I’ve said before and still believe that, for the most part, holidays are annual reminders of things we should be mindful of every day. This upcoming Thanksgiving holiday is one such occasion and Veterans Day, which was a few weeks ago, is another.
I recently watched an HBO documentary called “Wartorn 1861-2010.” It’s about posttraumatic stress among people in the armed forces, particularly those who have witnessed the violence of active duty. It features firsthand accounts of veterans and their families over the years through letters and interviews, providing insight into the despair, the nightmares, the suicides, the self loathing, and the fear. The stories of young recruits coming back home after discharge scarred and changed forever, not to mention the graphic examples of some of the atrocities they witnessed, affected me quite deeply. It reminded me of someone I hadn’t thought of in a long time.
When I was growing up, there was a man in my neighborhood, I’ll call him Mr. Smith, who my mother told me was “shell shocked.” I’m not even sure what war he was in, maybe World War II, the Korean War. I don’t know. He was just the crazy guy who lived on the block–though I wouldn’t dare say that within my mom’s earshot. None of us kids on the block would ever laugh at or tease him. We just left him be as he paced the sidewalk, ranting for hours on end, seeming to reenact the same scenario over and over.
Sometimes we wouldn’t hear from him for a while but when he was active, he would bark out orders to an imaginary platoon, and he would answer himself back, all the while gesturing in what seemed like a flurry of activity. In his voice were fear, urgency, and purpose, as the “troops” he spoke for were desperately fending off an enemy attack.
Without fail, there would be the machine gun fire–
The sound of the bullets would come flying out of his mouth with the rapidity, volume, and multiple kickback of the real thing lodged in his memory.
Sometimes I would lay in bed at night and hear Mr. Smith in the middle of the street, a war zone, making a loud whistling sound that for the love of God sounded exactly like a mortar bomb making an inexorable descent from on high before landing on the ground with a loud explosion. If I didn’t know better … but no, it was just poor ol’ Mr. Smith lighting up the dark with sound.
In the documentary, it was noted that many veterans feel alone and unable to express themselves to others, even their own families. We gave Mr. Smith his space to express himself, God rest his soul. I don’t know if that is what he needed but that was all we had to give at the time.
I’m quite sure there are some things for which we can’t be thankful enough.
© Sweepy Jean and Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World, 2011