Road Trip

I took the wrong turn on my way to Ft. Hood on Sunday. It was a block too soon, just around the corner from the main gate. Wrong turns are where the meaning is, though, you realize later, when you arrive where you intended to go, distracted by where you’ve just been.

Four soldiers stood in a square at the entrance to a residential neighborhood on the base. They were in camouflage fatigues and caps, and tan boots, laced up tight and dusty. A rifle hung straight down from each of their necks, on a strap, like a pendant from a chain. The guns were big, and they swayed as they moved toward my car, the barrels brushing the men’s waists. I am a reporter. I have seen a little more of life than the next person. Even so, it was hard to get past the guns.

“Could you tell me how to get to the main entrance?” I asked, my voice sounding odd in my head.

“You’ll need to go back down this road, make a left, and then a right,” said one, rosey-cheeked, not twenty. “You can pull up past us and turn around.”

I thanked them, a lot, maybe too much. They watched me drive ahead and make a really careful three-point turn. I could have been filmed for a driver’s education videotape. As I passed them, the boys with the guns, I waved out the window and called, “Thank you,” again. In my side view mirror, I saw one of them walk to a tank by the road and open its door. Wow, a tank. Gigantic guns on necks and tanks.

Civilians don’t see this everyday. This, being nothing, really, when it comes to what we could see, but do not. Yet, for me, it was compelling, and halting, and it made my brain leap to where those rifles might go, what they might do, or what they have already done. We do not get to know how these men and women live each day, whether they run nineteen miles each morning, or sit in a class with notebooks or choose the chicken or the fish. We do not know what they do if they have a stomach ache, or a worry or a fear, if they say, or if they think they shouldn’t. We do not get to know what it is like to aim and fire.

These are people who are not like the rest of us. They make a choice that will change them, unalterably. They have committed to the possibility that they may kill another person. If I draped a rifle over my chest for eight seconds, I would be different from that moment on. I would stand up with new strength. I would think with new vision, with gravity. I could not perceive what would happen to me if I ever had to use it, even on a practice target. I am changed for having seen one up close.

I found the main gate and took my place in a line of cars, waiting to be escorted to a noontime press conference. Another soldier logged my identification, opened the doors and trunk and checked inside. What did he make of the New York City Ballet beach towel or stash of soccer balls, I did not know.

The Colonel told us more about what we already knew, not enough about what we don’t. He said his soldiers are ready for this, in combat, not at home. But are they, truly. Are those boys by the road ready, telling me to go left, then right, kids with such weight on their necks, on their minds. How is one ever ready? What does ready really mean?

Later in the day, I found the house of the man who runs a convenience store across the street from the base. The suspect went there the morning of the shooting, bought coffee, used to stop in twice a week at 6:30. The man came out to the driveway to talk, nervous, his hands sweaty. His wife and baby watched from the window. I asked him about the soldiers. Four or five hundred come in each day, always in pairs, he said, in uniform, geared up for morning exercise.

“They come together, and they seem happy,” he said. “They are smiling.”

I would have expected something else, something serious. Purposeful, pre-occupied. But we do not know. We do not see. I hit the highway home and drove past my wrong turn, tempted to veer, wondering what the four boys with the guns were doing now.


Go Team

We are enjoying the baseball. I should say that, for the most part, we tune in to sports on television when there is a big contest. Wimbledon. The NBA Finals. The World Series. We were prepared for the Yankees to win last night, mostly because Hideki Matsui hit a home run for my daughter, on her 4th birthday, eight years ago. We were home in New York for the summer and Grandma got tickets. It was hat day, too. Wow. Hats and a home run. We just figured it was all in the bag.

School nights what they are, we watched whatever was on during the dinner hour, carrying our plates to the coffee table, leaning up against the couch. Sweaty from soccer practice and tennis. Some vocab homework left to do, maybe a little math. The kids eat slowly at the coffee table. I sort of let them.

Since the series started, they know average pitch speeds, they know about the different grips on the ball. They think the spitting is disgusting. They do not spit in soccer or tennis. Imagine. They think the runners are slow to get to first. Until they realize how fast the ball is going. Sports are great, for girls, especially. I love when my nearly 14 year old has practice on Friday nights or early Saturday games. And when her sister wants to hit extra, to practice what she’s learned. Basketball try-outs begin next week. Need to shoot around, go to the park over the weekend. Get ready to push a few folks around on the court. In the spring, track. Zip zip. We have nine hundred uniforms in the closet. I have been saving them since kindergarten, in bags. So  many bags. I will sew duvets for college.

Meantime, Matsui’s on the bench. That’s okay. There is Damon, who grins as if he knows something and Swisher, who grins as if he’s done something. And Jeter, who grins like it just isn’t so. 

We wanted them to win last night, to blow away the red guys on their home turf. But, actually, with the loss, we win. We get to watch again. In our sweaty shirts and sneaks.

How I Spent My Saturday Night

If you skipped dinner, you could use your meal card later that night and buy chocolate chip cookies. The big kind. You could get six.

A few times each semester, my pal Barb and I chose this nutritional option. We always felt skinny the next day, oddly.

“I can’t believe we did that,” she’d say from her dormitory phone.

“But I feel like a twig, do you?” I’d reply, twiggy already.

“I do!” Barb had legs like bamboo skewers.

We’d crack up, the way you do in college. We have been friends for the 26 years since graduating from Brown, sending birthday cards that tout our youth, catching up through the phone wires and in person, even, despite the miles. We did the news together on campus radio, sitting side by side at a desk. Rip and read, and now the weather. Once, something was funny and I couldn’t contain myself. Laughing came easily to us, though it was not desirable on air. I slid my half of the copy in front of Barb before she caught the wave, and escaped to the fire escape. It is cold in Providence in February, three flights up a steel ladder. 

Early in our professional careers, we found ourselves at tiny television stations in Mississippi and Vermont, reporting the goings-on from shrimp boats and cow fields. Barb had to be her own photographer, too, setting up the camera, hitting the button and walking into the frame to speak. She slipped on the Burlington ice and wound up in a cast and crutches. Still, she had to haul the tri-pod and walk into the shot.

Barb never picked a boy to marry. I picked one, who turned out not to last. The other night, Saturday night, I put on my pajamas at 6:36 in Dallas, Texas. It was early, I knew, but it was the legitimate end of the day. The girls were with their father. I stay home when they go. 

“If you’re home, call me,” read the email. “I’m not doing anything.” How could she not be doing anything? She is on 69th Street. If I did not have to live in Texas and were home in New York, I’d be doing a lot. Such a lot.

Anyway, we hit all the subjects. The guy, also from college, who she likes, loves, who just can’t muster an every day thing, though he likes, loves, her, too. Her Dad, who is 84 and ill, and mad about it. Her Mom, who does not tell Barb everything, Barb thinks, or know everything, because maybe she doesn’t want to.

“I’m afraid about the end,” she says.

“The end is bad,” I tell her. “Do you want to hear my end?”

One day, the oxygen tank sits in the corner, just in case. Then, maybe, it comes out at night.  A short time after, it is pulled to the top of the stairs. At some point, and without acknowledgment, a longer tube gets attached to the nozzle, one that stretches to all corners of the house. Ultimately, the blood is dark when sugar levels are tested in the blue bathroom. A request is made to go to the city, the hospital. Morphine swirls to the ceiling above the bed, taking with it a life.

Barb wanted to hear. “Your dad was too young,” she says.

Then, she switched the topic. We talked about her dining chairs. She found them online, but was told by a midwestern salesperson that someone was testing them out. If the person rejected the chairs, they would be Barb’s. Turns out, crazily, that the tester was also a former classmate of ours. She and Barb were acquaintances, nothing deep. But after two and a half decades, when you both want the same mid-century modern seating in your grown-up apartments, you call.

“I left her a message thanking her for sending them back, but I never heard from her.”

We weren’t big fans of the coincidental chair shopper, thinking she was sort of  snooty, at 18. So, Barb thought the lack of response made sense. Then, I told her that I heard she had breast cancer. Maybe the message was left at a bad time. Maybe she didn’t have whatever it would take to make the call back. Maybe she couldn’t tell the story again. Or, perhaps she counted time, and there were other people to phone instead.           

I wonder what our classmate chose instead, for her dining table, if she chose, even, or if she used old chairs, or brought in desk chairs from her kids’ rooms or folding chairs from the back closet. Who were her guests, then, anyway. They would sit on the floor, to be sure.

I would think that Barb’s table has a different feel to it now, after our telephone call. It is almost too prosaic. Walk in my shoes. Sit in my seat. They are swank and sophisticated, no doubt, and entirely perfect for the gathering of friends or for just the eye. Clean lines. Simple. Now imbued with misfortune, question, and hope for the girl who passed us on the campus Green, well-appointed and maybe just shy.

“We are all the same in the end,” says Barb. Trite, but true, really. She used to think her ‘boyfriend’ was untouchable back then, before she knew him. And illness, the instant equalizer.

We said good night. It was a rich way to spend it. I walked into the kitchen and opened the pantry cabinet, finding the box of chocolate chip cookies. I took out two. They were the small kind, but they tasted extraordinary.


What a Party

Turns out, Fern has a thing for bracelets. She was already wearing a few on one wrist. The one my daughter made was a welcome addition. She loved it. Put it right on. She asked my older daughter if she were an artist, since the card was so beautiful. She made the letters extra large, congratulating her on reaching 100.

The place was packed, apparently. All of the residents were there, in the dining room, in their wheelchairs or standing with walkers. Some went over to Fern to wish her a happy birthday. One started to, then forgot what she was going to say. Fern’s son (the girls thought he was about 75) sang for an entire hour, with a pianist. My daughter said that Fern sat and watched him, her hands clasped under her chin, smiling. Her grandkids (my age) were there, too, with their own children. 

They had cake and ice cream, sugar-free. My kids set up the room, brought the guests downstairs, served, made sure everyone had spoons, and then moved around the furniture when the party was over. The grandkids thanked them for coming to celebrate Fern’s special birthday, and for helping in so many ways. 

They said they had a fun time. They felt good that they made the presents. Important work, and I think they realize.

Formerly Former

Funny, all the people trying to make “race” an issue in the confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor have something in common. They all have the title, “Former” before their name.

Former Congressman (Tancredo), Former Speaker of the House (Gingrich). And the best, the guy who isn’t Formerly anything that is political, governmental, scholarly or lawyerly. The guy on the radio (Gingrich) is only a Former college drop-out, drug addict and oh, yeah, football commentator.

The reason people are has-beens (oh, Hello, Former Vice President) is because they are no longer relevant. These people are like the old guys who hang around at the high school, searching for their self-worth in their former locker. It is an odd behavior, the inability to press forward constructively in new pursuits. It makes people do embarrassing things. 

Kate Minus One

I never liked that Jon. I liked Kate. Poor Kate, with the eight. I have a theory about cheaters. Cheaters cheat. They cheat on the playground. They cheat on math tests. They cheat when they get married. This is not a documented theory; it is just my opinion. It is like cake. People who like cake have to eat it. They can’t help themselves. They may try to mitigate the eating of the cake, but ultimately, they put it in their mouths. They might eat just the frosting. They might take a fork and stick it under the cellophane while it is still in the refrigerator, but they eat the cake. One would think that eight children would be a compelling deterrent. But cheaters can’t be compelled.

I wonder if Kate saw Jon cheat elsewhere in his life. Actually, I take that back. She has eight children. She is not looking to see if her husband cheats at Monopoly, or on his taxes. She should not have to. I have two children and it was difficult enough to notice.                                                        

I hope that Kate addresses this off-camera. It could become an engaging story line, unfortunately. Poor Kate.