That fleeting sweetness, at times, paradoxically, only felt on the front-line

The last few entries have a similar theme. That of a suggestion that the victories in fiction, albeit film or literature, are sweeter if coming from places of great grief and tragedy. I don’t think this is an exact genre, more a theme, and one that I can certainly relate to: inspiring storytelling. It’s not aspirational. Aspirational television is the curse of the modern age, in this writer’s opinion, it had its roots in the world of advertising and I shall speak no more of it here.

But inspiration, inspiring some individual or a group of people to succeed, is, to me, a great story. If you look at some of the greatest people over the last 200 years, the majority (50%+) come from circumstances that were certainly less than stellar. That was how it was. It’s less so now, particularly when it comes to politics, there, the elites seem to hold sway over much, but anything else is really up to the individual. How much drive they have in their guts, and their heart, and in this spine.

 

One of the first novels I ever read after leaving for college was ‘The Things they Carried’ by Tim O’Brien. The irony was that even though I was taking American Literature for my major, O’Brien’s seminal text wasn’t on the reading list. I was wandering campus during first semester, lonely and out of place and dreadfully homesick when I found the campus bookstore and found the book in one of those rotating book holders a lot of small shops have to display their battered, used paperbacks.

I still have the price-tag on the back of the book. Less than six weeks later the bookshop closed its doors permanently. It was being renovated, relocated, and then sold to Waterstones (UK Barnes & Noble).

I loved the book, it was one of the few books I read for interest, rather than being forced to. And it started my love affair with 20th Century American Literature. For those who haven’t read it, I won’t spoil the key points, but it’s set in Vietnam, and the protagonist is suggested to be the author, O’Brien fulfilling his draft requirements in 1969. I say “suggested” because there is a pre-note at the beginning stating that all the characters within are fictional. Which implies the author, right? O’Brien’s work freely states a blurring of fiction and reality, a genre which could be labelled “historical fiction”, but I prefer to use the word “verisimilitude”, cos it sounds cool.

Detailing both the idiosyncrasies of his friends in his platoon, as well as the equipment they possess, (the title is literal, it often specifically details the actual things they carry, both the physical and emotional baggage) the fear they have, both on dying and living, and what they’ll do when they get back home. It’s all oddly fragile, as we as creatures, as living sentient beings are. Not just from the perspective of an active, and infamous warzone, but also as how we are as people, as we grow, experience and change.

What I found hardest to accept whilst reading was the strain the characters existed under with events that happened outside of traditional combat. From a girlfriend unexpectedly turning up on a transport plane, getting hooked on the base camp life, and eventually ‘going native’, to the officer of the platoon and his feelings about his high school sweetheart and how his focus on her might or might not have caused the death of one of his men in the field. One of the hardest chapters in the book details O’Brien’s origin before duty, and how he decides to skip the border to Canada, in order to avoid the draft card that arrives in the mail. Ending up at an out-of-season lakeside hotel he befriends the owner and stays for a fortnight, the time culminating in a fishing trip on the river demarking the border. Tim knows that all he has to do is dive overboard and swim to the Canadian side, and that will be that. But he can’t. And instead he just cries, the silent, wrenching chest-chokes we’ve all had, many times in our own lives, as he comes to terms with his own cowardice, and the fact that he will soon end up on the front-line.

scissorsinmypocket

These are my scissors.

I admit, from this angle they look like something I should melt into the Iron Throne after I retire, (obligatory GofT reference there) yet in reality they aren’t that imposing. But they are sharp, as scissors should be.

Like most things in my life, they have a story. I undertook my nurse training in London, and while I was on my theatre placement, the placement I would eventually adopt following my graduation (though I didn’t know it at the time) I made friends with a lot of the HCAs and scrub nurses there. One of the HCAs was a man in his late forties who carried a pair of scissors that made mine seem tame in comparison.

His scissors were a cross between cloth scissors and carpet shears. Those long bladed, high torqued, razor sharp things that can slice through anything, from denim to underlay, with relative ease. They were so big he couldn’t carry them in his scrubs, instead he carried them in a custom built holster, attached to his hip. He looked like a cowboy, though had a single hoop earring, and with the colourful theatre hats my profession is known for, he bared more resemblance to a Pirates of the Caribbean extra. Gruff voice and a brusk demeanour rounded him out, but he was friendly and welcoming to everyone, especially students.

I don’t know how he was permitted to carry the scissors though. Even today, they would be frowned on, solely on the grounds of their lethality. I actually asked him why he had them one day, remember this is before the 7/7 attacks rocked London, and so carrying something not out of place in LARP was fairly normal, back then.

He didn’t bat an eyelid. Propped up on one elbow, drinking horrible coffee he told me.

He was working in A&E when the IRA blew up the Regent Park bandstand, back in 1982. Seven bandsmen died, six of them at the scene, and eight civilians were injured. Despite the lack of shrapnel, he told me that it was next to impossible to remove clothing from the wounded coming through the doors, with the scissors he had. So afterwards he went to a tailor he knew and got these.

He unsheathed them, like a samurai offering up his katana for inspection, and handed them to me, safely. To this day they are one of the most terrifyingly lethal pieces of equipment I have ever held. You could probably chop someone’s hand off with them. I just a quick inspection, oohed and aahed and hurriedly handed them back.

But I wanted my own. And trust me, while not being as dragon-slayingly awesome as the aforementioned, they are still potent. And I love them.

The handles are melted. They were too close to a hob, many years ago and seared themselves to the top, I detached them, but one of the finger holes cracked. So I wrap the melted bits with surgical tape, like CM Punk wraps his hands, and often spin them round a finger or thumb like a socket wrench if I’m bored, or inpatient, or waiting for a briefing.

 

They’re my yoyo.

Mitchell Sanders flicks a yoyo often in the novel, Kiowa has his tomahawk, along with his St. James Bible, contrasting influences from his maternal and paternal grandparents, one side white, the other Sioux. Rat Kiley, the platoon corpsman carried comic books alongside the plasma, and battle-dressings, and for the most serious of injuries, bags of M&Ms.

Personalities adopt different feelings when they’re faced with a common obstacle, from trauma surgery, to firefighting, to front-line combat. Hollywoodized in movies like ‘Platoon’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan’, it hasn’t adapted in recent times that well, or maybe it has and we the public just aren’t aware of it?

I do know that I went through a phase in my career where I routinely used to draw on my blues (scrubs). Either my name, in the form of the phrase “Hi! My name is…”, or just doodles and squiggles on my knees, or trunk.

I recognise now that this was my own subconscious dealing with the uncertainty of the situation I found myself in. By the time I left the trauma and relocated to an elective unit with a different corps it was a regular thing, and it finally took me over two years to stop doodling. My brain was getting comfortable, and it took time to settle, like a house pet being introduced to a new house. I also promptly gained eight pounds that I have still be unable to shift, even as I write this, five years on.

 

So, what is the moral, of this admission? Maybe it’s the idea that uniformity can never truly tamp down individuality? That creativity is more stubborn and persistent than lawn weeds and pubic lice, combined?

That writers and bloggers, even those in regular work, are an odd breed (I can certainly attest to this!) whose brains are sharp, but whose focus tends to wane because they often have no control over their own innate creativity, and it can force itself to the fore of any situation, with no warning and no prevention.

I think my favourite point is the one offered, maturely, by Victor Frankl. The idea that if you had enough to eat, and were with your friends, you could work anywhere. Or as I like to think of it, your life can be like sex; it doesn’t matter what you do, what’s important is who you do it with.

 

Even if you’re on the front-line, you can still find the time to play chess, and tell stories, and dream. That’s why wars can be so devastating to those veterans who survive them. You have to endure the worst, with the people who often understand and support you more than anyone else you’ll ever know. To laugh and cry with someone openly? That’s special in this world.

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