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Archive for May 4th, 2008

This is the center of three piers at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Here is where I was introduced to the pleasures of troopship travel.

Prior to arriving, we had spent four hours on a ferry from Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg. When the ferry reached Mason, the tugs parked it on one side of the pier, and we debarked (a new term learned then) and assembled in the shed where we waited until the ferry had been emptied.

Then we were lined up by number and marched aboard a troopship parked on the other side of the pier. The entire process from Stoneman to our bunks in Compartment C and then a walk up a couple of gangways (‘nother new term) for an idle stroll around the main deck took about seven hours.

In mid-afternoon, I felt the ship move almost imperceptibly, and then I noticed the gap of water between the side of the ship and the pier widen. Shortly, the tugs began to slide the ship backwards until it cleared the end of the pier. Then just as slowly, the tugs swung the bow of the ship around until it pointed at the Golden Gate Bridge. Soon, the tugs dropped away and the ship was on its own, heading toward the open sea beyond the orange span.

As the ship moved toward the Bridge, I walked along the deck so that I could look up at it as we slid below. And then I walked aft and leaned on the rail, watching the Bridge grow smaller and smaller until at least it disappeared.

I remember clearly at that moment the tears in my eyes and the terrible thought that I would never again see my family. The brains of 18-year old males are at one and the same time adventurous, amorous, and loaded with trepidation and high emotion.

Call it luck or the hand of God as you choose, but two years later I sailed under the bridge, into the bay, and joked over the rail with the tug sailors who shouted up at us that San Francisco women would take our money. “Stay out of the bars,” they said.

Fortunately, I was on my way to a discharge at Parks in Pleasanton and freedom at last. I had no time for an interlude with the San Francisco ladies. The feeling of euphoria is difficult to resurrect now, but suffice to say, I could have walked on water at the thought of relaxing for a few months before deciding on my future.

Mason is still there, much in its original form. It’s been turned over to the city and serves some interesting purposes such as an arena for fashion shows, which are nice if you are into that sort of thing but which serve no useful purpose unless you consider skeletal women in grotesque clothes disjointedly walking to the end of a runway, whirling around, and returning, a valuable purpose.

When I think about inane activities like this, which aren’t restricted to San Francisco, by the way, I am often confounded by the utter self-absorption that has given rise to a culture and an entire economic industry based on a transitory act of physical indulgence. Foreplay by any other name is still foreplay.

But I have more unsettling thoughts. I wonder if my brief time in uniform contributed in any way to the vital national defense of the United States. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret my service.

But the nearest I ever came to combat and either heroism or cowardice was sitting in the passenger seat of a car across the street from a bus station in Oakland watching two United States Marines do their level best to beat the living hell out of a single sailor who more than held his own.

Despite my constant calls then for fairness and equity, I Cheneyed out. I deferred to the sailor. I remained in the safety of the car. I rationalized my failure by convincing myself that the sailor could more than take care of himself, and then suddenly, before I could think further, the fight ended and the combatants faded into the darkness.

Someone had called the police, and the fighters hadn’t yet sunk into a state of absolute, unmerciful degradation. They heard the siren. They were after all United States servicemen. They didn’t want to kill each other. Did they?

Today, I still hide the cowardice of that time and place by blathering about fairness and equity. Two on one is patently unfair, I proudly proclaim, as if I would never be a disinterested bystander when someone is in need. Deep inside, though, I know my own reluctance.

I am your classic, patriotic All American, a man without an American flag lapel pin, a condition I justify neatly with a classic degree of political cowardice by pointing out that I do not wear shirts or coats with lapels, and I have no intention of having an American flag tattooed on my forehead.

Besides–and we all know this, right?–a symbol isn’t a gauge of reality. Or, as someone wrote once upon a time, “The map is not the territory.” For those who say they will not vote for Barack because he doesn’t wear an American flag lapel pin, I say fine and dandy. Don’t vote for him. I would hazard a guess that he prefers only intelligent people in the booths on election day anyway.

I wonder if the 4,000 plus American men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan would be wearing lapel pins if they were alive. My guess is that some would and some would not.

I also wonder if those men and women once believed in fairness and equity. Did they think it unfair for two to pick on one? Did they believe they had an obligation to help those in need?

Would they come to the aid of an abused child or an abused spouse? Or would they, in their sheer elation and euphoria at the joy of life, choose to look another way? To create justifications? To attend fashion shows at Fort Mason where men once sailed off to give their lives so that those very inanities could thrive?

Barack Obama is at this moment like the sailor I witnessed withstanding an almost overwhelming attack by two United States Marines. I have no doubt that he will not fade into the night. He will remain in the arena. He doesn’t need a lapel pin.

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