The Patriot

Al Billings

A tiny bird, fragile, snatched by my cat who cheerfully broke its neck. Rigid with death, its stunning beauty collides with the reality of random violence. I grasp at straws, struggling to find meaning in a world that thrives on it. But there’s no use in searching for meaning now. My cat is triumphant in her homicidal brutality. Everything is gossamer thin, translucent, even my own skin. I notice that the grey tones of the bird’s feathers are actually a chalky blue, and along with the red blood and white feathers, the tiny corpse resembles a soldier downed in battle, his wings fanned out like a Civil War rifleman pitched head-first into a trench after a heinous battle, a motif of red, white and blue.

When we moved to San Bernardino, California in 1955, there was no church in the north end of town, so the American legion post on 40th Street offered to let its members use the hall to operate bingo games, a church built out of spare change and chicken dinners.

My parents would haul me along to the bingo games. I hated being there. A group of old men always seemed to occupy the hall’s shadows. Realizing that I was thoroughly bored, I asked my father about the men in the legion hats. Ah, he said, the soldiers. He pointed out a few men who’d fought in World War Two, and then a group of Korean War vets with full heads of hair and clear eyes, an event that I now only dimly remember, and that he’d served in the Army Airborne as a parachutist who never had to jump into a combat zone. Those men behind him, said my father, fought in World War one. And those very old men in wheelchairs, those men fought in the Spanish American War, and significantly, they spoke only to each other, in hushed tones, looking almost dainty, as though the very idea of taking someone’s life was beyond comprehension.

In the mid Nineties I worked for a very successful landscape company in Austin, Texas. The company president brought in an old friend as a partner, a tight, grasping MBA who thought himself smarter than all his employees. One of the managers, John, became my friend, and in the course of getting to know each other, he revealed that he survived two tours of duty flying Cobra helicopter gunships in Vietnam. He bragged about his exploits regularly, but I always sensed that he was greatly conflicted by his actions. He began to tell stories, horrific battles he’d taken part in that had left thousands of Vietnamese corpses littering the jungle.

The new owner asked me to stop by one afternoon and look over his landscape, and I brought John along only to discover that the new partner hired expert guides, flew up into North West Canada, shot large game animals, and had them professionally prepared by taxidermists. The new partner pointed at the last animal he’d shot, and waited for us to act as though we were impressed. Well, said John. I killed a lot of humans in Vietnam, and now, I don’t want to ever kill another living creature for as long as I live. Thirty days later, John was fired.

November 13, 2013 8:49 pm

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