||logomachy--1. A dispute
about words. 2. A dispute carried on in words only; a battle of words.
logomachon--1. One who argues about words.
2. A word warrior.
Get a better kid
A paradigmatic moment occurred election night on NPR that shows that Republicans and Democrats don’t just check off different lines on the ballot. They live in different countries, if not in different universes. Scott Simon interviewed two women in Milwaukee, long-time friends, at their regular ladies’ bowling night. One had voted for George Bush. The other had not.
The Bush voter said that she thought Bush made the right decision to go to war in Iraq.
The second woman had voted for Kerry. Why? Bush had said all during the 2000 campaign that he would try to “end the divisiveness” and “bring us together”. But it had gotten so much worse that at her three-year-old’s play group, the “moms for the Democrats sit on one side and the moms for the Republican children play on the other side”, and “we can’t move forward on any issue, on Iraq, on anything social unless he brings us together”.
She reminded me of a young matron I met 35 year ago during an anti-Vietnam demonstration in Washington, D.C. She was protesting the war because her very young son was watching the news on TV and having nightmares.
I didn’t know what to say, then. Now, I would just tell her to get a better kid.
Like this one.
Elizabeth and the Gulf WarElizabeth was five-and-a-half when the shooting started in the Gulf War. At bedtime, we added a prayer for our soldiers and pilots, and as I tucked her in, she asked, "Is there going to be any shooting around here?" I told her that the Persian Gulf was on the other side of the world and assured her that a war in Iraq was not going to come to our neighborhood.
That didn't seem enough for her. It wasn't just that she had no sense of the distance from the Persian Gulf to upstate New York. She had no sense of proportion about combat, no sense of the ineffectiveness of combat, of the opportunities to discover, as Winston Churchill said, that "There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result."
So I started to tell her funny stories about Vietnam.
Blowing up the ammo dumpActually, the first story was more about exhilaration than comedy. It was about the time I was on the company reaction force to help the perimeter guards during the Tet Offensive in 1968.
"One night when I was in Vietnam", I started, "there was an attack, a big attack." I told her how we got out of trucks and stood in the dark, watching red lines of tracers from guard towers and helicopters stream down beyond the perimeter fence. As it started to get light, the sergeants told us to line up and walk toward the shooting.
My section of the line came to a steep pile of dirt. "It was almost as high as our house and much wider", I described it to Elizabeth. My friends and I climbed to the top of the pile and saw we were on a wall, or berm, protecting a huge pile of ammunition crates.
We had been sent to clear Viet Cong from an ammunition dump!
We walked down the berm, around the crates, and over the berm on the opposite side, where we found a barbed-wire fence.
As we sat down, the pile of ammunition blew up, just a few minutes after we had walked past it—the Viet Cong must have left a time charge. The ground rolled like an ocean wave. I bounced twice as though I were on a trampoline and flopped onto my stomach. I looked over my shoulder and saw a big column of smoke rising from behind the berm. I thought, "Uh-oh. What goes up must come down". I scrunched myself up as small as I could and wished that I could crawl into my helmet.
"Why?" Elizabeth said. "What happened?"
"It rained rocks for a minute," I explained, "I saw a jagged chunk of steel the size of a softball land right next to my elbow. But only one person was hit, and he just had a bad cut."
"Nobody was killed," she said.
"No," I replied. "Most of the bullets and explosions don’t hurt anyone. That’s why there is so much shooting."
"I’m glad you weren’t hurt." She reached up for a hug.
"So am I, sweetie", I told her.
Too many magazines"Are the soldiers in the fighting afraid?" she wanted to know.
"Of course," I assured her. "You are always a little afraid, but you are mostly excited, and you can still do what you are trained to do, even when you are afraid.
"Did I ever tell you about Brian Ryan?", I continued.
The attacks and alerts of the Tet Offensive continued for a several weeks. One day, some of the men in my barracks were talking about what they would do if our company area were attacked, which wasn’t likely, because we were in the middle of one of the biggest American bases in Vietnam. Brian Ryan, who had just gotten to Vietnam, said that he wasn’t going to defend the barracks. If the Viet Cong attacked, he said, he was going to run to the bottom of the hill and hide in the pits where they burned out the tubs from the latrines.
We told Brian that hiding wouldn’t help. The Viet Cong would come looking for him. "Ol’ Charlie’s gonna come over the hill", we told him, "whoopin’ an’ hollerin’ and yellin’ 'Blyan Lyan, you die'". Brian just laughed and said he didn’t care. He was going to hide in the fire pits.
A few nights later, Brian was called out on reaction force and went to the company armory to get his rifle and ammunition. Brian filled his ammo pouches with loaded magazines, and because there was a big box and no one said to stop, he just kept taking more and more magazines and stuffing them into all the big pockets in the jacket and pants of his jungle fatigues.
This night, an ammo pile blew up even before Brian's platoon had left the road. Everyone hit the ground. When nothing more happened, everybody else stood up. Brian didn’t see any reason to move, so he stayed lying in the sand. A sergeant came down the line to check on people, and when he saw Brian, he asked "Is this man injured?"
"The fact was," Brian told us later, "I had almost killed myself landing on all those magazines, instead of nice, soft sand".
"We were all laughing," I told Elizabeth. She giggled a bit on cue. Brian went on, "But the best part was when we got back here. I had stuffed my pockets so tight that I couldn’t get the magazines out. I had to take off my clothes to work them loose. They wouldn’t have done me any good at all."
Elizabeth giggled happily at Brian’s silliness. I told her a few more stories of funny things that had happened to me, and of more close calls without result.
When I saw she was asleep, I thought of my friend, Harry, who had been a 19-year-old bomber pilot and POW in World War II. Harry was a Scoutmaster. When the younger Scouts couldn’t sleep at camp, he would tell them about his "18 death-defying missions through the flak-strewn skies of Nazi Germany". The kids never lasted past the second mission, he said.
The next morning, I looked in to see if Elizabeth needed any help getting ready for school. She was fine. "Pater," she announced, "I’ve decided what to wear. I am going to wear my red, white, and blue sailor dress today, in honor of all our soldiers and sailors."