Silence and silhouettes: an army reservist's year in Iraq

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Silence and silhouettes: an army reservist's year in Iraq

Material Information

Silence and silhouettes: an army reservist's year in Iraq
Uniform Title:
The ghosts of war
Smithson, Ryan
Physical Description:
1 online resource (250 pages)


Subjects / Keywords:
Soldiers -- United States ( lcsh )
Patriotism ( lcsh )
Asia -- Iraq


General Note:
First draft of Ryan Smithson's young-adult memoir, Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of South Florida
Holding Location:
University of South Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
H43-00015 ( USFLDC DOI )
h43.15 ( USFLDC Handle )

Postcard Information



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Full Text




They took your clothes and gave you cam ouflage. To hide you. To hide who you are, who you were. They took your hair. A ll of you, convicts in camouflage green jumpsuits. They took your designer shoes. They gave you combat boots (to be shined every night, private). They took your sunglasse s. And your frayed baseball cap. They took your half a pack of chewing gum. And the tele vision, the recliner, th e coffee maker, your CD player, the deck of cards, your cell phone, the beer, the lunch mommy packed you. You are not one. You are no one. They took it all. They stripped you of every luxury, everything youÂ’ve ever convinced yourself to be a n ecessity. They took who you were and flattened it, everything you thought you knew about it. They took it aw ay and only left you w ith the skin on your back, with the hair on your chinny-chin-chi n. Then they gave you a razor blade and told you to shave it. Even in the shower, a place where th ere were at least tattoos and scars and


birthmarks, everyone wore the same shower shoes. Black flip fl ops. Black like combat boots. Black like the sports car you no longer drove. Friends back home were sitting in college classrooms. They were reading textbooks in the library, gett ing drunk in their dorm rooms. This was their big life experience. This was their heroic quest in to adulthood. They were “finding themselves”. They washed down cold pizza with Coors Light. They explored the glories of sexual “maturity”. They waited tables at Applebees trying to make an extra buck, delivered pizzas for Dominoes, “worked through college ” like their parents weren’t paying for it. This was their big life experience. I’d like to see them live without their name-brand khak is. Or the trendy pajama pants with hot pink, arrogant words, like SEXY and SPOILED, written on the ass. I’d like to see them work for something other than an extra buck. I’d like to see them live outside of their push-button lives; their microwaved Ramen noodle lives; their beer pong and Jell-o shot, working through college, roughing-it-with-the-‘93-Escort-until-I-gr aduate-and-save-enough-money-for-a-new-car lives. For one minute, I’d like to see them take all that big life exper ience and give it up. Just let go. Get all the hair cut off their head like dogs at the pound. Sit in a chair and watch in the mirror as their identi ties float to the ground. Watc h as the barber sweeps it up, puts it in the trash. Right where it fucking bel ongs. The hair of a hundred other recruits, a hundred other identities, mixing and bl ending until it’s all the same. We’re all the same. Sacrifice. And I don’t mean wait fucking tables. Really sacrifice. Your time,


yourself, your future. And don’t bitch. I don’t care that a party of six just stiffed you on their $113 bill. You probably deserved it. And even if you didn’t, I don’t care. And don’t think for a minute you can step out the ba ck door, next to the dishwasher, and “take five”. Have a cigarette and comp lain to your co-workers like they a give a shit. I don’t. There are no cigarettes or “tak ing five” in basic training. And not because the Army sucks. It’s not because we’re weak minded and fall easily into taking orders. It’s not bec ause we’re tough and “Hooah, Hooah” and all that clichéd bullshit. It’s because taking five in a combat zone can get y ou fucking killed. End your miserable little existe nce like you end your cigarette s. Push you, crush you, in an ashtray and smother your face until your head cracks open. Brown leaves and ash. That’s all we are. We’re all the same. This is basic combat training. Basic tr aining for war. For 2003, fuckin’-A desert, urban warfare. The new age combat. You’re here, man, and you are no different than any other rotting piece of compost in army fati gues. Brown leaves and ash. Suck it up, sally, and quit complaining. Mommy ain’t here. We don’ t believe in pity, because your enemies don’t believe in pity. If you meant that oath, you’ll tough it out. You’ll be tired and hungry and you’ll smell like a foot. But guess what, cupcake, that oath is your fucking life now. Literally, figuratively, every kind of -ly you can think of. Honor it. Sacrifice your freedom to find out what freedom means. Then you’ll see why it’s worth fighting for. Give me that hair. Give me those shoes.


Give me your cell phone you can’t live without. Give me your I-pod and that laptop computer. Your sovereignty and your independence. It’s mine now. Only after we have been completely de stroyed can we begin to find ourselves. Look around and think of how much this all means to you. This ground, this place you call a home. This space and time given to you for free. These people you call countrymen. These people who will ask you why y ou joined the army in a time of war like you’re fuckin’ bat-shit crazy. Like you’re a fucking clown in a circus, like your sacrifices mean precisely jack shit. Freedom. Smell the way it feels to lose it all, to lose your free will. The drill sergeants will tell you when to train, when to push, and wh en to pull. When to laugh (never) and when to cry (don’t even think about it). They will tell you how to walk and how to talk, how to sit and how to eat and when to shower and when to shit. You want to say something? You better stand at the positi on of attention and request permission to speak, princess. And hope he doesn’t rip your bloody head off for taking time out of his busy day. Duty. The opposite of freedom. Duty is your fr eedom now, hero. What’s it smell like? Pain. Smell how much it hurts. Sm ell how willing you’ve beco me to sacrifice for it. Godforsaken, selfless, nothingmatters-less-than-my-well-bei ng sacrifice. “I serve the


country” is tattooed right across your fu cking forehead. Right across your bleeding gums. Every time you smile or snarl. You show them. College textboo ks and wet t-shirts? This is carbine rifles and mud sodden fatigues. The all warrior circus. You’re a snarling clown with spiked teeth and bleeding gums. You smell like rotten war paint. You smell like… Sacrifice. So your countrymen can continue to li ve free. People who ca n’t even begin to realize how lucky they are to have been born he re. It’s all for them. Sacrifice so they can bask in the freedom you don’t have. Smell it. It smells like basic combat training.




Efficient. DonÂ’t let them catch your eyes anywhere but forward.


DonÂ’t look, If you look, theyÂ’ll think you want company. Just shovel. DonÂ’t laugh. Shovel.




YouÂ’re destroyed and worthless. Your feet stink and your breath stinks worse. Rock bottom. No freedom. No priv acy. Time to face yourself in the mirror. This confrontation, as bitter and frank as itÂ’s ever been. And here it is: your faith. Where are you? What are your priorities? Might as well just acknowledge them. Stop hiding behind electronic gadgets and keg parties. Horny instincts and foolish pride. WeÂ’re done with the bullshit now, with the faking, the procrastinating. No one here but you and Me. All the good and all the bad. LetÂ’ s just put it on the table and quit kidding ourselves. Only after we have been completely de stroyed can we begin to find ourselves.


When youÂ’re in the shit and all yo u have is a rifle and your own ass, YouÂ’ll turn to God. is


your last name


I respectfully decline.


(youÂ’re fastening a bolt and a nut) (the bolt turns, the nut tightens)


(the bolt tightens) (righty-tighty, lefty-loosey)


(the thin armor gets closer to the door) (his bolt tightens)


(the bolt tightens fully and the armor is on the door).


this this


Toughen up, soldier. This is fuckinÂ’ war.


Toughen up, soldier. This is fuckinÂ’ war. you




I picture LT storming into the battalion Ta ctical Operations Center (TOC). HeÂ’s polluted and scorching. Fuming veins and bulgi ng eyes. HeÂ’s absolutely livid because one of our men died from a carelessly overlooked bomb left at our site. Easily preventable. I picture what LTÂ’s picturing. The bo y, 19 years young, wet behind the ears and running a scoop loader. He joined the army as an engineer because he didnÂ’t want to be a professional soldier. He wanted to serve, but he also wanted to learn a useful trade.


And he digs up an old artillery shell with the loaderÂ’s bucke t and blows himself to pieces. He drives onto the site with a dump tr uck and trips a landmine, severs his carotid artery. He sits down to eat an MRE (Meal, Ready to Eat) and triggers a bouncing betty. It takes his head clear off his shoulders, hi s mouth still full of vacuum-packed chicken tetrazzini, his last meal. HeÂ’s walking back from a late perimeter shift, finally getti ng some sleep, and trips a wire connected to a mortar round on a pal m tree, rigged to cut him in half with shrapnel. And it does. It kills him. Choose a scenario. TheyÂ’re all the same. All of them, a resu lt of battalion staff who donÂ’t think enough to have the field cleare d, to check if it had been cleared recently, to have the thought even cross their halfhearted, self-important minds. I picture LT throwing open the wooden door of the battalion TOC, off its hinges. I picture the kidÂ’s blood on his uniform, his body armor, his boots. Blood dripping from the ammo pouches and the flip blade he carries on his chest. The blood, still warm, covering LTÂ’s face, testing his integrity, melting his character. ThereÂ’s a worn out spot on his body armor where a tourniquet used to be. Now th e tourniquet is closing off some brachial artery somewhere that no longer serves a purpos e. I picture LTÂ’s throbbing forehead. His glowing eyes. Molten anger. HeÂ’s th rowing standard operating procedures and intelligence reports and a combat engineer hand book in the face of the monkeys running this piss-poor excuse for a battalion. I picture the head honcho, the man in contro l, stepping out of his lair, inviting the


lieutenant in. His eyes reek with confusion. those eyes say. Then, LT spitting on his desk. The spit is red with the blood of one of his soldiers. One of his brothers. A boy, 19 years young. The head honcho in his pressed desert ca mouflage uniform. Hi s sparkling clean 9mm stuck in a holster on his thigh. Stuck there, clean and dust free, like a museum artifact. The man in charge, he cocks his he ad to the right. He cocks his head and furls his eyebrows, like the trained monkey that he is . He smiles and says it’s going to be fine. That KIA will look great on his credentials. Look, he was there. he was in danger. Look, see all the dangerous missions I ran. he’ll say. Then, the picture getting crazy. LT putting his head down, still glaring molte n anger at the man in control, the head honcho. LT wiping blood out of his eye. LT smiling because that’s the only twisted formation his face can make ri ght now. Think evil clowns. Then, in one fluid motion, LT pulling th e flip blade from his chest and slitting battalion’s throat. Every one of them. They run and scream, helpless little zoo monkeys. LT’s cries the wildest and most desperate of th em all. I picture their cozy office chairs smeared with blood. Their “Operation Iraqi Free dom” coffee mugs filled with it. Arterial blood spray like an evil cl own sprinkler system. And LT smiling. There will be an investigation, and LT will be arrested, sent into a military brig


for too many years to count. It was worth it, heÂ’ll say. really


Just give us a reason to light you up, you cowardly fucks.




This is the town that Achmed Built.


These are the people that lay in town that Achmed built.


This is the bomb that killed the people , that lay in the town that Achmed built.


These are the guns that accompany the bom b, that killed the pe ople, that lay in the town that Achmed built.




These are the insurgents that fire the guns , that accompanied the bomb, that killed the people, that lay in th e town that Achmed built. This is the death that drives the insurg ents, that fired the guns, that accompanied the bomb, that killed the people, that lay in the town that Achmed built.


This is the road that har bors the death, that drove the insurgents, that fired the guns, that accompanied th e bomb, that killed the people, that lay in the town that Achmed built.


These are the bullets that fly from th e road, that harbored the death, that drove the insurgents, that fired the guns, that accompanied the bomb, that killed the people, that lay in the town that Achmed built.


These are the tanks that avenge the bullets , that flew from the road, that harbored the death, that drove the insu rgents, that fired the guns, th at accompanied the bomb, that killed the people, that lay in the town that Achmed built.


This is the ambush that deploys the tanks, that avenged the bullets, that flew from the road, that harbored the death, that drove the insurgents, that fired the guns, that accompanied the bomb, that killed the people, that lay in the town that Achmed built. We are the soldiers who survive the am bush, that deployed the tanks, that


avenged the bullets, that flew from the road, that harbored the death, that drove the insurgents, that fired the guns, that accompanied the bomb, that killed the people, that lay in the town that Achmed built. their my my


Now you see me, now you donÂ’t.


Whoosh, whoosh; BOOM, BOOM. Whoosh; BOOM.


Whoosh; BOOM. WhatÂ’s wrong with that door? Whoosh; BOOM. Where will the next one land? Whoosh; BOOM.


Whoosh; BOOM. Whoosh; BOOM.


Now you see me, now you donÂ’t.


ItÂ’s 4:45 am, and the convoy sits in a motor pool. Dese rt camouflaged soldiers sip coffee and strap down chains and tighten ratc het straps and bullshit and gear up and dispatch vehicles and nap and chew gum and load crew serve weapons and check their vehicles and adjust body armor and pray and inspect weapons and lace boots and


daydream and strap Kevlars and kiss old phot ographs and line their vehicles up and wait. The gunner of this humvee as ks the loader operator, who sits behind the driver, if he wants to man the 60 today. “You wanna jump in the turret?” asks the gunner. “Maybe when we come back; I’m gonna sit back here and catch a few,” says the loader operator. “Yeah, that’s what I wanna do,” says the gunner. He yawns. “Sorry,” the loader operator says. He shrugs and puts his feet up. His body armor sits open and his soft cap lays over his eyes. The convoy commander calls for a rally and everyone gets out of their vehicles. The convoy brief is short and concise, for they’ve all done this many times before. “Keep your eyes open. Use your escalation of force. Remember your rules of engagement,” he says. “Shoot first; ask questions later!” someone yells out. The ci rcle of yawning, morning-disheveled soldiers produces a sm all laugh. It’s a laugh from the gut, but through the nose. The joke is tired. So is the crowd. “…remember your rules of engagement. K eep your intervals. Watch each other’s backs…” Same old shit. The driver gets in, checks his gauges one more time, and lets the e-brake off. The a-driver gets in and radio checks with th e convoy commander, once into the hand held and once into the SINCGARS. The loader operato r velcro’s his flak jacket, places his


weapon at his feet pointing up, gets a l oaded magazine ready, and yawns. The gunner scales the humvee, drops through the hole in the roof, and situat es his ammo so it’s easily accessible when it needs to be loaded at the gate. They pull out in convoy manifest order to the base’s main gate. They sit some more, waiting, wondering what lunch will taste like, hoping it’s better than the last time they went to this little FOB. The humvee drives down the boring desert road as the sun comes up. The driver is sipping Red Bull at 5:15 am and appreciating th e sunrise. The sky is a light shade of grayish blue, lined with a polished gold fla me where sky meets earth. There isn’t a cloud for miles, hasn’t been one for months. The ai r is pleasantly cool on the gunner’s face, but the sand in the air requires him to wear goggles. The humvee is the third vehicle in a conv oy of seven. They’re pulling engineering equipment to a Forward Operating Base. In between gun trucks like this one, they carry two loaders and one dozer on the back of 9-16 trac tor trailers. This is their twelfth run this week to the FOB. Every day, it seems, they run back and forth between two bases with equipment. Drop off so-and-so, pick up so-andso. They follow orders. They are soldiers. The driver sees the first vehicle swerve madly to the left side of the road. The whole convoy is doing about 60mph. His hands grip the wheel, read y for whatever. The second vehicle swerves wildly like th e first. The radio jumps to life. “Back off! All elements, back off! IED right. Over!” The first vehicle responds. It’s too late. The third vehicle, this hum vee, jumps to the far left side of the road. What looks like three giant bullets la ys on the ground, conspicuously concealed with thin shrubbery. Wires are wrapped around them and lead off to the right across the


quiet early morning desert. ThereÂ’s no time. The driver slams on the accelerator. ItÂ’s a decision that will haunt him for th e rest of his life. He had no other possible options. He was cruising at 60mph and if he had slammed the brakes he would have stopped fifteen feet from the three 155 rounds wrapped in wire. He plants his foot on the accelerator. ItÂ’s a last minute effort to throw the enemyÂ’s timing off. ThereÂ’s a delay betw een the trigger and the explosion. All he can do is stomp the gas and pray, but thereÂ’s no time to pray. Even though he couldnÂ’t have done it di fferently, itÂ’s a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Two of his friends will die today. For the re st of his life heÂ’ll wonder if he could have stopped. HeÂ’ll go mad with the question. His fading memory of the explosion will merge with the maddening we ight of his guilt. The combination of guilt and reality will sear his heart with more fiery pain than he ever thought possible. HeÂ’ll convince himself that he could have stopped. His heart will burn like scalding water. It will keep him up for many nights to come. And, years later, when he thinks heÂ’s come to grips with it all, it will reappear suddenly and be more painful than before. When he light s the candles on his sonÂ’s 7th birthday cake, his heart will blister with sc orching pain. When he kisses his daughter on her wedding day, his heart will melt like burni ng rock. When he holds his first grandchild in the delivery room, his heart will smoke and smolder until it feels as if nothing is left. The bomb explodes. The cloud is enor mous, and the blast throws the speeding humvee across the road into the dusty sand. It spins 180 degrees and stops thirty feet from the edge of the road.


The driverÂ’s hearing is temporaril y stunned. His head his ringing, and the first sound he hears is the loader operator scre aming. HeÂ’s screami ng to the gunner. The gunnerÂ’s legs are convulsing as they hang into the humvee. One foot is turned sideways and the other appears to be doing a rapid jitterbug. Most of his weight is supported by edge of the turret. The loader operator is screaming the gunnerÂ’s name and shaking his leg. The A-driver is slumped over the SINCG ARS radio. The hand closest to the driver still clutches the hand held radio. His face is unrecognizable. He is unmistakably dead. His face and head were ripped apart. His helmet hangs onto a disfigured stump. The blast came from the ground on his side. It near ly blew the helmet off. It succeeded in placing half his brain and skull into the foam that lines the roof. The driver stumbles out of the veh icle. He grabs his weapon and stands up. His hands are black with bomb residue and the side of his face is covered with the blood of his A-driver. Something runs down the back of his neck and, in a state of numbed shock, he reaches back to touch it. Hi s hand comes back covered in blood. Is he hurt? He turns around. The gunner is sprawled out across the roof. His neck has been sliced wide open and blood gushes from the wound like a hose. The driver is amazed at how much blood there is. ItÂ’s dripping off the roof in three di fferent spots. ItÂ’s what dripped down the back of his neck. The gunner, still convulsing and feebly grabbing the wide gash on his neck, looks at the driver on the ground with wide, blank eyes. No passion lives behind those eyes, no life. HeÂ’s convulsing and trying to hang on, but he will soon die. The gunnerÂ’s wide eyes


are dead, but he doesnÂ’t know it yet. He holds his throat as he bleeds out. His eyes, fixed on the eyes of the driver, eventually glaze over and give up their struggle. The driver pulls the panicking loader opera tor out of the humvee and away from the smoking, crippled death scene. The first humvee in the convoy comes barreling through the desert, leaving a rising, dus ty trail, and the driver faints. *** Recycling, disgusting


Click-clack. click-clack.


Get back!


Can you feel IÂ’m not like you anymore? I canÂ’t see. I canÂ’t breathe. See you quiver like the dogs on the streets. Looking down on as I beat you. ItÂ’s a bad religion from a broken nation. ItÂ’s a contradiction. And I canÂ’t take it anymore. Â… Get back


You ainÂ’t got shit, YouÂ’re a piece of shit haji in a dirty, white robe.


“Ten meters! That’s the proper distancing be tween soldiers,” he yelled in my ear. He grabbed the back of my rucksack and pulled it violently to the right. My IBA web gear that held my fake ammo and medical kit jumped to the right with the heavy rucksack. I almost tripped over my own black, shiny co mbat boots. Drill sergeants weren’t allowed to physically grab us unless it was for “correct ive training”. I guess fixing my spacing in a road march counted. “Ten meters, Private! So if a grenade falls ri ght here, only one of you dies. Have some compassion for your fe llow soldiers. Oh, never mind. There are no soldiers in this formation. Only lousy pr ivates. Have some compassion for your fellow lousy privates.” “Yes, Drill Sergeant.”


“Get your muzzle out of the dirt, Privat e!” the drill sergeant yelled in my ear. “You think that’ll fire with dirt jammed in the barrel? All you’ll be able to do is butt stroke Haji in the desert like a caveman w ith a club. Sound okay to you, Private Ugg?” “Yes, Drill Sergeant,” I said out of habit. “No! It’s not okay you crap-faced lit tle puke! Wrong answer! Keep the barrel of your weapon off the fucking ground!” “Yes, drill sergeant.”

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“It’s called an acronym, Private!” he yelle d in my ear. “That means each letter stands for a word.” I knew that. He’s treating me like an idiot. “We have to assume you’re an idiot, pr ivate. So we make it simple, Barney level. And you privates still screw it up. So simple it’s complicated. W hat’s BRASS stand for, meathead?” “Breathe, relax, aim, sight picture, shoot, Drill Sergeant!” I replied. “Squeeze, genius!” he snapped like a whip. “You don’t shoot the fucking weapon. You squeeze the fucking trigger. See? Barney level and you still screw it up. You love Barney don’t you, Private?” “Yes, Drill Sergeant.”

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If this were real IÂ’d be dead.

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What was the mission? (the bad guys always lose) (gooks in Vietnam flicks) (no soldiers here, only lousy privates) (didnÂ’t I see that in a movie once?). (thatÂ’s why IÂ’m here)

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How can I be that efficient? (These are the people who lay in the town that Achmed built). (Whoosh; BOOM. Where will the next one land?). (Just give us a reason to light you up, you cowardly fucks). (Toughen up, soldier. This is fuckinÂ’ war)

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(Oh my god! You ate brains!). (Pow. Mother fucker. Pow) Gimme two pair and a high ace. Get those fu ckinÂ’ threes out of my face. I want face cards. I want the royal straight. A full house will do. Win, win, win. And ainÂ’t nothinÂ’ gonna stop me. Gimme it all, you greed y shit. IÂ’m all in. You ainÂ’t got shit, bluffer. I can see it in your face. You ha ve lying eyes. Oh, how I can see right through them. Beat my two pair with a three of a kind and IÂ’ll fucking st ab you. Just kidding.

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How did you miss that shot? Just set it to someone. Qu it bein’ a hero. We’re down by one; you gotta win by two. Get the ball over the net. Use your teammates. Take this shit seriously. This is our escape. Get that point and win the fucking game. Win, win, win. “Imagine if a mortar fell?” someone asks. E veryone gives him hot, coarse stares. Shut the fuck up, those stares say. “How’d he di e?” the soldier asks. “IED, RPG? No, playing volleyball.” We laugh because it ’s true. Because it’s funny. Because we’re desensitized. “So there I was… settin’ up a spike…” someone sa ys in a Southern accent. The accent is thick and callused. It’s a mockery of every Am erican war hero who’s ever walked the earth. You’re not war heroes. You’re playing volleyball to escape the war. Heroes don’t need escape, do they? The dust bounces up around your feet as you run. It gets everywhere, in everything. Fuckin’ moon dust. In your socks and underneath your balls. This country sucks. Football is supposed to be played in th e grass. The ball is coated with slippery dust. Lick the palms of your hands or you’ll never catch it. Get me the ball. I’m wide

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open every play. I got faster feet than any of ‘em. We’re down by six. Five yards, turn left. Five yards, turn right. Keep ‘em guessin’ . I can break free. I’m goin’ left. Get me the fuckin’ ball. It’s flag football, but the mind says tackle. Peac e of mind doesn’t exist here. Roll his ass to the ground and keep running. Plow, grind, bite your way through. Win, win, fucking win. The ball soars through th e air and you jump higher than the man covering you. Crashing down with the ball, aiming for his kidneys, your right elbow smacks into the packed earth. Harder than limestone. Fuckin’ love it. Blood drips down your elbow and you line up for the next play. You lick the dirt off your palms and taste this country. It tastes like warm metal, expended rounds. Blood. You smile. Keep the ball comin’. Your elbow throbs w ith excitement. The pain is good . It’s a drug and you’re so fucking addicted. Feel the way the blood escapes your arm. Lucky blood. Slipping ’em on, you feel th e sweat from the last guy, the last four guys. Your heart is pounding, your face is calm. You circ le one another. Come get me. The yelling of the crowd is miles away. Your gray PT shir t sticks to the sweat from your body and you clock the other man in the side of the head. He shakes it off and glares at you. His rage is

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there. You see it and it makes you crazy. He gets you once like a train to the temple. White flash of light. It’s on, mother fucker. He ’s flipped the switch that controls the Id, the animal. He flipped the control off. The adrenaline flows and y ou absolutely love it. It’s a drug and you’re addi cted. Full fledged, taste the bl ood of your enemy, fuckin’ addicted. You circle, swinging, holding his arm under yours and giving him a couple right hooks. It’s dirty. Y ou’re winning no matter what. Your opponent suddenly becomes everything you hate. All at once, he’s the commander; the to wel heads who shoot at you, the cowards who sit hundreds of meters away from the road and blow up your friends; the people back home who tell you nothing good is happening in Iraq. “It’s not worth it,” they say, like they can actually imagine what it’s like, like they can actually understand what freedom and liberty even mean, let alone what they’re worth; he’s the American press, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and you punch hi m square in his biased, hypocritical jaw. Blood trickles down his lip. You want to lick it, get it on you. You rush him and the blood finds a way onto your shirt. Your eyes are red. The veins on your arms and forehead pulse and vibrate with the testosterone and adrenaline that ch arges through them, controls them. Both of you take a minute and look at one another. Dizzy and disoriented. Panting, bleeding, bruised. “You good?” he asks . “Yeah,” you say. As a matter of fact, you are. Your eyes turn human again and your veins contract back underneath your skin. You pass the gloves to the next guy. Taki ng them off is like lo sing an erection, but it doesn’t matter. You’ve escaped.

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I will be in high school next year. ItÂ’s the summer after eighth grade and my younger sister, Regan, and I are climbing the giant maple tree in our backyard. I am ahead of her as always. I tease her for not keeping up. She tries harder and makes her way toward me. The day is comfortably warm, and the wi nd rustles the bright green leaves all around us. There isnÂ’t a cloud in the sky. The sun reflects off the string of power lines which run behind the woods to the south. On the other side of our half acre yard I can see the roof of our house inside which my parents are doing the usual weekend lounging between energetic bursts of fixing up. Do wn the road, I see the high school IÂ’ll be

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attending in the fall. My parents constantly tell us not to c limb this tree, but they obviously donÂ’t understand the immense balance of a vigorous th irteen year old boy. My sister is sometimes reluctant to climb, to break the ru les, but I egg her on and dare her to climb as high as I can. It always works. We get to the thin branches near the top where we usually call it quits. ReganÂ’s trailing at my feet and we laugh as we c hallenge ourselves to go higher than we ever have before. Higher and higher and higher. We get to the top of the old maple tree, and the breezy summer day swings the now top heavy branches to and fro. Regan, a shy, blond-haired, blue-eyed eleven year old, sits on a branch right next to me, and we almost collide sever al times as the wind blows us back and fourth. We are higher t han the garage, higher than the house, higher than the hill on the neighborÂ’s farm. We are higher than the world. I reach a hand and touch the very top leaves of the old maple. No one has ever touched these leaves before. I am the first and only. My sister is t oo short to touch the very top, and I laugh at her. The gusty breeze blows a little harder than before and we swing several feet to the left and then back several feet to the right. We laugh with all the excitement of children on a roller coaster. I feel myself begin to swing backward. I grip the tree tight wa iting to be bounced back the other way and set upright. My ba ck becomes parallel with the ground. Regan screams. I know now that IÂ’m not swinging back to where I started. I am falling.

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Branches on a tree donÂ’t snap like dry st icks. Branches on a tree are green and alive; they rip apart with a thousand consecu tive cracks. I hear the branch IÂ’m standing on crack apart. The sound of a thousand cons ecutive cracks in sl ow motion will haunt my dreams. I close my eyes. My sister is screami ng. My mind goes blank. ItÂ’s not blank from shock. ItÂ’s blank from adrenaline. I am supe r aware, but unable to react. I canÂ’t scream. IÂ’m past the point where the mind deci des screaming is useful. I am dead. IÂ’m dying at thirteen in my own backyard. I hang onto the branch and tuck my head into my chest in a last minute effort to survive. I feel the green branch rip apart and give way at a point underneath my feet. A thousand cracks resonate through my hands. IÂ’ll never know the touch of a girl. Mom and Dad will never see me alive again. Regan will watch me die. IÂ’ll never go to high school. Dying is funny. In the elementary ye ars when we begin to understand death, it scares the hell out of us. It seems too unfai r and too unpredictable to be real. Everything up until that point is laid out as if on an unc hanging itinerary. If I get hurt, Mom will heal me. If IÂ’m in danger, Dad will protect me. If I break a rule, Mom and Dad will punish me. But death has no such reliability. Death is erratic and indiscriminant , and that scares the hell out of us. However, now that IÂ’m faced with my actual death, itÂ’s really not so bad. IÂ’ve heard it called euphoria, and itÂ’s truly m agnificent. IÂ’m falling head first through hundreds of branches of the old maple tree we always climb, and, normally, I wouldÂ’ve picture myself panicking in this situation. But I am as calm as an innocent deer unaware

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of cross hairs centered on its chest. Wait a second; I don’t have to give in this easily. I open my eyes and see blurs of leaves rushing past me. Branches sting my eyes and scratch my face. They don’t hurt so much as they do prevent me from keeping my eyes open. Grab a branch. Save yourself. I try with such pathetic effort that I am ashamed. Never mind. I fall some more. Sticks cut my arms, face, and legs. My eyes are shut again, and this dark ride is lasting a very long time. I wonder when it will be over. Don’t give up. Grab a br anch. There’s still time. I try to open my eyes again and I see the blurry green of speeding leaves. I reach out, and my thin arm hits a branch and painf ully bounces off. There’s no way I’m successfully grabbing a branch and stopping myself. I close my eyes and the dark, fast ride continues. I feel immense pain in my right shin ju st before my face slams into something hard. Dirt flies into my mouth, and I taste the tiny rocks and brown grass. My right leg is wedged between the lowest crotch of the tree. “REGAN!” I scream. There is grass between my teeth. When I yell my sister’s name, dirt flies out of my mouth. I ridicule her constantly and tease her to the point of tears. Then I laugh when she cries. Now, I scream her name in the most desperate moment of my life. I jump from the ground and pull my injure d leg from the crotch of the tree. I

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sprint inside because pure adrenaline has numbed the pain. I open the door with shaky hands and I run inside. My mom, maybe out of instinct, is standing on the back porch with wide eyes and embracing arms. She sees my bloody knee, bruised leg, and the dozens of scrapes on my arms and legs. “What happened?” she says. Her to ne is alarmed and compassionate. “I-I-” I stammer. “I fell out of the tree.” Dad comes in the room. “Goddamnit!” he yells. “How m any times have I told you!” I can’t talk or make up excuses. “Is your sister still out there?” he says. “Y-yes.” “Jesus Christ,” he says. Mom dashes out the back door to get Regan, trying not to assume the worst. He takes me by the shoulders and drives me to the bathroom. My body is numb and I express no emotion, not even anger at Dad. “What were you thinking?” He asks as she pours painful antiseptic on my abrasions. I don’t answer, and he lectures me about why we don’t climb trees. I think. Mom comes back in with Regan while Dad is drawing a bath. “Jesus, Ryan,” Mom says. She hugs me as I sit speechless on the toilet. “Why would you climb that high?” “I don’t know.”

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“You nearly killed yourself,” she says. Tu rning to Dad, “They were at the top of the tree.” Dad looks to Regan whose face is red and wet with tears. Regan nods to confirm the story and then she hugs me. “I thought you were dead,” she says, crying more. I just nod. Crying is something I can’t seem to do right now. “Is anything broken?” Mom asks me. I shake my head. “God, I thought you only fell, like, ten feet,” says Dad. “You must have been thirty feet in the air.” Thirty-seven actually. Dad’s a land su rveyor and, using a tripod, would later measure the elevation of the point from which I fe ll. He will also speculate that if my leg hadn’t caught in the crotch of the tree at the last second, I would have landed on my neck. Instead, I was swung into the ground mouth first. “You’re lucky, Ryan,” he says. Mom says my bath is ready and gets my bathing suit. Everyone leaves the bathroom and I change. My mind is still in shock, and I do things with no emotion. It’s as though I’m a robot. I climb in and my family comes back into the room. My small, immature body is riddled with cuts and scrapes and the warm wate r stings them. My sister looks at me in disbelief thinking I should be dead. My father shakes his head thinking I should be dead. My mother wets a soapy wash cloth and hol ds back tears thinking I should be dead. I am numb. I should be dead.

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Mom says, “This will hurt, honey, but I have to do it,” and scrubs the bloody gash on my knee. I am no longer numb, and I sit upright in the tub. “It hurts!” I yell. “I know, honey. Hold still,” she says. She scrubs the rocks and debris out of my abrasion and rinses it off with warm water. “All done,” she says. I am on the verge of tears, and Mom somehow understands the tough pride in the hearts of little boys. “Everyone, out. Ryan, clean up the rest of your cuts and I’ll come get you when lunch is ready.” Mom kisses my forehead and exits the bathroom. I sit in the shallow water stari ng at the red cuts on my little body. I am alive. I should ha ve died, but I am alive. My eyes tickle and soon my vision becomes blurry with tears. I sob uncontrollably at the fact that I am alive. My body qui vers as I sniffle and bawl tears of regret and denial. Something saves me today, and I cry because I don’t understand. “Thank you,” I say.

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In his ten-year artistic career, Vincent Van Gogh produced more than 800 paintings on more than 800 canv ases. During his lifetime, only one of these masterpieces, “The Red Vineyard”, was sold.

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There are four vehicles, all humvees. An all humvee convoy is a great way to travel because we can fly down the road wit hout worrying about 9-16’ s or bulky concrete mixers having to keep up. The faster we go, the better the chances of throwing off the trigger man’s timing. We receive a small missi on outside of the route we are working on. It’s a giant IED crater on another road. Some higher-up who knew of our pothole filling efforts suggested we fill this one since it was becoming such a dangerous hazard. One morning, an off morning for the concrete mission, we set out to recon the small side mission. I am driving the third humvee, bumper number H-105. Renninger is my A-driver, and Skavenski is our gunner. We drive to the recon site, and LT takes photographs and notes. On the way back to camp, LT, who’s in the first humvee, comes over the radio and says we’re going to take a quick detour to the route we are currently working on. He just wants to check it out and find out whatever extra details he can. We fly down the road, jumping on and off the large patches of concrete we’d poured. We spray painted the pads, the canvas, while they were still wet. This is to ensure that after we leave and the conc rete is still drying, no one comes and slips in an IED. We cruise over these random spray patterns. Someone played tic-tac-toe on one part, and the X’s won. Someone else had signed their name. Someone else had written “The ‘Shroom Platoon”, our self-proclaimed nickname. We are the ‘Shr oom Platoon because we are shit on all day

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and constantly left in the dark. It’s a joke, but not really. Someone wrote it because it’s something we’ve been holding in, something we’ve been keeping to ourselves. Now it’s painted on our canvas for all the world to see. We travel 60+ MPH down the unimproved road. The roar of the diesel engine is the only thing that can be heard. I watch th e second vehicle ahead of me. I continually vary my distance to throw off any tim ing a potential trigger man may have. I see the second humvee, call sign Hunter Two, swerve drastically to the left side of the road. On the right edge of the road, cl ear as day, I see a short, black cylinder. The adrenaline releases, and my mind becomes dizzy but focused. From the cylinder, across the hard, tan earth, run two wires. One is black and the other is red. We are too close to stop, and I instin ctively slam the pedal to the floor. The wires run for about a meter until they hit tall weeds which grow along an irrigation ditch. No one is around, but there’ s no way of knowing how far those wires run. The hand held radio crackles to life. “Did you see that, One?” the vehicle ahead of me asks LT. No we are almost on top of the small, black cylinder. It’s a land mine, and there’s no time to stop. “Get the fuck down, Ski!” Ken Renninge r yells to our gunner, Tom Skavenski. If I stop now, we’ll land somewhere directly before or directly after the IED, so I keep my foot to the floor and silently pray. I pull the humvee as far to the left as I can, and we roar past the land mine.

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That split second is an eternity. I antic ipate the popping thunde r. I anticipate red pieces of Renninger flying into me. Three pictures hang from the windshield. Two are school pictures of Renninger’s daughter and so n. The other is of the blessed Mary. She holds her son and a wide, sunburst halo shin es from behind her head. The pictures swerve to the right as I swerve the humvee, bumper number H-105, to the left. Skavenski is ducked down inside the turret and the left side of his lip bulges with Copenhagen. Both my hands grip the wheel and I teeter on the le ft edge of the road. Th e speedometer on the humvee only goes to sixty. The needle is buried. No pop. One more vehicle, one more target, left in this convoy. Arthur Dodds, who’s a trucker back hom e and has two kids, one of whom he nicknamed “Pickleman”, is the a-driver. I strugg le to see Hunter Four in my side mirror. I can’t. The small armored window doesn’t allow enough room for me to see the whole mirror. Renninger has his Kevlar pressed against his small, armored window. I wait for the popping thunder. “You past it yet, Four,” as ks LT over the radio. A couple seconds pass, an etern ity passes, before Dodds responds. “Yeah,” the radio crackles. “All Hunter elements, this is Hunter One,” LT says. “Halt. Herringbone, over.” A herringbone is a staggered formation we use when stopping a convoy on the road. The first vehicle, which is always a gun tr uck, parks sideways across the middle of the road; its gunner faces twelve o’clock. The second vehicle, which doe sn’t have to be a gun truck, but is today, parks behind the first to the right side of the road; its gunner

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faces three o’clock. The third vehicle, which doe sn’t have to be a gun truck, but is today, parks behind the second vehicle to the left si de of the road; its gunner faces nine o’clock. The last vehicle, which is always a gun tru ck, parks behind the th ird vehicle sideways across the middle of the road; its gunner faces six o’clock. We immediately check the surroundings fo r a second set of IED’s. The enemy knows our tactics well enough to know that a four humvee convoy will usually blow past an IED and park a certain distance away. They’ ll sometimes set up a conspicuous IED like say, a land mine trailing with wires, and plant more inconspicuous explosives a certain distance away. All is clear in our twenty-five mete r sweep, and we wait for LT to radio the Explosive Ordinance Disposal team (EOD) o ver the SINGARS radio. He tells us that EOD has been notified and gives us direction on where to go in order to secure the site. He knows this route like the back of his hand. He ’s sure that if we take a farming trail located off to our right and follow the irrigation ditch like a city block, it will come out to a location well before the conspicuous black land mine laying on the ground. “Hunter Three, this is Hunter One, over,” he says. “One this is Three, over,” Renninger responds. “You follow me on this dirt trail to our right. Two and Four, secure this side. Nobody passes. Not even civilians. Over.” “Roger, One,” Renninger says from our humvee. “Roger, One,” says the A-driver of the second humvee. “Roger,” says Dodds from the fourth humvee.. Renninger turns to Skavenski’s legs. “Be ready, Ski.”

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“Alright, Sarge,” he says. Tom Skavenski is always ready. We follow LT out and around the weed-enriche d irrigation system. We try to drive fast here, but it’s difficult on the bumpy, dirt road. Nonetheless, we need to move as quickly as possible. Being on a road is one th ing, but there’s no telling what’s hiding back here. LT’s humvee throws up a cloud of restless di rt. The brown dirt has a brick red tint to it resembling rust. The tall weeds that out line the irrigation ditch whiz by. Their healthy green color also seems shadowed w ith rust. We follow the tall weeds. They remind me of a lengthy row of grapes in a vineyard. The dried clay thrown up by LT’s humvee now blocks my view. Skavenski chokes on the rust and I have to back off. “Still back there, Three?” LT asks over the radio. “Yeah, we’re here,” says Renninger into th e hand held. “We’ll follow your trail, over.” “Roger.” We pull around the first turn. A family of sustenance farmers stands off to the side. They’re not used to seeing military c onvoys back here and they give us a confused look. The children run to the edge and give us a thumbs up. One of them motions for a bottle of water. We fly past them . There’s no time for sentiment. We get around the second corner and fly to the road. Once there, we set up a tiny box formation. We pull sideways across the ro ad so both drivers are facing toward the inside. Tom Skavenski points his turret toward six o’clock and Jason Demarco, LT’s gunner, points his toward twelve o’clock. We wait about thirty minutes, which is exceptionally short for such a situation,

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until EOD shows up. They park in between our two box formations and break out the bomb inspecting robot. They shortly conclude that the IED is a dud. ItÂ’s a fake, conspicuous land mine and was only set up to watch our reaction. The whole time, there is a man standing three hundred meters away. He has a pair of binoculars and is watching our every move. We canÂ’t shoot him because of the Geneva Conventions; he holds no weapons and pos es no immediate threat to our convoy. Despite hours of self-debate, we unde rstand that it has to be this way. This is how the enemy knows our tactics. This is how we avoid remaining complacent.

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LetÂ’s see what kind of tricks he can do.

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My name is “Haji”. I belong to Mal habar Azwiki at 666 North Ambush Drive, Balad, Iraq.

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Wish you couldÂ’ve been there, Ryan. The vacation started out great. Mom, Ha ley, and I went camping Friday morning. She shit in the backseat of the truck as I was driving up North, gotta love that

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fresh country air. Â…we got to the boat launch I loaded the canoe with all my gear and tied Haley to the front seat. We headed into a ten mile-an-hour wind. She did okay until she saw a loon 50 feet away. She wanted to play, but tying her down worked well.

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I took Haley to the vet in the morningÂ… and buried her soon there after.

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She sat with me in the front seat on the way home. I cried like a baby the whole way back. I put her in the grave with your “who’s your doggy” bandana still on her. I laid her on her pad with all her stuffed animals around her. She looked peaceful.

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Then I added another headstone to our pet cemetery. only Keep your head down over there, Ryan. I miss you. I love you.

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ThereÂ’s something innately comforti ng about sitting on your bunk and picking up a folded piece of green cons truction paper. On the front, in black crayon, thereÂ’s an awkward trapezoid sitting on a lumpy conveyor belt. ItÂ’s a second graderÂ’s rendition of a tank, and a smiling face wearing a World War II helmet sticks out of the top. The cannon shoots a pointy specimen across the length of the paper. You can tell the pointy specimen

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is shot from the tank’s cannon because there are th ree bullet-straight lines connecting the two. At the top, in blue crayon, is the wo rd “SOLDIER”. Perhaps the most adorable part is the fact that after the word “soldier” there is a comma. You know it’s unnecessary, but the comma’s there because this child knows that when you address a letter, you put a comma after the name. Your name is Soldier, and this is the lette r that was left on your bunk this evening. You open the card. It’s edges don’t quite line up right and the vertical crease on the inside runs a slightly diagonal path. On th e left side of the card, there is a big drawing of the American flag. There are only about a dozen blue stars in the upper left-hand corner. They are unsymme trical, crooked, and perfect. The child tried to use a white crayon for the stripes but hasn’t yet learned that white crayon never works out well. Uneven, horiz ontal streaks of pale wax alternate with uneven, horizontal red lines to form the rest of the flag. There are only seven stripes total. And underneath it all is a big, red “U”; a waxy, white “S”; and a dark blue “A”. It is perfect. On the right side, a message sums up everything the kid would ever want to know about you. In lopsided, misspelle d, and perfect words he writes, “How is Irak? Is it hot there? I have a dog. He pees and maks my dad mad. Do you hav a dog? Are you a general or a captin?” The innocence of this last statement makes you chuckle. Knowing that these questions are in advertently rhetorical cuts your laughter short. At the bottom, the exact way his teacher had taught him, he writes, “Thank you. From, Tim O.”

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You don’t cry; it’s a touchi ng card, but you don’ t cry, not fully. The corners of your eyes start to feel like they’re being tickled , but you don’t cry. There’s no need to cry. It’s just a piece of paper. The gluey, pulp sm ell of the construction paper plants you back in the innocence of second grade, but there’ s no need to cry. There’s a war going on outside, and you’d give anythi ng to be in second grade and innocent. But you don’t cry. You read the last line one more time , and you touch the raised, waxy letters. “Thank you.” You touch it, and you feel it. You real ly feel it. You’re amazed at how easy it is to say, yet it seems so hard for so many. You’re amazed at how much courage it takes to say, and at the courageous young boy who sent you this card. You reread the card, making sure you didn’t miss anything. Then you touch it some more, feeling its love, its innocence, its honor. A little tear falls down your face, and you breathe in the last line, “thank you”. You lay down on your bunk. The war will be there tomorrow. The only thing that matters to night is this green piece of construction paper. And you call it relief.

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My nameÂ’s Robby and I go to Linc oln Elementary School. IÂ’m 9 1/2. How is the war? Did you get shot? My daddy was in The Gulf War. He said he caught crabs in the war. Do you catch crabs?

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God, itÂ’s boring out here, Uh oh, Please tell me itÂ’s farther left.

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Okay, good. ItÂ’s not pee.

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Beer piss doesnÂ’ t have a smell.

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English class. God, that was boring, wasn’t it? There I was in eighth grade, and some old fart was squeaking chalk across a blackboard. His suit was gray and made of wool. It was ob viously manufactured in that disturbing time period when America lost all of its tasteful fashion, somewhere around 1983. What the hell did he need patches on hi s elbows for? Was he taking luge lessons after school? Perhaps the suit needed to last him from the 80’s and clear on through to the 21st century. Whatever the reaso n, he looked like an idiot. A girl in the class had as ked a question regarding commas, the most confusing of all grammatical rules. Well, maybe not. Ther e was always that “I” before “E” except

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after “C” nonsense. What about when you nei ghbor’s heir feigns the height and weight of a geisha for the purposes of feinting eight reig ning deities and upsetti ng their veins all while wearing a lei and leisurely drinking from a sleigh-shaped stein on a freight train? “You use a comma when placing items in a list,” the gray-haired, hunchbacked teacher said through his nasal cavity. “Or wh en joining two sentences with a conjunction such as ‘and’, ‘or‘, or ‘because.’” His chalk squeaked on the board as he wr ote the conjunctions. “If you don’t want to use a conjunction, you can use what’s called a semi-colon.” “Like only half a butt?” I as ked without raising my hand. The class laughed, and the teacher ignored me. He drew a semi-colon. “Does that answer your question about comma use?” he asked the girl. She nodded. “Alright, now let’s talk about simi les and metaphors,” he said. “They’re both comparisons, but who can tell me the difference between the two?” I knew the answer, but I didn’t raise my hand. Being smar t was so stupid in eighth grade. Someone else said that a simile uses ‘like’ or ‘as’ to compare two things, and a metaphor doesn’t. Whoop-dee-do. “Yes,” said the teacher. He turned to the chalkboard. “Ever yone finish this sentence in your notebooks.” The teacher wrote “The sunset was as beautiful as…”, and the chalk squealed. That’s an easy one, I thought. Too easy. I ripped a piece of paper from the corner of my notebook. I put the pape r in my mouth and chewed as I quickly jotted down three things as beautiful as a sunset:

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“…a red rose.” Too cliché, but it gets the job done. “…a painting by God.” Not bad. “…my sister’s sparkling te ars.” Now that’s perfection. I looked up, and most of cl ass was still writi ng. I pulled a plastic straw from my pocket and tongued the saturated piece of notebook paper to form it into a tiny ball. The teacher had his back to me as he helped some one come up with useless similes. My friend Matt, who sat two rows away, was still writing. I took careful aim. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. Thu-whap. Right on Matt’s cheek! “Ahh,” he yelped. “Something the matter, Matt,” the teacher asked. “I’m fine,” said Matt, wiping the side of his face and laug hing. Half the room also laughed. The other half didn’t care . The teacher walked back to the board. “Okay, now to turn your similes into metaphors,” he said. “All you have to do is take out this part.” He turned to the board and erased “as beautiful as…”. A slimy spit ball flew from Matt’s direction. It was shooting fish in a barrel. Thu-whap. Straight in my ear! “Oh my God,” I jumped out of my se at. Matt’s face was red, and half the room was laughing. “That’s enough, boys!” yelled the teacher, spit flying from his mouth. “Go to the office, now!” “Come on. It won’t happen again. We were just havin’ fun,” I protested. Then I

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pointed to the chalkboard. “This stuff is so stupid and boring.” “Go to the office!” he said glaring at me. “You know, Ryan, you may want to take this stupid and boring stuff a little more se riously. You may find it very useful someday.” “Yeah, right,” I said. Matt and I got up and walked out the door as the teacher mo ved onto the next lesson. “Okay, now we’re going to talk about onomatopoeia,” he addressed the class. Thu-whap. Matt got me in the back of the neck on th e way down to the assistant principal’s office.

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During the end of the tour, the soldiers fr om our replacement uni t were staying in the same tents in which we had been assigned wh en we first arrived at the camp. With the exception of a few guys on their second tour, the replacements were brand new to the war. We had to show them the ropes. It was one of the last convoys I ever we nt on in Iraq. I was driving the last gun truck in a convoy of eleven vehicles. Staff Sergeant Robert Gasparotto was my A-driver, our gunner was Sergeant Marc Zerega, and two guy s from the replacem ent unit sat in the back seats among gear, water, and ammo cans. Being one of the last convoys of the t our, it naturally loomed with the seemingly inevitable irony of the circumst ances. IÂ’d heard a story from a female soldier at the PX.

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She told me about the two week R&R she took back in February. One of the soldiers from her platoon was waiting for the aircraft that would bring the R&R group home. He had a craving for some gum and smokes, so he qui ckly ran to the PX which was about a mile away. On his way back to the terminal, he was hit by a mortar and killed. I was driving down the endless dese rt road. I had done this a hundred times before, but this day felt diff erent. The image of an ecstati c soldier whistling and skipping down a concrete sidewalk to the PX ran through my mind over and over again. All that was going through his mind was how hard he woul d hold his parents or kids or wife or girlfriend when he finally saw them again. He only had a few short traveling days and his war was over for at least awhile. Suddenly, out of the sky fell a screaming mortar and it sent enough shrapnel into his body to kill him. Irony is a literary term. ItÂ’s supposed to happen in books. ItÂ’s supposed to keep the reader interested. I drove down the empty road trying to em pty my mind of the ironic images playing themselves out there. I noticed a herd of cows off to the left edge of the road. There was one cow in particular who seemed to be the leader of the pack. She was standing at the very edge of the road waiting to cross. She was fearless, or perhaps just stupid. The tenth vehicle in the convoy, the one right in front of me, zoomed past the skinny, brown cow. Somehow I knew that the stupid, fearless cow wouldnÂ’t be patient long enough to allow me, the last vehicle of the convoy, to pass before crossing. Irony is what I expected and irony is what I got. Like a Wall Street executive late for a meeting, the cow eagerly headed into traffic, almost running into the bumper of the tenth vehicle. Bu t unlike a Wall Street executive, this cow plodded along li ke a snail on hallucinogenic drugs.

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You couldn’t have waited for one more damn humvee? I thought. There was no way in hell I was going to halt an entire convoy for one starving Iraqi cow. Not to mention the herd behind her that now followed in th e footsteps of their leader. I slammed the pedal to the floor, and it became a race. The diesel engine roared and the needle on the speedometer became maxed out. In my head, I timed the cow’s slow trot with my own increasing speed. Luckily , I’d spent a year dodging every possible IED at every possible speed, and this situ ation was basically second nature. It was one of my last convoys, and while I’d expected to see a cruel sense of irony awaiting me with the swipe of fate’s sickle, I was instead playing chicken with a cow. “Smithson!” Gasparotto yelled over the deafening roar of the engine. “Can’t stop now!” I yelled. He grabbed the “oh shit” handle in front of him, and I smiled sardonically. Bring it on, Fate! I couldn’t see them, but I know the two replacement soldiers were jockeying for position to see out of the windshield. They we re more nervous than any of us. Zerega’s feet faced the rear of the humvee as we were the last vehicle and that’s where his weapon pointed. He had no idea what was going on with the suicide cow. The cow stepped across the road. Her front right foot crossed the middle of the road and her head stuck out into the right lane. I pulled the wheel to the right at the last possible second, and the passenger side tires jumped off the road and stirred the hot sand. As I passed, I looked the cow directly in her dumb, black eyes. I waited for her

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blood to splatter out of her nose and across my thick windshield. As we roared past, her nose missed my side mirror by inches. I had timed it perfectly, or maybe it was pure luck. I heard Zerega howling in laughter. I’m sure the sudden hop off the road duly scared him. His laughter as we passed the dumb, brown cow was one of relief. “You should’ve told me,” Zerega yelled through the hole in the roof. “I would’ve wasted her!”

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my my

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ThereÂ’s the guy everyone is talking about. ThereÂ’s Joe Nurre. who What is he thinking about?

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make perfect his

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hundred people sit in fold out chairs. Th ey just played a slideshow full of pictures of Joe Nurre. It was to the song “Forever Young”. Joe Nurre was 22 when he was blown up. “Forever Young” indeed. A piece of shrapnel from an IED is what did him in. Joe hard ly knew what hit him. He died of shock, said the medic. He died of shrapnel from an IED. That’s what I say. Nurre died on August 21st, nine days before my bi rthday, fifteen after his. A guy who was twenty-two, liked by ever yone, smart, athletic, funny, charming, hard working, and whose face I couldn’t pictur e, had died. And I was on the road forty minutes ahead of him pissing into a bottle when he was killed. Staff Sergeant Sefsick, who was very close to Nurre, says some words. I don’t know her. We’ve talked, and she’ s cute, but I don’t know her. She knew Joe Nurre like a brother. Here I am at a man’s funeral and I hardly knew him. Why didn’t I get to know Nurre better? What the fuck is wrong with me? Maybe I sh ould have seen it coming. How could I have seen this coming? Ten months in to the tour and we haven’t lost a single person. Then we lose Joseph C. Nurre. I sit in my fold out chair. The bat talion commander takes a place behind the podium. I can feel the hate in the room. It’s like smoke, and I almost choke on it. We want the commander to choke on it. Not for Nurre. It wasn’t the commander’s fault Joe died. But we hate the commander anyway. We hate this man for reasons I can’t begin to articulate, but he takes the podi um nonetheless. I try to rema in open minded. I try to give this guy a chance, because truth is I hardly know him. And, hell, look what happened to

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the last guy I hardly knew. Somewhere in his speech, the battalion commander says, “I’ve heard from some of his friends that Sergeant Nurre was a great guy.” The smoke thickens. You’re fucking kidding, ri ght? He calls a dead man by his rank and verbally portrays the detachment he has from his so ldiers. He uses the term “great guy” to describe someone who gave his life defendi ng freedom. You say someone is a “great guy” when a hot chick comes to you in a bar with a question about one of your buddies. You don’t say someone was a “great guy” at a funeral, at a fucking military funeral. Get real, you heartless shit, I want to say to the commander. You’re the most hated man in the room right now. How does it feel? Like a colonel’s paycheck? Like the bronze star you’ll probably ge t for running this goat shit exc use for a combat tour? Fuck you. The smoke thickens.

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One of Nurre’s buddies is on stage now. He’s got a guitar with him and he’s holding back tears because he’s not vulnerable. He wrote a song about his dead friend. It follows the usual arrangement -how it was so unexpected, so unfair, but Joe will always be a part of their lives. It’s touching. It dawns on me that Nurre died five days ago. This guy wrote this song in less than a week. That’s pretty impr essive, and I respect it. It does n’t draw tears really. It’s not that good. But it’s a song about a fallen so ldier, and in that resp ect it’s exceptional. He leaves and a couple soldiers who were closest to Nurre say a few words. The chaplain also speaks. These speeches draw tea rs. Not from me, but the crowd is sniffling. I try to hold them back. Vulner ability, sure. Detachment, sure . But it’s more that that. I hardly knew Joe Nurre. I worked with him, yes, for two weeks, but I don’t really remember him. I am ashamed, and this is why I hold back tears. I feel like crying, but I feel like it’s not my place to cry. Joe Nurre’s real friends have gone thr ough hell since he died five days ago. This hell will always be a part of th em, and I don’t share that. I’m not entitled to share tears. I don’t deserve tears. I told my friends from B company, one of whom was Joe Nurre, that I’d come back. “It was great to work with you,” I said. “I’ll be back soon.” They truly were an exceptional group of people. I told them I’d volunteer to come back for another rotation at Q -West, but I never did. There were a lot of other missions going on, and I got lost in the mess. I could’ve told Renninger to send me back, but I

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didnÂ’t. I betrayed them. I be trayed Joe Nurre. Now he is dead, and IÂ’m not entitled to tears. His best friend is done talking, and the whole room sniffles. I stare at the M-16 up on stage. JoeÂ’s Kevlar hangs on itÂ’s butt stock and his dog tags dangle underneath. I am not entitled to tears.

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what the hell are you getting yourself into?

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If I don’t do something, who will? Joe Nurre’s rifle, upside down and deco rated with his Kevlar helmet and dog tags, stands alone on stage. A small box sits beside it on the ground. It has a clear face, and inside, arranged neatly, are all of his medals and awards. An 11x14 framed portrait of Nurre in his dress greens sits on a stand. I don’t know him like the people who set all this up did. I’m not entitled to tears, and I hold them in. Bravo Company’s commander takes the stand and tells us to “p lease rise” for the 21 gun salute. Seven people stand at attenti on off to the left. Som eone standing beside them gives orders, and they each fire three, synchronized, blank rounds at the ceiling of

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the K-Span in which the funeral is being held. Joseph C. Nurre did not die in my arms. I didn’t witness his deat h. I didn’t call in the nine line report to have him medivac-ed out of the kill zone. I didn’t know him. I forgot who he was and I’m having trouble heari ng his voice in my head. I told him I’d volunteer for another rotation, and I didn’t. Ma ybe I would have remembered him better if I came up a second or thir d time, but I didn’t. I’m not entitled to tears and I hold them in. The commander instructs us to stay standing while someone plays “Taps.” The first set of three notes is playe d. They’re slow, precise, and perfect. My bottom lip quivers, but I am not entitled to tears. The second set of three notes is played. My eyes water and the room turns blurry. I didn’t know him. He is not my family or a clos e friend. I c annot picture a moment of interaction between the two of us. I know who he is, but I don’t know him. His existence meant nothing to me. And at this mo ment, his existence meant everything to me. My eyes are blurry, and I am underwater. The top of the K-Span is sea level. I am a mile underwater, and the weight of Joseph C. Nurre’s last good bye is overpowering. I shed tears I don’t deser ve to shed. I’m not entitled to tears, but they come nonetheless. They are not quiet, respectful, funeral tears. They are tears of honor, and I sob like a baby. I bury my faces in my hands like the mother who puts flowers by her son’s picture, like Joe Nurre’s mother. I don’ t need to cry quietly ; I’m not entitled to tears. I have lost nothing in Joe Nurre’s de ath, but in a way I have lost everything. I cry for injustice, for impurity, for virtue, for love, for hate, for

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misunderstanding, for innocence, for guilt, for nothing, and for everything. The weight of Joseph C NurreÂ’s last good bye is too much to handle, and everything, it seems, falls on me. When humanity is the victim, weÂ’re all entitled to tears. I cry.

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Bring it on, devil.

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What the hellÂ’s the use?

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Someone is coming to kill me. YouÂ’re acting crazy, YouÂ’re in West Sand Lake, New York. People donÂ’t go around randomly ki lling one another. Some people donÂ’t even

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lock their doors. Go back to bed and quit being foolish. Iraq is a world away. No oneÂ’s trying to kill you here. Ryan, youÂ’ve been home for over a month. Let it go. SomeoneÂ’s coming to kill me. Get a weapon.

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Is this how it starts? How will I react when I wake up the second time? Get a fucking weapon. Is this how it starts?

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Is this how it starts? Go to sleep. Go to sleep. Go to sleep.

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to into

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IÂ’m standing in the New York State Muse um in Albany. The children I work with are on a field trip. WeÂ’re walking (single file , using inside voices) through the carpeted, snaking hallways. The clean, stale smell of the museum provides an odd sort of comfort. I remember all the times in my childhood when I smelled this smell, a mix between the smell of a vacuum and a backstage wardrobe. WeÂ’ve passed the fake Iroquois Indians picking fake vegetables and warding off fake woolly mammoths. WeÂ’ve also walked through the woodland cr eatures exhibit in which fake baby foxes sniffed out fake mice under a fake log and the ra ck from the fake moose epitomized the grandeur of the Adirondack region. In another exhibit weÂ’ve already passed, fake ducks were split in half by a sheet of glass, apparently the fake top of some imaginary lake. There was another exh ibit with fake loggers who straddled fake logs which floated down a fake river. WeÂ’re in a new exhibit now, though. A nd this exhibit is anything but fake. Ironically enough, itÂ’s the only one in the museum I wish fake. I would rather ward off real woolly mammoths, steer clear of a real moose, and dodge real floating logs than have this exhibit be real. I would rather not understand this exhibit the way I do, the way I understand its necessity. I wish there wasnÂ’t a reason for th is exhibit, and the museum staff used this space for storage. But thatÂ’s not the case. IÂ’m standing here once again, looking through glass paneling wondering how in the world five years has passed already. How in the world did this crumpled piece of scrap metal IÂ’m l ooking at go from iron-ore in the ground to

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an I-beam in a skyscraper to a display unde r glass in the New York State museum? This is my second time viewing this exhi bit (I hate calling it that, an exhibit). I’ve dealt with this exhibit (as if you can sum it up in seven letters) as well as any American could, I guess. I cried the first time I saw this exhibit (like it’s so dist ant to our hearts as to be put on display) but I have to retain my composure today. I’m in charge of ten kids. Leading kids is often like leading a pl atoon. I have to be sharp, decisive, and one step ahead. I have to be confident, admirabl e, and humble. I have to be respectful, compassionate, and disciplined. I have to be funny. I have to be genuine. Or they’ll walk all over me. So I don’t cry. I hold it in and supervise the kids as they roam around the room full of rusty bolts and torn airplane tires and a torched fire tr uck and quotes from George W. Bush and the American flag, American flag, the flag that is ta ttered, stained, and with frayed edges. But it’s the flag, our flag, and it still f lies, even if it’s no longer watching over Manhattan. The flag, like everything else in the room , seems to be smoking. The kids don’t see the smoke. They are the innocent. But I do. I see the smoke as if I’m running from it. I’m reading a plaque which lies next to a smoking fire fighters’ helmet. It explains how the “brave men and women of Engine such-and-such took such-and-such casualties.” There’s another word I hate, casualty. Why is it casual? I stop reading because the smoke fills my eyes. A little girl is standing next to me. He r name is Emma and she is in kindergarten this year. She’s “one of the good ones.” Her par ents are extremely ni ce and take the time to show Emma and her brother, Peter, the import ant things in life, to include life itself.

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She loves to tap dance and go to Tae Kwon Do practice. She loves to color and to play kickball, even if she can’t kick the ball very fa r. She likes to show off for her friends and play dress up. She is the innocent. She looks up at me with giant brown eyes. She pulls a tendril of dark hair away from her face. She seems confused. By what I’m not sure. There are other families here, walking among our field trip group, and th ey seem to choke on the smoke like I do. Emma’s not choking, but something in those dark eyes tells me she wants to. She looks at the yellow fireman’s hat and then at the flag, THE flag, and then back at me. I nod my head as if to say “r emember?” But Emma doesn’t remember. “What happened, Ryan?” she asks. And th e way she says my name breaks my heart. It tears my heart right in half, b ecause I quickly do the math. Emma is five, meaning she was born after the towers fell. Unti l now I considered th ese kids part of my generation. But they are not. My generation has already lost its i nnocence. I remember exactly when it happened, actually. The very da y. The exact time of day is written right here, in fact, on plaques in the New York State museum. A museum of history. I look down at Emma, my heart in pieces . In my head I wonder how I can retain her generation’s innocence, how I can pr otect them. I quickly realize I cannot. “Some very bad men attacked our country, Emma. Down in New York City,” I say. “They don’t like our country and they k illed innocent people because of it.” “But why?” she asks. “That doesn’t make sense.” “No it doesn’t,” I say. Then we stand for a minute, Emma discovering the fact that human’s kill one another to prove points. Me still trying to figure that fact out myself.

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“You know how the other kids talk about me being in Iraq?” I ask. “Yes,” she says. “This is why.”

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If you ask me why I did it, why I volunteered, why I ran toward the danger when so many of my generation ran away, I’ll ru mmage through an old army foot locker. I’ll dig around, between the hand written letters, the Desert Eagle knife, the Army commendation medal, and the folded Americ an flag my wife would have gotten had I died. I’ll rummage past these things and find Bazoona Cat. You won’t understand why, but I’ll hold it for a moment. I’ll pet its soft fur and then place it in your hand. You’ll look at it with an odd sort of disgust. It is, in fact, rather ugly. That’s the first thing you’ll notice. All its sen timent means nothing to you, and you’ll hand it back like spoiled fruit. Wonderi ng how I could chalk up my involvement in the war with this hairy, gross little object, you’ll give me a confused look. You’ll doubt how I can justify everything t hat happened in Iraq with a stupid little rabbit’s foot decorated to resemble a cat. I’ll just smile because I know how much you can’ t understand, no matter how many words I use to describe it. Inside, t hough, my heart will ache. I’ll give up trying to explain the creature and I’ll just pet its soft fur. “Why’d you do it?” You’ll ask again, wonderi ng if I heard you right the first time. I’ll hold it up. “This is why.”

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The blood courses through my veins. ItÂ’s hot, especially in my face. I am so angry. Furious. Fuming. He thinks he is so tough. He thinks he is so right, and that I am so wrong. I am not wrong. I will show him. I wres tle. He played football in high school. I can probably kick his ass. I want to kick his a ss. Just settle this once and for all. WeÂ’re standing toe to toe, something weÂ’ve never done before. The heat between us could be cut with a knife. What are we even arguing about? It doesnÂ’t matter. Right now weÂ’re arguing about everything. Every reason he is wrong and I am right. Every reason he th inks IÂ’m stupid. Every reason I know stupid. Every reason I canÂ’t wait to grow up and start my own life. Every ounce of authority and power with which he controls my life. The blood in my veins is volatile, my thoughts explosive. My mother is standing next to us, in front of the kitchen cabi nets, but I can hardly see her. ItÂ’s not about her. She feebly tries to talk sense into us . Foolish woman. We are

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bulls arguing for pride. Talking se nse is a squirt gun on a house fire. “You think you’re so tough?” he asks me . A glare, inches from his face, is my response. I hate him. “Let’s take it outside then.” “Take it outside?” I mock. “A re we in a fucking bar?” He hates when I mock him. Says it’s disrespectful. That’s why I do it. He gives me shove, and I stumble bac k. My blood explodes. Fiery liquid as caustic as battery acid. Rage as destructive as dynamite. He set it off. It’s uncontainable. Vinegar into baking soda. A mine in a fiel d. The few feet I stumble give me a running start. The look on his face is one of sham e and bewilderment. As I take large, firm steps toward him, his eyes hold in them a deep degree of sorrow. They seem regretful, wondering if his shove was the last moment of interaction we’d have as father and son.

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I am so furious at my dad. How does he think he can contro l me? How does he think he can shove me? His eyes seem so c onfused, as if his body did something out of order with his mind. I step toward him, across the green, tiled kitchen. Giant, powerful steps, like that of an elephant . I feel like an elephant. My dad’s wondering if I’ll slug him, and what would be his best reacti on if I did. He stands his ground. I don’t slug him. I want to, but there’ s something deeper commanding me against it. Instead I put my hands on his chest and sho ve him back. As hard as I can, with all the hate and resentment I can muster, I push him. My rage flows from my heart to my head to my chest to my arms. Nothing can stop my r age-filled arms, and my father stumbles back. He seems surprised at my strength. My chest heaves with torrid passion. “Push me?” I yell. “You think you can push me?” He doesn’t say anything. His eyes seem t hankful it didn’t escalate to punches. We both know the fight is over, but neither of us wants to be the first one to say it. Foolish

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pride. Father and son. My mom stands next to us, scared to death and wondering if it’s over. She wants to step in, but somehow understands our tunne l vision. We don’t ev en acknowledge her presence. All we see is each other’s eyes. Confusion, regret, denial. I don’t see anything but blind rage. My father, on the other hand, is probably playing the “Reel of Ryan” in his head. He’s watching me grow up. His eyes are sad as he remembers the first time he held me, so small and so helpless. He’s remembering whispering to me in my crib. He’s remembering my first words and first steps and my first loose tooth. He’s re membering a long day at work that was brightened by a funny anecdote from summer camp. He’s showing me how a compass works on an Adirondack camping trip, just the two of us . He’s showing me how to hook a worm and hold a fish by the jaw. He’s showing me how to throw a baseball, a football, and a horseshoe. He’s holding me, scraped and bloody, a fter I fell forty feet from the tree in the back yard. He’s watching me blow out my knee and then ride down the ski slope in a medic sled. He’s watching me win my first wrestling match. And now he’s watching the first time we’ve laid hands on one another in aggression. I storm up to my room and grab my thi ngs. My father is left standing in the kitchen with my mother. Lord knows what they talk about. Maybe th ey don’t say a word. Ungrateful can be the only word going through their minds. I tell myself. I am so ungrateful.

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Is that what you thought about, Ryan? WerenÂ’t you scared? Is it the same as when Gramps was in?

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After spending a night at a friend’s, I show up at my wrestling coach’s house. I have a bag of clothes and basic hygiene products . My eyes are tired, regretful, and full of selfish teenage pride and ignor ance. I tell him what happened. “My dad hit me,” I say, almost in tears. It feels like I’m lyin g because I am lying. He shoved me and that’s as far as it went. A shameful part of me wi shes it went further, wishes I had more to blame, but I don’t. My coach furls his eyebrows, wondering exactly what I mean by this. He calls my bluff. “Your father wouldn’t hit you, Ryan,” he says. “We got in a fight and he shoved me,” I admit. “Sit down, Ryan,” he tells me. We have a long conversation at his kitc hen table. I wonder briefly why houses revolve around the kitchen. Even when there is a room with the name “ living” right in it, we often converse (and sometimes fight) in the kitchen. My coach tries to make me understand how lucky I am. He teaches elementa ry kids and coaches high school boys. He’s seen a lot of awful paren ts and a lot of ungrateful kids. In his own way, he convinces me I am one of the latter. “I see your parents at every wrestling match” he says. I stare at the floor. “You don’t even realize how lucky you are to have that.” In my head, I hear myself say, The words don’t come out, because right now there are no ‘but’s. He is right. I

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donÂ’t fully realize how ungrateful I have been, but I am starting to see it. We sit in silence for a minute, my wrestling coach walking head on into my minefield. He knows there are no mines buried there, not yet, just arrogant te enage angst. Something heÂ’s not scared of one bit. He has three boys. TheyÂ’re still y oung, but he understands the complicated relationship between father and son. In adolescen ce, thereÂ’s always altercations between fathers and sons. Oedipus Complex and all that Freudian junk. Thes e arguments, fights, shoves in the kitchen, are all full of prid e and caught up in whoÂ’ s right and whoÂ’s wrong, as if every problem is that simple. Though every situation is different, these problems all revolve around a single, universal realization. ThereÂ’s a significant point in every boyÂ’s l ife when he learns that his father is a man. Not a man in the sense of working to put food on the table, nor a simple reconstruction of Adam. ThereÂ’s a point when a boy learns that his father has the same feelings of aggression, lust, and greed as all the rest of us. ThereÂ’s a point when a boy realizes that he and his father share a biological similarity. Through maturity and understanding, this realization creates a str ong feeling of connect edness. At first, however, this realization creates a strong feeli ng of resentment. ThereÂ’s a part of the boy who feels neglected, like heÂ’s b een lied to his whole life. A nd this is the ugly part that emerges. On the same wave length, thereÂ’s a point wh en the father learns that his son is on the verge of becoming a man. The father look s at his son one day and sees the awkward, pimply faced, patchily bearded kid that th e father thought was long gone, a part of the past. His mind zips through all the confusion of teenage life. He wants to be there for his

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son in this difficult stage (I know what you’ re feeling, son), but the son simply pushes him away (you have no idea what this is like, dad) . There’s a constant, irrational struggle of power that ensues. Nothing is ever right, and nothing is ever wrong. It’s all just a learning experience. It ’s boys becoming men. Foolish pride. Fathers and sons. My wrestling coach drives me back to my house, and my mother is there, waiting on the doorstep. She should be furious. I ran away with all the selfishness of a four year old. Instead, she is unconditi onally forgiving and embraces my return. She hugs me, and we cry together on the steps. Confusion, regret, denial. “I’m sorry,” I say. “Me too, honey,” she says. I don’t have the slightest clue as to wh y she’s apologizing. I am so ungrateful and so ashamed. Then I come to realize another important and undeniable fact of families. The relationship between a father and son is intensely complicated. The men take things too far and too seriously. But every time that happens, there is a woman standing there, pacing on the steps, waiting for the chan ce to apologize, even if it’s not her fault (it hardly ever is). She stands ready with th e minesweeper, able to walk through the minefield of men and their stubborn concei t. Her head is up, honoring those who have created this shameful state, and she is ready to suffer the blow of a mine. Selflessly, independently, she takes the brunt of the fight. Not with fists or a heaving chest, but with embracing arms. The arms of a woman. And standing on the porch steps, embraced and loved in my mother’s arms, I

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come to realize the other half of the comp licated relationship be tween fathers and sons: Mothers. Fathers are the stiff, unwaveri ng backbone upon which a family is built. But mothers are the compassionate, forgiving he arts that hold it all together. Always.

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I, Ryan, take you, HeatherÂ…

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Â…to be my lawfully wedded wifeÂ…

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Â…To have and to holdÂ… No matter what happens in the future youÂ’ll always have now.

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Â…For betterÂ… Â…or for worseÂ…

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Â…In sickness and in healthÂ…

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Where is the good? Where is it? Did it happen? Should it have happen?

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Â…To love and to cherishÂ…

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Â…from this day forwardÂ…

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is Â…As long as we both shall live.

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we you You

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There is something more has believe know other is


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