For the past several years I have taught a weekly class at Indiana University in Bloomington, which is about an hour south of Indianapolis. Bloomington is the prototypical college town, with great food, fun places to eat it–and even a bookstore or two left in which to hang around and peruse everything from postmodernism to true crime. We had a warm winter and spring this year, so even in March I could leave my evening class on campus and pass through quite the high life at the restaurants, bars, and ice cream shops that are everywhere, in every flavor of every nationality. Twenty-somethings (and even early-thirty-somethings): Btown is the place to be, hands down, no questions asked.
One of the more hot of the hotspots is a bar (actually a couple of bars) named Kilroy’s. Lots of booze, lots of munchies, and lots of the hottest of the hot, well-gathered in large groups of very-laughing seas of cream and crimson sportwear (or depending on the weather, less): alums can feel young, undergraduates can feel old, I mean, this is America, right?
I wonder how many who gather there have a clue as to the story behind the mascot, I guess you’d call him: Kilroy himself. Truthfully, I’m on the young end to have much of a clue. I suspect I heard the infamous line somewhere in a cartoon I caught back in the Sixties, who knows, maybe Rocky and Bullwinkle?
“Kilroy was here.”
Kilroy was here. One of the low-brow cultural icons of World War II, graffiti’d around Europe, domesticated in the US on walls and bathroom stalls from Ogunquit to Santa Barbara: Kilroy was here. The symbol of the soldier, the simple guy passing through wherever, just trying to stay out of trouble (or not get caught at it), an ersatz painter’s version of “Hey, Ma, look at me!”
Kilroy and soldiers.
He moved to Indiana with his wife, who had been accepted to an excellent graduate program (not in Bloomington). Neither of them knew a soul there, but soon she was immersed in her studies, making friends. He would meet them on occasion, do his best to be pleasant, supportive. But mostly he stayed home, not doing much of anything.
He had been a combat medic.
I have to admit: my heart skips a beat when I learn that the man or woman in front of me was a combat medic. First, I know that he is sharp as the proverbial tack. I know that she is proud of her service, of what she was able to learn, to make work on the fly, to respond to no matter when, no matter what.
I know what horror they’ve seen, not only with their fellow soldiers and Marines, but with Iraqi soldiers, Afghan villagers, pregnant women, toddlers, old men in the wrong place at the wrong time. They did their job for all of them, for that was their job, and they did it well. Theirs were sometimes–no, I’m sorry, often–the last eyes persons gazed into.
He was no exception.
He’s not gone into much detail with me. He hasn’t had to. One memory haunts him most, a memory I now share with him: the guy who should have known better than to jump where he did, the guy without the legs, the tourniquets, God, now, please make it stop, all the blood, there’s no more time, please. The tourniquets.
Long before he hit the Hoosier state he’d been having the nightmares. The flashbacks had gotten somewhat better. But everything came back with a vengeance with the move, with his being away from anyone he might possibly know, from anybody even remotely military.
He is older than most of the undergraduates. But not the graduate students. And there are a lot of them in his neck of the woods, catching the latest NBA game at the local version of Kilroy’s, laughing over a beer and joke that’s only funny because it’s the third beer, cursing like a sailor–or should we say, a soldier. Over nachos.
“I so rarely get out of the house during the day or evening,” he tells me. “But whenever I do, it’s so hard to see them. Part of me just wants to go up and introduce myself. I could have played softball with those guys, dated some of those girls in high school. But I can’t, I . . . I don’t know what to say. I’ve seen too much. I don’t want to be like this. I don’t blame them, really I don’t. But I just don’t know what to say. When people find out that I went to the war and was a medic, they get all weird. They . . . they try to be nice, but they don’t even know how. They say dumb things, or they get embarrassed when they say dumb things, or . . . they just don’t say anything at all.”
He’s not crying. He’s not staring off in the distance. He’s simply relating his life to me, as if he’s not quite sure what even to say, as if he’s somehow looking for approval to say anything at all, as if he doesn’t want to be too much of a bother, really. I’m almost expecting to hear him say “Permission to speak, sir.” Or maybe “Mother, may I?”
He’s not a vulnerable-looking guy. He’s stocky, still with good military posture, even if his eyes tend to wander downward.
Yet he looks so sad, sad as if he doesn’t want to bother me with how sad he is, sad as if that’s just the way it is, you know, just the way it is. Sad.
I want to say to him that there have to be men and women in that town who will be willing just to hang out, not to talk about anything big or little, down a Killians or even a Bud Light with him (no need to be hoity-toit, after all), pontificate about the Pacers, the Lakers, the Hooterville High-Toppers, the guy across the street who shouldn’t be embarrassing himself in front of the whole world on that ridiculous skateboard of his.
But I know better. He knows better. The guys he played softball with, the girls he dated, the guy on the skateboard, the grad students debating Nietzsche or Warren Buffet: they all know better. His has been the gaze upon which people have last fixated, young people, old people, strong people, weak people.
God, I want to fix it all for him, arrange a few play dates, make sure they don’t run out of chips and salsa.
But I’ve seen his eyes. The eyes that have seen. And it’s just not that easy.