Sunday, December 05, 2004

Goodbye to old Buck

The story of how I met old Buck can be traced back to a bit of lead smaller than the tip of your little finger.

It was the Korean war, and Buck was a poor, semi-illiterate kid from Arkansas, fighting together with other poor boys from Georgia and Tennessee and Alabama. The poor fighting the poor, as war always is and always has been; no governor’s sons or future presidential candidates in this bunch. He would eventually prove to be the only member of his unit to survive the war, a purple heart and a bronze star later.

That bit of metal that changed his life, traveling at a precise trajectory, entered his left leg in the groin area, and blew out his hip joint before exiting. Doctors pieced his pelvis back together, gave him a new, artificial hip, but his leg was never quite the same. He’d had a young, strong body, the only thing he’d ever been able to count on. But by the time he reached his forties, his hip was giving out, he couldn’t walk, and he became permanently disabled, unable to continue the hard physical labor that was the only work he’d ever known.

And so Buck became one of the legions of disabled vets in this country. He stopped working and started taking a monthly government check. His disability checks were nothing to write home about, though; they would barely cover rent for a decent apartment in any major city in America, not to mention food and clothing. So Buck moved out to a rural area where land was cheap, and got himself a little trailer to live in. It wasn’t much, but it was his. It was home.

Every now and then, though, he had a hard time covering expenses. He never had anything left over at the end of the month, and half the time came out owing something to somebody. All this led to his power getting shut off one month in the middle of winter. Now not having power in the country doesn’t just mean doing without lights and heat, it means doing without water, since all water is well water supplied by electric pumps. And so it happened that one cold winter night, when Buck was trying to heat his trailer with an improvised fireplace, a log rolled out and set his trailer on fire, and he had no way to put it out.

It was over in a matter of minutes. He didn’t even manage to save the clothes on his back, since they were on fire when he jumped out of the trailer.

I met Buck a few years later, when he was living in a decrepit little camper, the kind you see on the back of battered old pickup trucks, without heat, without light, without a stove or an oven, without a refrigerator, without running water, limping around on a worn-out crutch padded with duct tape. Scrawled in paint on the side of his camper was a crude American flag and the phrase, "God said it. I belevd it." No word as to whether or not that settled it.

In the years I knew Buck, I got a taste of how excruciatingly difficult it is to pick yourself up again in this country once you’re down, our Horatio Alger myths notwithstanding. But we managed to accomplish a few things together. We got him a copy of his birth certificate for identification, since all of his records and ID had been lost in the fire, and it's nearly impossible to get services without ID. We got him a reconditioned RV to live in with heat and light, a stove and a refrigerator, a toilet and a shower. Almost unimaginable luxuries. We even got him an operation and a new hip replacement.

I will never forget the day when I was talking with Buck about just ordinary stuff, sitting in his RV, when he suddenly broke down under the weight of all those years and wept like a child, sobbing, “I’m a fucking failure. A fucking failure.”

I tried to tell Buck he wasn’t a failure. He’d fought to defend his country. He was a war hero. He’d worked hard. He’d made a contribution. He was a child of God.

I don’t think I quite convinced him.

I got a call on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving from Buck’s son. His tough, wiry body had finally succumbed to the colon cancer that went undiagnosed until his colon burst.

Remembering old Buck, I cannot help but think of the thousands upon thousands of kids who are being trucked off the battlefield, without limbs, without hands, without eyes. In forty years, when the Iraq war is a paragraph in the history books and all the threadbare flags that now bedeck our car antennas have rotted in the landfill, these men (and women) will still be with us, haunting us like ghosts from a forgotten past. It’s enough to make me want to engage in some kind of massive act of protest, to spit on every bullet ever manufactured, every munition, every fragment of shrapnel, to suck out every last bit of moisture from my body, every drop of my contempt, until all that is left is dust, and from the dust a song, not of battle, but of reconciliation, of peace on earth and good will among all people.

Goodbye brother. You did not fail us.

We failed you.

1 comment:

Laura said...

Wow...absolutely amazing. Thank you for sharing this story and providing a perspective which is so often and easily overlooked.