Friday, December 01, 2006

Sleigh Ride Down Main Street

Sunglow, AZ - No sleigh ride of fantasy here. No literary escape into neverland. No shortcut between dream and waking state. We couldn't wish it away, like my daughter in her childhood make-believe world would say, 'Magical, magical,' turning an invisible key. 'Poof!' It's real. 'Lock 'em in the Caser.'

And suddenly here they came down the small town Main Street, lined with flag-waving tight-knit locals, balloons, young mothers pushing baby strollers, older folks toting folding chairs.

First came a half dozen WWII vets, decrepid shrunken attic relics in their musty antiquated dress uniforms, rows of medals suspended from their left breasts, trudging along in lockstep, chins forward, rifles at the ready, serving as the honor guard, hoisting the flag and their unit colors.

They were the remnants of Omaha and Normandy, the liberators of France, all but forgotten, entrenched in their daily routine of gathering each morning at Ted's coffee shop, swapping tales and lies the way old men do, but never returning to their war.

The old warriors stopped before the reviewing stand, turned smartly on a barely audible command, and flashed a proud sharp salute to the mayor and dignitaries on the flatbed truck that served as a makeshift stage for the day, decorated with red, white and blue banners.

They placed the Stars and Stripes at the review stand, and on command, hoisted their rifles skyward and fired off a volley that echoed off the downtown buildings and windows, sending a jolt through the crowd and a flock a pidgeons from their roosts.

The old boys then shouldered their weapons, turned left-face, and marched on down the street, satisfied in their capability of once again having completed their mission.

They were followed by the vets of Korea, a decade younger bunch with a slightly livelier step, American flags on their lapels, their pins and decorations on their caps. They were gray and wrinkled and crippled and mostly alcoholic, in their late 60s and 70s, wearing blue American Legion Post windbreakers and marching in practiced unison in a proud solid block of two dozen men.

Then came the vets of Vietnam, almost comically out of step, some of whom had shaved for the occasion. Most were wearing faded jungle fatigues, dog tags and frayed jackets with subdued name, rank, and insignia. Many were bearded, prematurely aged hollow-eyed zombies who'd experienced homelessness under bridges and cardboard box shelters, stood on street corners of nameless cities with shoppping carts and scrawled magic marker signs proclaiming their dysfunctional state and need, resigned to a remaining desolate lifetime of medication.

Behind them came the younger vets of Gulf War I, the war of Bush the Elder, no senator's son among them. There weren't as many of them, wearing clean and pressed khaki uniforms and looking proud and almost normal.

Although several of them were currently engaged in locked battle with the VA, they had made a commendable near-adjustment back into society, and the crowd showed their appreciation by applauding politely as they passed by in disciplined ranks; their leader, in a hushed ball of breath, ordered, 'Eyesss RIGHT. Haaaand SALUTE.'

Bringing up the rear were the vets of Afghanistan and Iraq, indistinctively lumped together and blurred, reflecting the nature and rationale of those conflicts. Unlike the other groups of soldiers, there were several women in the ranks, wearing boots and desert uniforms.

And there was Sheila. Just a few years earlier, she had been in the parade route as a court member of the homecoming queen, riding atop a pink convertible in a pink dress, smiling, waving at the crowd.

She got married right out of high school, had two kids, and had been working second shift at the mini-mart, joined the national guard with her husband, mostly for the educational benefits, planning to take classes at the regional campus when the kids got older, maybe major in criminal justice, maybe become a legal secretary or something, she said. Her husband never returned home after his second compulsory tour, still listed as MIA.

Now here she came down the street in a wheelchair pushed by a fellow soldier, the aluminum and steel rod legs protruding from her uniform. The crowd waved tiny American flags. A child's ice cream dropped onto it's lap, the mother inattentive, her worried eyes riveted on the woman warrior. How would Sheila raise those two children, she wondered, without real hands, and from a wheelchair.

Two sets of grandparents stood at the curb, holding Sheila's toddlers, the crowd nearby stealing sympathetic glances at them as Sheila rolled by. 'There's Mommy!' cried out the older of her two children, pointing.

Sheila's face was disfigured as well, mouth and cheekbone misshappened and scarred from a horrific blast that sent her and her humvee into a spin, and the other occupants to the hereafter.

The crowd applauded as she passed by, just as they had for her as the pretty homecoming queen runner-up, and then grew deathly silent when they stopped her before the reviewing stand, Sheila rising shakily from her chair on new computerized prosthetic legs, lifting a steel claw to salute.

They had all watched her grow up in that small town. The mayor and those on the flatbed truck cried as they returned her dignified salute, ashamed they had passively let it happen, without a protest, without a whimper.

Magical magical. Turn the invisible key. Undo it all. Poof! Lock it all up in the Caser.

- end