Tuesday, April 19, 2005

memento mori 

I went to a wedding this weekend on the shores of Massachusetts.

I've long tried to keep from falling in love with New England. It's beautiful and historic and charming and so American, but politically I wouldn't fit in and I refuse to live under their laws. So the relationship wouldn't work, and I try not to fall in love.

It's hard.

We were on the coast, in a town with a news stand, a church, lots of bakeries, and a closed library. Our room had drapes that completely enclosed the bed and wooden shutters. The rough wood furniture had flat splinters that bit at my sweater as I sat at the desk to write. The whole room, the whole town, felt timeless.

The wedding was beautiful. I don't want to bore anyone with details, or share more details about the bride and groom than they would want, so I will leave it at that. The interesting story starts at dinner, anyway.

I was seated with my fiance and 8 or 9 people I didn't know. One would later turn out to be a girl my fiance had almost dated as a teenager and hadn't seen since. That was neat.

I was feeling, as I often do in groups, shy and skittish. The conversation turned to the problems left-handed people face and how sometimes the problem of living in a right-handed world will get a left-handed person killed. My fiance offered as an example the M-16. "It's built for right-handed people," he explained. "The ejector is on the right, so normally the spent casing flies away from the shooter. For lefties, they attach a deflector shield to keep the casing from flying in their faces. But sometimes the deflector sends the casing back into the ejector port. And if you fire again, the rifle is blocked and it can explode." New information to most at the table. Further conversation about paying attention to where the spent casings go and the risk of death if you don't.

Then one of the other girls makes a smart-aleck remark. She said, "If they were smart, they wouldn't have entered the army anyway."

I didn't know what to say. I retreated further. I felt like she had just insulted my whole family, or my uncles and grandfathers at least. And me, too, since almost all my volunteer work is devoted to supporting the troops by sending them care packages and email. And I felt she was snide and ignorant, since many of my troops are college-educated and write well, better than the college students she and the other teachers had been complaining about earlier.

We let it pass.

In retrospect, I wish I'd asked, "How many people do you know in the armed forces?" and maybe, hopefully, started a dialogue that would get her to realize that our servicemembers are not stupid. They're sacrificing a great deal, and risking the ultimate sacrifice, for our country. They have no control over where they are deployed. They just know that they may miss the birth of their son, or their daughter's first steps, or their father's 50th birthday party, but they serve anyway.

I drank a silent toast.

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