When I was in high-school my English teacher liked to tell us over and over about how Shakespeare never used any props. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I never could wrap my mind around how you could tell a story without things. How can you know someone if you don’t know where they are or where they came from?
When I was a kid, my grandfather Frank gave me this old fishing sinker from off his workbench. I used to carry it around in my pocket and rub it like some lucky charm. It was, I think, my first experience with the ways that things can carry weight. It couldn’t have been more than a pound but it was enough to ground me. It wrapped itself around my attention in the absence of fishing line.
I’ve got fifteen letters in a plastic folder that were written by my other grandfather, Steve, to his sister shortly before he left for Vietnam. There’s nothing really powerful in them. He talked about what Alaska was like and which girls he was talking to back home. He promised to come back to sing his sister country songs. He committed suicide a year before I was born.
When I was a kid I’d stare at this picture of him sprawled out on the hood of a bright blue mustang under an orange and purple Alabama sky, thinking that he looked cooler than Clint Eastwood. All my knowledge of him is wrapped up in those letters, that picture, and my name.
This morning while cleaning out my closet I found a pair of boots I wore in Afghanistan and it knocked the wind out of me. They’re about worn clear through the soles; soft spots on the heel and toe-line where my feet rubbed against the dust, and rocks, and hot gray concrete. I wrote my last name and blood-type on the backs of them, in case my legs got misplaced somewhere.
Believe it or not, I’m not a particularly sentimental person. I’ve tossed old love letters without a second thought, shattered photographs once they’ve run their course; but some things are too heavy for that kind of treatment. I wanted to throw those boots a million miles away; forget about blood-types and flags and the places I’ve walked, but then I remembered dancing like Swayze across the pallet-wood floor of this big open tent with my friend Terry who isn’t here anymore. I still think about his big goofy grin. So I dropped those boots in this big plastic trunk in my basement and shoved them under some shelving.
I wear this black aluminum bracelet on my right wrist. It carries Terry’s name and the date he got killed in cold grey letters. I don’t wear it for anyone but me. It’s not some attachment to duty or freedom or any other bullshit. He lived and he died and I feel like I can’t live my life without acknowledging that.
When I came back I was angry. I still am sometimes. When I flew home on leave some lady in an airport told me I was lucky we were pretty much done fighting over there. When I got back to Alabama everybody was still shopping and laughing like nothing ever happened. I’d say something about being in the Army and someone would inevitably thank me for my service, but they couldn’t tell me anything about Afghanistan, or the war, or what I was doing there. What the fuck were they thanking me for?
I’m so caught up in the fantasy of who I think I am. I’ve got this image, and it’s good and it’s bad, but it’s not real. It’s pride and weakness and feeling like I’m not enough, but all around me there’s old worn door handles rattling in place; reminding me that I’m not the only person who went somewhere.
I started wrapping my hand around that bracelet. It wasn’t prayer or reverence, it was a string tied around my finger telling me that something had really happened.
We aren’t floating in space. We’re born into a world of dirt, rust, and drywall; and we spend our lives trying to shape some tiny part of it in a way that will let us be remembered.
I work on diesel trucks now. I’m satisfied by the way a wrench fits in my hand, by the way a ratchet clicks and clicks and clicks until the thing is bolted down secure. There’s things that need to be fixed and I’m happy to do the fixing.
I don’t have to explain myself. Nobody has questions about why the broken things come into my shop as long as they go out running. There’s no morality or buzzwords. I do what I do because it needs doing. That’s not meant to be some kind of philosophical statement on work but a contrast to that other way of living. If somebody convinces you that you’re doing something for a reason; for freedom, or family, or home, you get pretty scarred up when you find out it’s not true. I’m in a different world now. I can point to the things I’ve accomplished and not be ashamed, because they are right there running pretty; standing witness to my labor.
In the country Baptist church I grew up in, there was an emphasis on testimony; telling your story. I learned that it’s not enough that a thing happened, somebody somewhere is supposed to be bearing witness to it. I can’t say I’ve found peace, but I’ve found a way to hear the witness of these worn and heavy things, to listen to the rocks crying out. I’ve found a way to live in this messy world of flesh and steel. Right now, that’s good enough.