I stood for several moments taking in the scene. The lake stretched for miles, tree-covered islands reflected off the mirror-like surface. The scent of pine wafted in the air as the water lapped against the wooden dock. Nature nestled me to its bosom, whispering promises of delight in exchange for my time and admiration.
Dad walked up next to me. “Well this is nice,” he said glancing out, “now let's get the car unpacked.” He turned and walked away.
My eyes remained on the splendor. I shook my head and thought, he can’t partake in a moment of tranquility. He knows it's here, but has he ever reveled in it? A man who enjoys the idea of something more than the actual experience of it. A man, for example, who travels with his sons to historic sites up and down the eastern seaboard. If asked about these experiences, his sons regurgitate great tales of kinship and the critical debates on the growth and progress of the nation. If the same inquiry is put to Dad, he responds with “the biggest problem with this country is merging. People in this country can’t merge onto the highway to save their life.”
However, he knows there was time spent with his boys, valuable time, memorable time, regardless of how it is remembered. Time worthy of life’s purpose Sadly, our brains also absorb the ugly and horrific, leaving these images on replay. The images, that no matter how hard one tries, they refuse to be evicted, and instead wreak havoc on everything that attempts to replace them. Dug in and held the line like the events that created them. For Dad, it started in May of 1968.
I prayed, God, please give my father the strength to embrace your subtle blessings. Also, please protect my family. Thank you. Amen.
My fingers dashed the sign of the cross, and I turned towards the car.
“Daddio, what do you need me to grab; my overnight bag or … my overnight bag? I can see why it is so pressing to unload them right now, considering it and your suitcase are the only things in the vehicle,” I smirked, draping the bag over my shoulder and yanking out his suitcase.
He ignored me, already at the door. He studied the cabin instruction sheet which he clutched in one hand while the other fiddled with the combination code for the lockbox. After three attempts, he had a key in hand and turned the knob. Pushing the door open, a whoosh of trapped air escaped, releasing the musty smell of constant dampness. It reminded me of our half-finished basement when I was a kid and allowed me to enjoy the wafting odor.
The modest cabin had furnishing from the mid-eighties, a head nod to my youth. The kitchen was simple with a few cupboards, sink refrigerator, microwave, and our favorite piece, the coffee maker. The highlight of the paneled space was the sliding glass doors in the living room revealing the view of the glimmering water.
We went up the stairs off the kitchen and found two rooms. One had a set of bunks and the other a queen with an attached deck. I tossed my bag on the bottom bunk knowing there was no reason to discuss sleeping arrangements or use of the deck because Dad’s room was off-limits once he stepped foot in it. Always a private person. I headed back downstairs, the lower level deck awaited me. I heaved open the metal patio door, its screeching metal on metal making me wince. A pair of sturdy Adirondack chairs beckoned to me. They whispered, “hey you. I know you've been in the car for six hours, but come, and sit again. Your legs don’t need blood flow, but your arms need two slabs of wood to rest on. Sink into our old and ergonomic design which has made us a New England favorite.”
“My God Adirondack chair, you are right, you need to be sat in so that you may have purpose and I may bask in the serenity of this.”
“Who the hell are you talking to?” Dad yelled from the kitchen.
I guess I was thinking out loud. “Uh, no one Dad, just the loons”
“Loons alright,”, he retorted. I watched him pull a 32-ounce Coffeemate cinnamon creamer container and two glass coffee mugs from a plastic tote. The one mug said Freedom Isn’t Free, and the other informed me that Jesus died for our sins, the American soldier died for our freedom.
Where was the mug that said I bring my own coffee mugs 650 miles to a fully furnished cabin?
I smiled and slid into the chair, arms high on the rest, and stared at the landscape. My thoughts wandered. Dad startled me when he reached out with a mug of steaming coffee, “here you go.” The aroma danced into my nostrils. He leaned on the back of the adjacent chair, “This is really nice, isn’t it? We picked a perfect spot. It's a sad reason why we’re here, but this is making up for it.”
“Well, it usually balances out if we want to see it that way.”
We both stared at a pair of loons, equally impressed when they bellowed their howling call, shuttering off the lake and piercing the eardrums. I took a sip of coffee, tasting its earthy roots.
“Dad, can I read you something?”
“What is it?”
“Something I wrote on the way up here.”
“Is it long?” he asked. “What’s it about?”
“It’s about America, my conflicted and dysfunctional homeland,” I said, removing a small, leather journal from my hoodie pocket. I leafed through the pages of gel ink in cursive.
“Ok, let’s hear it already.”
I lowered my glasses, skimmed the page, and began reading.
Self-reflection brings me to the hypothesis “I am America.”We are both still young and consistently evolving. We’ve met with turmoil and inner conflict, questioning morals and ethics, the struggle between right and wrong while defining our pursuit of happiness as a whole. We were born into dysfunction, with many different thoughts and ideas, and grew up on a solid enough foundation established on a core set of beliefs from those around us. Since our conception, we have steadily advanced learning to walk by falling down countless times, but using all our energy to pick ourselves up. Being selfish, stubborn, and resistant to change right up to the point of violence. However, we were raised for violence even if we didn’t know why. And sadly, our perception remains skewed. Through maturity, knowledge, and experience we should be able to find balance, finding empathy for all. My country and I still make mistakes that we won’t admit to, have more enemies than friends. Some admire what we are, while others see an arrogant, know-it-all making up the rules as it goes along. A self-righteous hypocrite basking in its own glory.
But, if we're able to look into the intricacies of us, much more can be found. An innovative and creative thinker seeking better for the next generation, but still trying to understand those who raised us with their fears. To provide protection and safety for those who need it and refuse to turn a blind eye to injustice. To constantly learn. To work hard at improving our openmindedness, lines of communication, and display empathy without judgment. And yet we have so much still to do. Yet here we are, like our fathers before us, products of our environment. Born and raised by America. Raised in all its good, all its bad, all its conflict, and all the joy and accomplishment. An evolving being approaching middle age, covered in the scars of our past, but with eyes focused on character, culpability, and love. A dream that comes true through selflessness, sacrifice, and acceptance, with actions always outweighing words. I am America.
Setting the journal on my lap, I watched Dad’s face. It remained expressionless, his blue eyes reflecting the water. The silence settled like a dense fog.
After a minute, he said “it was OK. A little critical don’t you think? You’re talking about the greatest country in the world. The country I went to Vietnam for. The one I killed for, and almost died for. The one your brother did die for. Where is that in your story?”
I followed his eyes across the placid water, resting them on a tree-lined island. Guilt washed over me like a tidal wave, pulling me into its undertow. “I just look at my son. I wouldn’t want him to be a soldier. Is that wrong?
Staring expressionless, the loons ringing in our ears, he said nothing.
“All I meant is we formulate our character based on our genetics and environment. You know, nature verse nurture. Some say to nurture by nature, which is a remarkable thought.” I paused, inhaling the crisp air. “You may ask, what in God’s name is your point? Well, I don’t know just yet. Socrates said the only thing I know is that I don’t know. He gained a reputation for knowing a thing or two. I just hope I’m living right if that's possible. I look at my son, who's 19, and has no clue what he wants to do, and is scared that's not good enough. When I was 19, I had no idea who or what I wanted to be. Hell, even as a pretty decent carpenter, I still don’t know.”
“At 19, I was flying into Saigon while they were mortaring the airport.”
“I know. But I don’t know. I have not a clue what that could have felt like. What that level of fear would do to the human psyche.”
“It wasn’t fear, it was stress. I mean we were scared but overwhelmed with the stress of what comes next. If you won a firefight, your prize was another firefight. Mortars came when they wanted, didn’t matter what we were doing. Eating chow, using the john, or just taking our boots off from a long day. They came without warning, and if you were in its path, well, that was that.” He continued staring at the lake.
I was drawn to his timeless face with Charles Bronson's demeanor, and wisdom displayed in his silvering hair.
“You know what the worst part was over there? That no matter who got blown up, or shot, or mortared, bit by a poisonous snake, stepped on a claymore, sniped by a shadow in the trees, or any of it, I was always glad it wasn’t me. Didn’t matter if it was a complete stranger or your best friend. I was always sad, always thought about the family back home, but was relieved it wasn’t me. God had plenty of opportunities to take me, and he didn’t. He took someone else, and as much as I hate to admit it, I was thankful.”
His vulnerability swirled around me like a hurricane, while I sat in the eye of the storm, witnessing the calm of the experience. A divine moment is created in a bond between all the forces of the universe. The human spirit is tranquilized by the spirit of the land as part of its harmony, plucking the strings of its harp for us all to be humbled. I hoped that's what dad felt, the grace of the universe forgiving us for the actions we committed because we believed it was right at the time.
I wondered what I would have done in war. What kind of soldier I would have been? What about the cause? Would I believe in it? Toronto is a beautiful city, I could probably live there. So many things I wondered. But what I knew about war is it always made my grandpa nervous when any of us stood too long or raised our decibels above acceptable volume, subject to change at any moment. I knew war captured my Dad’s tongue for twenty years, not telling a single story about his time overseas. And my brother’s bittersweet funeral in Arlington National Cemetery when the Old Guard laid him to rest among the rows of white marble. Military pomp and circumstance drenched in grieving tears. And even in this, our spiritual journey of the eye of the storm moments, find a natural calm that affects us in unnatural ways. Ways we will not understand.
Dad took a sip of his coffee.
“Dad, I’m happy we’re having this conversation. I don’t want my son going to places like Vietnam unless he decided to. I want him to grow up according to his nature when he’s ready. He is kind, and insightful, so very insightful. You should hear how he understands people and his self-awareness. It is pretty amazing.”
“He plays video games all day. He should be out working. You should take him to the job site with you. Teach him something.”
“I have Dad, but he’s not a carpenter, and he doesn’t want to be one. It's not his nature. And the only thing it did was make us fight. I tore into him a few times because he didn’t know what to do, and I’m trying to get it done. He didn’t know what to do because I didn’t teach him properly. But that’s how I learned. Get yelled at enough until you don’t forget it. No, I want something different for him. And who knows, one day he might come to me and say, Dad, I need some work, do you want to teach me this building thing? And I will gladly say yes. But he is talented, and he’ll figure it out. For now, if he is kind, thoughtful, and empathetic, that is enough. And personally, I believe we need more of those people in the world. We want better for our children. We are just constantly trying to realize what exactly better looks like. But we must try.”