Waiting (or, How Do We Get There and How Do We Come Back)

Since last week’s readings, including the Turner/Antoon piece, I’ve been contemplating the drive the pushes people, especially young men, into the U.S. Armed Forces. There is the trope that poor people with nothing else going for them or angry boys with nothing else going for them will go—either to make money somehow, or to do the only thing they know to do. There are also the legacy children, who come from legacies both positive and negative—Adam and his affection for his old soldier grandfather in Thank You for Your Service, and Gordon and Josh in “Refresh, Refresh.”

I wanted to write specifically about Benjamin Percy’s “Refresh, Refresh” because of the writing, but also because of how the ending, surprisingly, surprised me. The narrator of the story is a high school aged boy with a startling amount of self-awareness. Does the self-awareness come from a retrospective first person narrator? I don’t think so. So much of the language still sounds a little young—cavalier, jaunty. If anything, it sounds like a fairly recent version of this narrator’s “current” state. On page five, the “No longer,” in reference to the presence of the men in town is just one example of why I don’t want too much of this narrator’s insight to be credited to distance and hindsight.

This story doesn’t seem supportive of war. This is never spoken out loud, no overt condemnation. However, there are moments of beautiful yet devastating description that stuck with me, like on page ten: “Recruiting there would be too much like poaching the burned section of forest where deer, rib-slatted and wobbly legged, nosed through the ash, seeking something green.” I stopped and read this line over and over again because it did so much work. Not only does it paint a very, very clear picture of the state Tumelo has been left in, but it also tells you how the sons (and wives and mothers, etc.) have been fairing without the men. It calls the town wounded, and if we hadn’t been able to feel that already, we can definitely see it now, graphically. They hate the recruiter actively, because he’s cocky—the class difference and educational level is a spiky divide—but also because he “scavenged whatever our fathers had left behind.” It’s implied that scavengers are the worst kind of predator, never making their own kill or conquest, always coming in late, after the battle is sorely fought—they are never the glorious mystical beings football teams are made of. He steals other men’s women, breaking the trust of the men even while he self-righteously demands that others respect them for “risking their lives, defending our freedom”—the usual lines of patriotism that men like him use to continue the U.S. Warrior Myth. In confronting Dave, they acknowledge that the war jargon is ridiculous and avoids mentioning some hard truths, like the real possibility of death. Dave also makes this possibility real by showing up, unwelcome, with his black armband.

And yet, the boys’ snark is a self-fulfilling prophecy: “I plan on killing some crazy-ass Muslims,” Gordon says, and Josh says he plans to “Kill some people, then get myself killed…. That sounds like a good plan” (10). They’re being sarcastic and say these things with hateful disdain. And so, I am trying to build a case for the ending in my head. Why do the boys join up in the end, when it seems like they’ve been fighting it so adamantly for the entire story? While they fight themselves, while they fight Seth Johnson, they’re fighting the lure of Dave Lightener. They even condemn him to his face when he tries to pick them up at the mall. What makes them turn back?

I think some of it comes at the very beginning of the second page: “This was what we all wanted, to please our fathers, to make them proud, even though they had left us”(4) The sentiment is echoed again on the last page while they enlist: “where we would at least answer the fierce alarm of war and put our pens to paper and make our fathers proud” (20). Where does this overwhelming need to please a father come from? Do they choose this method because they saw how much “fun” their father’s had after drill weekends, doing their push-ups and Semper Fis? Does the method come from a need for vengeance upon those who may have killed their own fathers?

Something that I haven’t seen brought up yet in the stories of how a kid gets sucked in is probably the truest—not actually knowing the why of a war. Certainly, sometimes, there are spark moments that people use to get behind, people to hate—from Pearl Harbor to the Twin Towers to Hitler—but Percy’s narrator admits what few people do: “We didn’t fully understand the reason our fathers were fighting. We only understood that they had to fight. The necessity of it made the reason irrelevant” (10). Without knowing what’s going on, the true intricacies the could come only from extensive schooling and maybe a history and/or poli sci degree, who could completely understand why the U.S. goes to war? I’ll admit that I don’t. And yet, I have had the privilege of a good education that helps me understand more of the nuance in these situations, enough, at least, to stay my hand before such a major commitment. And class and educational opportunities definitely seem to play a role in this story. I don’t think there was a single mention of non-military possibilities those boys mentioned.

There’s the unbearable aloneness, too. Without anyone there to care for them, to push them in the right direction, the boys roam around town, they beat each other senseless without outside commentary. I suppose that, too, is a stepping-stone.

And of course, that ever burning desire to “be tougher.”

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