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May 1, 2011

The Valor of Story: Why the Silent Man Fights Alone, by Alan Heathcock

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Award winning short story writer Alan Heathcock, muses on Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, his life, and the value of story.

The day was sweltering, the sky a shimmering white. It was July in Hazel Crest, the town where I grew up, in the southland area of south Chicago. I was nineteen years old, working at a public swimming pool. After my shift, I was to walk to a friend’s house a couple miles away. Coming out of a neighborhood, approaching a highway overpass, I spotted a large man on the walkway ahead of me. This road was isolated, and there was no one else around. Growing up in Chicago, I knew not to look people in the eye, knew to change course if it seemed there was trouble ahead. But I knew this guy. I worked the front desk at the pool, knew everybody. This guy was not a regular, but he’d been there. He smiled at me, and I nodded to him.

“Hey little man,” he said. “You got some money I could borrow. My car’s out of gas and I just need a few bucks to get to work.”

I was no fool. I guessed the man probably didn’t have a car or a job, and for some reason that mattered. “No,” I said. “Sorry, man.”

“Just a couple of dollars,” he said. “I’ll pay you back.”

“I don’t have it. Wish I could help.”

And then, in a blink, he hit me, his huge fist striking the side of my head like a stone on a chain. I fell hard, wheeled in a panic to see him standing over me. I scrambled to get away, but he had my shirtfront and hit me again. His face had changed. His eyes were crazy. I reached into my pockets and thrust the few wadded dollars I had up at him. Then he let me loose. He didn’t run, didn’t look around to see if anyone had witnessed what’d happened. He just walked away.

I walked away, too, holding my busted lip, and just went on to my friend’s house.

I’ve never told this to anyone. Even at the time, I said nothing to my friends, not my parents, certainly not the police. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal. Or I tried to make myself believe it wasn’t a big deal. These things happened. We all took our turn. In fact, I’d been hit before, hit harder. So I just got on with things, went about business as usual.

The money was not missed. The bruise on the cheek faded. What remained was a feeling. It never went away. I feel it now, writing this essay. An anger pointed at the man who hit me, at the world that created him. Anger at myself for not spotting the potential danger. Shame in being beaten down, in not fighting back, in just giving up the money (though that was the right thing to do). Mainly, I feel a heavy sadness, a profound disappointment in the world of men.

All these years I’ve carried this stuff around inside me, its weight a part of how I slog myself around, wary always of who’s standing on the walkway.

When I was nine years old, my Grandpa Heathcock sat me up on his lap and told me a story about a time he was working as a foreman for Sinclair Oil. He said he was driving a one-lane road through the oil fields when his truck came nose to nose with another truck. The road was too narrow, the ditches too steep, for either truck to pass or turn around. One of them would have to back up the way they came. My grandpa said he got out of his truck and told the other driver he was trespassing on company land and had to put his truck in reverse. The man refused. I remember clearly my grandpa balled a big meaty fist and told me, “So I hit that man until he went back from where he came.”

For a long time I thought my grandpa was giving me instruction on the nature of man, on how a man has to stick up for himself, sometimes has to fight. But then an interesting thing happened. Several years after his death I was on a fishing trip with my father and brother. I told them the story of Grandpa’s fight on the dirt road. My brother had never heard the story. My father agreed that he vaguely remembered something like that happening, but never recalled Grandpa ever talking about it. After asking around, I came to realize my grandpa had told only me, and that fact changed my understanding of the telling.

I now see that the story wasn’t a lesson at all. It was a burden. I’m convinced that for the same reasons I’d never told anyone about being robbed by the highway, Grandpa had never told anyone about the incident in the oil field. I’m convinced the reason he told me about the incident was compelled by the likewise impulse I have now in writing this essay.

The other night I was granted the privilege of seeing the first cut of Ken Rodgers’ film, Bravo! Common Men, Uncommon Valor, a documentary about the seventy-seven day siege where 6,000 men faced relentless attacks in the Vietnamese valley of Khe Sanh. These were Marines, the toughest of our toughest, the born warriors. These were some of the best-trained, most tenacious soldiers the world has ever known. The film consisted of interviews, with fifteen survivors talking about their experiences during those seventy-seven days and beyond. What was striking to me, beyond their amazing and often terrifying stories of ambushes, of fox-holes filled with bodies, of soldiers lost and alone on a battlefield, of mortar fire that never ceased, was that for the most part the men had kept these stories to themselves. If you were to meet them on the street, or in the grocery store, or down the pew, you couldn’t glimpse the roil of combat still alive inside them.

One of the Marines, a sharply dressed gentleman in a coat and tie, one of the men I’d wrongly supposed—judging him strictly by appearance—had been able to find his equilibrium after the war, said that even forty years after the fact, each and every morning he pulled his legs out from the bed covers, put his feet on the floor, and heard mortar fire. Bombs. Every morning. Secret bombs. Bombs exploding inside him. Bombs silent to the rest of us.

The highest purpose of story is to give voice to silent bombs. I write so that my grandpa’s pain is not lost to the grave. I write about my own fights so that they don’t sit like stones in the depths of my private shame. Even more profound is the document Ken Rodgers has created with his film, not meant to politicize war, not meant as propaganda to bolster the military, to mythologize the soldier. Ken Rodgers simply allowed his fellow Marines to release the truth, muted for too long inside men whose stories are the foundation of the greater human drama that has always included warfare, from the first hurled stones to the H-Bomb. Silence breeds confusion. Silence enables Hollywood’s trite action-figure nonsense to be peddled to the masses. There’s nothing more noble than the voice that finally breaks the silence, even and especially if the message delivered is one that makes us confront the best and worst of who we are. Who we all are. The message Ken Rodgers’ film delivered was not that war was separate from us, made from some government machine, some blueprint drawn up in a windowless room in the basement of the Pentagon, but that warfare comes from us. We are war. It lives inside us. It is not the violence, but the men, in all their bravery and heroism, in all their shame and demons, in all their pride and tears. And in their silence that is silent no more.

Not long ago my mother sent me pages from the diary of a man named Floyd Barker, a great uncle of mine five generations back. Floyd’s writings covered a lot of subjects, family life, marriages and travel and farming, but there was a passage that shook me awake. It reads: “After passing the present site of Brandenburg, Ky., the party was attacked by Indians and those not killed were made prisoners. It is said that one of the Barker boys tried to escape by swimming the river but was killed in the water and his body caught and the heart taken out and broiled and an effort made to compel his mother to eat it. However, this she refused to do.”

Upon first reading this, after the momentary shock of it, the brutality of the images making me recoil, I felt a deep connection with Floyd, a comfort. For isn’t this the truth of stories—the one Floyd told, the one my grandpa told me, the stories spoken by those brave Marines in Ken’s film, and my own stories, too—that we find, as almost a surprise though it should be obvious, that we are made of the same stuff, are plagued by the same feelings, are bolstered in that we are as much the same as different and by letting our stories be known, by breaking the silence of shame and anger and sadness, we are connecting with the greater fabric of humanity and from that point forward we are unburdened, made lighter, in simply understanding that we are not alone.

Alan Heathcock lives, teaches and writes in Boise, Idaho. He is the award winning author of VOLT. For more information, visit www.alanheathcock.com.