“Pain Burning the Midnight Oil”

by Ben Weise

Thought about you recently. I was surfing the web and came across your town. My God, the pictures! Looks the same as it did when I went to see your folks. Most depressing place I’ve ever been. Nothing but flat sand and white dust everywhere like some kind of funeral shroud. Reminds me of the Bonneville salt flats except for the smattering of scorched houses, corroded trucks, and a handful of vertical specimens trying hard to pass for trees. How did you ever manage to live there? Annual rainfall less than four inches. Average summer temperature over a hundred. Even the lake nearby couldn’t hack it. Dried up a long time ago. But, hey, it was home to you and that’s all that needs to be said about that. So I decided to look you up. Let my fingers do the walking as they used to say. And it was all there: your date of birth, service branch, rank, and the exact location of your name on the Wall. Was there once with my wife. Gave me goose bumps. She had the decency to let me be when I found you. So many people there leaving things. Medals, mementos and stuff. Others just standing still not saying anything. Do they know? The world’s so fucked up. Us, they used to call war mongers and baby killers. Today, they’re falling all over themselves calling anybody in uniform a hero. But there’s a real nice photo of you too in a suit and tie. Never saw you that way with that sly smile like you’d just gotten laid. And maybe you did. I hope so.

Remember the time we got caught in a traffic jam just outside that vill with tanks lined up bumper to bumper and those two girls making eyes at us? Shit. The trouble we could’ve gotten into. Five bucks for five minutes on a reed mat shaking our asses. It was great though, wasn’t it?

You don’t know it − then again maybe you do − the blogs people posted that knew you. “Gone but not forgotten.” Yeah. And, “One of the most fun and fun-loving people I ever met.” Roger that. Then there’s one that says, “He was the greatest…he gave me my first kiss….in first grade! We shared bubble gum when we were five and six years old… the same piece of bubble gum.” Man, you sure got started earlier than I did. There was something else I found. The mining operation that has most of the folks in your town on its payroll made a lot of money producing potash. I didn’t know it, but it’s one of the elements used in making gunpowder. Can you believe it? I wonder if your parents ever made that connection.

After I got back to the world and they handed me my discharge, I rented a car and drove to pay my respects. You see, the lieutenant asked me to box up your things so they could be shipped to your house. A couple of weeks later I got a letter from your mother asking me if I’d come by. Tell you the truth, I didn’t want to. I didn’t know what to expect. But then I decided why not. I had the top down sometimes driving over a hundred. I figured if got stopped, what were they gonna do? Send me back to Nam? Anyway, when I rolled up to your place, I hadn’t even gotten out of the car and the front door opened. It looked like half the town had come to hear me talk about how you died. And not just once. Every time somebody else came in the door, I had to tell it all over again. And every time your mother broke down. Poor woman. Friends trying to console her. It was awful. I had the feeling she almost wished I’d been killed instead of you. I guess that’s normal though. Mothers.

Later on your parents asked if I wanted to see the cemetery. What was I gonna do? Say no? So we piled in the same car and drove nobody saying a word. Man oh man, I’m telling you. Talk about desolate. Looked like somebody had plopped a bunch of stone slabs on the moon’s surface. No grass. No trees. Nothing but a few bleached artificial flowers and crushed rock hot enough to cook bare feet. I wondered why you weren’t in Arlington. Lots of green there. Lots of brothers for company. Besides, you always did like the sound of Taps. But you’re in a cool, quiet place where family can come and look in on you. I know what that means. I’ve buried a few of my own along the way. That’s something you’ve been spared. Although… Well, who am I to talk? At least I had my turn. Got married. Worked. Had children. Still, it wasn’t all good. Made a lot of mistakes. Disappointed people. Others I hurt. To say it was the war is too easy. You can’t go around blaming your behavior on something that happened a million years ago. I can’t anyway. But the world’s changed. We’ve been involved in a war with Afghanistan for God knows how long. Longer than Vietnam, that’s for sure. And the crazy thing is, there’s more killing going on here at home than in any war zone overseas. I don’t know what it is. It seems everywhere people are pissed off. In the workplace. In the streets. Just walk into a school or a shopping mall armed to the gills and watch bodies drop. I know some bad shit went down in Nam, but this is ridiculous. It’s like Rambo on the loose, a movie you didn’t see. Just as well. And so much other stuff I could fill your ears with that you wouldn’t want to hear.

What I’m trying to say is, you missed a lot of living I wish you’d had. I wish you’d gotten to meet the love of your life, bought your dream house, wherever, and been happy seeing your kids grow. I wish we could’ve had time together and tipped a few to the good old days. But it wasn’t meant to be. The big man in the sky had us change places just before the mine went off. The whole thing makes me sick. And while I’m not good for blogging, you should know I won’t forget you. You’re my brother. Always will be. So sleep well. Sleep well, my friend. Semper fi!