15 January 2008

Spinning wheel

"What is the matter with you NOW?" I heard the son yell in exasperation.

"What are you talking about?" I asked him while stirring the potatoes.

"Oh," he snarled impatiently, "it sounds like she's crying."

I put the lid on the pot, wiped my hands, and as I walked back to the daughter's room, I heard the unmistakable sound of semi-hysterical sobbing.

"What's up?" I asked as I entered her room to find her lying on her bed with a book, her face wet and red.

"Someone died," she wailed in a fresh burst of tears. "It's so sad."

I sat down next to her on the bed, and looked at the book. I'd not heard of it, but there are many dangers inherent in having children who read at college level when they are 10.

"Was it one of the main characters?" I asked, guessing that it might be something like The Bridge to Terabithia or A Separate Peace.

"No," she drew in shakey breath. "He died in Vietnam."

"Takes place during the 1960s?" I asked.

"Yeah," she said, blowing her nose.

I was quiet for a moment. Much as our parents told us about World War II, we've explained our own childhoods in terms of Vietnam and the Cold War. I was very young during Vietnam, and my earliest memory is the casualty numbers that popped up on the nightly news. I was close to the kids' ages when Saigon fell, but I still remember, and my throat still constricts at the memory, the pictures of those helicopters trying to get out.

"You know," I told her. "A bunch of my cousins fought in Vietnam. When they shipped out, we never knew if we would see them again."

Her eyes widened at this.

F. was stationed at the SAC/TAC base in our town, and when he wasn't on deployment, he always spent the holidays with us or came for summer barbecues. Most of my cousins are far older than I am, and for whatever reason, F. was always patient and kind with us, though we were 15 or more years his junior. He taught me to play chess when I was a bit younger than the daughter, and under his tutelage, and that of his older brother later, I gradually became a better player. Eventually, F. couldn't beat me quite so handily, and one Christmas, as it got later and later, he finally said, "We're not going to finish this one tonight. Let's make a picture of the board, and we'll finish it when I get back."

He was shipping out the next day, so it would be months before we'd play again. But I held the idea of finishing as a talisman, as faith that he'd return to beat me.

"And," he told me, as he left, "work on your offense. You're still too worried about defending your king."

Just in case I got too cocky about the fact that he hadn't beaten me. Yet.

"Did they come back?" the daughter asked me.

"Yup. And then they'd go back, and they'd come home, and finally they stayed home," I smoothed back her hair. "But not everyone was as lucky as we were. There was a boy in my class whose father never came home. He was still listed as MIA the last time I checked."

She leaned against me, hot and miserable.

In time, I finally beat F. at chess.

"You better not have let me win!" I told him.

"I wouldn't," he looked at me with a sort of horror. "It was a fair fight."

Like me, my children are growing up in a time of war. Like me, they don't really understand it; their war is a war of numbers dead, numbers wounded, politicians gambling with the lives of others.

Like me, they know that while chess is a simulated war, it is run with rules and a certain courtly adherence to the concept of fair play. And they are only just learning that in the real world, there is no such thing as a fair fight.

Go listen to some good music: "Spinning Wheel" from the album Blood, Sweat & Tears by Blood, Sweat & Tears.

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