The flag waver showed up five weeks before the second Iraq War. In Baghdad, NPR was interviewing “human shields”—volunteer hostages for Saddam. The French government was threatening a UN veto. We saw the flag waver on Tuesdays, the day I deliver my son John, then twelve years old, to his piano lesson. The flag waver was in his fifties like me, silver-haired, trim like a jogger; he wore a yellow windbreaker, blue jeans, a baseball cap, and aviator-style sunglasses. He’d posted himself in the corner of Leschi Park, next to the Leschi Market, an emporium I love for its hard-to-find wines—Argentine Malbecs, Chilean Riojas, New Zealand Sauvignons. It’s a lovely spot—the market, the lake, a view of Mt. Rainier. The cars rolled down Lake Washington Boulevard and onto Lakeside Avenue. The flag waver flourished the Stars and Stripes. Every ten cars or so, somebody flashed him a thumbs-up or beeped a horn.
Patriots, especially flag-waving patriots, were rare that winter in Seattle. Our congressman, Jim McDermott, had visited Baghdad a month or two earlier to considerable local hosannas. “The president,” McDermott warned, “would mislead the American people.” A Seattle peace group—Sound Nonviolent Opponents to the War (SNOW)—awarded McDermott a “Giraffe Award” because he was willing to stick his “neck out and stand tall for peace.” Five weeks later, the Marines tumbled Saddam. The flag waver still manned his corner, still waved his flag, but there were more beeps and more thumbs-up than before.
The Tuesday after Saddam’s fall, I was on my way out of the Leschi Market, a case of wine balanced in my arms, when the flag waver called out to me: “I hope that’s not French wine.”
My wine wasn’t French wine. Despite my love of things French—French wine and French baguettes and French cheese and the French novels of Victor Hugo and the French movies of François Truffaut and even French cars, especially the Deux Cheveaux; despite my fondness for little French hotels on the Ile de la Cité with spiral staircases and cast-iron balconies and my fondness for French breakfasts of bitter black coffee and Breton preserves and fragrant French croissants—I had decided to eschew things French, at least for a while: my own silent protest at fickle French friendship. Still, as I carried my wine across Lakeside Avenue, as I loaded my Spanish and Italian and California wine into the car, I began to steam. It seemed to me the flag waver had challenged my right not to express myself publicly, my right to conduct myself in accord with my conscience and only my conscience, to be private rather than public in my point of view, even though on the topic of the French, at least for a little while, the flag waver and I probably agreed.
The Iraq war, of course, hadn’t shaped my views any more than it shaped Congressman McDermott’s views or probably even the flag waver’s views. What shaped us was Vietnam. Vietnam ripped our generation, ripped us so ragged I doubt we’ll ever mend, ripped us so far apart we can’t even remember 1965, the year I went to the Naval Academy, when it seemed to me there was little difference between a Naval Academy midshipman, which I became, and a Peace Corps volunteer, which I might have become. I doubt McDermott saw the difference either. We were all patriots back then, all Jack Kennedy patriots, righteous, determined, idealistic, certain of America’s virtue in the world.
My Naval Academy roommate, J. K. Pell, was a Jack Kennedy patriot. J. K. was from Genesee, Idaho, where he was the student-body president of the thirty-seven-student Genesee High School and the quarterback of the eight-man football team and where he’d shot, in the Palouse backcountry, the world’s fourth-largest elk bagged by bow and arrow. The term “gangly” was invented for guys like J. K.. Tall. Skinny. Magpie-black hair. A face of planes and angles as rugged as the Bitterroot Mountains. J. K. had a mannerism of staring beyond you, gazing into the distance like he was tracking a bull elk or watching a hawk soar. He had a pilot’s perfect eyes. Few of J. K.’s Genesee classmates went to college. Fewer still left Idaho. But Idaho was always in J. K.: his dad mailed us cardboard boxes of elk jerky packed in popcorn; above his Bancroft Hall bunk, he tacked a clipping titled “A Poem to a Horse;” and in our senior year, he shot a rabbit and accidentally cleaned it on one of my term papers. We survived Plebe Year together. We were roommates for four years together. We knew each other better than brothers. We each knew what the other believed.
J. K. fought in Vietnam. (I fought in Vietnam, too, though my war was fought from a destroyer and later an aircraft carrier—so far offshore that most of the time I couldn’t even see land.) J. K. volunteered to fly OV-10A Broncos_,_ twin-prop, twin-fuselage, close-air-support aircraft. He lived “in country” and he lived with the South Vietnamese Army and his job was to fly over Vietnam looking for VC or NVA soldiers, to provide air support or to call in air support or artillery if he found them, perhaps naval guns, perhaps the five-inch guns on my ship, the USS Epperson, which was, at the time, floating around the mouth of the Mekong Delta. J. K. completed his one-year tour of duty. He went home. He married a raven-haired, Pennsylvania Dutch beauty named Becky Ziegler. He joined an A-6 Prowler Squadron in Virginia Beach, a plum assignment to which his volunteering for Vietnam—and surviving Vietnam—entitled him.
In the months that followed, it became clear Vietnam had darkened J. K.’s world. Phrases crept into his letters, phrases like You are in our prayers and The Lord draws folks to himself and Be ready for His coming, phrases that popped up amid otherwise normal bulletins about J. K.’s pig-hunting and J. K.’s plans for turkey season and J. K.’s vans and J. K.’s motorcycles and the date of J. K.’s next Mediterranean deployment. I didn’t notice the change at the time, wrapped as I was in my own life, consumed by a bitter divorce—is there ever divorce that isn’t bitter?—trying to decide whether to stay in the Navy or get out, and eventually accepting a Navy assignment to BUPERS—the Bureau of Naval Personnel—in Washington, D.C. I drove from Seattle to Virginia Beach in four and a half days. It was October, 1974, during the gasoline crisis, and I was alone. I drove from Seattle to Spokane; from Spokane to Missoula; from Missoula to Sheridan; from Sheridan to Des Moines; from Des Moines to Charleston, West Virginia. I started before sunrise and stopped after sunset. I slept in four-hour stretches. And when I staggered into J. K. and Becky’s Virginia Beach house, my back searing with pain, my vision blurred, I didn’t know my left from my right.
Within minutes, or so it seems as I write this thirty years later, J. K. and Becky had me seated at their kitchen table and were asking if I was “ready to make a decision for Jesus.” Within minutes, they had whisked me to an arena-sized church surrounded by a supermarket-sized parking lot with baby-blue carpeting where a minister in double-knits with a politician’s puff-sprayed hair regaled us from a platform below a cross that hung on wires suspended from a ceiling forty feet above the minister’s head, the minister inviting us into the “pure, saving gospel of Jesus Christ,” inviting us to accept “God’s chain of command,” inviting us to “save forty-two souls in the next twenty-four hour period,” inviting us to make a “first-time decision for Christ,” inviting us to “altar call.” All the while, J. K. sat next to me whispering how many of our classmates had already accepted Christ: Lee “The Duck” Duckworth, who’d accepted Christ when his roommate Jim “Huffer” Huff augured in on a carrier qual, Larry “Slaff” Falls, after he washed out of Kingsville jet training, and Tom “Clever” Cleverdon, a tackle on the Navy football team who was born the same day I was and who crashed his helo on a Vietnamese beach while conducting a search-and-rescue mission and was pinned down by a company of Viet Cong firing AK-47s until another SAR arrived and rescued him.
As I listened to the preacher, as I listened to J. K.’s list of our former classmates and friends, lost and found souls, I found myself getting angrier and angrier. Didn’t J. K. remember the Plebe Year hazing we’d suffered together, the bull sessions about girls and God and politics, the getting drunk together, the double dates together, the Dear John letters commiserated over together, the midnight cramming for double-E exams together, the restriction musters together, and if he did remember, how could he subsequently forget who I was? Later, after we left J. K. and Becky’s tabernacle to Jesus, I demanded we stop at a 7-11, where I picked up a bottle of Gallo Red—J. K. and Becky didn’t drink anymore—and we sat in J. K. and Becky’s kitchen and I preached to them: I preached to them that if they wanted to keep me as a friend, they had to take me as I came, to forget about me accepting Jesus, to accept me as the damaged goods that I surely was, but my own goods, not some fundamentalist preacher’s goods, doing the best I could by J. K. and Becky and all my other friends and my own weary conscience. That was my altar call.
J. K. and Becky stared at me across their kitchen table blank-faced and silent, apparently un-indoctrinated in how to deal with a case like mine or too shocked at my sudden vehemence or too courteous to evangelize more and maybe even remembering what they’d known before: that my convictions had their origins elsewhere than Jesus.
After J. K. left the Navy, he became a Delta Airlines pilot. He lives in Atlanta now. Occasionally J. K. bids a flight out to Seattle. He came out for the Fourth of July a few years ago. We took him up to our Friday Harbor vacation house: my wife Susan, my son John, who was then eight.
John worships J. K.—he worships J. K. because J. K. is a commercial jet pilot and because J. K. was once a naval aviator and because J. K. is a hunter; he worships J. K. because J. K. is connected to his dad’s pre-history; he worships J. K. because J. K. talks funny: gazoodle means a lot; whipped means tired; a gully washer is a heavy rain; cross threaded is to be confused or at opposite purposes.
It’s six a.m., a July Fourth morning. The Friday Harbor Yacht Club has already motored around the harbor firing random cannon salutes. John is up. J. K. is up. They’ve gone for a hike. I’m sitting at our kitchen counter with its view of Brown Island and the harbor, all the light silver and gold. I’m listening to one of our new Talkabout hand-held radios with John babbling on the other. “John to Dad,” John calls. “Do you read?” John and J. K. are tracking a deer. J. K. is teaching John all the signs: hoofprints, broken twigs, nibbled leaves, scat. Even though I’m not a hunter, even though I dislike blood and guts and guns, if John ever wants to hunt I’ll pack John on the next flight to Atlanta. I’ll let J. K. teach him. I’ll only let J. K. teach him. John’s excited voice crackles over the radio. J. K.’s excited voice too. They’ve seen the deer. J. K. is describing her as “a little doe” and he’s telling John about her eyes and how big and brown and dark and wild they are and isn’t it great, isn’t it just a gazoodle of fun to be together?
J. K.’s right: it’s a gazoodle of fun—and now J. K.’s in John’s life too. Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, J. K. and Becky. Thank you, Whomever. Thank you for having the grace to know when to back off, when to recognize the lines that oughtn’t to be crossed, and how to never, ever stay cross threaded too long, especially from the ones you really love.
Neil Mathison is an essayist and short-story writer who has been a naval officer, a nuclear engineer, an expatriate businessman living in Hong Kong, a corporate vice-president, and a stay-at-home-dad. His essays and short stories have appeared in The Ontario Review, Georgia Review, Southern Humanities Review, North American Review, North Dakota Quarterly, AGNI, Under the Sun, -divide-, Bellowing Ark, Pangolin Papers, Blue Mesa Review, Blue Lyra Review, and elsewhere. Forthcoming are essays or stories in Northwind, Blue Lyra Review, and Notes. Neil lives and writes in Seattle. Neil’s essay, “Volcano: an A to Z” was recognized as a “notable essay” in Best American Essays 2010. Visit him at neilmathison.net.