Standing down.

April 6, 2013 § 12 Comments

American flag.It was cold inside the tent at the fairgrounds, and he sat, hunched in a folding chair, wearing a baseball cap under the hood of his jacket.

As “Hot Tamale” Craig Reeder and I were there to play for any kids who had come along to the “Stand Down.”

There was music on other stages as well, but the music was just the feel-good part of an effort to give homeless veterans three nights of shelter, medical screening, a few hot meals.

Only one kid wandered into our tent, the rest were adults, which included the man who sat three vacant chairs away from the others.

Instead of the Hokey Pokey we played Hank Williams, Everly Brothers—covers from back in the day.

We took a break when the Shelter Band began to play loud marching music on the other side of the plastic tent wall. Craig went out to watch. The guy in the folding chair stopped me to say, “Thanks for the Jefferson Airplane. You know any John Prine?”

I said, “Sure we do.” And I sat down.

He told his story in bits and pieces. He was from California originally, had found his way to Tallahassee about a month ago. The hardest part was he had his mother in a nursing home in Tennessee so he didn’t see her much. “Course I never told her I’ve been sleeping in the woods.”

Since coming to town he’s been staying at the Haven of Rest. Her nursing home is called Haven as well. “What do you think about that?”

He was ashamed of parts of his life. He didn’t elaborate, just said, he’d done some jail time. He’d also done time as an alcoholic. These days though, he’s getting himself right. “I’ve turned the wheel over to God. I wasn’t doing such a great job of driving on my own.”

I told him about my neighbor, a Vietnam vet with severe PTSD. “Once a soldier, always a soldier.”  He shook his head. “If I hear a loud noise I still dive under the couch.” His eyes got the look that comes when what is being seen is in the mind and the gears of time have slipped. “I miss my buddies most. A lot of them are angels in heaven.”

Like my neighbor, Vietnam was his war. It was mine too. I protested it in high school. In college I knocked on doors to enrage people against it. And when the war ended it fell behind me, like learning to drive and algebra class.

Always present, war rides its veterans, Vietnam perhaps most of all. “Nobody welcomed us when we came home,” he said. “Nobody.” The disappointment still seemed to surprise him.

Craig came back in and started taking down speakers. “Wait,” I said. “We have to play this guy John Prine.” Instead of playing through the system, Craig brought the guitar over and we played “Paradise,” standing over the veteran.

“Thank you guys,” he said as he left. “Hey, when are you playing again?”

“Tomorrow, at Springtime Tallahassee. What’s your name?”

“Mickey. I’ll see you guys there.” And he strode out into the cold damp night as if he knew where he was going.

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§ 12 Responses to Standing down.

  • craig reeder says:

    people often forget the long, long legacy of a war…… the permanent damage done for entire lifetimes. I remember a folk song from the early 60’s: “when will we ever learn? when will we ever…… learn?”

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    • I learned “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” at a Girl Scout meeting. I remember coming home and singing it to my mother and her smiling, until the end of the song when the message became clear, and then she looked so sad.

      We are in more danger than ever of ignoring the real cost of war. With the end of the draft, war was no longer a random disaster that could affect any family, it became, largely, the responsibility of those who need help to go to college or start a career; in other words the poor and the working class.

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  • deb reilly says:

    Adrian, I hope you submit this piece to a wide audience. Not only because the topic is one that will help the reader think before they allow anger to rule their hearts and heads, but because it was impeccably written. I am a fan.

    Like

    • Thank you Deb. The thing I have no knack for is putting things in front of wide audiences. I wish I were more savvy. I just write these essays and hope they will find readers. Heck, I’m not even good at making up the tags.

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      • deb reilly says:

        Well, I promise not to lament the fact that you don’t have any self-promotive-Kris-Kardashian genes. But you are so GOOD, and it’s a shame more people don’t know. Maybe fame charges too high a price.

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  • Marcia Snyder says:

    Adrian, my brother is also a veteran and attended his first stand down in Phoenix. He appreciated what he received. The most appreciated gift was consistent, genuine, expressed respect. It sounds like the veteran in your audience received the same. Thank you.

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    • It is so sad that the respect isn’t there every day. What haunt me is how much is given by people in the military, and how much it costs in terms of psychological pain long after the conflict has been resolved. For many it seems to be a life sentence.

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  • Debbie Moore says:

    Being married to a Vietnam vet, it was interesting when we first met and discussed our different understandings of what went on back then. I was young and attended Stop the War festivals with my parents. I remember seeing Joan Baez on the grounds of the Washington monument and sitting on my Dad’s shoulders – a little leery of those “hippies” while still agreeing with what was going on around me. And then to hear Steve describe the fear of being an 18 year old in Vietnam, feeling he was serving his country and fighting for freedom for America. Then coming home to what appeared to be an ungrateful nation. It has been a wonderful lesson for each of us to communicate our feelings during that time.
    One year I had the students of our school do the end of the year performance and I included “Here Comes the Sun”. Mackenzie, my deaf daughter, introduced the song. She signed (with voicing interpreter) “we are singing and signing this song tonight because my step-dad played it every morning after night guard duty when he was in Vietnam. He knew when he saw the sun that he had made it through one more night.” I think it makes a difference knowing what we know now to thank any vet – whether we agree with the war or not. It is for us that the service was given and many that didn’t get home for any thanks. And I must agree with Craig and the song Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Pete Seeger was a song we should still be singing and keep close to our hearts. Bless the folks that are caring enough to remember and bless the soldiers for their thankless commitment. Adrian, Steve thanks you for this piece, as do I!

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    • As my husband, Ray, remarked, Debbie’s comment was as good as your piece, and I agree. I loved best the part about Steve playing “Here Comes the Sun” to celebrate knowing he’d made it through another night. It is all so sad.

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  • Roberta Burton says:

    Thank you for writing this. It is a good reminder that some of the later casualties came from broken hearts due to the reception they got when coming home.

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  • Sheila Merlau says:

    Your piece is lovely and could be submitted to the “My Opinion” part of the Democrat..just maybe they’ll pay attention.
    I thought this is such a fine thing that was done at the fairgrounds. I don’t know who did all of the organization & work, but heartfelt thanks for something too long in coming.
    I imagine a mother in a nursing home waiting and hoping that someday her baby will walk in the door. I hope that happens someday. They all were once somebody’s cherished (hopefully) baby.
    My mother waited .

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