Born in the USA
(continued from Garry Maddox, 1975)
What do I know about war or soldiering? Nothing. But I’ve seen the movies. So a couple years ago at a New Year’s Eve party at my wife’s uncle’s house, I asked my wife’s seventeen-year-old cousin if he was worried about going to basic training. He’d recently decided to enlist in the Marines.
“Actually, I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
I think he’d been working out a little, doing some pushups. I’d never met him before, and my wife hadn’t seen him since he was a little boy. He was polite and soft-spoken, a really nice kid.
“He’s so sweet,” my wife said.
A few months later we saw him again at a big family reunion picnic. He had just gotten out of basic training and was in uniform, on a brief home leave before going to advanced training and then Iraq. He stood ramrod straight the entire time, several hours, the most incredible display of good posture I’ve ever seen. He also seemed a little jumpy. My wife recalls that when she said hello to him he flinched.
The main activity of the picnic, besides eating and talking and drinking beer, was a tournament involving a horseshoes-like game in which a beanbag was tossed underhand at a small hole in a low triangular wedge of wood on the ground. You may know the game, which is referred to by different names but which is most commonly referred to, believe it or not, as cornhole. Members of the picnic paired off and played other pairs in elimination games. An early match pitted my wife and me against my wife’s cousin and his younger sister.
“How was basic training?” I asked. The two of us stood by one of the wooden cornholes and took turns tossing beanbags at the other cornhole, where his sister and my wife were standing.
“Hated it,” he said.
He didn’t say much else except to occasionally try to fire insults back at another cousin of my wife’s who had been in the Navy a few years earlier and who was slouching nearby, beer in hand, and languidly razzing my opponent for being a Marine. The few rejoinders that the eighteen-year-old could muster were hesitant, clawless. Meanwhile, his cornhole tosses got worse and worse. You have to kind of toss the thing in a soft arc to land it on the wooden wedge and get points, but as the game neared its conclusion my wife’s cousin’s throws kept getting lower and harder, the beanbag ricocheting off the wood and landing in the grass beyond. I don’t know anything about war or soldiering, but I know quite a lot about unraveling during a sporting contest, and it seemed to me that the young Marine was wilting in the pressure of a family picnic game of cornhole.
I didn’t get an inkling of what he might have actually been going through that day until just a few days ago, when I was reading Denis Johnson’s 2007 novel Tree of Smoke. The novel is about the Vietnam War. One of the characters, James Houston, decides at the age of seventeen with nothing else on the horizon that he might as well follow his older brother into the armed services. The first passage below describes his experience at basic training. The second describes him being home on leave just after basic training.
The first two weeks of basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina were the longest he’d experienced. Each day seemed a life entire in itself, lived in uncertainty, abasement, confusion, fatigue. These gave way to an overriding state of terror as the notions of killing and being killed began to fill his thoughts. He felt all right in the field, in the ranks, on the course with the others, yelling like monsters, bayoneting straw men. Off alone he could hardly see straight, thanks to this fear. (pp. 139-140)
In South Carolina they’d treated him like a beast, and he’d survived. He’d grown bigger, stronger, older, better. But having returned to the world he’d grown up in, he had no idea how to sit in a room with his mother, or what to say to a sixteen-year-old girl, no idea how to get through a few days in his life until he shipped to Louisiana for Advanced Infantry Training, until he got back where people would tell him what to do. (p. 151)
What do I know about Bob Jones? Not much. He was drafted by the Washington Senators in 1967. He was eighteen. He was not a phenom. The Senators took him in the 36th round of the June 6 amateur draft, according to retrosheet.org, just after Jack Brohamer and Gary Ignasiak and just before Rimp Lanier and Dave Schneck. That year he hit .217 in 19 games at Geneva. The following year, 1968, he hit .246 at Salisbury. In 1969 he struggled at Burlington, hitting .198, but then moved to Shelby (a demotion?) and batted a sturdy if unspectacular .270. He was certainly not rocketing toward stardom, but maybe he was hanging in there, just barely.
Just about all I know about the next year is what I learned over thirty years ago when I first turned over the 1977 card at the top of this page, that in 1970 Bob Jones was “In Military Service.” I’d seen the terse line before on other cards, such Garry Maddox’s 1975 card, but only very occasionally, so it was rare enough to send a chill through me. One of the things that I loved so much about the Cardboard Gods was their invulnerable clarity. The statistics on the back of each card told you where each player had been and what each player had done, the place names and numbers in solid black ink, inarguable. Some numbers told a story of a player who was rising, others told a story of a player who was falling, but the key thing was that all of them told a story. Everywhere else was ambiguity, and where there was ambiguity there was the possibility of diminishment, change, loss, pain. In the numbers there was no ambiguity, but instead a clarity that allowed me to imagine a haven of invulnerability. I dissolved into this haven, leaving all dangers behind. But there’s really no perfect safety anywhere. Even the numbers on the backs of the Cardboard Gods can be interrupted. On Bob Jones’ card for 1970 there is no place name and no numbers, just that phrase. In Military Service. Where was he? What numbers was he compiling? Where they good numbers or bad numbers? Was he rising or falling? Was he safe?
According to baseball-reference.com, Bob Jones “served in Vietnam from August, 1969 to February, 1971 and became deaf in one ear as the result of a combat injury.” I didn’t know that when I looked at this card as a kid. All I knew was that he’d had a gap in his pro baseball career, that he’d come back and had starting slowly rising, hitting .321 at Anderson in 1971, driving in 91 runs in Spokane in 1974, hitting .355 at Sacramento in 1976, that last lofty number leading to his first extended stay in the majors after two brief cups of coffee with the Rangers: 78 games with the 1976 California Angels, enough to gain him entry into the realm of the Cardboard Gods. But on the front of Bob Jones’ first-ever baseball card there seems to be no acknowledgment of his triumphant arrival. There is instead the hint of some other story that will remain obscure. Bob Jones knows the story. Bob Jones looks right through me.
What do I know about how my wife’s cousin is doing in Iraq? Very little. The news coming to us has been scant. It seems he’s been there for a long time. The tours of duty are longer than they were in Bob Jones’ day, which is one way that the U.S. Military addresses the strains of acting as a global police force. Another way is making some soldiers stay on past their original release dates, a practice officially referred to as a Stop Loss Program but dubbed by critics as a backdoor draft, an issue which got some attention during the 2004 presidential election. I can’t find much recent news about the issue, so either the practice has slowed or the criticism about the practice has died down. Like most things, I really don’t know much about it. I don’t know much about anything.
I don’t know what my wife’s cousin is going through. At the end of the picnic I had the urge to tell him something. I didn’t want to say good luck. As a follower of the gospel of Holden Caulfield (“I’m pretty sure he yelled ‘Good luck!’ at me. I hope not. I hope to hell not. I’d never yell ‘Good luck!’ at anybody. It sounds terrible, when you think about it.”), I try never to tell anyone good luck. I didn’t have anything patriotic to say, either. I was born in the U.S.A., but though I’ve occasionally had my moments of patriotism—such as the day Jim Craig draped himself in a flag and looked through the Lake Placid crowd for his father, and such as the day I returned from spending several months in post-Tiananmen-Square-Crackdown China (that day I got wet-eyed, I swear to the God that blesses America, when I came through customs and saw a flag-backgrounded portrait of President George H.W. Bush), and such as the period a little over six years ago when I spent a few months wearing a small American flag pin over my heart—I’ve generally shied away from waving the flag, mainly out of a fear that by waving the flag I’d be participating in some kind of a sanctioning prelude to a beating. I didn’t understand why there was a war going on in Iraq. I still don’t. A recent study found that the entry of the United States into the war was facilitated by a long string of lies. There were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. There was no link to Al-Qaeda in Iraq. There was no clear reason for us to be in Iraq. Yet my wife’s eighteen-year-old cousin was going to Iraq.
So I’m standing there at the end of the picnic, everyone saying their goodbyes, and I want to tell him that I’m grateful that he’s willing to make such a brave sacrifice, even though I don’t understand the need for the sacrifice. More than that, I want him to be safe.
“Take care of yourself,” is the best I can muster. His reaction is like that of someone with damaged hearing. That is, he doesn’t react. He’s someplace I know nothing about. As we shake hands, he looks right through me.
(to be continued)