today’s adventure: meeting the last surviving american vet of wwi.

“ask me another question.”
“what do you…think is wrong with people today?”
“only that they move too fast.”
“your generation was much braver.”
“oh, i don’t know about that.”
“what about the first world war?”
“…i was 16 when i enlisted. when you’re 16 what looks like bravery is maybe just…ignorance.”

The phrase ‘gaining perspective’ doesn’t mean very much to me. So what does it mean? Perhaps stepping outside of one’s prosaic box and looking around. It maybe is related to what is called ‘reframing’–

A. when somebody is angry with you, it’s actually not your problem, it’s the other person’s shit. yeah, you didn’t wash the dishes, you slob, but you didn’t give a fuck about it either, so it’s not really a problem, is it? nope–it’s actually the other person’s issues with control, the necessity of imposing order on everything within his or her sphere, and your fucking that order up. for instance, does it bother you that i technically just ended that sentence with a preposition? or can you find solace in the way that i used ‘that order’ as sorta an infix in the term ‘fucking up’? does it bother you that i place the question mark on the outside of the quotes? i’m not being careless.

of course, the solution isn’t to say ‘whoa there, this is your shit, your issues with control–it’s not a problem to me’–because the disparity between yall’s values is Precisely the issue at stake. and my personal attempt at a solution would be stepping outside of myself for a moment (i’m fairly good at this, which some would call empathetic, some would call well-balanced, and some would call an example of dissociative disorder) and recognizing that i’m dealing with someone who’s had a long day at work, or a difficult relationship with his or her parents, or is angry with me about something else of which he or she

(i hope you can appreciate how thoughtful i’m being with my pronouns, however much it flaunts the ugly trickle-down-PC-grammarian approach rather than bask in the fervency that is natural language, in which communication is most important, and there’s prose for when one is trying to make sense, rhetoric for when one needs to espouse casuistries, and poetry for when words must otherwise fail. but there’s already sufficient bitching on this subject in one of my France essays, so i’ll try stopping now)

is avoiding discussion…and that there’s absolutely No Way that i can win this fight, because i’m not actually a player in it.

1. if i wash the dishes i’ll still lose, because i’ll only be dealing with symptoms, not the underlying cause, and there’s going to be plenty more symptoms, and if that shit ain’t dealt with,

a. i can either deal with the symptoms continually, or,

b.if they reach a point of absurdity, i can just cut my losses and walk.

2. if i don’t wash the dishes then i become part of the problem, objectively speaking, because i apparently don’t have enough appreciation for my relationship with the other person to fix a problem that’s been pointed out to me, a problem that’s pretty much in my control and easily dealt with. needless to say, if i don’t wash the dishes, then the real problem is the relationship, not the dishes.

so, the dishes pretty much HAVE to be washed. but everyone also pretty much HAS to deal with his or her own shit. reframing means stepping outside oneself long enough to say, “it makes me really uncomfortable to have dirty dishes in the sink, i don’t know why, but it just sets me on edge, and even if it’s a little thing to you…it sometimes feels like the whole world to me…and it’d just really make me feel so much better if you could wash your dishes, please.” Reframing means stepping outside oneself long enough to say, “it makes a lot of sense to me that you want me to clean the dishes, because i can see how” and following the imago-therapy rules of engagement, etc etc. it means stepping outside with a cigarette and fuming ‘we’ve been married for 25 years and she doesn’t know the first thing about me, how could she? i don’t even know her.’ when the truth is that you two are different, separate individuals. nothing can change that. even a marriage certificate or a kidney transplant. and that’s OK. and you’re allowed to have different feelings about something. you’re allowed to disagree. that’s OK too. all bets are off if you act like a scurfy fucking idiot and don’t hold at least one particular value in common. anyway, you’re all going to hell, so play nice.

but it doesn’t work like this in real life. i prefer the ‘time-bomb’ method of dealing with problems. surprisingly, i’m in line for the throne of england. not surprisingly, it doesn’t matter. in real life, things usually work out how they should.

twice in my life i’ve missed important opportunities because i stalled and the other person died. i begin to wonder how many more chances i have to do the right thing before fate just gives up on me. maybe i blame myself for his death. even if it was his shit. and so…it seems that if our relationship meant more to me, i would have done more. right? or perhaps it isn’t like that at all…perhaps if i began with him it would only lead to me trying to help other people, more and more people, and pretty soon i’d be trying to save the whole world, i wouldn’t give a fig about myself. there’s a religion based on that. the idea is that if everyone lived like that, everyone would be loved.

(but it doesn’t work like that in real life either)

i’ve been feeling stuck lately. that’s another word for ‘depressed’–but it’s not loaded the same way. ‘depression’ is something they sell you pills for on television. like a headache. how can a tylenol commercial Possibly understand my headache. my headache’s not like anyone else’s headache, it’s unique, it’s special, it’s mine, and nobody else can possibly get what i’m going through.

what makes me unhappy? fear. fear that if i do this that i might fail, but that if i give up i’ll feel regretful and unfulfilled too. there’s no winning. so i get stuck. even if i’m moving forward, even if i’m watching myself moving forward, i’m stuck because i’m not here, now.

so i didn’t really have a choice today. i had to do something different, break the cycle, remind myself that there’s a place outside of myself, outside of my fears, my little life, my passions, my needs, my silly desires, my appetite, my dreams, my schedule, my agenda.

okay. what do i know about the first world war? shit. not much. franz ferdinand. armistice in the train car in the forest of compiegne. lusitania. mustard. spanish flu. machine guns. end of american isolationism. increased patriotism after creation of german and italian states? president wilson’s machiavellian self-interest. the failed league of nations. dulcet et decorum est. hemingway.

he was born in 1901. that’s the same year as walt disney. he was born into a world without Mickey Mouse. that doesn’t even make any sense. if he had made different choices, he could have invented Mickey Mouse. but he didn’t. he was twice my age before the premiere of I Love Lucy. And the age I don’t intend on living beyond, he hadn’t yet become a Japanese POW. but he soon would. for three years.

“Did you…anticipate…the second war?”
“Oh, yes…I knew America’s involvement was coming. But I didn’t think it would come so soon.” And if he had known, he wouldn’t have been working on a ship in the Philippines at the time. “So on December 8…I’m sorry, for you it would be December 7, but for me it was already December 8 because of the time differences…”

I drove down the long driveway, West Virginia, a road stretching out in what feels like plains, having wound my way around mountains, Antietam battlefield, over the Potomac, through Harpers Ferry, past Wal-Mart and Panera, and then here I was, slightly in the middle of nowhere, all I did was blink and here I was, I crept up the long driveway, past a guest house, it seemed, and past the main house, parking my car next to a pickup. And before me, a valley, stolid mountains, horses, space enough for the clouds to really stretch out and roll around–in this confluence of things i don’t know and places i don’t like, everything made beautiful sense, i knew i didn’t want to leave. three steps including the porch. no doorbell. the copper doorknocker with a face like the sun-god in the roman baths. tiny frog sculptures. stakes with lights on them lining the walkway, a number of them pulled out and in a mass on the ground. two cushioned chairs, the ones he sits in during the summer and looks out over his land. one wider than the other, with an indentation in the cushion. nobody answered. my heart beat fast and i decided to leave. no, i can’t just come all this way and leave without really trying. i knocked again, harder. no answer. a dog barking from a distance. looking into the glass on the left side, so many doors, all of them closed, every light turned off. the dog continued barking, and eventually, footsteps. a woman answers, i’m too late, he died days ago, i’m sorry, and i have to go.
“is this the home of Mr. Buckles?”
“yes, can I help you?”
“i was just…i’m just wondering if…i’ve been driving since this morning, and I just wanted to shake his hand and thank him.”
“well, unfortunately he’s resting, sleeping, right now.”
“could i maybe wait out here until he–”
“it’ll be at least three hours.”
“i see.”
“why don’t you come in and…”
“thank you.”
“he doesn’t see people without appointments usually–”
“i know, i didn’t know, but i–”
“come on, follow me.”

i followed her into a back room. it was a sitting room, two sides of it faced the garden, one wall had a door in it and the bulk of the wall cutout as a window into the next room, where his bed was, where she leaned over and began speaking to him, “a young man is here, he wants to shake your hand and thank you, papa. sir, you can sit down there.”

i sat. she narrated what she was doing, “just fixing the hair a little…are you cold? i’m getting your chair…here we go, he isn’t staying long, don’t worry, he just wants to thank you is all.” and when she wheeled him in i quickly stood up, hoping my own hair was in order, nervous as if on a first date, i noticed, we took each other’s hands and he gripped mine hard and long. “he’s a tall one, isn’t it he?” she motioned me to reseat myself. and he had her adjust where his chair sat in relation to me until his right ear faced me easier, and i leaned forward, his caretaker insisting that I speak louder, but i would speak closer instead.

“thank you, sir.”
he nodded.
“what made you interested to come see me? what do you know about the war?”
“i don’t know very much about it. it changed everything, didn’t it. i mean, the world, everything was different afterwards. the enlightenment, all those ideals, it wasn’t the french revolution, i mean the reign of terror, or napoleon, that really killed them, was it? i’ve always felt like things just kept rushing forward, things were still okay, really, and then…everything changed. was everyone crazy?”
“no…no. they were very serious about it. the french were thankful for our arrival, the young french were so serious.”
“what was it like afterward?”
“when i returned…nobody asked any questions. they didn’t ask questions. it was as if they couldn’t move on fast enough, they pretended it never even happened. so i couldn’t discuss it with anyone. General Pershing, when he returned, had to make a trip around the country so everyone could see and hear him. So they had a parade in my town, and I decided I’d go. And when he approached I made a quick, sharp salute!” we both chuckled, and then he continued. “Pershing told someone to bring me back to him. He had noticed two things about me. First, he noticed that my uniform was of slightly better quality than the government issued. Second, he noticed that my gloves were in my hand, and so he took me for a cavalryman, which I was not. But he noticed this because he always kept his gloves in his hand–if you look at any photograph of him, you’ll see it. And when he spoke to me, back in those times people retained the accent of the…regions…where they were born. So he knew that we were from the same place–we were born 33 miles apart, actually.”
“why was your uniform of a better quality?”
“i had one made for myself. at that time you only had one uniform, so you’d better keep it in good shape. you wore the same one in winter and summer.”
at this point his caretaker went to the closet and pulled it out. and his coat. in perfect condition, heavy, clean, far from delicate–thick, scratchy wool, a uniform nearly a century old with fewer loose threads, if any, than the clothes I myself wore. his own eyes were deep set, but bright, and they would focus on mine when he spoke, and away from mine when he was thinking, and his skin was clear, his complexion even, without wrinkles, a light golden hue, his fingernails clean and rosy, his hands bony but the skin thick, nothing about him was brittle–he was everything i hoped he would be, proof of history, of things that happened and places that were, heroes and hope, tragedy and adventure, when Roosevelt could still run, Britain was still an empire, when places were really places and diversity was really diversity, accents were accents, most people in France didn’t speak French first, what a funny time, when rich boys went off to fight, when heroes were made whose stories sounded…heroic. when genocide was still awkwardly being invented, when it still seemed like a good idea to kill people by filling their lungs with blisters, when disillusion with alchemy had finally grown to such heights that science seemed expressly to ratify goodness, when the general theory of relativity hadn’t yet been published, when cars were electric, heroin was a brand name, female orgasm was a disorder, words of love so soft and tender could still win a girl’s heart, stephen crane had only recently exposed the civil war for what it was, no more beautiful than in homer, horatio alger still knew the key to success, indeed, it was the world of henry james, a sophisticated derelict europe, and a tender naive america. adorable.

he spent some years working on the Carpathia, the ship that rescued the Titanic, as he worked on the White Star Line. and after being rescued from the Japanese, who knows, until he bought his farm, and spent his second fifty years as a farmer. and now, appointments, honors, photos with Bush, with Chirac, with Gates, his cup from prison, a German shell, flags, awards. He had me sign his guestbook, he gave me an envelope with a booklet about himself inside, some photographs. He told me about being in Winchester, seeing his last name carved into the dining hall table, and finding people who shared his name, including a Frenchman whose family had come from England. His medicine ball from when he was a trainer on the ships. Photo albums of how handsome he looked in his uniforms, posing with many young women on the ships. In the city with his wife. Trying to make his way to San Francisco. He guessed my height and weight exactly. He thought I was around 17 years old. I’m almost a decade older than that.

Every single American who fought in the war with him is dead. Gone. They’ve given the world to others. And those people died and gave it to others. And those people are growing tired and beginning to give it to us. Every single person who lived during Napoleon’s time is dead. All we do is inherit things that don’t make a lot of sense to us. Languages. Frat houses. Recipes. Morals. Laws. Turns of phrase. But he has eyeballs, and he has ears, and he has black hairs coming out of his scalp, hey, he’s a lot like me. I have a nose too. So does he. How funny, there were people a hundred years ago, and we’re people too.

The point is that if he has any regrets in his relationships with others, if he never said something he wished he had said, if he wanted to apologize, if he wanted to taste some girl’s lips, to meet some star, to say thank you, to find out one more story of his parents’ past, he can’t–there’s nowhere on this earth that isn’t filled with strangers now, everyone else is gone. Just–gone.

I’m not going to get any second chances. Am I.

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