Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Morning Thanks--Catastrophist

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jim, one of the best Veteran's Day article, or tribute,
I've read. You got it, and helped us better understand! TY

Anonymous said...

JCS, I think you hit the nail on the head with this

As a Vietnam Era veteran I watched many soldiers who suffered as a result of serving. My drill instructor often winched in pain when he moved a certain way cause he was carrying lead from the war. It is impossible to describe what it is really like to intentionally put your life on the line for someone else unless you have done it. Those who do often pay a price.

It reminds me of Jesus' death on the cross...


Lynn Carter said...

Veterans hospital ABUSE, June 15, 2011, Veterans Hospital Patient and Patient Caregiver Medical Abuse June 15, 2011 at Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks 1100 North College Avenue Fayetteville, AR 72703 TELEPHONE 479-443-4301
Senator Mark Pryor PHONE 202-224-2353, Congressman Steve Womack PHONE 202-225-4301, and Senator John Boozman, each of Arkansas, we have not received written information concerning the formal investigation we ask of you concerning our request into U.S. Veterans Hospital Patient, and Patient Caregiver Abuse and medical malpractice at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks U.S. Veterans Hospital, Fayetteville, Arkansas, June 15, 2011, John R. Henley M.D. and Mark A. Elderle M.D. Fayetteville Arkansas U.S. Veterans Hospital Administrators DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS Fayetteville Arkansas 72703-6995. Congressman Womack, Senator Boozman, and Senator Pryor in our frustration we were in contact with each of you regarding the U.S. Veterans hospital shortly after June 15, 2011 . To this date, we have received NO formal apology or reply regarding this issue from the office of President of the United States, President Obama

Mark A. Elderle M.D. and John R. Henley M.D. Fayetteville Arkansas U.S. Veterans Hospital Administrators DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS Fayetteville Arkansas 72703-6995 When we pulled up to the Emergency Room, I pulled into the drive-thru, and a male EMPLOYEE Came out and RUDELY told me I could NOT park here because it was the ambulance entrance that I would have to move my car down the hill and go in through the emergency room check in. I got back in the car, and pulled down the hill and went up the stairs and went to the check in desk. When I told the employee at the desk what was going on, he told me to pull my car BACK up the hill to where I just was because they would have to get my husband out of the car and into a wheelchair. I walked back to the car, backed up the hill to the door and they came out and put my husband in a wheel chair and wheeled him back to the check in desk. In a few minutes they came and got us and a nurse checked us in and asked us all kinds of questions about what was going on. After she was finished, they took my husband back to a room in the ER where we were for the next 5 hours. Five hours in which my husband lay in pain and his own URINE, FECES, and STENCH. When we were leaving the VA hospital, when I went to go out the door we came in, I was trying to push/force it open and the HIPPIE looking guy behind the desk (the same one who made me pull down the hill in the first place) RUDELY YELLED “Don’t do that, you’ll break the door," "we have to push the button”, and I said to him “Then open the damn door!” So he pushed the button, the door opened, and I went and got the car and came back for my husband. I was the one who was mad, not my husband. My husband was incapacitated DUE TO THE STROKE he was having and not at all mad or upset. He was barely conscious ... We then drove to Fort Smith AR (because of MY decision, not his) to Sparks Regional Medical Center where my husband, was hospitalized, and treated with human dignity. But because of the critical time lost (wasted) at the VA hospital - there was not much medically they could do by the time we got there except to make sure he was stable. This was time lost in a possible life/death situation. The average person living on a strict budget get very little help from Politicians, however, if a person is wealthy, or a lobbyist, the politicians suck up to them. It seems to be all about MONEY. Not one US Veteran, a US Veterans caregiver, or a US Veteran family member deserves humiliation and malpractice at any United States Government facility.