Tuesday, November 12, 2013
An awful word.
In fact, I never heard it before, didn't know there could be one, wasn't altogether sure what it was.
If I'd been asked, I might have said catastrophist might just be used to describe folks who are dang sure that sometime after tomorrow a angry flock of black helicopters will descend out back beside the propane tank to do, well, something awful, something catastrophic. You know, survivalists. I'd have thought it was a word applied to folks who stocked up soup and oatmeal in padlocked storm cellar, sure beyond doubt that the world would come to an end with the single tick of the clock--midnight, January 1, 2000. I might well have thought a catastrophist to be someone who suffers from paranormal paranoia.
But the word was used yesterday in NPR's Fresh Air, when Terry Gross interviewed Roy Scranton and Jacob Siegel about their new book, Fire and Forget, a collection of short stories by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghantistan. Scranton and Siegel used that word to describe what happens to men and women who pull on fatigues everyday, knowing full well that some blip at the edge of the road, something nobody notices, might just blow their lives to smithereens. You become a catatrophist, I suppose, when death is as companionable as the trusty mutt you left behind.
You become a catastrophist when good friends, buddies, get wasted on a weekly basis. You become a catastrophist when you determine that you will return home in a casket because you will inevitably die somewhere in the desert. You are a catastrophist when you avoid making friends because you've already lost too many good ones.
In 1980, at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Tim O'Brien played a leading roll. He'd written Going After Caciatto by that time, a Vietnam War saga that followed the life of a GI who simply had enough, who determined he'd simply walk home. That novel had won wide acclaim, and O'Brien's being at Bread Loaf meant other Vietnam vets showed up with their stories, lurid stories, of their own.
One night at a reading, one of them tried to stumble through his own work. He'd been drinking too much from a flask that wasn't hidden, and when he started into his story, he stopped when he got to a part about a grunt eating a lizard raw on a drunken bet. He stopped, filled the room with an ocean of blue language, then bawled, curled up on the floor and bawled. A company of angels--other vets--took him under their wing. It was a moment I'll never forget.
Siegel and Scranton helped me understand what happened there at Bread Loaf, so many years ago: the man--he actually was a friend--suffered because once upon a time in Vietnam he'd been forced by war itself to become a catastrophist.
Once upon a time I lived with the good kid who'd come back home to Iowa after Vietnam, determined to walk back into ordinary life. Didn't happen. For months, his life was one catastrophe after another. I lived with him. I know.
Not everyone who serves his or her country becomes a catastrophist. My father wasn't, and neither is my father-in-law, both of whom gave years of their lives to war. But neither of them ever witnessed death or killed someone himself. Both were warriors, but neither of them went hand-to-hand somewhere in Belgium or on some South Sea island.
My uncle cleaned up after battles, lifted bodies up from wet beaches. He never raised a rifle, but he too, I think, had to become a catastrophist.
Yesterday, I know, was Veterans' Day. This morning it's time to move on.
But the suicide rate among those who return--even when they return in one piece--is catastrophic, largely because, I assume, too many vets have to become normal after becoming, with good reason, catatrophists. In a way, I wish I hadn't learned the word.
I'm a day late with all of this I know, but we owe them all more than a day. For their gifts--those who returned, those who didn't, and those who tragically never left--I make my morning thanks.