We Had It All…

What soundtrack do you listen to when you’re writing about the end of the world?

Err…check that.  The end of the world is easy — you listen to this.

But what about when the world shakes?  When it seems like everything is changing in the blink of an eye?

I don’t remember the moon landings.  I don’t remember Kennedy’s assassination.  I don’t remember the beginning — or the end — of WW2.  Hell, I don’t really even remember the end of Vietnam.  But what I do remember…

I remember the explosion of the Challenger.

I remember 9-11.

I remember the beginnings, and the ends, of both Gulf Wars.

90I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Hoo boy, do I remember the fall of the Wall.  It was my first real adult memory, in fact.  The first world-shaking event that was real to me — which is saying something, given that I was a college kid at the time, bent mostly on mostly on drinking beer and meeting girls (not necessarily — but usually — in that order).

I watched the wall fall on TV.  I watched what I thought at the time — what we all thought — was a changing of the world, the emergence of a new future.  Hell, being a kid, I thought it was the end of the older generation, the end of our parents’ generation, and the emergence of ours as the true power…

We would be different, I thought.

We would change everything.

We wouldn’t fuck things up.  Not again.

And now, thirty years later, what do I think?

What a naive little shit was I.

articleLargeI have friends who stood in Wenceslaus Square, alongside so many thousands of other, and shook their keys at the Soviet-backed government to tell them it was time to go…

I know a man, even, who was one of the last to sneak over the border between Czech and Austria.  One of the last to flee home and family to seek for more, to find a better way to live…

I have to talked to them all, over the years, about those fateful days three decades ago.  Over beers and over coffee; in peaceful chats and in heated arguments; in words pensive and wistful, and in words callous and cold; in every conceivable way we have talked about those days.  It matters, I think, that we were all roughly the same age when the wall fell.  Oh, we all lived vastly different lives — both before that point, and after — but we all had the energy and optimism that only really comes in those particular years of life.

With all our differences — with the vast gulf in experiences that exist between an optimistic child of 1980’s America and the bitter cynics who grew up under the Soviets — it turns out that we all felt the same: everything was going to change.  It was all going to be better.  

We were all naive little shits.

As a part of my twin emphases on languages and history in college, I studied my share of foreign relations.  I studied, mostly, how the US related with Central and Eastern Europe.  I studied Eisenhower and Kennedy, Stalin and Kruschev.  I studied Acheson and Kennan.  I studied Kissinger and Brzezinski.  I didn’t just study, I lived Reagan and Gorbachev…

None of that study, none of that knowledge, prepared me for the “end.”  None of it prepared me for the change, and for the hope of what could be.

Sadly, it did prepare me for what actually came next.

Next verse, same as the old verse.

If you dropped one of those guys I studied in college into the modern world, just how different do you think they would find it?  Oh the technology is different…the fringes of society are different…the culture is different…but the realpolitik?  George Kennan could step into the US State Department and feel right at home when he looked at the world situation.


I’ve said it before: humanity can — and presumably will — fuck anything up.

To a young college kid — to my whole generation, really — thirty years ago, we had it all right there in our hands.  We had optimism and hope, we had the future.

And look what we’ve done with it.

So, back to the question of the soundtrack…

I thought about a number of songs; about a number of ways to capture that feeling of three decades ago.  I thought about this, and even this.  I thought about a whole host of songs, in fact, both old and new.  I thought about them, but in the end there was only one choice, only one song that (to me) defined that time and those events even as they were happening:

The Eyes Tell The Real Story

I was writing a microfiction piece to post later this week.  Nothing new in that, although I haven’t been as good at keeping up with the whole “Microfiction Friday” thing as I should be.  At any rate, I had finished writing the piece and I was looking for a photo to go with it.

Hoo boy, did that search send me down a rabbit-hole.  I wanted a very particular picture — a particular timeframe, a particular composition, a particular subject…

But I framed my initial search too broadly.  I framed it too broadly, and I ran into a whole lot of “other” pictures.  Oh, not the BAD kind of “other”, but rather the good kind…the kind that gets us writers to thinking.  To imagining and projecting.  To writing.  Pictures that, like the old saying goes, say a thousand words.  Pictures that say more than that.

Private-Edwin-Francis-Jemison.jpgOne of those pictures truly stuck with me.  It still sticks with me.  It sticks with me because it tells an entire freaking novel

It’s not a comfortable picture, not when you look at it for a while.  And it gets worse when you learn his story…and his fate.

Private Edwin Francis Jemison, 1844 – 1862.

Look, child soldiers are bad enough, but look at that picture…really look at it.

You know what gets me?  It’s the eyes.  Those are the eye of someone who has seen death, of someone who has fought and feared and suffered.  They are certainly not the eyes of a boy, of one we should be able to call an innocent.

Shit, I write about 16-17 year old kids.  I write about them as addicts and thieves and prostitutes.  I write about them, when you get right down to it, as who they truly are: the inhabitants — the victims, really — of the society we have created…and are still creating.  Now, I write about them in terms of sci-fi, but the eyes in that picture are a reminder that the same damned thing has been happening for centuries.  Worse than that, it has been happening as long as we humans have been around…

I do sci-fi and fantasy.  I’ve never tried my hand at historical fiction, but…

…but, holy shit!  How can you look at that picture and not want to tell the story behind those eyes?!  How can you not want to use Private Jemison’s short life to tell the story of those kids who still get pulled into every war — into every disaster and problem — we can create?

We lure them…

IMG_0720We draft them…

We propagandize them…

We indoctrinate them…

Then we kill them.


Musical Note — I’ve used this particular song in a post before, but I can’t think of a single damned thing to better accompany Private Jemison’s picture:


I Don’t Know

Really?  Did you think I wouldn’t do a special post with June 6th right around the corner?  C’mon…

I’m a fairly brave individual…or so I’ve heard.  I’m brave, they say, because there ain’t a whole lot in this world of which I’m well and truly afraid.  There ain’t a whole lot that gets much reaction from me beyond some tension and a shrug of my shoulders.  But…

But, there’s always a but…

But, I’ve never had anyone want to kill me.  Oh, I’ve had people want to kick my ass — had a lot of them try, too.  I’ve had bears contemplate just how I’d taste garnished with some berries and a nice drink of fresh spring water.  I’ve even had a wolf pack stalk me for a couple of miles…

But I’ve never had anyone really try to do me in, however.  Never had anyone whose own life depended on ending mine.

I’ve never waded ashore with the freight-train sound of shells ripping overhead.  I’ve never heard the snap of a bullet just feet away.  I’ve never felt the ground shake from explosions, never had my eardrums blown out from the concussions.  I’ve never had my life lie in the hands of compatriots on either side of me.

I’ve never seen the blood flow from a fresh chest wound.  I’ve never heard the screams and moans of the wounded and dying.

When you get right down it, I’ve never felt the reality of true, undeniable, unstoppable fear.  

I can’t tell you — just as I can’t tell myself — if I would have been a hero or a coward on D-Day, because I just don’t know.  I don’t know, and I never will.

Look, I’ve mentioned before that Naval History is one of my great passions.  I’ve mentioned also that that topic, along with video games, is how I got started writing professionally.  I may be an expert in Naval History, but I’m an expert who has never lived it.

I don’t know, and I can’t know…not truly.

Oh, I’ve done oral history interviews with Marines who waded ashore at some of the most godforsaken places in the world, just as I’ve done interviews with sailors who lived through some of the worst battles in history.  I’ve talked to, and learned from, men who swam away from an exploding ship, only to spend days more in the water…only to watch their buddies, their fellow survivors, get pulled under one by one by the circling sharks.

I’ve listened to all that, just as I’ve written about all that.  I’m considered an expert on all that…

…and I don’t know.

I don’t know, and I can’t know.  I don’t know it because I never lived it.  It is all, when you get right down it, just words and images to me.  Just emotion and memory learned second- and third-hand.

“I didn’t do a damned thing.  I just worked in the mailroom.  Now my buddy John, he was the real hero…” so said a former sailor, a man in his late 80’s.  A man who fought in, and survived, the most surprising and impressive victory in the long history of the US Navy.  A man who worked in the mailroom on the Sammy B Roberts…a man whose worst day involves more courage and accomplishment than the entire sum of my life…

It’s always someone else, to those Marines and sailors I’ve talked to.  It’s always that buddy, the one who brings a wordless tear to their eyes.  It’s always those who are lost, but are never forgotten.

That man died not long after I spent a couple of hours with him.  He died without me ever expressing my gratitude…or my awe.

Just as those who truly remember June 6th, 1944 are dying.  Just as those who heard the ripping of bullets, and the freight-train rumble of shells.  Those who felt the fear, and still waded ashore.  Those who lost friends and brothers, and still waded ashore.  Those who know.

We’ve all heard Eisenhower’s plan, just as we’ve all heard the codenames: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.  We’ve heard those things, but they are just mnemonics…talismans that no longer do a good job of invoking the reality that truly matters:

4,414 Allied soldiers died on June 6th, 1944.  Most were from the US, UK, and Canada, but losses came also from Poland, Australia, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.

Almost 9,000 soldiers in German uniform died that day, as well.

7B620855-2577-4D9F-8C52-79AB7156719CI’ve never heard the drums of war, and I don’t know.  I don’t know, but I know enough to pay my heartfelt respects to those who do…to those who were there.

Microfiction Monday: “Written in Stone”

Two hundred words, on the phrase “written in stone”.  I know others would come at this challenge differently, but I had no choice in what I wrote:

”Written in Stone”

His hands clenched.  The hands that had never held a weapon, the fingers that had never pulled a trigger.

He felt the fear, then…the muscle-clenching, bone-breaking fear that all-but consumes your soul.  He who had never before felt true fear.

His body refused to move.  The muscles refused to obey and the joints to move.  He wanted nothing more than to cry, to curl up and sob in his mother’s arms.

Small, he felt, and insignificant.  Part of the tears came from that — oh, yes, did they come from that — but only part.  The rest?  The rest came from debt…from debt and from gratitude.

Once again, he read those words.  The words that had brought true perspective, the words written in stone:

“Here rests in Honored Glory

A Soldier known but to God”