A peek into my culture

Veterans Day dinner was outstanding in its usual quiet ways. Maybe 50 people of all ages and stripes were there. Dad was a real conversation piece in his uniform as one guy said the only part of his that he can still fit into is his hat. We had the posting of the colors followed by prayer. It’s usually a Navy Chaplain, but the parish priest was invited to lead us. The head tables were introduced. One sat round and empty. It was set with fine china and silverware. On each plate was a hat from each branch of the armed forces. They represented those who are POW’s, KIA’s and those who have “faded away.” Glasses were turned upside down because they can no longer be here to toast with us. A black ribbon is tied around a vase holding a single red rose. It is for those loved ones, mothers and fathers and children who supported them and now miss them. Four children placed flags from each branch in a centerpiece and lit a candle. At the other head table where the dignitaries sat was another empty place setting. It is for those who are currently deployed. Their glass too is turned upside down for they also cannot raise a glass.

I dined on chicken, wild rice and Bermuda vegetables. There was a sheet cake and boxed wine. It was mess hall food at its finest. It was surprising to my dad’s guest who was dreading a roomful of old World War II vets that might bore with old war stories. There are over 1000 WWII vets dying per day now. She is excused because she is a civilian and most of us prefer it that way.

Almost every vet there was from the Vietnam and Gulf War. At the other head table sat the only World War II/Korean Vet. His name is Joe and he told us of his experiences from getting shot down by a MIG over Russia. When they crash landed they were greeted by Russian women pointing bayoneted rifles at them and led into a place where they were fed and sheltered for about 10 days. Then the 38 airmen began an odyssey across the Siberian wasteland that included meals of raw fish, borscht, sheep’s head soup, and latrines that were nothing more that ditches in the dirt behind a bamboo screen. Vodka too, lots of it. This was life in Russia at the time and he appreciated the food and hospitality. In addition to drinking it, the Russian pilots would use it as an additive to the fuel in the aircraft, B-24 Liberators that were given to them by the US in exchange for using areas of Russia to conduct the war. I’m guessing it was to lower the freezing point of the fuel. The Russian pilots would pour a bottle into the gas tanks on the wings then jump up and down to mix it. Eventually housed in a schoolhouse near a gulag Joe told us about them being half starved and out scrounging around for a chicken they had heard. They came across a train stopped on the tracks. It was stuffed full of people begging and calling to them for help. In their condition there was nothing they could do. After nearly 6 months of being dragged hither and yon across Russia, denied any care from the International Red Cross, the KGB smuggled them across country in trucks, trains and ships to an allied area and finally released them to what Joe guessed was the FBI.

Back in the states, there was a great welcoming home banquet held for them and as Joe choked on bittersweet words, he told us that they could not eat the food because it was too rich in contrast to the Spartan diet they had been surviving on. They dined on salads and milk instead.

Unable to explain why these airmen had been detained so long by the Russians, the US Congress thrust them into a No Man's Land. Joe and his comrades could chose wherever they would like to be stationed in the US, they were required to maintain the secrecy of the events that happened to them and carry papers that forbid any national or foreign agency to interrogate them. Today there are still parts of his experiences that Joe cannot talk about.

Again we could hear a terse moan rise in the back of his throat; the stick he used to point out his travels on a map trembled visibly in his hand when told about the 1982 US Congress quietly passing a resolution that acknowledged him and the others as POWs allowing them to finally join groups with similar experiences for support and to have the benefits they were entitled to. He was one of the lucky ones that have lived long enough to receive his medal in 1992 from a general he is proud to say he knows well. However, because of the secrecy, some who were with Joe, lack the paper work needed to prove they were in the group of airmen shot down and imprisoned by Russia. They remain in a Catch 22. Most of the men's families have received their loved ones' medals posthumously.

Yesterday’s essay Veterans Day is not on sale was a very emotional introspection. Even though there were downvotes and political as well as religious softlinks, its intent is successful in being non religious and apolitical. The welcomed messages I received is proof that it appeals to many readers from all convictions about war. I was glad for that because my deepest wish is for this divided world to find some common ground.

Sweaty fingers shook around the cold metal trigger, stuttering and shuddering, struggling to maintain aim.

"S-sir, maybe it's time to put down the bottle..."

A wild eye snapped round and goggled at the owner of the gun. No bottles were being put down any time soon. The shaking resumed.

Police cruisers blocked both ends of the palm-lined street. Their windows shone in the setting sun. Liquid heat seemed to trickle through the air, mixing with the sweat and electricity.

"This is my bottle!" The clinking of metal accompanied frenzied waving of the bottle, as if to illustrate the point. "There are many like it, but this one is mine!"

Nervous faces looked to each other. This was going to be a tough one.

"In," a quick check on the timer, "in ten minutes we will all wake up and see the light! This will be our new way of life!" The bottle was offered to the sky. "We will live like glorious, sleek animals!"

"Sir, please put down the bottle."

Two figures, doubled up and used to not being seen, were stalking their way closer to the centre of attention.

"Sir, if you do not put the bottle down now, we will be forced to shoot!" 

The bottle dropped slightly, the head with it.

"Please, put down the bottle!"

A sudden, terrible crack. The bottle fell into the waiting, blood-spattered hands of the policeman. There is a sudden white light. The curtains are drawn, and the window shines in the midday sun. You have a splitting headache.

Based on a very weird, drunken dream I had.

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