in his huge hands. He began a serenade. I half expected him to get down on one knee as he sang a plea to us to come join them. We didn’t let it go that far. Down the stairs we went to sit on the porch with a Special Forces guy playing a violin, an Infantry man strumming his guitar, and a giant of a supply guy playing a ukulele under the evening stars, beneath the dark mountains, a long way from home to sing songs about a Father’s everlasting love and how the Devil went down to Georgia looking for a soul to steal. It took a lot to get me to leave that porch.
Do you think somehow these two things are tied together? I can’t seem to think about one without the other memory on its heels. You’ll have to tell me. Maybe it’s about needing to have equal doses of joy and pain. Maybe it’s just that now I can actually recognize life at its best when I see it. Or perhaps it’s just that for the first time in my life I am really appreciating the things that make life worthwhile. I don’t know. All I know is that I want to keep that feeling, the feeling I found on the porch that night, with me for a long, long time to come.
I miss you m’honey. It will be good to get back to “civilization.” There’s a little less of me (thank God) than there was before I left. I also have a few more wrinkles and some more gray hair (of course I’ll be bald if people here don’t stop pulling them out for fun). I think though, all in all, I am still myself. I’ll bore you with stories over wine and toasted raviolis when I get back. Oh, and eat an Imo’s pizza for me, will you? See you soon.