Posted by: maddiemysko | May 23, 2014

The Radio Operator

I need to share this one again . . .

The Radio Operator: A Memorial Day Reflection 

(originally appeared in The Baltimore Sun, May 30, 2010)

 

Duel Radio Man green

I am ambivalent about Memorial Day. On the one hand, it offends me that, for most Americans, Memorial Day has become just another holiday weekend—a getaway to the beach, the opening of the pool, a sale at the garden center. I once served as an Army Nurse, in a stateside hospital to which wounded soldiers were evacuated regularly. So for me, the “memorial” part of the weekend always overshadows the “holiday” part. While I’m firing up the grill and watching for the kids and grandkids to arrive, remembrance rolls in out of the blue, like a solemn cortege. Suddenly I’m thinking of soldiers who suffered and died—and not just the soldiers of my own generation. I think, too, of the families they never came home to.

But on the other hand I’m equally offended by displays of patriotism and military splendor—flags, marching bands, the Blue Angels breaking the sound barrier overhead. To my way of thinking, Memorial Day (which was once called “Decoration Day,” when women would carry flowers to the graves of the fallen) ought to be quietly mournful. Just once a year, couldn’t we gaze directly at the precious lives lost? Couldn’t we quit numbing ourselves with all that loyalty to the nation for which lives are still being sacrificed?

A few years ago, I visited San Antonio, a city of several large military installations. I went to the veterans’ memorial there—an enormous bronze sculpture that depicts two soldiers in realistic detail. One soldier is mortally wounded, and the other is calling for help by radio. The name of this sculpture is “Hill 881 South.” The artist, Austin Deuel, served as a Marine illustrator. Apparently one day in 1967, Deuel made a quick sketch of something he saw in the thick of a terrible battle. Nineteen years later he worked that sketch into the largest memorial of its kind in this country.

I have a photograph of “Hill 881 South.” Sometimes I hold it in my hands and contemplate its crucial details.

Weapons. The radio operator, balanced in a dynamic squat, has dropped his weapon. It lies at his feet, between the angles of his tense knees. The wounded soldier, sprawled on the ground, has a grenade in his pocket—a rounded, almost heart-shaped swelling that lies, ironically, just above his heart.

Protective gear. The radio operator’s helmet has slipped back, as though it could fall off any second. The wounded soldier’s helmet is entirely off—thrown away from him, upended on the ground. Nowadays visitors to the memorial come and place flowers in that helmet.

Posture of the wounded one. His whole body is sprawled on a slant, with the lower extremities higher than the head and heart. Perhaps only people in the medical profession would notice this: He’s actually lying in Trendelenburg Position—the position of choice for patients in shock. Maybe it’s just an accident that the decline of the very ground where the soldier has fallen is right for his failing circulation. To me, the downward sprawl of this one wounded young man represents perfectly the universal state of shock: an entire nation wounded by a terrible war.

Posture of the radio operator. One hand grasps the radio—to call for help—while the other feels for a pulse, the fingers resting against the exposed jugular vein of the wounded one, the dying one. The radio operator’s face is lifted, his mouth slightly open, as though he’s just taken a breath in, right before the cry out. His eyes are fixed on the sky. He’s searching, of course, for the medevac helicopter. But to me he’s also searching the face of that which lies beyond the madness he’s caught in. Call it the face of God, if you’re so inclined. Or call it the face of Enlightened Humanity—or Peace.

Veterans of that battle on Hill 818 South have determined that the wounded soldier in Deuel’s sculpture is most likely PFC James Arthur Randall, who did not survive. The radio operator is said to be Cpl Donald Hossack, for whom one day a helicopter did come, whisking him home to the rest of his life.

As for the larger-than-life radio operator, the one Austin Deuel captured forever in his enormous, bronze sculpture: It comforts me to hold his likeness in my hands. He cannot let go. His fingers are still pressed to the pulse of fallen ones—of the ones who may be falling even now, as we check the skies for fair weather, and fire up the grill.

Duel Radio Man green

 

Posted by: maddiemysko | July 17, 2012

Hope

I know there are reality shows about people who are overwhelmed by stuff they can’t let go of.  I hate those shows.  I hate how they delight in gaping at people who are pathological hoarders–who are mentally ill. I don’t find it entertaining to watch while some professional organizer humiliates these poor people into dealing with it.  And yet here I am, writing my first post about things I can’t seem to let go of. 

I think I’m doing this because I’ve finally figured out why I can’t let certain things go.  I figured it out last Saturday, when I went to the basement to face the mess down there. I was staring at a plain wood trunk–long ago painted white–that had belonged to my mother when she was a girl. This old trunk spent most of its life in the basement of my mother’s house, where it served to store spreads and curtains and things my mother apparently couldn’t bring herself to throw away. For the last three years it has been mine to keep, because when my siblings and I were making trips to Goodwill and the dump after Mother moved to the retirement community, I was the one who cried “No!”    

This trunk is not an antique.  It’s just old. One of its hinges has rotted off, and it smells like mold. To be honest, I have no real fondness for it and no plans to fix it up.   And yet on Saturday, as I contemplated the hope that some creative, industrious person might take it off my hands–might paint it, repair the hinge, put it to good use–I got so overwhelmed by the prospect of looking for that person that I had to sit down on the damp basement floor with my head in my hands.  

Those who care about me will probably say that the reason I can’t let this trunk go is that my mother recently died. But the thing is, in the past weeks I have bravely given away plenty of things that belonged to my mother, and it didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would. I truly believe my Mother’s dear spirit shares in my gladness at having found homes for the things that she was so fond of when she was among the living. So why would I have trouble giving away her old trunk?  Why does it fill me with dread to even picture disposing of it at the county landfill? 

I got to thinking about how I’d describe it on Craigslist: “Free for the taking. Old wood trunk, painted white . . . ” And then it hit me that my mother never referred to it as a “trunk.”  She called it a “chest.”   Is there a difference?  And then the happy distraction of looking it up in the dictionary: Both “chest” and “trunk” are boxes meant for storing or transporting thing. And then Oh, the mysterious thrill in realizing both words also denote core parts of the human body.

I’m a poet.  Would I be better prepared to let this trunk/chest/box go if only I could find a poetic form/box to keep its (Its what? Its meaning to me, its essence?) stored safely away (or transported)?  But I don’t want to write a poem, don’t feel up to it. I open the lid of the trunk/chest/box, and I feel as dry of music as the dust in the corner. 

This box was made especially for Mother by a childhood girlfriend, who painted my mother’s nickname on the inside in pale yellow (“Maln,” a compression of her given name “Madeleine,” the name my father called her when they were love-sick teenagers, and addressed her by when he was writing letters to her from the Pacific during the War). The painted name is so faded now, you’d almost miss it, if you weren’t looking for it. 

  

But you wouldn’t miss the fanciful angels that my mother’s young friend–just a girl–painted on the inside corners of the lid. I love these angels–their bright colors, their gold wings that arch and dip and suddenly remind me of fallopian tubes! 

 

It strikes me now that this is a Hope Chest, and I’m trying to remember if my mother ever referred to it as such. 

So can I let this hope chest/ trunk / box / story go now?  I can let it go as far as “post.” And then I shall see.

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