Donley Watt: Circling

When we are young we look forward, our eyes always on the future, it seems. The present is illusory; “now” disappears into our past the instant our mind forms the concept and then the word. And for the young that past is often ignored, blotted out, refigured into a history that gives reason and comfort to their lives as they relentlessly focus on what is coming next.

But if you have the fortune to live with relatively good health and a somewhat sound mind until you are, like me, closer to eighty than to seventy, dwelling on what future still looms ahead often seems futile and without purpose.

So what am I, or anyone my age, to do but look back, relive my life’s history, once again going over those things from the past that have left their marks, a search for self-acceptance and self-understanding.

In pursuit of this, some of my days I go through old forgotten files and drafts and newspaper clippings, discarding most, leafing through those that puzzle me, and often I wonder who was that young and then middle-aged man who wrote and lived this now mostly faded past.

But still, there are triggers, recent reminders that stir my memory. Just this past year from a faded New York Times: “SECRET IRAQ BASE BELIES CLAIM OF NO BOOTS ON THE GROUND,” followed by another:  “NUMBER OF U.S. TROOPS IN IRAQ KEEPS CREEPING UP.”

Then, no more than a few weeks later, back at my desk, I pull from a file drawer a thick folder, now brittle from ten years of neglect and darkness, marked “Martin. Iraq. 2006.”

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For in 2006 our son’s National Guard unit in Austin, whose specialty was helicopter support and maintenance, was called into active duty with orders to pack up and head to Iraq. Martin had joined the Marines straight from Fredericksburg High School more than thirty years before. Even now I wonder if I should have taken a stronger stand to dissuade his enlistment back then. Would that have made a difference? Yes, of course. But for better or for worse? It would be arrogance to think I know. And after a years-long hitch of active duty in the Corps he immediately signed on with the Texas National Guard as a “weekend warrior” while beginning work on his college degree.

Then, in 2005 at 40, with college far behind and family obligations upon him, Martin told me that he figured to wind down his commitment in a couple of more years, dragging it out until he could say goodbye to the Guard with a small monthly stipend.

Active duty for him, at his age, even with the Gulf War in full throttle had never seemed a possibility.

At that time he worked for a large insurance company in San Antonio, which being founded and led by (mostly) men with strong military backgrounds, gave him both a sense of belonging he had valued in the Marines, and the structure that he needed. A good match overall, then with a wife and two daughters and a home in Stone Oak, a recent residential addition to the burgeoning north San Antonio expansion of subdivisions.

My wife and I lived in San Antonio then, too, nearer downtown, on Burr Road, in an area developed in the 1950s and 1960s as housing mostly for low-star generals and colonels who had retired from the Army after serving at Fort Sam Houston, less than a mile away. Our house sat on a ridge with a sloping backyard surrounded by half-grown pine trees, which not surprisingly, failed to thrive. When we had moved there a few years before we dug out and enlarged a small, muddy-green goldfish pond and morphed it into a medium-sized swimming pool, a place for me to relieve my own aching knees, and to exercise in a vain attempt to slow down the creeping ravages of too many birthdays.

So in March of 2006 Martin, along with his Guard unit, caravanned to Fort Hood, a sprawling Army base two hours or so north of Austin, gearing up for their flight to the Middle East.

His unit ultimately landed at Balad Air Base outside of Baghdad, where he spent the rest of his tour.  This old Iraqi base had been Americanized and made mostly secure, but was not so humorously labeled “Mortaritaville” by its new occupants. From there his military emails home would begin and would continue until he made it back in August of the next year.

Unlike many stories, this is not one of personal tragedy or death or disabling physical wounds, but one of apprehension and helplessness, worry and dread on my part, and inevitable change and consequences for my son.

For that year, once every week or so, Martin’s emails dinged on my computer, transmitted first from Fort Hood, then for a couple of weeks from a staging area in Kuwait, and finally from Iraq.

The emails, censored and brief, often were written late at night or in the dark of an early Iraqi morning:

“Pretty exciting coming straight down on the C-130 with Apache helicopters below clearing the way.”

“I didn’t get a roommate since their plane had to turn around due to heavy firing. I guess the Apaches couldn’t stop the firing like they did for us.”

“Incoming mortars, mostly at lunch and dinner times. One of our guys caught a local counting off steps to set off an explosive near our commanders in the mess hall. I’ve just learned not to eat near the officers and I will be okay.”

Not reassuring for Dad.

Soon I found myself that late spring and summer, and on into the fall before the swimming pool temperature dipped below 70 degrees, retreating down the limestone path from our house and soaking in the pool’s warm water while also attempting to reconcile myself to my son, as politicians glibly say, being “in harm’s way.”

My wife and I had been against the war, disgusted by George W’s brash cockiness, and the push toward an invasion that seemed to take on a life and fervor of its own. We had marched against the impending war in downtown San Antonio with a few hundred others before the invasion, the sidewalks packed with mostly disapproving onlookers, jeering and waving American flags.

Within a few weeks of “shock and awe,” facsimile ribbons with “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS” decorated bumpers and billboards, for San Antonio has deep military roots, all the way back to the Alamo.

Down in the pool, in spite of my determination, it proved hard to get away. During this time of heightened military passion, helicopters flew low above our house, headed into Fort Sam day and night, banking at sharp angles as they disappeared below the neighborhood trees, ferrying mostly severely burned soldiers on their last leg of the long journey from Iraq to Brooke Army Medical Center.

I would swim a few laps, then float on my back, watching the choppers, hoping for a cloud or two to bring relief. Emerald damselflies flitted around, then circled above the pool, closer and closer, finally hovering, helicopter-like, seemingly curious about my body floating below.

When I rested, standing in five feet of water at the west end of the pool, in the filtered shade of a lone live oak tree, a couple of damselflies lit on the pool deck with folded-back wings and dipped towards damp circles where water had splashed. Then they ascended and circled once again.

As a boy I had watched damselflies light on cattails and bare twigs at the edge of stock tanks in East Texas. Now here, as they circled closer I braced my elbow against the pool’s coping and leaned back, my index finger pointing motionless into the still air. Before long, a blue damselfly hovered above, and then lit on the tip of my finger, its six legs a faint tickle.

I slowly raised my arm, and it stayed, until finally bored or rested, it took off once more, mimicking the army medical choppers as they rose above the BAMC burn center, a couple of miles south.

This I could repeat at will with the cooperation of the damselflies, on any late afternoon until the first norther blew in from the panhandle and I abandoned the pool, and the damselflies fulfilled their own fates. I took comfort from this, the mutual trust not to cause harm in a world filled with aggression.

Then after dinner, just as the sun hurried out of sight and before the evening’s mosquitoes began to come alive, I returned to the pool, this time just sitting on the warm limestone decking with my feet in the water, waiting. For always in the summer, just at dusk, purple martins and then occasional smaller barn swallows swooped over the pool from east to west, rising just in time to avoid the oak tree, then circling again and again, feeding on flying insects, their similarity to air force fighter jets strafing and bombing just my own obsessive doing. Then from Fort Sam, with dusk settling all around, a bugler’s mournful taps floated above.

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I needed to take action, to do something, anything, even if small and probably futile. So to offset the WE SUPPORT OUR TROOPS bumper stickers and stick-on ribbons flooding San Antonio, I drove down to a small building on Mulberry Street, not far from where I taught at Trinity University for several years. A sign above the door advertised “Banners, Business Cards, Bumper Stickers.” A two-person operation. The woman behind the desk eyed me warily. Maybe my beard, I thought, or my beat-up Ford Ranger out front, or my worn jeans and blue work shirt. Or perhaps the distressed look on my face.

I asked her the price for four bumper stickers. I wanted one for each of our vehicles and replacements in case they were defaced or ripped off. She quoted me what I figured was a fair figure. She slid a form for my order across the countertop, and I filled it in. She promised one-day service on this small order.

The next day the bumper stickers were ready, waiting for me in a long brown sack on the counter. She rang up the order and handed me the bill. I glanced at the bill, then back at her, puzzled.

“When you walked in,” she said, with a shrug. “I worried what you wanted. We get lots of crazies around here.” She shook her head. “For you, for this, it’s half-price.” I nodded and thanked her; a few good folks still around. In the parking lot I stuck one to my pickup’s back bumper. Just what I ordered:



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Of the four I picked up from the printer that day in 2006, one remained in that file folder where I recently came across it. It is creased where more than ten years ago I had folded it, and along with the scores of Martin’s emails, filed it away.  But now I pinned that red, white and blue bumper sticker to the wall of my study. In this time of apprehension and fear and intimidation, when Iraq and now Syria burn on, where more boots on the ground seem inevitable, followed by more of our soldiers to be laid in the ground, an accelerated war in the Middle East might be no more than a tweet away, I take courage from the words on the wall above my desk, and I remember. And those words give me courage to write what I need to say.

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