As a competitive kid, I was always trying to win at everything I did. It helped that my brothers challenged me daily with taunts or physical roughhousing. We also played sports constantly. Often these games went on for hours whether it was table tennis or a game of what we called Glowball, a form of baseball using a 29″ hardball bat and a collection of softball-sized balls formed of a tough but pliable plastic.
We also competed in sports with all the neighborhood kids. Our pickup baseball games often took place with all positions filled. Or, we’d play soccer or football on the west end of a long practice range at the golf course next to our homes. Sometimes fights would break out over some call, but most of the time we enjoyed those games for all they were worth. In all, these and other sports in which we participated from basketball to track and field and cross country, these were methods of learning about life.
As you can see from the photo above, this physical and emotional activity kept me skinny and wired. I was an anxious kid who needed that release. My father was alternately a tough and tender man, yet when his fury unleashed on us for some insubordination the results could indeed be terrifying.
There was one incident that left a deep mark on my soul when I was only six. My brothers had done something wrong in the eyes of my father and he exacted a beating on them while I watched. Weeks later my best friend was spanked on the playground by a teacher and I broke down crying. So I know that there were psychological effects as a result of all that open violence. I was a sensitive kid.
There were also plenty of school bullies with which to contend. The communities south of Lancaster, Pennsylvania were strongly striated along economic terms. Coming across the metal bridge on Route 222 over the Conestoga River, one first found a trailer park. Then came modest homes, and then a country club. Continuing south one crossed the smaller Mill Creek with its age-old brick mill and dam, followed by a fruit market and a then street that dug into the hills like an asphalt scar. The homes there leaned from neglect and sporting rings of broken down cars and old washing machines. And that’s where most of the playground bullies came from.
The were two guys in particular who seemed to hate me for no reason. One was named Brian McFalls. His hair piled up on his head like a bushel of hay and he was lean and hard of character, almost as if gravity itself were compressing his tight-jeaned figure. On every occasion that he could find, he tormented me with mean little acts. He once kicked the case of clarinet under the wheel of the school bus as we were boarding. He’d also sidle up while waiting for the bus and say mean things while his toadie friend snickered. Basically these two were exactly like the characters of Scut Farkus and his little brute friend in the movie A Christmas Story.
By sixth grade, the actions of bullies like Brian and others had added up to no good in my own little soul. Again, recall that I was a competitive kid like no other. My brothers all called me The Mink, because I’d go off like a rocket when there was a challenge to be met.
By the sixth grade I had begun to start some fights in school and other places. That led to other fights and a reputation. Finally, I wound up being challenged to a ‘real fight’ by a scary kid named Davey Long. He had pasty white skin and lips that looked transparently red, as if the tissue under the surface of his skin was showing through.
I agreed to meet Davey Long to have our ‘real fight’ in the deep end of the Meadia Heights swimming pool. It was winter and the pool was empty, and secretly I was frightened out of my mind at the thought of fighting that guy. But to buck myself up I bragged about it at the local basketball court. That’s when a neighbor named Davey Arnold grabbed me by the shirt and said, “You’re not going.” He gave me an angry shake and said, “I’ll go for you.”
That’s what Davey Arnold did. He went down to the pool at the prescribed time and met up with Davey Long. Davey Arnold administered a pummeling that concluded by holding Long’s faced in the crook of his elbow while he pounded his fist into it. There was blood all over the front of Davey Arnold’s tee shirt when he came back to the basketball court to point a finger at me. He walked straight up and grabbed my shirt by the collar. “You are not going to fight anymore, do you hear me? Davey Long pulled a knife on me, do you know that? You could have been really hurt.”
War and peace
To me, Davey Arnold symbolizes what the power of our military is for. Throughout the history of our country, our nation has been pushed by bullies of one kind or another. Our military takes that job of dealing with bullies on itself and does it well.
But recently our military has also done some pushing other around on behalf of the nation. This week I interviewed a set of soldiers for a Veterans Day article. One related that he had enlisted immediately after watching the 9/11 attacks unfold on a high school classroom TV. He related that during his first mission “all I wanted to do was create chaos,” and he was ready to fight anything that moved. He did see combat in Iraq, walking into streets where potential enemies lurked. “By the end of my first tour though, I realized that 99.7% of those people in that country were not our enemies. It was only the tiny percentage that we were after.”
Food for thought
During their walkabouts, the people of Iraq would often invite them into their homes to share their food. “They had little or nothing,” he said. “Yet they still offered it to us.”
He returned to Iraq two more times. On his second tour, his military group happened to visit an area that was the historic home of the religious scion Abraham, hero to people of faiths in three religious traditions; Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
This gave him new perspective on the fact that there was a much bigger picture at work in the conflict over Iraq. His continuing interactions with people of that country began to change his mind about the reasons for fighting in Iraq at all. By the third tour of duty, his mates in the Marines were all giving deep thought about the purpose of that war. “We ventured even deeper into the history of that country,” he related. “And it changes you. When I went over there I knew nothing about the world. I didn’t even know how to do the job I was sent to do. We were all just making it up and trying to figure out how to make things work.”
Honor and will to succeed
Such is the life of so many soldiers. Called to duty. Committed to service. Commanded to act. It is theirs to push forward with the honor and will to succeed. No one questions any of that. Veterans deserve our ultimate respect. I’ve never served in the military, but I believe our country should take care of our soldiers with health care and other benefits for their whole lives. Our country has not done that dating all the way back through the Revolutionary War. After the conflicts, we too often treat our soldiers with neglect and disrespect. It’s happened with too many wars, with World War II and the GI Bill being one noble exception.
But even this summation does not mean their stories are simple or pat examples to all mankind. The other two veterans we interviewed had challenging stories to tell. Both were now dealing with holdover effects of PTSD, the result of psychological trauma from the brutality of their military service and combat. Transitioning back to civilian life has largely gone well, but they worry that people view them as shattered beings, when in fact, they are simply human beings who have seen the realities of war and know a bit more about the world as a result.
They have been the ones to go out and deal with bullies, in other words. But they have also experienced what it means to “be the bully” when sent into combat in a region where the lines of good and bad are not so clearly demarcated . Perhaps the political bullies who sent them there do not truly understand the consequences of that type of conflict. Or perhaps they simply do not care. And that is the ultimate disrespect to the service of our military, and our veterans.
Evil within us
It is important to realize that while the fight against evil in the world can seem so simple and clear, there is also the evil within us that must be reconciled. All people have that trace of evil within them. When it is riled into action by those seeking to gain power, especially those seeking to create chaos within the social order because it confers them an opportunity to occupy a power vacuum, it can be difficult to recognize who the heroes really are, and who in fact are just bullies looking to push other people around. This happens in politics quite frequently. Politicians are all too willing to send people to die based on their own morbid fears or sick ideologies. It’s been the case throughout history. Nothing has really changed in that aspect of the human condition.
My father served in the Navy at the tail end of World War II. His rickety old ship barely made it across the Pacific in 1945. They scuttled the boat in the ocean once they’d made it. And then my father walked the grounds in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was an avid photographer and snapped some photos of those ruined cities.
That was the product of America confronting the nation of Japan, which had become a bully without fear of throwing its own citizens into the craw of war in order to achieve victory. Fortunately, it did not, because of one crushing blow delivered by those nuclear weapons. One can argue the morals of those actions forever, but the fact that Japan and the United States ultimately reconciled those acts from both sides is a good sign that nations can survive even the most zealous leaders and live to see another day.
And that is the ultimate lesson from war whether it is fought abroad or right here at home.