You say we have turned
Like the enemies you've earned
But we can remember
All the good things you are.
And so we ask you please
Can we help you find the peace and the star?
Oh my friend, we have all come
To fear the beating of your drum.
--Joni Mitchell, 1969
Michael had an easy smile and an even easier laugh, the sort of lazy giggle that relaxed even the most tense moments. At twelve he was an altar boy. At fourteen, a basketball hero. At sixteen, a liar.
He lied to join the Army. Michael told the recruiter he was seventeen so he could go to Vietnam. Back then, no one asked any questions. He joined for all the right reasons: honor and patriotism and the desire to make his parents proud. Michael followed the drums of war into the jungle, but he never marched back.
The night that President Bush beat the drum and announced that we were going into Kuwait, the man who came to inhabit Michael's body was sitting upright in a smoky bedroom, back against a headboard. His breath reeked of whiskey and rotting teeth; the sores on his hands and ears oozed angrily as he slurred curses at the television.
All this, of course, before he cried himself to sleep.
Shortly before moving out of basic, Michael took up smoking cigarettes outside the barracks with a young man from Tennessee. The two shared photos of their girls back home and whispered about their lives before they joined up. In the most dire of situations, men make friends fast. Michael told him about how he was a varsity basketball star back home. He told him that his best memory is the time he tore the wrap off a baseball. "Back home, " he said bashfully, "they call me Skinner."
Fast forward a year in time. Skinner crouches in God-knows-what, covered in the blood of his dead friend, bleeding from the temple and biting his lip raw. He grimaces back tears while he smokes a joint and waits for help in the brush. He's dead inside. Everybody around him is dead on all sides.
Sometimes it's hard to understand what he's saying because he mumbles so badly when he's drunk. But the thing is, he never stops talking. It's like he's afraid of the silence. He tells me that sometimes he wakes up in the night, and that he can still hear them screaming. He doesn't have to tell me that he screams, too. I've heard him.
Once, he actually cried in my arms and I caught a glimpse of who he must've been before he left so long ago to make his parents proud. I cried, too. I wasn't alive to see that war, to know why it happened, to protest, to help. I wasn't alive to know Michael.
He never had children of his own because of the chemical poisoning, so marrying into our family was the closest he could come. He doesn't think he deserves to have any sort of happiness. Hell, he doesn't think he deserves to live. But he's not living. He can't keep a steady job because his body is deteriorating rapidly and he drinks too much. He won't quit the drinking because it's how he gets through the night. Therapy didn't take; he's tried, but the drums in his head just won't stop.
Millions of us live under the crushing weight of this cadence, barely breathing under the violence and sorrow. Why can't we throw off this terrible burden? Leave it behind and play a lighter, happier song?
All this. This man's life rotted from the inside like a poison apple. Last week he finally filed for his promised government pension and the stipend for those vets who suffer from Agent Orange. For the longest time, Grandpa wouldn't apply because he felt he'd be taking money away from the government--the country he loves so much that he gave his life. All this.
It's time for fiddle. Fuck the drum.