We Can All Relate

The e-mail came from a reader, U.S. Marine Corps, retired:

    So, I was driving down I-20 from NE Columbia [S.C.] toward the city when I began to pass this huge convoy of Army trucks, Humvees, etc. The convoy was in the right lane. I was driving in the left. The convoy vehicles were loaded with tough-looking young soldiers, and each of them had the familiar “AA” (All American) patches of the famous 82nd Airborne Division stitched on their sleeves. Of course—being such an enormously long convoy of these young paratroopers traveling west on I-20—it was obvious they were from Fort Bragg, N.C., and they were heading toward the Katrina damaged Gulf Coast, where other 82nd paras had already been deployed.

    The convoy took up the entire right lane of the interstate for several miles. . . . But what made it such a wonderful sight was that in the left lane, civilian drivers and passengers (young, old, black, white, some driving Mercedes, some driving smoke-belching old rust-traps) were slowing by each Army vehicle and waving and giving the thumbs up. And the soldiers were waving back . . . some smiling, some trying to look tough, a few were drinking Cokes.

    A few months ago, these same guys were fighting in Iraq. . . . Now they were roaring down the highway in a long green line in central South Carolina . . . in the lane next to me. They looked tough, but most looked as if they were barely old enough to shave. Some of them probably had tubes of Clearasil (or whatever teenagers use today to fight acne) stowed away in their field packs. I briefly thought about the fact that they had not been back from Iraq for very long. And for a second, I even considered the fact that—though they were all wearing their helmets and their battle gear—none of their vehicles had any armor plating. But why should they? No one was going to shoot at ‘em or hit ‘em with an IED . . . not here in central South Carolina. Not ever.

    I looked at one of the soldiers as I passed. He looked at me, and smiled through the sweat of his smooth and freckled face. My eyes began to well up . . . and I didn’t really know why. Best, Me

Mine did too, and I didn’t know why either. And knew. It’s moving to see, if only with your mind’s eye, young men come in to save our country. And it’s moving to see Americans recognize it, honor it, salute it.

*   *   *

It has been a tough 10 days for America—toughest, obviously and by far, for those who took the full blow, and those who rushed to help them, but it has been demanding even for those who only absorbed the impressions and testimony of the tragedy from afar.
It feels unhelpful at the moment, and self-indulgent, to add to the sum total of criticism and damnation. Reporters on the scene have been giving the most constructive criticism, simply by reporting the facts. But the couch commandos of the pundit brigades have not added much light the past week, only heat. Some attacks have been unseemly (the tragedy of others isn’t a stick you use to make a point that’s merely partisan) and some are at this point redundant (everyone who’s been knocked seems to at least some degree to have deserved it, and those who covered themselves in glory, from the rescuers of the Coast Guard to the people of Texas, seem to have earned that, too).

I’m just thinking of basics. I have a friend who lost everything he had in New Orleans—his house and all the material things that represent a personal history—except the most important thing, his family. They fled the storm and wound up in Alabama. I have a friendly acquaintance who’s spent the past 10 days looking for her family and finding them, one after another. On Tuesday this week both friends were remembered at a noon mass in Brooklyn. A bishop asked for the names so he could take them to Rome next week and ask the synod of bishops to pray for them specifically. Which means the pope will wind up praying for friends who last week fled for their lives in a car, and waded through water looking for a sister. It is not a small world, it is minute.

And wonderful. It’s good to be alive, no matter where you are or in what condition. “The impulse of tragedy is on to life and more life,” said Eugene O’Neill after another long week’s journey. Wherever you are—on a cot in the Astrodome looking up and waving at Katie Couric; walking with your friends after the first day of school; at home in your quiet suburban life with the TV on in the background feeling grateful for what you have, feeling grateful just for being dry and for not being on a cot in a football field, but feeling also maybe your life is a little small, feeling lately that it seems to be passing you by—it’s good to be alive.

Sometimes when I’m down I do what may be an odd thing. I don’t really know if it’s an odd thing. I remember that someday I’ll be on my deathbed, and on that day and on that moment when I’m about to die I will probably think that life was pretty good and I’m going to miss it. If you know this on the brink of death, then why not cut to the chase and know it now? I offer this to anyone who needs to cut to the chase today.

*   *   *

It happens to be my (perhaps idiotic) hunch that everyone identifies with some other person or people who play a role in the unfolding drama you see on your screen when a national catastrophe occurs. This may be one of the reasons such tragedies are so painful for people far away. They personalize a story by identifying, and that identification rattles them and pierces their detachment. When they say, “Did you see the guy who rappelled out of the helicopter and got the people off the roof?” I think they’ve imagined what it was like to be that man dropping onto the house as the waters raged.

Maybe you identify with the rescuers, or the rescued. Maybe you identify with a brave cop, or with the neighbor who picked up an axe and smashed through a roof to save a man in the attic. Or the TV producer who was clearly frightened of the crime around her but stood her ground on Canal Street and kept reporting by phone. Maybe you identify with the poor crazy mayor (sorry) or the famous “blithering idiot” FEMA director (sorry) or the tough cigar-chomping general.

Let me tell you the greatest moment I saw in all the coverage. It’s the middle of the day on Thursday or Friday last week. The Army is arriving, or the Guard. A big green truck full of fresh-faced young men is cruising along a New Orleans street. Lt. Gen. Russell Honore happens to be standing there as the truck slows to make a turn. He looks up and yells at the kids on the truck, “Put those guns down!”

They’re startled. They’ve been lurching along with their guns pointed upward as if they’re ready for looters, as if their mission is protect life and property. Which of course it was, but they were kids, seemingly inexperienced, and they didn’t seem to realize there were no looters around, just survivors of the storm, citizens gathered on a corner to watch the truck go by. Gen. Honore yells to the soldiers, “Put those guns down!” and immediately they all take their rifles and point them down at their feet, and ride on. And the little crowd on the corner burst into cheers. They just cheered and applauded this new presence of sanity in their city.

This is what leadership is, specific and discrete decisions that are right because they’re human and full of common sense. You know someone’s a looter because he’s looting: rifles up. A peaceful citizen deserves respect: rifles down. I don’t know if Gen. Honore is as great as they say. I hope he is. But he won my respect at that moment.

So maybe—back to identifying with actors in the drama—you relate to him. Maybe you imagine what it would be like to be in charge of a mess and trying to bring method to madness. Maybe who you relate to, who you imagine being, says something big and deep about you. Maybe not. Maybe worth thinking about for a moment.

*   *   *

The stories that pierce my heart involve the terror of children. And the one that hit me the most was the story of the 6-year-old boy found wandering over a bridge with six younger children. Most of the kids were too young even to know their names. The 6-year-old was carrying a 15-month-old infant. They were taken in and cared for by strangers, by nurses; and ultimately all their parents were found. But we forget the terror of children. Adults, even the dimmest of them, can calculate and think up strategies, even if they’re bad ones. They can feel and know it’s a feeling. But with young children it’s all impressions, they can’t think it through. They have a natural, primal will to survive, but beyond that they’re helpless, it’s all wet and cold and the way momma’s face looked when the radio said everyone’s leaving.
One of the things I have been thinking about is how children take their cues from the adults around them. If the adults are enraged and screaming, children become scared and learn that the way to respond to frustration and pressure is with screaming and rage. If no one’s in charge, children can tell. If no one is leading, children can tell. If no one is caring for them they infer they aren’t worthy of care.

It is hard to be a parent at any time, but to be a parent in a life-or-death crisis is brutal. It is hard to give children what they need when you’re overwhelmed yourself. It’s hard, when you’re afraid, to talk to children gently and listen to them, really hear them, so you can figure out what they’re really telling you when they ask a surprising or seemingly illogical question. It takes patience not to work out your frustration or terror or pessimism on them, but to show instead forbearance, or frankly fake it if you have to. And to show optimism and faith—”We’ll be OK, don’t you worry”— because optimism and faith can become a habit, they are communicable, and the habit of optimism and faith allows children to trust life, to enter it steadily and have confidence in it.

It is exhausting being a parent under trying circumstances. It is probably the hardest thing in the world. But on such things nations rise and fall, endure or falter.

And no one says thank you, or rather no one has videotape of your heroism and replays it in a loop. But for parents in the Superdome and Astrodome, for parents living with children in somebody’s spare room, for parents in a motel room crammed with three generations of a family, from the old and frightened to the young and colicky—for those who lost everything and yet are still functioning as parents—well, please consider this a small salute from far away. A small attempt to recognize, and honor. You’re saving a country, too.