The View From 32


AUGUST 31, 2007   More below: POPUP BOOK

Reading day

Today was odd. I had a doctor's appointment at 11a.m., something that always makes me anxious. They'd sent me four pages of paperwork to fill out, which I started at 10 a.m., adding a bit to the stress. Ultimately, though, things went OK. Nothing really bad, just one more thing to worry about.

As a reward I stopped at East Coast Custard for a Turtle Sundae: hot caramel and hot fudge sauce over vanilla custard topped with pecans and whipped cream. Hey, I deserved it.

Grown-up book

I drove to Big Creek Parkway to eat the sundae (delicious, by the way), and took my book to a sunny spot to read for awhile. The book is The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien.

Since the Vietnam War was a big factor in my college years (I was actively opposed to it) I've stayed away from most of the books and movies based on that era. Not something I'm eager to relive. So why I picked up The Things They Carried at the library I can't tell you. Maybe it was the innocence of the approach—describing what soldiers carried with them—that made it seem less threatening than, say, Full Metal Jacket. Chapter One starts this way:

First Lieutentant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.

Whatever the reason, I've been reading the slim volume a little at a time. Can't say I'm enjoying it, exactly, but it's moving and thought-provoking.

Sitting in the sunshine, reading matter-of-fact descriptions of an ugly, scary, senseless war, I both wanted to read more and wanted to stop. For example, at the end of the chapter titled "Notes," the last sentences made me dread what came next:

Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own.

A main character in his own book, O'Brien seems brutally honest in describing the courage and stupidity of himself and his comrades. Unlike John Wayne and the heroes I watched in war movies as a kid, they are all sometimes scared, sometimes noble, sometimes nasty. The story seems more true because of it. And yet, central to the book is this comment a few chapters later:

But listen. Even that story is made up.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat.His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access.

Reading this outside on a sunny day almost makes it bearable.

Kid's book

The day moved on. A meeting with a student interested in an independent study project. Dinner. The three grandkids to babysit while mom & dad went to a birthday party.

Little did I know that my reading for the day didn't end when I drove home from Big Creek Parkway. Arianna, bless her heart, just loves a neat little pop-up book by Jan Pienkowski, Oh My! A Fly!

Page from Oh My A Fly bookYou know the story:

I know an old woman who swallowed a fly. I don't know why she swallowed that fly. Perhaps she'll die.

And so on.

Of course you have to read this in the proper sing-song voice, with appropriate emphasis and pauses to make it way more entertaining than it actually is. So I did. Over and over and over. The cow page in particular. Over and over and over.

Not sure what it is that kids like about repetition, but if you've been around them much you know how typical this is. They never seem to tire of some song, some story, some game.

Maybe it's nature's way of building a solid base of predictable experiences to help them get through life's random twists and turns to come. Whatever, I enjoyed it too.

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