Author: John Q. McDonald
Location: San Francisco, CA
John Q McDonald was born in Massachusetts and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he currently works at the Space Sciences Laboratory at UC Berkeley. John has assisted in teaching writing seminars at the University's department of architecture, focusing on object and place in writing. He has had several stories and essays published, most recently in Isotope
and Out of Line,
and upcoming again in each, later this year.
Fragments of Metal and Memory
On a bright fall morning, I gasped for air, my legs too weak to stand as I listened to the news solemn and excited from the radio. It was a frozen moment, its magnitude impossible to grasp. At long last, after walking through an emptiness of history, I felt connected to generations scarred and ennobled by great events.
The air in our attic hung low, flakes of dust gently flickering in beams of light. I looked down from there upon the neighborhood as from a balloon in the treetops. I saw the Boston skyline in the hazy distance.
In the night, the attic door would blow open on a mysterious breeze, chilled darkness spilling in front of my bedroom door. In the day, it was cheery and silent, still as a sanctuary. There was a crawlspace that I had to bend low to get through, even as a child. A long dark distance could be traveled there, on hands and knees through layers of dust. Ghosts floated from storage cartons, hatboxes and trunks. Despite bright autumn outside, the attic was a dark warehouse of buried treasures.
There were ancient books, pages disintegrating, taking their words with them into oblivion. There was a top hat and an old dollhouse my mother played with as a child. There was a green footlocker, packed full of khaki cloth and metal implements. The lid was difficult to lift, as if an invisible hand held it closed. Its contents were imbued with the strength of one man's life, experiences deeply implanted. Eight years old and curious, I had to lift hard against this pressure to open the box.
Light fell on the dull dome of an army helmet, scratched but clean, its straps lined and worn. A neatly folded uniform, brass buttons glowing gently in the darkness. A woven belt and bandolier, the brass casing of a single bullet still in one of its stiffened slots. The yellow metal was smooth and shining, but I knew of its deadly potential. What had its many brothers done? Where, now, was the man who carried these things home from distant shores littered with shrapnel?
My mother told me he was twenty-eight when his landing craft came ashore late in the war. I imagine the Sicilian waters choppy beneath a blue sky, a shoreline in happier days dotted with vacationing families. The dunes would be like those I played on through Maine summers. What I imagine of that day is pretty much all I have: third-hand stories of distant events, three generations backward in
time. On the dunes where I might have played, on those dunes by his familiar summer cabin, the landing craft inched ashore, only to be ripped apart by a blinding explosion. There, on the shore of a Mediterranean island, almost before it had even begun, my grandfather's service to the nation ended. There was a burst of awareness of what was happening, and then, I imagine, a surreal series of stolen moments until he was home again. The fragments of metal that became part of him that day would take seven years to kill him. My mother was just seven years old.
My mother towed me along, just three years old, to anti-war protests in the 1960s. Vietnam was her war. It was my war, too, with its vivid images every night on the news. This war seemed unjust, unfair, brutal. What did my mother teach me in those turbulent years? I had no toy guns. I couldn't become a boy scout. And yet, I built guns with sticks and rubber bands. And, in our attic, I found the souvenirs of a war of which I had no experience, and that I would never understand. I played with that bullet. It was sharp and threatening, but looked, too, like the benign rockets then going to the Moon. Its threat was subtle and real. My grandfather used this against people impossibly far away. I knew this had ended his life. His life now lay distant, far away with the idea of mortality, yet it tempered my feelings toward my war games, toward my wars.
Whatever it was my mother was showing me, whatever it was my father meant when he said "war is just a fight over land," a plea for peace and hope colored my youth. Our country repeatedly made war upon dots scattered across the map. I planned for the day I faced a draft board. While volunteers went to war, youth lurched out of the woodwork and protested Grenada, Libya, Nicaragua, Panama, and Iraq. I was there, too, but my fervor was cooled by that bullet in our attic. It seemed to stand not for a clean division between war and peace, but for the complex relationship we have with our warlike nature. I saw not a simple fight for our idea of right. Nor did I see the simple brutality of death and desolation. What I saw was a plea for peace and hope.
I do not know the loss my mother still feels for those days in which her father slowly died. I am formed more by her wars than by his. But I wondered if his conflagration would echo in my liftetime. So I sat, weak-kneed and sobbing on a September morning. I asked myself, would my generation be required at last to sacrifice? Would the world really be a different place? I stared at the blank
wall in front of me and saw that footlocker, that bullet. I thought of that beach in summer, so much like the beach of my grandfather's fatal landing. I yearned again for the hope and peace buried under two million tons of steel
and rubble. Yet, in the face of such horror, I felt mysterious gratitude to a man I never knew. We have so much of life, unearned and wonderful.