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Born on Veteran’s Day

I was born on November 11th, 1949–on Veterans’ Day–at a time when Veterans’ Day still had the power to haunt men’s eyes, and enchant children with displays of huge tanks and mounted guns, and–if this sounds impossible, remember, it was fifty-four years ago–even had the power to unite the citizens of a hometown in a spirit of reverence for the wounded and dead soldiers who had fought to keep our ’50s America boringly safe, endlessly calm. That’s how it felt, in upstate New York, fifty-four years ago today.

So it was a curious thing, to be a little boy whose birthday was Veterans’ Day. The very first year that I displayed a basic ability to understand English, my father–an ex-vaudevillian, always desperate to amuse himself–promised me that he’d made special arrangements for my birthday: the regular cake-and-playing-cowboy party wasn’t good enough for his son; no, there would be “big crowds marching right down Gennessee Street”-the main drag of Utica, New York, the decaying mill-town in which we lived.

I was a kid, but I wasn’t a nitwit, and I couldn’t figure out how my father could deliver on his promise. And when he actually did-when the surplus tanks rolled slowly past the boarded-up factories, and people lined the parade route as if posing for Norman Rockwell-I actually believed, for maybe twenty minutes, that somehow my father could work miracles. And even when the joke finally played itself out, and I was told the truth, I could still marvel that this day of commemoration could bring our dying town-and the whole country-closer to some real kind of Union.

Did I mention just how LONG ago that was? And that the universe is hurtling in reverse, at the speed of light?

Today’s always-compelling AOL News carried this story:

“Even as thousands of U.S. troops are stationed in war zones abroad, plans for Veterans’ Day parades across the country are being scaled back or scrapped.”

(Kind of cold, that “scrapped” thing, but shock was still dulling the true impact.)

“The problem? Not enough troops, tanks and HumVees to wow the patriotic crowds.”

(You might’ve hoped that truly “patriotic crowds” wouldn’t need to be “wowed” by Schwarzengger-style hardware-though perhaps the Governor would be willing to lend out some of his vehicles for the day; shouldn’t the fact that men and women are still willing to die and suffer for the love of their country “wow” American citizens itself?)

“Some cities are depending on Boy Scouts and other non-military marchers to fill the gaps (sic.)”

Bad idea. Spectacularly bad idea. Uh-uh. It’s no good using Boy Scouts, or defrocked priests, or distinguished-looking men in their 50s who are under arrest for corporate fraud as Ringer Vets. And don’t try rounding up homeless old men, promising them pints of Thunderbird if they’ll act like ex-infantrymen. Even if we can’t have marching bands anymore, and crowds along the parade route, and Life magazine-type images of joyful sailors kissing gorgeous civilian women, you’ve got to go with actual war veterans. Well, there are 131,600 troops deployed in Iraq right now, which makes them unavailable for public appearances. Fair enough. But–if nothing else–if you can’t scare up any vets in the flesh-if they’re too sick, and this is their “Off” week for heart medication because the government only pays for half their pills now-and even if the younger ones are wasting their days in the florescent-lit waiting-rooms of V.A. buildings, fighting to be officially diagnosed with Gulf War Disease-then at least, as Arthur Miller said, “attention must be paid.” Our warriors have to be honored somehow.

So why doesn’t anyone seem to give a fuck? How can they even dare to play “the Boy Scout hand”, so to speak?

You’d have to dig around page A-23 of the Washington Post to find a clue: buried there over the weekend was a story about how the Bush Administration is not allowing the coffins of dead service-people to be seen, much less photographed; and it took no less a social critic than Cher to wonder aloud why there’s absolutely no coverage of the hundreds of veterans suffering TODAY in hospitals all over the country. The Bush media experts have insisted that curtains be placed around the cots of the badly wounded to prevent anyone from taking photographs. So it’s not that we don’t have enough veterans to put on a decent show; it’s just that they’re being kept hidden away, like Faulknerian idiots, by a family invested in keeping their very existence a secret. I’ll even go where Cher doesn’t tread: how many soldiers have been awarded Bronze Stars for this “war?” How many Distinguished Service Crosses, or just plain old Purple Hearts–the ones that used to adorn almost every vet’s lapel back in the day when our government paid more than lip-service to its sacrificial victims.

Wait…that’s not completely fair. Today, Bush has signed perhaps his most visionary piece of legislation-The National Cemetary Expansion Act-to establish new boneyards in places like Bakersfield, California and Jacksonville, Florida. Since 1,500 American veterans die every day, and the Veterans’ Affairs Department expects the number to peak at 687,000 in 2006-barring further adventures, of course-the N.C.E.A. may prove even more prescient than the Patriot Act by the time Bush is driven from office.

To read the e-mail responses to this AOL news-piece was heartbreaking-a kind of folk-literature of the abandoned soldier. “As a fellow veteran there was a time when I was extremely proud to be ret.service member & vet.In the world we live in today I find myslf 2nd guessing that pride.our service members today are used as thugs thieves/murders of Inocent women & children,I say to you when that military officer knocks on the door of the family member,whose loved oneJust got zapped in Iraq what does he say to the family,your loved one died protecting his country,I dont think so.In the first place there was no reason to be there,No wmd/nothreat/no nukes/so what we have left is Iraque freedom & we all know thats a crock of crap,the Iraque people are less free now than many years.( A lier in the white house is a serious threat to national security).”

As a man descended from military traditions on both sides of his family, I always carried this birthday proudly–even while fighting against the war in Viet Nam, and being 1-A at the height of the Tet Offensive, and vamping my way through two horrifying draft physicals–scenes directly from Bosch, vast hellishly-lit halls full of shrieking 18-year-olds who KNEW they were going to die. I was proud of being born on November 11th even as I was being accused by Peter Kann, editor of The Wall Street Journal, of personally “spitting on the graves of American war dead” by writing a movie called Air America, about the CIA’s role in the dope-trade during the war in Southeast Asia. I was proud because my great-grandfather, John Temple-my full name is John Temple Eskow-fought for the Union Army in 1864, and was left to bleed to death in an abandoned schoolhouse by Confederate soldiers, but somehow made it through. Proud of my grandfather, John Temple, who fought in the Ardennes in World War I, where his lungs were scalded by mustard gas. Proud and grieving for my uncle and direct namesake, John Temple, who I never met-he was killed when his C-47 crashed in the waters of the Indian Ocean in World War II. And I was in awe of my uncle Jerry, who helped take a beach-head in Southern Italy, rigging together those intricate, pipe-like Barleymore mines to blow up enemy pillboxes under heavy machinegun-fire (yes, like that scene in Saving Private Ryan). Through just wars, dubious wars, and flat-out bad ones, my forefathers have shown up for America.

Now, as the America of Bush and Rumsfeld and Cheney and Powell seeks to bury their very existence in the pitiful hope of creating an upward blip in Bush’s poll-numbers, I feel even closer to them. And since I’m lucky enough to be in possession of my great-grandfather’s Union Army dog-tags, and the musket-ball the surgeons removed from his side-the one that should’ve killed him, and kept me from ever drawing breath-and his discharge papers, perhaps I could be allowed my own commemoration of Veterans’ Day. Most of us could do the same, if we had access to our history, which is what we have to battle for every day that George Bush and his friends rule this country. Most of us could observe the day by simply reading, out loud, something like the simple document I keep pressed under glass in a wooden cabinet:

“Know Ye, that John L. Temple, a private of Captain John Land’s Company, 66th Regiment of Indiana, who was Enrolled on the 7th day of August, 1862, is Discharged this 28th day of November, 1862, at Indianapolis, by reason of Disability from a Gunshot in his Left Side, received in Battle near Richmond, Kentucky.”

We don’t need parades. We just need to remember.

JOHN ESKOW is a screenwriter, who wrote the script for one of CounterPunch’s favorite movies, Air America. He can be reached at: eskow@counterpunch.org

 

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John Eskow is a writer and musician. He wrote or co-wrote the movies Air America, The Mask of Zorro, and Pink Cadillac, as well as the novel Smokestack Lightning. He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence. He can be reached at: johneskow@yahoo.com

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