I stood there in the dark, underneath the lights on the edge of a field. After 5 ½ months in the heat of Iraq, Kuwait, and San Diego, my first memory of my return to Seattle was this scene. It was terribly cold, and raining, too. To be more accurate, it was drizzling heavily, that kind of weather that Pacific North Westerners know all too well, not quite cold enough to snow, but drifting in that intolerable range around 38 degrees, made all the more miserable by a steady deluge of moisture too light to qualify as rain but still managing to chill me to the bone.
Home less than two weeks, I was still trying to sort out my war experience, still trying to gauge the depth of my own emotional damage, all the while Alexes played soccer a few feet away. I was still detached from civilian life and deliberately posted myself all the way in one corner, hoping to use the field as battlements, walling in my vulnerability with space.
The darkness and the weather were the perfect complement to my melancholic presence. I had hoped that all of it, the weather, the cold, and my obvious attitude would be enough to discourage any parent from venturing too close. I was not ready to engage, and even less ready to be engaged. Judgment seemed inevitable and intolerable.
I was still in shock from it all, the call to Active Duty I promised Cassandra would never come because “Clinton was in office”, the Marines I served with, the civilians I encountered in country, my adventures and my misadventures, and even my return home. I kept thinking to myself, mostly in disbelief, that I actually went to a war and managed to return in one piece.
How lucky was I?
I considered the 18, 19, or 20-year-old Combat Veterans I met in the bars just outside the front gates of Camp Pendleton, all of us fresh from our tours in Iraq. These young Marines carried their struggle from the frontlines in their almost-tragic thousand-yard stares, struggling through drunken testimonials to deal with their own versions of the war and the chaos they endured. They were the real casualties.
Back on the side of the field, a lone, brave soul, a friend with a daughter on the team, a brilliant woman and a giant in the local academic community, ventured towards my end of the field, eased into my space, and offered her greeting. There was the sympathetic, “We are glad to have you home safely. Thank you for your service.” I relaxed my defenses to sheepishly express sincere gratitude for her remarks.
She followed with, “What did you think?” It was the perfect Trojan horse. The question was so simple, so unassuming, and so intentionally open-ended as to invite me to divulge more than I intended. I let my guard down and willingly accepted the horse.
“It doesn’t matter what I think,” I began. “I signed a contract, and the possibility of war was part of the deal.” The thrust carried the momentum from my suppressed emotions and I continued without needing to be prompted. “People don’t really understand what it means to be in the military. We don’t get a choice in the matter. We don’t get to decide whether or not we believe in the cause. We don’t even need to understand the politics. We are not afforded such luxuries.
“When we are ordered to go to war, we either show up to do our duty, or we violate the terms of a contract, a legal agreement that carries with it the threat of legal action, up to and including jail time.” The pain was too fresh. I strained to suppress the post-war me, and lost… “To say nothing of the fact that refusing to act in the face of danger is an act of cowardice. I am no coward,” I defended.
My guard was down and I rambled on too long, said more than I should have before I rationalized some underlying motive in her original question. The woman appreciated my response and managed to remain non-judgmental, a fact that left her in my good graces. But, the Trojan horse would not draw me in again.
What do I think? What was my war good for? Well, it built character for Alexes, and Mikey. My absence tested their resolve. Fear of the unknown tested Cassandra’s, too. Though, there are easier ways to test ones’ resolve. In the face of imminent danger, I was under the constant tension of my environment, lost in my own personal Fog of War, unable to see the bigger picture and left to find a reasonable way to exist under the leadership of people proven to be guided by defunct moral compasses. As a result, I have come to understand my war as a constant struggle between the animals we are, and the human beings we strive to be.
I returned to the University of Washington and graduated, finally finishing what I started 16 years earlier. (In reality, it was 17 years because I put off that second semester of Calculus for just a little longer.) At graduation, my mind wandered during the predictably boring ceremony. I reminisced about all the time I spent unable to visualize myself graduating from college, ever, convinced it was just a fantasy. What a terrible waste of energy? In reality, there I sat in my cap and gown at graduation, proudly thinking about how many hurdles I cleared, and how many distractions I maneuvered to get this far. To pass the time, I wrote a “Thank you” poem to our friends and family who were somewhere in the stands, there to share my moment.
It’s funny but for years the four of us, now adults, have a constant argument of who in the family is the smartest. Alexes argues she tests higher than all of us so that makes her the top dog. Mikey gets the best grades (academically and militarily) so that should make him reign supreme. I argue my street smarts and my (nagging) ability to get things done makes me the sharpest. But in the quiet of our own thoughts, we all know Mike is the smartest. Not only is he just the knower of the all useless trivia and can win any Trivial Pursuit challenge, but he also can out-think all of us in seconds flat, from doing math in his head to negotiating complex problems. This book, for example, is his work. I chime in from time to time but he has actually written it.
It comes as no surprise that during the UW commencement, the graduation ceremony he waited 16 years to attend, Mike was able to articulate years of his life in one poem, written from his seat in the middle of a crowded football stadium. I watched him from my seat up in the stands. He did not listen to one speaker, nor did he sit in the community of his class. Instead, he took a pen to paper and wrote during the entire graduation, taking that time to thank us…
Way back in 88,
There came time to graduate.
Aged 17 and without a care,
You were there, (as I pointed to my Dad and Mom)
you were there.
At U of O in 89,
Two best friends I would find.
On Crimson and Cream, I would share,
Although studying was all too rare,
You were there, (I pointed to AJ…)
and you were there. (and Gene)
In 1990, I had to leave U of O
The embarrassment, may you never know.
On a living room couch, a Dad would say
Now you can do it the hard way.
In Nineteen-hundred and Ninety-one,
When some say I was way too young,
I married my beloved wife.
Without Cassandra, what is life?
It was the greatest day to share,
You were there, …well maybe not. (Remember the secret wedding?)
Nineteen-hundred and Ninety-two added one to the Lopez-Shaw crew,
Alexes Cassandra beautiful with wild hair,
You were there, you were there, and you were there.
In ‘93 we would leave our home,
To the Pacific NW we would roam,
We left LA for better air.
It was so tough, but you were there (to Cassandra).
Things got better in Ninety-four,
The Lopez-Shaws added one more.
Michael Anthony, the final piece,
Two wonderful children to say the least.
For these two we would care,
But with so much help,
You were there, you were there.
In Ninety-Five to college again
Still thin, then.
All moved forward ‘til Ninety-Seven,
We’d have to leave our NW heaven.
To LA we took the team,
So Mom could attain her childhood dream,
I transferred to Cal State LA,
I’d get my degree the ghetto way.
In Ninety-eight I joined the Corps.
“For education! Not for war.”
3 long months in the California sun,
I proudly graduated Pendleton,
And though there were no tassels in ‘98,
At least I got to graduate. (from bootcamp)
’99, 2000, and two thousand and one,
Getting Loyola Law School done,
We did it together,
Not just as a pair,
You were there, you were there, and you were there (to all).
The year of our Lord, Two thousand-two,
We finally returned to the U,
With just a mere 5 quarters to go.
I’d be done soon, but now I know.
I was sure “0-Three” would be my year,
Finally done, free, and clear.
Instead I had War to fear.
I left my beloved family with a slight tear,
I was there, but you were here.
Sixteen years to Two thousand-four,
A bit wiser, but only a little more.
I remember clearly when my dad would say,
“Now you have to do it the hard way.”
After all this, is there any doubt,
That I now know what he was talking about?
Sure I made getting my B.S. a career,
But what could be more rewarding, than sharing it with you all here.
Not surprisingly, there is a very narrow range of fields open to people of my limited credentials. True, I was a Veteran, but all I did was drive a truck across a desert, not quite the biotech industry standard for experience. Beyond that, I was still the “Boxboy, in Disguise”, apparently tethered to the grocery industry. I took it on faith that getting the degree would open the floodgates for a new and exciting career, far from the depressing doldrums of a store, maybe even a 9-5 work schedule like a real person. For several months, I scoured the local biotech scene, applying first to entry level tech jobs and, when that failed, modifying my resume to compete for any job under their roofs, fully willing to work my way up through the ranks. There were so many opportunities, but only for those with very specific training. I never received a single e-mail in response. I was the Scarecrow in the Wizard of OZ, struggling to get a brain from the Wizard, then despite all his ordeals, receiving only a piece of paper.
The life changing moment I thought came with a degree never materialized and like the Scarecrow, left to tug scraps of philosophy from the strips that made up his head, my military background landed me a state fuel clerk job 60 miles away in Olympia, stalled just at the edge of my field. Cassandra fared no better, settling for banquet serving while looking for a law job.
It seemed a dereliction in parental duties to replace unpaid internships with grocery jobs that carried regular paychecks. Rent still had to be paid. Mouths had to be fed. There were six gallons of milk a week to bring home. and
Our Reality trumped our frustration, as usual.
It was time to redirect all the energy Cassandra and I spent trying to graduate from college, or from law school, towards preparing our children for whatever came next. Each year put Alexes and Mikey closer and closer to middle school with high school looming just beyond, in case there was not already enough stress.
It was their turn to get in the game.