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Citizens, weapons, and honor were left behind in Kabul. But so much more. We’ll talk about that later.
So, I had an uncle. Uncle Walter. He met the angels so long ago I’ve forgotten when. 1986 I think is close. He and his family lived just down the street from us and we loved him. Walter was a simple man. In the summer, you could always find him at home mowing the lawn, trimming the hedges, painting…anything. Every year he was always part of the volunteer crew helping to shoot the July 4th fireworks skyward from barges stationed in the bay off the local boat club. Can you imagine? Volunteering to be around all these mini-missiles and all their “booms” when Walter was an army grunt living among explosions every day of his life in theater in World War II?
But his kids and my siblings and I? We loved fireworks. So he did it. But as kids, we didn’t know the memories he no doubt was suppressing while doing so, but he did it…year after year.
Walter, believe it or not, and not simply to confirm a middle-class stereotype, sold insurance. Yep, and trudged around with that briefcase a lot of tv dads carried about and made so popular during the sitcoms of the fifties and sixties. He didn’t make much money, but Monday to Friday he worked his butt off anyway, under-appreciated and under-rewarded. Why? To make sure he avoided work weekends so he could play baseball with us (couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat), give us tips on how to play our musical instruments (his qualifications? a search party is still out there looking) or, occasionally, even give a life tip. One weekend, in a quasi-birds-and-the-bees speech, trying to relate to my brother and me, he actually told us we should check out the girl at the stationery store in town who had “really great gams.”
If it all sounds old-fashioned and cute, it was. Walter’s family and ours? We lived a real “Father Knows Best” existence. But there was a darker side. Uncle Walter liked to drink. And it persisted through my adolescence and increased into my mid-teen years and when we’d all gather for holidays Walter would quickly plop down on the nearest couch and promptly fall asleep due to the trips to the bottle he’d already made that day. And being the uber mature almost-adult that I was, instead of maybe getting him somewhere else more comfortable, I giggled at him, joked at his expense. When he snored prodigiously, and he did, mouth agape, I’d launch peanuts from across the room trying to sink a three-pointer.
It was all rather confusing in retrospect as I got older. A strong, loving man so happy to give the family his best most times but also so vulnerable and able to show the family his worst, too. Was work driving him to this? Were there problems at home no one knew about or could see? What was he escaping?
Well, the answer came from my aunt.
Marjorie. Also a simple woman but with her quirks. A Catholic, Aunt Marge would avoid actually going to church on Sunday by watching the protestant service as performed by a tv minister on Saturday. “Close Enough” she’d shrug and tell us. She’d brag to people about having quit smoking when she really just went from two packs of Marlboro’s a day to a pack of Virginia Slims. Always a spark, when we were gathered at their house for special occasions, whenever there was a conversation that might be too dark, too political, or simply too laden with seriousness for a holiday, Marge was always there chirping “These are happy times!” to corral people back into the proper mood.
Well, there was no way to corral people’s moods when Walter died. And there was nothing for me to feel but shame in my role helping to shape Walter’s persona before his end as a buffoon. Especially when Aunt Margie told us some things Walter didn’t talk about when he was alive: he was in the fourth wave of soldiers to hit the sands of Normandy Beach on D-Day and also a recipient of the Purple Heart. Marge even produced the shrapnel the Nazis had gifted Walter’s back that got him the medal. And she told how, till the day he died, he’d wake up screaming in the middle of the night at what he’d seen that day and over there.
Buffoon? Walter was a hero. He might’ve fallen victim to the bottle because of the gruesome memories he got from those days in 1945, but like most American soldiers he was nobly fighting for those things Americans loved most and he enjoyed when he got home: family, hard work, and the freedom to do so.
So, that’s what else was left behind in August in Afghanistan. The covenant. The covenant between all American soldiers, past and present, and their government that they’ll fight for the country they love, give everything, as long as the government did their best, too.
Last month in Kabul they did not. And it made me wonder if new generations of Americans will have the will to fight for a government that’s set such a precedent. It also made me wonder if Uncle Walter, while turning over in his grave, thought this time he wasn’t shot in the back by the Nazis, but by us.Published in