Just a couple of hours in the World War I Museum in Kansas City.
Its entrance, fittingly, a long, sloping slide to heavy, brass doors. The doors themselves fronting what seems at once a casement, at once a tomb.
But for those of that generation who once manned such casements, too many of whom too soon came to man such tombs, my own couple of hours seemed sacrilege.
Me eyeing those munitions, the likes of which stilled some by the shell, slaughtered thousands by shot, by shock, by gas, by grenade, by the butcher’s cut of machine-gun fire, by bullets sawing life from limb; lives then pooling in seconds, those ponds of blood all at once rimmed by mud, by wire; anything that might ever have been itself puddling a landscape pocked from then to tomorrow.
And me, now, shrinking from these, these encased bayonets, these saved shells, themselves rescued from rust, the ignominy they once, always, deserved.
Me, here, now, almost a century later, eyeing dice, mere dice, mere playing cards, all, face value, even if in miniature. Dice, cards, that all those decades ago made life for moments some semblance of life for those for whom life was then otherwise mud, otherwise stench, otherwise the whistle of shells, the rip of machine guns, the nearness, the irrepressible imminence of death.
And me, this moment, in this museum, staring, in photographs, into the eyes, the eyes of the dead.
Some stunned dead by war.
The rest, all the rest, silenced since by life itself.
By this, the slow cadence of life. Too many of those in those photographs never outliving all they had lived before.
My own grandfather among them.
He, in 1917, then 21 or almost so, a boy made quickly a man by war, packaged in khaki, then shipped to the front.
To him, to everyone then, packed off to that Great War. That war then presumed to end all wars. The one commemorated by this same monument, itself today stabbing a clouded sky.
And far away, in time, in place…
Far from my dead grandfather’s New York City. Far removed from those words inscribed on this monument in Kansas City. The words commemorating this war “the world war,” the emphasis on “the” lost today, as if, naïvely, no one then could ever imagine that one world war might ever engender another.
Only to have my own father fight that next world war, the one never imagined. Only himself to escape by marriage, maybe by newborn me, fighting another, the war after that, the one in Korea.
And my brother, my own brother, a couple of decades later, enlisting during Vietnam.
And I, older than that brother, living, in effect, under the gun, spared by the only lottery I have ever to win. Me, my own five children, since then living life in the shadow of too many wars since that one of my own youth.
And all of us knowing today what my grandfather, almost a century ago, could never have known.
That those in command then, in that Great War, a war now so soon nearly a century dead to history, were convinced to blindness to stand their ground, even if standing ground meant digging deep into that ground.
Meant what we now know as trench warfare.
Meant snarls of barbed wire. Senseless forays over the top, the top of the trenches, the top of the wire. Meant traversing no man’s land, itself a cemetery of the willing; of those prodded by whim, by conscience, by any sense whatsoever, misplaced or otherwise, whether of God, of country; every last man now a name on a stone or dust known only to some god, every last soul utterly, ineluctably luckless.
And all that museumed here.
Here, mid-prairie. Here, in what is, to many, the middle of nowhere.
An ocean, and half a continent more, from there, from anyone’s anywhere. Decades, nearly a century, from then.
And me here, now, in 2011, two wars at a time currently engaging us, them, and two of my four sons with me today, both, so far, blessedly removed from either, both wars.
Me grateful today, every day.
Me, having, let’s face it, escaped death myself by the luck of the draw during Vietnam. My four sons so far, to this day, their lives, their whole lives, still ahead.
And then, this morning, these eyes.
Eyes that had seen so much, now saying so little. Eyes like searchlights sweeping a hospital room, lighting, in their passing, only shadows.
His mother, so young herself, what, three, four, feet from his, her boy’s, hospital bed. Her own eyes, any mother’s eyes, this morning lidding sorrow.
His eyes, again, not once on mine, never on mine, never on Tara’s, the social worker with me, me this morning doing palliative care.
His neck, arms, whatever else, inked with tattoos.
His face a mask.
All he lived before, before. All since, since. All, everything, all of it, every last minute in Iraq, a cipher.
“Thank you,” I tell him right away. “Thank you for what you did for all of us,” his own eyes even then darting to anywhere but meeting mine.
I don’t tell him that I myself dodged bullets by the numbers. That he did what I, my own sons, others his age, might otherwise, under other circumstances, have done. Might, if blessed, have survived.
But I did, this morning, think those thoughts.
All those thoughts.
My last, this son, hers—hers beloved as any, beloved as my own—he, in her mind, draped in his mother’s arms; she, in his, still cradling the boy he’d been. Their eyes saying what eyes alone can say…