A Really Big Read

After reading The Things They Carried, I have something new to carry. I have read many reviews and hot debates on whether or not this book should be classified as fiction or non-fiction. It is the same sort of hot debate that applies to whether Vietnam was an actual war or merely a police action. A matter of pure semantics, really – in the end, does it really matter, if you walk away from both a little bit changed?

I grew up in the Vietnam era. My young uncle was one of the grunts that flew off and spent a year humping. I don’t recall that he changed much over his year there, but I was young at the time. He could have. He did his 365 and a wake-up. He’s had a double lung transplant now. He suspects Agent Orange. Damn Vietnam. Maybe it was Agent Orange. Maybe it wasn’t. Does it really matter, if you still need both your lungs replaced?

I’ve seen Apocalypse Now and Platoon probably ten to fifteen times each. I love them both, in their own way. In one, a man was trying to kill another man for a reason. In the other, the original man’s son was doing the same thing but for a completely different reason. In the end, both men were killed. Did it really matter that Martin Sheen and Charlie Sheen were playing characters with completely different motivations? In the end, the man was killed.

So, The Things They Carried comes up as the book for The Big Read. I try to imagine thousands of people, reading the same words I read, and wondering about their conclusions. Is this a great piece of work or is this one big story masquerading as a memoir? Does it really matter? We have all read it at the same time. It is now a communal experience.

If I only had the words to describe the ineffable sadness that I feel for the author and his long-gone friends, I would surely spill them here. If I only had the vision to see how this work places me in a historical time period – my time – with such a different experience. I was painting peace signs on my Department of Defense-issued locker, listening to Cat Stevens and Steppenwolf, and mourning the death of Jim Morrison. I was in Europe, basking in the safety of carefully manicured botanical parks, while, on the other side of the world, Tim O’Brien was using technology my father maintained to march one more day through the bush. Perhaps he walked somewhere near my uncle. I, on the other hand, campaigned for McGovern, who lost by a landslide, even in my European DOD school mock vote and sang Let the Sun Shine from the musical Hair. I had little, if any, understanding, against what I protested. It was kind of a mass hippie conspiracy. I didn’t have to know the truth. I knew it felt wrong.

O’Brien tells a story (and it does not matter if it is true) of taking his daughter to Vietnam. The conversation went something like this:

Daughter: “Why was everybody so mad at everyone else?”

O’Brien: “They weren’t mad, exactly. Some people wanted one thing and other people wanted another thing.”

Daughter: “What did you want?”

O’Brien: “Nothing. . .To stay alive.”

There is truth to this statement and it sums up everything I think I know about Vietnam. Unlike the soldiers in the wars before, there was no great cause to defend. There was no Hitler to defeat, no avenging Pearl Harbor, no preserving the union, or even avenging the World Trade Center. All of these other causes had led young men and women to join the military voluntarily and fight with a purpose. The boys in Vietnam – many of them drafted – had no cause to fight for but each other and to stay alive. They were in for 365 and a wake-up. The Things They Carried has brought that 365 home to me, in a very real way.

It does not matter whether anything is true or not. It only matters if you feel something. And I truly feel something at the end of this book. I don’t know what it is, but it lays leaden on my chest. I will bet that, when I step outside into Kiowa’s Oklahoma sun, it will seem a bit brighter and I will feel its warmth on my skin more intensely. Because you feel more alive after an intense experience.

Or so the story goes.

War is hell.

Hearts: 10/10. I can’t explain it.

Santa Claus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

I will start out by saying that I did not know much about Shackleton and the Endurance and the whole Antarctic thing. My familiarity with this whole genre of exploration is pretty well summed up in the Monty Python Sketch: Scott of the Antarctic. For a good giggle, click here for the sketch on YouTube.

Reading Endurance, I am dumbstruck at the idea that anyone actually lived through this whole ordeal – much less everyone live through it. Being the polar neophyte that I was, I had actually no clue that Shackleton started out on his quest to cross the pole on land, by foot and dog sled, in 1914, shortly after the Titanic disaster in the North Atlantic, shortly after Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, and during the reign of George V, shortly before and pretty much through the first half of World War I. Endurance was the most appropriate word that could have been ascribed to this expedition.

Setting out to cross the Antarctic during a time when little was known about the region, seems like a magnificent obsession. Certainly, the expedition leader, Shackleton, was obsessed, but I cannot even begin to describe his obsession. It was not necessarily fame, but that had something to do with it. It was not necessarily adventure, although that had something to do with it. Rather, I think it was a reflection of the time – when man thought he could actually conquer nature with sheer determination and will. And so the Titanic sailed and sank. And so the Endurance sailed and was frozen in pack ice until the floes of ice actually crushed it into sinking, putting 27 men and 49 dogs on a large drift of pack ice, where they survived until the ice broke up, and they moved to the next thing, and the next thing, and the next thing.

The men involved in this expedition endured unimaginable hardship. And yet, they continued to persevere and believe, with boundless optimism, that they would survive. With a stiff upper lip, they took everything one step at a time, bringing a fantastic story into history.

What boggles the mind is how easily they could have given up and frozen to death – but they did not. Was it their leader? Was it the time? What was it that got these 27 men to safety? The character of the men was like that of George Mallory, who, shortly in their future, would die trying to climb Mount Everest without the vaguest notion of what that climb would entail. The spirit of adventure strikes out in the darkness of ignorance and strives to shed light. Shackleton and the men of the Endurance did indeed, shed light on the character of man at its best. It was something like a Jack London novel, only for real.

And an interesting side note – just from my Titanic mania – Shackleton crossed a horrendous expanse of arctic tundra to a whaling village. He contacted a captain, whose vessel was named the Sampson. The Sampson is often cited by Titanic lore as a possible source of the light in the distance – illegally whaling – as opposed to the most logical conclusion that the light in the distance was the Californian. The lines of my interest cross in a thousand tangles with this one voyage – or lack of voyage. The age of invincibility – Titanic, Shackleton, Mallory, and all – would only come crashing down in a blaze of mustard gas and destruction in Europe. But on the tundra, seas, or mountains, it was not about governments and land – it was about the epic struggle of man versus nature.

Sometimes you’re the windshield. Sometimes you’re the bug. Shackleton and his men were the windshield.

Hearts: 8.5/10 – I am just dumbstruck by this whole thing.