Zac and Kurt

There are many odd ducks in this world, but those who truly enjoy the week before Christmas would have to be some of the strangest. Whether it is last second preparations; gift buying, packing for travel, odds and ends at work before a week out of the office, or that calendar-driven dredge of our mucked filled canals we call memory, there is no shortage of stimuli designed to throw a monkeywrench into this week before Christmas.

The last couple of years, I’ve gotten to add plenty to the monkeywrench pile, whether it was the first Christmas without Anna Zarse or last year when my family had to deal with the murder of Auntie Suzanne and the death of Grandpa after 50+ years of growing Christmas trees. Everyone has some hurt they are carrying around, and more often than not it bubbles to the surface during those short cold days in December.

Christmas took on a different meaning seven years ago for me after we laid to rest Zac Gary.

In one of the most poignant scenes in one of the all-time great television shows, Mad Men, Don Draper pitches his concept for the “Carousel” by Kodak, an automatic slide projector. As he shows pictures of his wife and kids, he talks about the meaning of nostalgia in Greek, which he says means, “the pain from an old wound.” By the end of his presentation, he has a tear streaming down his cheek, and others in the room have had to walk out to avoid breaking down in front of the clients.

Zac Gary became my responsibility before he became my friend. As an aggressively average athlete, but a willing team player, it was decided that I would be tasked with making sure that the best linebacker on our freshman football team would remain academically eligible. After a couple of trips to the counselor’s office, it was decreed that Zac Gary would be put in every English class with me and that I was to do everything in my power to keep him on the field with a passing grade.

Turns out, that is not the glamorous position on the football team that every little boy dreams about, but as a people-pleasing oldest child, I did what was asked.

Trying to get Zac to pass English was tough for a variety of reasons, his academic apathy being chief among them. However, by sheer determination, we got through Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and whatever other nonsense we were tasked with reading and evaluating.

Zac and I made quite the pair in an English class, the class clown and the bored debater who had been taught more rigorous English in 5th grade than BNL saw fit to teach sophomores. One of us was always getting yelled at, and occasionally we even deserved it. Mrs. Kurtz in particular took several stitches out of both of us as I informed her that the fact that my analysis wasn’t written in her teacher’s guide didn’t make it wrong, while Zac heckled her that Moorman knew more than the teacher in his froggy, adolescent, cracking voice that seemed to rise an octave every time he got excited. (We both got sent to the principal’s office for that one. It was an early lesson in “managing up” for me.)

Every time we had a paper, Zac would come rolling over in his rust-bucket brown S-15 that he was always perilously close to putting into a ditch at high speeds and we’d start working, by which I mean that I’d start working and Zac would pull out every weapon in his comedic arsenal to get me off track.

We made it through 4 semesters before no one could justify putting us in the same English classes any longer, Zac failed plenty of subjects, but English was not one of them.

After high school, Zac did what the boys of limited academic achievement did from Bedford, Indiana in 2005, he joined the Army and got an all-expenses paid trip to Iraq. I’m sure that Zac made a great soldier. He was quick with a wisecrack and the single most physically fearless person I have ever known. After 16 months in Iraq, he was given the Army Commendation Medal for acts of courage and heroism, before getting sent home to Bedford on leave around Christmas. I saw him once that Christmas break while I was home for Bedford, and something had changed in Zac and not for the better. War has a way of aging youth into something altogether different, and Zac was no exception. Unfortunately, home was more dangerous for Zac than a warzone, and he fell victim to an opioid overdose like so many have in rural America in the 21st century, passing away on December 15, 2014.

Not having my father’s native knowledge of arcane dates, I didn’t realize that it was the anniversary of that loss last Wednesday when Kit and I sat down to watch “Unstuck in Time,” the new documentary on Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut has long been one of my favorite writers, and as a proud Hoosier, his absurd
“science fiction” satire of a world that has lost its mind hits me on levels deeper than most.  

His most famous book is Slaughterhouse 5, which was a brutally tough book to write for the man who had been a prisoner of war at the age of 22 when the architecturally unparalleled city of Dresden Germany was demolished into a post-apocalyptic moonscape of death while he listened to the “footsteps of giants” from his underground slaughterhouse holding cell.

It was enough to make Vonnegut a lifelong pacifist.

In that vein he presented us with this poignant quote:

“What war has always been is a puberty ceremony. It’s a very rough one, but you went away a boy and came back a man, maybe with an eye missing or whatever but godammit you were a man and people had to call you a man thereafter.”

Having grown up with many of the boys who became men in the mountains of Afghanistan and the hellish sandy wastelands of Iraq, I understand the unfortunate truth of what Vonnegut is saying.

Recently I finished a biography of Robert E. Lee, which seemed a necessary supplement to my limited knowledge of the American Civil War. For all his notorious use as a posthumous symbol, while he ate, slept, and defecated, Lee was a man who attempted to act with his hardwired sense of noblesse oblige in the endeavors he undertook.

Generals, at least those who aren’t sociopaths, are forced to expend the lives of boys and men in pursuit of political aims, for as Von Clausewitz reminds us, “War is a mere continuation of politics by other means.”  

Even success requires that lives under a general’s direct command will be lost, and those losses affect the men in the command tent both specifically and in the aggregate. That takes a toll on any general whose humanity has not been completely lost.

It took its toll on Lee, and while his more ideological underlings begged him at Appomattox to disband the Confederate Army so that the men could carry out a guerrilla war, he would not subject his home to the brutality of hungry guerillas acting as brigands to continue fighting a lost war. That single act was arguably one of the greatest actions in American history.

Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan showed us the cost in blood and treasure of trying to fight guerrillas in their native lands. Brutality, whether it be murder, rape or theft, are inevitable consequences.

Kurt Vonnegut was never a general, just a grunt looking to get through a war with his life and preferably all his appendages. He saw the meatgrinder that war had become, and saw that all glory in war was mere moonshine, even as he fought what he would always consider to be “one of humanity’s very few just wars.”

Vonnegut managed to speak to a generation during the Vietnam War, regardless of their race, status, privilege or class. He managed to speak to me as a Hoosier does, with that Hoosier accent that “sounds like a buzzsaw cutting through galvanized tin” even from the alleged silence of a typed page. While our Hoosier upbringings were about as culturally different as two men who grew up in the same state could have, with his family being amongst the pre-Depression German elite of Indianapolis surrounded by prosperous cousins, aunts and uncles and mine being in the little Rust Belt town of Bedford whose halcyon days ended 10 minutes before the Moormans showed up, there is always a level of unspoken understanding in any interaction between two Hoosiers.

Vonnegut’s contemporaries were drafted to the greatest cataclysm in human history, whereas mine volunteered to take the least shitty of the choices offered. We saw, him in real-time and mine with the distance of veterans returning, what war does to boys.

This summer, I became engaged in a short argument that was only kept from becoming vicious by the leash my wife so graciously yanks occasionally to keep me out of trouble. A man of no small means and four sons suggested sending the US military in to “clean up the cartels in Mexico.” My ire was raised by a few glasses of wine as he suggested how “easy it would be if we’d just go do it.” This man, whom I love as family, continued down this path until I looked at him and said, “So which one of your sons are you sending to fight this war?”

The leash was pulled forthwith.

Globalization and financialization have allowed Americans to “export unpleasantness.” We don’t think about the poor soul in Congo digging rare earth metals amongst toxic fumes as we mindlessly tap on our smartphones, and we don’t think about the men and boys that we sent to Afghanistan until our “cessation of hostilities” becomes a fiasco. We have the AMERICAN privilege of allowing all that unpleasantness to happen offscreen.

The first 14 years of my life were marked by the greatest rising tide of liberty and peace in human history, wherein the Soviet Union and the Lenin-Marxist experiment which brutally enslaved humans across the globe was shown to be a chimera.

Then September 11th happened, and the tide of human liberty reached its highest point and began to ebb. Pairing this with the explosion of the internet, a leveling mechanism unseen in human history comparable only to Gutenberg’s printing press, we found that freedom no longer looked very free.

We were told that the pursuit of peace required war, and having just buried 3000 of our countrymen, that logic held long enough to get us into two quagmires halfway around the world.

Those quagmires ensnared the boys I grew up with and turned them into men. Some of those men were irreparably damaged, while others came back ready to be upstanding citizens who worked daily to ensure that their children would have better options than volunteering for war at 18.

All this time, we fought a war on drugs, a war that cost us more lives than either of our military endeavors. All too often the victims of one war became the victims of another, and in my mind, those wars will always be personified in the acne-ridden face of a wildman with two first names, Zac Gary.

As we think about our blessings this Christmas season, all the while dealing with the bubbling of damaged emotions that the holidays so often bring, I’d ask you to do something positive with it. My personal causes of choice after writing this are:

The Wounded Warrior Project

Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library

I don’t write professionally, but people seem to enjoy it sometimes. If you think you’ve gotten any value out of any of it, please make a donation in honor of Spc. Zachery D. Gary this Christmas season. I’d really appreciate it.

The General and Mary Jane

At the small Catholic school I attended from Grades 2-8, we had the same three teachers for grades 5-8. Year in and year out, Mrs. Fish taught English, Mrs. Kern taught Social Studies and Religion, and Mrs. McGill taught Science and Math. Mrs. Kern punched her ticket to heaven twice dealing with me for four years in subjects that I wanted to constantly argue. According to a radical catechist who ended up getting thrown out of the room by Mrs. Kern, I punched my ticket to Hell at least once.)  Mrs. Fish, more than any other person in my life, made me the writer I am today, and deserves a gold star for patience at least. Mrs. McGill took enough stitches out of my ass that she got hers over four years, but I still learned plenty.

Mrs. Fish was a slightly reformed 55-year-old hippie by time she was asked to teach me. She’d grown up barefoot on a small farm in Iowa with an alcoholic father, and became a hippie in response.  On her road in life, she became a phenomenal writing teacher as well as a devout Catholic. I remember vividly for some reason, that she went on a tear about ouija boards once, and how we should always stay away from such tools of the devil. I’d never heard of an ouija board before and immediately jumped onto our 28.8k dialup when I got home to figure out what she was talking about. Speaking to the dead sounded fun, but a 15 dollar piece of cardboard seemed like a questionable method of doing this at best.

After getting back from Seattle on July 4, I was still wired for west coast time, and I couldn’t sleep. I wandered over to my bookcase and found Season on the Brink, a famous book by John Feinstein about the 1985/86 IU men’s basketball team. Actually, it was a book all about Bobby Knight, told through the lens of one season in the locker room. In local Bedford lore, this was the book that put Damon Bailey into the national spotlight as an eighth-grade guard at Shawswick.

In Christianity, there is the Holy Trinity. In the very religious town of Bedford, there is the Holy Quadrarchy, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Damon Bailey. His 1990 state championship game still stands as the most people to ever watch a high school basketball game. His 3,134 career points still stand as the one untouchable record in Indiana high school basketball. Every day of my high school career, I walked past the shrine to Damon nestled between the two gyms at BNL.  As much as I would’ve given to be a great basketball player, I’ve often sympathized for Damon. No one should be asked to be a god at the age of 13. In my interactions with him, he deserves much praise for dealing with it with poise and grace.

Bobby Knight was a tyrant in the Roman sense of the word. His word was absolute law in Bloomington, and in that respect, he had no equal. A line in the book makes reference to this, when speaking about the Athletic Director at IU (nominally Knight’s boss) and how grateful he was that Bobby allowed him to keep his job for as long as he did.

Coach Knight was coming off a disappointing season, dramatically capped with his infamous chair toss during Purdue’s Steve Reid’s free throws. Feinstein somehow finagled unparalleled access to Knight in his element, the basketball court, and talked at length about the complex man that had so much success on the hardwood.

As I opened that book and read voraciously, I started thinking about the date. Two years ago, as I was sitting in Koh Lanta between Muay Thai sessions, I got an email from Dad saying to call home. I did, and the first words out of his mouth were, Mary Jane died last night.

Mary Jane was my great-aunt equivalent, wife of Uncle Bill, who may or may not be living a second life in Buenos Aires. Skinny as a rail with a voice that would cut through galvanized tin, she was my paternal grandmother’s best friend since grade school. The Moormans were Purdue people through and through, but Mary Jane was a Bobby Knight disciple to the max. I was looked at as an apostate growing up in the hometown of Damon being a Purdue fan, and it hardened my heart greatly towards IU. It was really the only method of survival.

Mary Jane and my grandmother were the quintessential “Hoosiers” in the sense that they lived and breathed college basketball. I don’t know if Meemaw’s husband Dr. Fred was what brought her over to the rabidity of Indiana’s state religion, but by time I could remember, she could talk about the deficiencies of a 2-3 Zone or the magic of a motion offense with any of them. Mary Jane would actually take her phone off the hook during IU games. Her family was far enough away that there was nothing she could do about an impending death that couldn’t be dealt with AFTER IU was finished.

As I read through Season on the Brink, I found myself laughing out loud about Bobby’s tactics. Today, Bobby would’ve been locked up for his near constant mind games (or verbal abuse) of his players. He believed in doing things the right way, and he graduated something like 95% of his players while at IU. His temper was matched only by his acts of kindness, and Feinstein has many examples of Bobby reaching out to the less fortunate and giving them VIP treatment at IU games. This was the Indiana equivalent of Thor inviting you to an all access tour of Valhalla.

Bobby believed in loyalty over all else, those who were loyal to him or the IU basketball program were given the opportunity to ask anything of the General. Those perceived as disloyal however, were treated as enemies to be crushed at all costs. Former players who made cameos in the book talked about how they did absolutely nothing right for 4 years playing for Bobby, but were immediately elevated to sainthood upon graduation.

Reading the book, I found myself wondering if this was Mary Jane, calling back from the hereafter, letting me know that she was still thinking about me. To pick up that particular book on a shelf with hundreds on the second anniversary of her death seemed like more than coincidence to me. Given my disbelief in the ouija board, I felt like I had finally found how the dead speak to us. It isn’t the shaky hands of those looking to engage with the occult, it is the echos of lives lived and how we find them every day.

In the words of JK Rowling through her incomparable character Albus Dumbledore: “You think the dead we loved truly ever leave us? You think that we don’t recall them more clearly in times of great trouble?”

Pulling that book off of the shelf at a time when I needed discipline and vision more than anything else, I find her words to be true. Thank you Mary Jane, for leading me to that bookcase for exactly what I needed.

If I can give one piece of advice to my readers, remember those who came before you, and live your lives as a testament to their example.

Mary Jane Kay was just another one of the fine examples I was given in this life, and I’ll never watch a Purdue/IU game without envisioning her shrieking at the television with her “Dammit IU” doll getting tossed on the floor after a poor play.

Few things can bring a smile to my face when Purdue is losing, but at least I’ll always have that.