Friday, November 9, 2007

For Gregg and Natalie: The Bracelet

Here's the story that began my journey towards sending the bracelet home. I appreciate that Gregg has been so understanding in answering my questions about his Dad. To Gregg and Natalie: I think your Dad would've been very proud to see who you've grown up to be.


My most tangible concept of war sits silently in a corner of my jewelry box, a cold band of silver metal resting comfortably on a bed of fake blue satin. It can’t hurt me, but seeing it still makes my heart pound. As soon as it was mine, I wanted to give it back. For returning it meant my nightly prayers had been answered. To be able to give that MIA bracelet back to the Captain whose name I wore around my wrist meant he’d returned home safely.

But it’s still mine.

The day I bought the bracelet, my heart swelled with all the patriotic pride a twelve year old can muster. Our town was home to Shaw AFB and as a child civilian, wearing a bracelet was my only way to serve our country during the Vietnam War. Silently I stood in awe of the student chosen to sell these symbols of American pride. When my turn came, he snatched $2 of hard earned babysitting money out my trembling hand and stated in a monotone, “This one’s MIA. We’re out of POWs.” Dropping the cold metal into my outstretched palm, he peered over my head at the next consumer in line.

I couldn’t keep my eyes off that shiny bracelet. It was so powerful. I had a person wrapped around my wrist that I now felt responsible for and I silently promised to leave it on until that Captain returned home safely.

In the hallway of my childhood home was a framed poem by Kendrew Lascelles entitled “The Box”, which began..

"Once upon a time in the land of hush-a-bye
About the wondrous days of yore.
They came across a sort of box
Bound up with chains and locked with locks
And labeled, “Kindly do not touch, it’s war.”

I’d been taught that war was a terrible way to settle arguments and the poem was merely reinforcement of that concept. But the first time I passed the poem wearing my MIA bracelet, the hair on the back of my neck stood at attention. I felt uneasy. Uncomfortable. Inexplicably sad. The poem was no longer mere words. Only something as horrible as war could reduce a person into a two line summation stamped into cold metal. My wrist felt like it was on fire. Yet with adolescent fervor, I memorized the minuscule bits of information in order to rattle off his statistics. For if you had to look down and read off this information, not only were you an embarrassed child, it meant you didn’t really care. I took my child civilian duties very seriously. After a week, he ceased to be just a name, for I’d promoted him to “MY Captain.“ And I truly believed that My Captain would come home if I never took off the bracelet.

A month later, my wrist turned green.

My parents declared it was time to take the thing off. No! I begged, I had to wear it! It wasn’t just my patriotic duty, I feared taking it off meant I’d let My Captain down, leaving him to face an unknown world all alone. A neighbor saved me by applying three coats of clear fingernail polish inside the bracelet. Soon, green wristed patriotism was the least of my worries.

Every night I asked God to bring My Captain home. I watched Garrick Utley on the nightly news because he had a calm voice and seemed trustworthy. I’d hold onto my bracelet the minute he came on the screen, as if the two were magically linked. And I‘d wait for him to explain things. But the stories were confusing. I was taught to be peaceful, so why did college students protesting for peace scream so angrily? Even at age 12, I knew you didn’t spit on people just because you disagreed with them. I understood war brought out the worst in people, but it wasn’t suppose to happen at home. Between Americans.

One night, I noticed Mr. Utley wasn’t looking so good. Only a child could believe that reporters were impervious to gunfire simply because their job was to report the facts to the folks back home. But there were ever growing dark circles under Mr. Utley's eyes, as if the job was just plain wearing him out. Because he’d grown so pale, his features drawn and the fire in his eyes on the verge of being extinguished, I was afraid Mr. Utley was going to die. A weariness crept into his voice that I’d never heard before, as if what he’d witnessed wasn’t just bad, it was sucking the life out of him. My polite requests that God watch over My Captain evolved into demands that He bring My Captain home. Right now. Before things got worse. The very next day, I saw My Captain’s daughter at school, her eyes bearing that same hollowness as Mr. Utley's. And then I realized My Captain wasn’t just a symbol of my patriotism, he was a daddy. Just like my daddy….except he didn’t come home every night. Maybe he never would.

And he never did.

The day came when everyone who was coming home had made the trip. It was time to take off my bracelet. As a ghostly refrain of “Taps” played in my head, I solemnly laid the bracelet to rest on that bed of fake blue satin. As my jewelry box momentarily became a coffin, a huge lump formed in my throat. The bracelet, devoid of my wrist, looked so empty lying there. As empty as I felt inside. I’d never experienced such a connection to a total stranger. We’d never met, yet My Captain was a part of me. I finally understood that war effects everyone…soldiers, family, reporters…and even strangers.

I optimistically hope that future generations will only know about war from reading ancient history books because we will have, somewhere along the way, found a better method for solving problems than by waging war. History is a great teacher and I’ll never forget the role My Captain played for his country…and for me. The nice thing about history is that we’re allowed to add the occasional footnote. My Captain did not live long enough to hear or see these words, but they were always a part of my prayer to God. Please watch over and guide all the men and women who selflessly serve our country. Take care of those who do the right thing, rather than the easy thing. And because it’s never too late to acknowledge what one human does to keep another safe, two simple, yet heartfelt words: Thank you.

No comments: