Sunday, November 11, 2012

Eleven Thoughts at 11:11 on 11-11

from November, 2004
"Well, I thought about the Army,"Dad said, 'Son, you're f***ing high!'"So I thought, 'Yeah, there's a first for everything.'"And I took my old man's advice."-from "Army" by Ben Folds Five
My son was born at 11:11 p.m. For weeks after his birth it seemed that every time I saw a clock it was "11:11", so I got in the habit of whispering to myself, "Happy Birthday, son" whenever I saw that time displayed. After a while, it started to seem like it was eleven after eleven every time I looked at a clock. I've whispered a "Happy Birthday" to him almost every day for five years, now.

I mentioned this to my friend in Texas. He's a veteran of the Army, a former Russian linguist like myself. He's not what you would think of when you say "veteran"; a skinny kid with long, black hair; a guitar player, a coffee drinker, a philosopher. He got out after four years, realizing that the Army wasn't interested in what he had to offer. The feeling was mutual. He told me the number "11" is a pretty important one in numerology, and that the lead singer of a band called "Fate's Warning" was captivated enough with it to write an entire album about it. The title, of course, is "11:11" and the title track is 11 minutes, 11 seconds long. I haven't had time to listen to it, yet.

On November 11, one is not supposed to be thinking about little boys' birthdays and heavy metal bands; one is supposed to be thinking about Veterans. In America, though, Veterans' Day is relatively watered down. We try to cram the remembrance of all of our veterans into just one day. The UK and Europe still call it "Remembrance Day", and it is still heavily associated with World War I. They still remember to wear poppies in their lapels (not to mention WHY they wear poppies in their lapels) and have a moment of silence at the precise moment the Armistice ending the War went into effect: the eleventh second of 11:11, November 11, 1911. Of course, if they tried to remember their veterans from every war THEY'VE ever fought, it would require more than one day; perhaps as many as eleven.

In the spirit of the US holiday, though, I try to think about as many of them as possible. Remembering veterans has become a lot easier for me over the years. Doing the family tree has given me a lot to remember. My dad was a medical specialist in the National Guard; my uncle was in Vietnam. Both of my grandfathers were in World War II; a great-grandfather in WWI, his father in an Ohio Regiment in the Civil War along with his brothers and cousins. I've found ancestors that were in service in wars that Americans (Spanish-American, and Mexican Wars) and Britons (War of 1812) have all but forgotten about entirely. When I dwell on the breadth of service others have given, it is still a shock to me to be reminded that I am a veteran, too.

I don't FEEL like a veteran. I never experienced any kind of combat. My time in service was more "Catch-22" or "Stripes" than "Sands of Iwo Jima" or "Pearl Harbor". I'm not complaining, but I relate more to Dilbert than to John Wayne. Lt. Dan swinging from the rigging of Forrest Gump's shrimp boat seems more veteran-like than I do. Maybe it's the missing limbs; I'm just an overweight shlub with authority issues and an over-developed grasp of acronymns.

My lovely bride, also a veteran, tells me that I should be proud that I served at all, since so few step up voluntarily. I am proud; I'm just humble about it. It feels weird to honor myself, and I certainly don't expect anyone else to do it. I don't feel like what I did was terribly special, compared to all of the more competent people around me. I try to prove my worth as an observer, remembering the people I served with, who had done so many neat things with their military careers. My wife and I try to talk about them on these occasions, and give the kids a sense of the respect we have for those in the military, then and now.

We all know how uncertain the future is. That's why our species takes so much comfort from remembering the past. Whatever happened before, however horrific, is at least KNOWN. We look for patterns and try to predict what will happen next. Symbols are comforting; numbers are symbols, like "11:11" and all of it's associated implications. Maybe it really means something that the boy was born at that time. Maybe it's some kind of sign that he'll grow up and follow in the long, unspoken family tradition of service. Of course, he could decide to wear a pink tutu on his head, call himself "Mr. Booty" and sing songs about his own butt for a living. That's what he did yesterday, and you know how insidious some patterns can be. We'll just have to love him no matter what.

Of course, the boy is a lot like my brother-in-law, and my brother-in-law is now in the Air Force, stationed in New Jersey. A mechanic who was sent to New York on 9-11 (there it is again), and was 12 blocks from Ground Zero when the second tower fell, he is more veteran-like in my mind than I will ever be. However, I have it on good authority that he was posterior-ly obsessed when he was five, so I hold out hope that my own child won't turn out too badly.

These thoughts, and others less focused, churned through my mind all day, and as I crawled into bed. I kissed the veteran lying next to me - already asleep, so my snoring won't disturb her - and I checked to make sure my alarm was set. Of course, the time is 11:11.

"Happy Birthday, son."

And Happy Veterans' Day.