“The ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus wrote, ‘The reward of suffering is experience.’ Let this be the lasting legacy of Vietnam.”
John McNamara, Secretary of Defense for the Johnson and Nixon Administrations and
chief architect of the Vietnam War
“Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.”
Uphill, Christina Rossetti
Much would happen in the ensuing years. Some of which I could say in the passing of a moment as we meet on some street in a town that neither of us had ever planned on traveling to. The baby, Phin had become almost a man on the outside, but inside he was just another kid who was happy to be a kid, never rushing into grown-upness like a lot of kids in the big city. He started driving a car around town when he was fifteen. That was around ’65 or ’66, I think. But I don’t recall him ever getting an official license or anything even when he was old enough to.
He knew of the war, of the protests, then a few years later, the deaths of Janis and Jim and a young Kennedy. We talked a lot in 1968 as he questioned the talisman of social revolution that seeped slowly at first into small towns like Idaho Springs and Portsmouth and Panama City. I think he tried to understand it all but he’d seen the deep division it had caused. And while he wanted to do something substantial to go with the depth of his feelings, ’68 was a time when things ran so deep no one could ever do enough to keep up with their emotions. After awhile I think he decided the best thing he could do was to stay at home and be with his family, help out around the house when Harry and Gillie were off fishing, work on the boat when they weren’t and just be a good kid.
He never did take to being on the boat for too long as Gillie did. Maybe he knew that it was her place or that his Ma would be alone if he went off with them. Other men offered him work but he seemed happy enough to play it close to home, read what he could get his hands on and let the rest just be. If he was concerned about the world, he didn’t march it out.
And while that world unfolded in turmoil it seems to me that Phin made his own regular protest by trying to be a regular kid. Maybe he knew it would come looking for him sooner or later.
Some times the wolf knocks at your door and instead of letting him trick you with words you might offer to let him run along side–if he could. In that way, the wolf could pose the great question of identity. Do you know yourself well enough so as to know who am I? And what I want?
Nobody but Grace had seen Phin’s wolf then. For everyone but her, the wolf was just one of those things that snuck up on you, like watching the wind blow all your life, wondering where it came from and where it was going. And then one day it just hits you: it’s just the thickness of the air trying to find some balance, a place where there’s too much pressure looking for a place where there ain’t enough. I remember a long hot day, August or July perhaps, not September, definitely not June. I’d come down from the farm to spend a week or so with Davis’ and Harry had taken Gillie and the boat up to Pensacola for repairs. Phin was off messing around with his pals and I sat with Grace, the Davis matriarch, in the back yard. She wore a long-sleeved cotton frock with little blood stains she’d incurred picking wild artichokes from the upper field. “Tomatoes are dangerous,” Grace winked when she noticed me looking at the tiny smears of red and pink. She asked me about the farm and I told her that the Cobbs had finally earned the ownership through three generations of homesteading but there were leftover liniments of some deeper history; things with Earl and Ramsey were not good though the crops were doing okay and all I could commit to was part time residency and effort. They could have the farm, I choked out an answer to Grace, I’ll just cherry-pick the memories. Then I redirected the inquiry to the nature of the boy. Was Phin uh…okay in this tumultuous world of ours?
“I just can’t say,” was her reply. “Some days I think he’s solid as Gillie, steeled to the strangeness that creeps in on the backs of radio and TV and news. Other days his tenderness scares me to death.”
I looked at Grace, nodded. And this feeling came over me that like many mothers of that time, she’d suffer the ignominy of losing a son to a worthless war. Her skin went a different color and I looked to see if an afternoon cloud had caused the ashen shift. “You all right?” I asked. And Grace tried to stand up as a baby giraffe making her way into a new world.
“Oh, I’m fine, Johnny, just getting these extra thumps in the heart when the weight of it all comes calling. Think I’ll go see a doctor when Harry comes back.” I tried to make her swear to a promise I didn’t know she’d keep. But Grace had held dear that iconography of the repressed women demanding independence from all things, including male doctors. I made a point to ask Jed about any female heart docs on the coast.
# # #
In the beginning of that period of education, maybe ’62 or ‘63, Phin tried hard to keep life from becoming an imposition on us all, even when the wolf had its jaws around his throat. How that was, I would never know. Other times, in a moment’s laughter, that hurt temporarily lifted by the sound of joy, you could see that he had this ability to close the white space between him and those he came in contact with.
I suppose that is what saved him in the end. And maybe the rest of us along with him.
For my part, I’d stopped going out on Harry’s boat so much, only when the weather was fine and he’d been short-handed and was too proud to ask but I knew in any case. The sea just wasn’t in me. Not yet. I‘d help out around the farm up north, take a temporary job operating a machine, sometimes for Jed, and occasionally go on up to Mobile and check on Nadine and her sisters.
Life had not been great to Earl and Ramsey on the farm but I’d made it clear to them that as much loyalty as I had to them and the history of our land, I wasn’t ready to come back full time just yet. Months grew into years, and years into nearly two decades and “yet” came and went. Each seemed to accept my decision but for different reasons. The guilt I felt for leaving them seemed to me a mutual détente with the anger of loosing Ruth. Both lie dormant, not really going away but waiting for a third party to catalyze some long overdue conflict.
In the meantime, I’d found a kind of peace with the Davis family and my years traveling the South as it wrestled with its conscience of oppression. I was not unhappy.
But then Gillie died, the cancer taking her at 26. I was pulled even closer to the boy and what he could do to rescue me from myself.
* * *
There was that time, the day of Gillie’s funeral in the spring of 1970 when the entire world was trying to cool off from too much of itself. Geez’ he loved her. All these people came over to the house to offer their condolences as is the case with funerals and such. Phin was a sad, gracious host, trying to stand tall in the image of his grieving parents, protecting them as best a twenty-year-old kid can, soaking up their own ache. But the pecking order had become mutated; he was no longer a teenager anymore, but the oldest and only. You could tell in what came out of other people’s eyes.
Somebody, told him he looked liked a fine young man, his sister would be proud. But the words sounded too heavy and too real for him. That was the first time Phin fell through a hole in his life. And his childhood became a souvenir.
He told someone who’d paid him a compliment that Gillie deserved to grow young again. That’s what she was aiming for, to knock the hourglass on its side and watch the sand leak out of the broken glass shards. They said he sounded like the old black man he’d been around since birth. I was yet forty-six then and long since smashed my own time-keeping glass.
Phin put his arm around the family friend, pointed across the room in my direction and asked the man how old he would be if he didn’t know how old he was. The friend forced a nod but anyone could tell that he didn’t understand.
And as I watched him from the corner that day, still not old enough to buy a drink, it was as if someone else had told him he had to jump the chasm from twelve to twenty-two, like something else was pried loose with Gillie’s hourglass from her cold hands and thrust it at him.
And the sand gushed down.
Gillie was the old soul, working toward an old salt. At twenty-six and with almost ten long seasons crewing full time with their dad out on the boat, she might’ve lost some of the outward signs of her femininity but inside grew the best from each of her parent’s seed. The sun and salt played heck on a man’s skin. It played hell on a women’s. She’d told me that she felt like Icarus at times, sailing too close to the sun, ignoring her father’s pleas to wear floppy hats and long-sleeved shirts, taking those memories of her mother’s stories about resilient women all the way to the end.
She knew it but was helpless to heed his wishes. The natural elements made her who she was. And in the end, what she no longer was. Grace knew it too, might’ve seen it coming but was equally helpless. Who can deny one’s essence? Chalk it up as naiveté. Write it off as the ignorance of youth. Call it some burden of lineage—Gillie had found herself in her father’s world but was prepared to take it further, into deeper waters for bigger fish that could fight as well as she could.
Phin could not yet see that part out beyond the horizon and into the myth. And then the abyss. He’d taken his mother’s dark Italian skin and would for years try and blame himself for getting the genes that Gillie needed more than him. Where she had grown into the hunter who needed only a thin shield to survive, he had become the soft-hearted, the reluctant survivor who’d spend years chipping off the outside coating that might’ve saved his sister.
And how could I have ever known that he might be a product of all that had happened to me as well as his own family? In trying to prepare him for all that might come his way, the strangeness in my own past might’ve worn off more than a little, like standing under a tall pine to keep out of the rain—always a bit of the tree’s scent will find its way onto your clothes.
How could I have known he’d fallen into my own heart? I only knew that after it started, I had to see it through. All the way through.
Gillie was gone, the Big C had come and swallowed her whole from the outside in. They all thought it was the first and last, a dark blip on life’s radar. How could they know? I felt otherwise because death had touched me, enveloped me. And with it came the burden of knowing, the gift of the deceased. I was sent to the family to deliver a boat. Did I deliver some curse as well?
Harry and Grace had followed Gillie’s wishes to have her ashes scattered, “partly in Mom’s garden, partly out on the Taloosa Shoals where I’d caught my first big tuna with Dad, and the rest just toss downwind and get the hell out of the way.” It wasn’t in any written will, just mentioned after dinner when they’d first come back from the hospital in Mobile and the doctor had told them all she’d have to be tough. This kind of cancer was a known killer.
Harry said that Gillie had laughed, had asked the doctor what was really the difference between a known killer and an unknown killer? If the killer had killed before, somebody would know, even if they were dead. Harry told me that the way she approached the subject had surprised him. She’d always had that old soul; maybe she was born middle-aged and lived out her childhood as a wise woman with a will made strong by something that she’d experienced before she was born. She’d said she’d fight the good fight but if it was apparent that she’d loose, she’d throw the white towel from the corner and save those around her the pain of watching her suffer. In that way, Harry’d said, she was stronger than Phin, stronger than all of them. She was born with the innate understanding of death’s paradigm. The rest of us had to learn it.
That was a rock-hard time for Phin. For many years it was made even harder by his reply to Gillie’s death. But he shaped himself against that stone, shaping all of us with the same chisel.
Nobody could’ve guessed that the soft-hearted kid would avenge her memory by trying to harden his own heart—by going off to a war that they all agreed was wrong.