Truthout offers an excerpt from John Cory’s book, “An IED on the Yellow Brick Road.”
A Note From the Author
Over the years I have written sparingly about my war experiences, and I’ve talked about it even less. The reasons are varied, but most significantly, perhaps, is that those experiences are among the few things I truly own in this life. I believe we veterans must own our pain and pride of serving in the terrible, sweet beauty that is war. That ownership is our salvation.
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I have never accepted the urban legends about war or veterans, or the portrayal of veterans as victims. I can never accept that there is always money for war but not for surviving war. I hate the acronyms and labels – such as Agent Orange, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), military sexual trauma (MST), traumatic brain injury (TBI), caregiver – that are used so glibly to anesthetize and categorize human trauma.
My book, “An IED on the Yellow Brick Road,” began in the whispers of night with the question: What if the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion were veterans lost on the yellow brick road home from war?
About this time, my good friend Christopher Gaynor opened a photo exhibit with the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Museum: “Home of Record: One Soldier’s Story,” which inspired the setting for this story.
So, I gathered my characters together one night in a room much like Chris’s “Home of Record” exhibit, and then I let them loose. As any writer will tell you, characters have a life of their own and the best you can do is just hang on for the ride.
My thanks to all of you readers and especially to Truthout for their support.
The Walking Wounded
It’s just Coop and James now.
Both men glance around the room to avoid eye contact.
“Guess I’ll be on my way,” James says.
“When Reid puts food together, it’s usually enough to feed a dozen people. Besides, it’s after seven and I’ll bet you haven’t eaten for a while either,” Coop says.
“That’s okay,” James says. “I’m not that hungry.” He starts to leave.
“So, you just got out? Of the Army, I mean,” Coop says.
“Iraq?” Coop asks.
“How many tours?”
James shrugs again and searches the walls as he moves closer to the photos.
“You take all these?” James asks.
“You must really like dead trees.” James keeps his focus on the photographs.
“They’re not dead. Not all of them anyway,” Coop says.
“What kind of trees are they?”
James moves along a row of photographs.
“Never heard of them. They look dead. All twisted and gnarled up. Kinda like bones or fossils, huh?”
Coop moves off a step or two, keeping a distance between them.
“That’s the result of wind and ice and sand,” Coop explains. “A bristlecone only grows in places where it’s harsh and barren and where none of the other trees can grow. High elevation. Little water. He survives where nothing else can.”
“I did three tours,” James says. He moves deeper into the house and farther away from the door. “How old do you think these trees are?”
Coop maintains his distance.
“They can live for 5,000 years or more.”
“Get out of here,” James says. “You serious?”
“Serious as a heart attack.”
“I knew redwoods could live about 700 years and some of those huge sequoias in California last a couple thousand years.”
“That’s Methuselah. He’s more than 4,800 years old.” Coop nods at one particular photo.
“You name them?” James asks.
“Scientists named him a long time ago. There used to be an older tree they called Prometheus,” Coop says.
“Like the guy who stole fire from the gods.” James concentrates on one of the photographs. “You said ‘used to be.'”
“Guess you could say they stole Prometheus from the gods. Cut him down around 1964.”
“Why’d they do that?”
“Some researchers broke their coring tool and everyone was in a hurry to finish their field study before winter set in, so they got permission to cut him down and take him with them so they could learn more.”
“How’d they break a coring tool?”
“Survival is tough up there. Bristlecone grows beaucoup layers of wood that gets real hard in order to protect itself from all the elements. After thousands of years it’s as hard as iron, maybe harder. You’ve gotta have something strong to drill down to the core of a Methuselah or a Prometheus, and chances are he won’t let you get very far without breaking a drill bit or two.”
“So they destroyed a bristlecone to save the bristlecone?”
“Something like that,” Coop says.
“They all look so lonely, like bony fingers trying to hang onto the sky,” James says.
“Redwoods share their root systems with one another and grow real close together so they can hold each other up. That’s how they get to be 200 feet tall. A bristlecone is different. He never gets more than about fifty or sixty feet tall. He grows where no one else can live so he has to keep his roots close to himself and close to the surface to catch what little nourishment falls his way and make the most of it. And he has to learn to grow real slow and hard and stand on his own in a world bent on destroying him.”
There is a long moment of silence.
Reid appears in the kitchen doorway.
“Why are you making the poor kid stand, Coop? Let him sit down for crying out loud. James, loosen your tie and make yourself at home. Would you like some coffee or a beer or something?”
“Thanks, but I should really be going now,” James says.
“You’ll hurt his feelings if you leave now, and I’ll be stuck with the aftermath. Come on, just a beer,” Coop says.
“Don’t pay any attention to him. No one ever does. Everything’s almost ready,” Reid says. “At least stay for a bite of food.”
James focuses on Reid’s earnest face. It’s full of kindness.
“Free food and free beer,” Coop says. “It doesn’t get better than that.”
“A beer would be great, thanks,” James says.
“One beer coming up,” Reid says as he ducks back inside the kitchen.
“Me, too!” Coop hollers.
Coops waves James over to the leather chairs as he sits down and props his feet up on the coffee table.
James sits and loosens his tie just a little.
“What kind of work you do?” Coop asks.
“I specialize in looking for work,” James chuckles.
“Tough market,” Coop says.
“Well, at least they’re nice and recognize what I did. Like the guy today who shook my hand, and said, ‘Thank you for your service.'”
“Thank you for your service? What are you, his goddamned waiter for fuck sakes?”
“He was trying to be patriotic and supportive.”
“They’re always patriotic and supportive as long as it’s you and not them.”
“Embrace the suck,” James says.
“Don’t mean nothin’,” Coop says.
Reid enters and hands them their beers. He turns to James.
“I’ve just fixed a light fare, some cold cuts and veggies. Do you like spicy mustard, regular mustard, or plain mayonnaise?”
“Spicy mustard, please.”
Reid heads back to the kitchen as Coop hollers after him.
“Don’t worry about me! A little mold or a buttered dust bunny will be fine, thanks!”
“Okay, I’ll check under the fridge then.” Reid yells back from the kitchen.
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” Coop says to James.
They both take a swig of beer as Coop nods over his shoulder in the direction Didj went.
“What do you think about her? She’s a bundle of problems on legs, huh?”
“Acts like a walkie-talkie,” James says.
“Walking wounded. Said she’s had her Go-Bag since the war, so I figure she was in Iraq, maybe Afghanistan and got blown up or something,” James says. “Maybe TBI, traumatic brain injury. Seen a lot of guys like that.”
“Haven’t we all,” Coop says.
The two men lift their beer bottles in toast at each other as they take a big swig of beer.
“Bet your mom is happy you’re home.”
“I suppose. She can’t stop hovering over me,” James says. “I mean, it was my third tour, not like it was the first time ever.”
“Hover and smother, that’s what moms do,” Coop says. “She’s probably relieved that three was the charm and now you’re out.”
James shrugs. There’s something lurking underneath that shrug.
“What about your dad?” Coop asks.
James chuckles. “He can’t stop hauling me down to his bowling league or favorite bar and letting everybody know I’m a real veteran. And then everybody buys us a round so then I gotta tell a war story, you know, to pay for the free drinks, and he gets all puffed up and his friends all pat him on the back like he was the real veteran, not me.”
“You make that sound like a bad thing,” Coop says.
“It’s not that,” James says. “It’s just, they’re a bunch of civilians. They don’t know shit about being a soldier, or combat.
Coop nods and lets the moment linger.
“You afraid of being a civilian?”
James stiffens. “I’m not afraid. I just don’t trust civilians.”
“Civilians are everywhere. What other choice do you have?”
“I’m thinking about re-enlisting,” James says.
A long pause passes.
“Sometimes I think I’m not cut out to be a civilian. You know? Some guys aren’t,” James says. “Buddy of mine went Blackwater six months after he got out. Couldn’t stand the civilian world. Now he’s making $10K a month using his military skills. I can’t even get a warehouse job. At least the Army is simple. Someone’s always got your back and all you have to focus on is the mission. You know where you belong.”
Reid enters with fresh food and fresh beer. He sets it all on the coffee table with a glare at Coop.
“Don’t be so rude, get your feet off the table.”
“Geez, I was just relaxing,” Coop says.
“That’s not relaxing, that’s slouching,” Reid says.
“Okay dad, I’ll be good from now on.” Coop says.
Reid sticks his tongue out at Coop.
James shakes his head with a little snicker.
“You’re not a people person, are you?”
“I swore off people a long time ago,” Coop says.
Didj bounces into the room from the hallway, Go-Bag in one hand and dirty clothes under her arm. She is all wet hair and freshly showered energy.
“Where’s the laundry room?”
Reid takes the bundle from Didj and maneuvers her to the couch.
“I’ll take care of it, you sit down and eat something.”
“Are you sure? I know how to do laundry,” Didj says.
“No worries, I’ve got it,” Reid insists. “Sit. Eat. Relax.”
“That beer looks good,” Didj says.
“You think you should be drinking after everything you’ve been through?” Reid is concerned.
“Oh hell, I always drink after I’ve passed out!”
Reid shakes his head and exits with the laundry bundle.
Didj sits. Props her Go-Bag tight against her leg and the couch.
“Nobody’s going to steal your bag,” James teases.
“Got that right,” Didj shoots back.
Didj grabs a handful of sandwich, takes a huge bite, chews fast and swallows with a big swig of beer. She takes another huge bite and short chews with a beer chaser, followed by a loud burp.
“Good chow,” Didj says.
Coop and James watch in amusement as she digs in.
“You mentioned the war and the VA. You a vet?” Coop asks.
“Only half-assed according to the VA, but yeah, I did time in the Sandbox, two tours. And now I’m just trying to survive.”
“How do you survive if you don’t know where you live?” Coop asks.
“That’s two questions, isn’t it? Where do I live? And how do I survive?” Didj replies.
“Oh this ought to be good,” James says as he passes fresh beer to everyone.
“Did I already say I don’t like you?” Didj says.
“Oh yeah, loud and clear. Five by five,” James says.
“Let her talk,” Coop says.
“Roger that,” James says.
“Sometimes I stay at the Mission down in Pioneer Square when they have an opening, and I know a couple of people up around the University District that let me couch surf in their dorm or apartment. I have to stay on the move for now ’cause I don’t have a place of my own yet, and I try not to overstay my welcome or be a bother see, and then I met this nice lady on the ferry a couple weeks back and she let me stay in her guest house here on Vaseline Island – “
“Vashon,” Coop corrects her.
“Vashon Island,” Coop says.
“You said Vaseline Island,” James says.
“Whatever,” James says.
“Keep going,” Coops says.
“Where was I? Oh yeah, so I met this nice lady and that’s where I was going, only I lost my sticky notes stuff with her address, and then all these trees and houses kinda look alike and I got all confused, and that’s when I came here.”
“Why here?” Coop asks.
“I saw that extra building you got out there and figured that might be a guest house and maybe you were the place I’d been before and if not, then maybe you’d let me crash out there.”
“So, you’re homeless,” James says.
“I’m not homeless! I’m just residentially challenged.”
“What about your family?” Coop asks.
“It was just me and my dad and he passed away two years ago. Took sick and lost his job and the house and everything. My brain don’t function good and I couldn’t keep a job let alone a house so – all gone.”
“What about the VA? Don’t they have housing facilities for women vets?” Coop asks.
“Oh sure. And waiting lists to go with them. Just like compensation benefits. I mean, the VA says fill out this form and that form and wait. How long? I ask. Ninety days, they say. That was like seventeen months ago. Still no disability. And female housing is really backed up. They tell you right up front it will be six to nine months, so don’t hold your breath.”
Didj lets out a giant, championship-quality belch of a burp.
James nearly chokes on his beer.
“Goddamn, woman that was awesome!”
Reid has been standing at the kitchen entrance listening and breaks out in laughter as he brings fresh beer and chips for everyone.
“Have some more fuel for the fire,” Reid says.
“What do you do for food and money?” Coop asks.
“Mostly fly the sign,” Didj says.
“Fly? What?” Coop and James speak in unison.
Didj unzips her Go-Bag and retrieves a folded piece of cardboard.
She moves behind the couch and faces them as she unfolds and holds up her sign.
“Fly the sign. See?”
The sign reads: VETERAN WILL WORK FOR PEACE – MEAL.
James shakes his head and points at the sign.
“You spelled it wrong. It should be ‘P-I-E-C-E.'”
Didj beams with a huge smile and points back at him.
“See! Someone almost always stops me and says that, and you know what I say back? I say, ‘No sir or No ma’am – I’m working for a little peace of mind and a meal to go with it. And you know what? They laugh at me and end up giving me a couple a bucks or buying me a burger. Makes them feel good and patriotic.”
“You are nuts,” James says.
“I may be nuts, but I’m not crazy. People want to feel good, and if you help them feel good and make them feel like a patriot to boot, well hell, you don’t go hungry for long in this country.”
Coop raises his beer in toast to Didj.
“Let’s hear it for ingenuity and good old-fashioned American guilt.”
“Support the troops!” Didj toasts back.
“Hooah!” James confirms.