At a time when the specter of war and global violence has yet again reared its head, I’m thinking once more of a strange episode (there haven’t necessarily been a dearth of strange happenings in my life) that occurred a number of years ago when I’d returned home from my undergraduate studies at Indiana University, Bloomington to spend winter vacation with my family in northwest Indiana. One bright, incredibly cold morning a few days after Christmas I decided to take the rather long trek to the nearest public library and spend the afternoon reading. Expecting an uneventful day, I set out into the cold silence of the early winter sunlight. As I approached a busy intersection a few blocks from my house, the shrill voice of a child startled me from across the street and I turned to see a small white terrier bolting toward the road and away from a little girl who trailed hopelessly behind and was, quite literally, just a bit smaller than her dog. Sure that they would both run into the street and perhaps be hurt, I moved quickly to intercept the dog. Crossing quickly to the other side of the street, I put myself directly in the animal’s path, hoping to either catch him or chase him back towards the little girl. As soon as the terrier saw me coming in his direction, he bolted back towards his little owner and into her arms. She carried him into the doors of a nearby apartment building; I laughed to myself and continued on my way.
Not a minute afterward I came upon a man standing in his freshly-tilled front yard holding a large shovel. He was in his mid-thirties, stout, muscular, and utterly imposing despite his medium height. His overalls were caked with mud and his face twisted as he shouted, “Stop in the name of an American citizen!” I froze. “What the fuck are you doing?” he screamed at me. I was astonished. Though at age twenty-one I still found it difficult to stand up for myself (especially in situations involving a stranger wielding a shovel), I nevertheless managed to retort, “Excuse me. I don’t appreciate being talked to like that, sir.” It must have sounded convincingly bold, because when the man shouted, “Get out of the street and come over here!” he sounded less maniacal and more chastising, like a man trying his best to act like an angry father who meant business. I walked over and stood in front of him. “What do you think you’re doing with that little girl?” he sneered. Suddenly I got it—he thought I was a kidnapper, a child molester, or perhaps something even more menacing. I relaxed into my explanation and apologized for speaking angrily at him. The stern expression of masculine authority in his face disappeared, but his pallid eyes didn’t warm. “No, you were right to speak to me that way because you’re an American citizen, too.” Bewildered, I nodded, not knowing what to expect next. He paused and then said, very gravely, “I bet you’re wondering why I’m out here tilling my yard at this time of year.” He explained that he had served in the US Army during Desert Storm. “I was like all the rest of them going in. I thought I was a badass. I was excited to kill people and I killed as many people as I could.” He gestured wildly, imitating the sweep and sound of an automatic rifle. I looked straight into his eyes and tried not to blink. He continued in a voice like an electric wire, high-pitched, buzzing: “But as soon as I came home what I’d done hit me. I mean, I killed those people legally, but that doesn’t mean shit to me anymore. I have nightmares every night to this day, I swear to God. My wife wakes me up during the worst of them, but I still have to sleep with a gun under my pillow. During the day I can’t get the memories out of my head. That’s why I’m digging. It keeps my mind busy.”
He looked around at his work, the stretch of cold black dirt surrounding his tiny white house. When he turned to me again his eyes were full of tears, and his bright blue irises screamed in pain as he fought them back. “What else can I do?” His eyes seemed to beg me for everything—forgiveness, forgetfulness, love. I deal often with words, but at this exact moment I felt that words were useless. I stretched out my hand to him and he took it. We stood there for an eternity, hand in hand, looking at each other without flinching. Then I knew I had to say something—I knew he needed something tangible from me. Without thinking I opened my mouth and what seemed like the right words came instantly. “That’s exactly it,” I began. “There’s nothing you can do to change the past. But you’re a different person today, a completely different person from the man that killed those people. Your memories are all that remain of him. He’s gone.” He looked at me for a while longer and squeezed my hand before he let go. I asked him his name. “My name’s Dan, and if you’re ever in trouble you know where I live. Now go on, get out of here,” he commanded softly, like a father who cannot—must not—allow his son to watch him weep. As I walked away he turned towards the earth with his shovel and began tilling again.
I don’t remember anything else that happened that day, even though I’m sure I eventually made it to the library. Dan has remained with me ever since. We began by viewing each other as enemies and ended up holding hands—a young college student and a broken soldier holding hands together in the brightness of early winter. I give his story to you now because it’s all I can do to relieve the heavy tenderness I still feel for him to this day.
I recall that Thich Nhat Hanh—the great Zen master, poet, and peace activist—tells a story of an anguished American Vietnam veteran who came to tell him how, during the war, he had killed five Vietnamese children. This man, a student of Hanh’s, previously had been told by his mother that this was “nothing to feel bad about,” but the memories of the deaths haunted the man. Instead of offering cloying words, Hanh told the man, “You have killed five children; that is true. But you can save the lives of hundreds of children. Do you know that every day, tens of thousands of children die for want of food and medicine? You can bring food and medicine to some of them.” The man did as Hanh suggested, and, in Hanh’s words, “…the person who, twenty years ago, had killed five children was immediately reborn in the past as someone who saved the lives of twenty children.” Like all of us, Dan had lived many lives. He’d been a young soldier, but the person I met by chance that bitter winter day was a war-ravaged, violence-haunted man who seemed desperate for forgiveness, respite, grace. I wonder if, like Hanh’s veteran student, Dan has been reborn too.
Dan wanted to give me something and had nothing to offer but his protection, his aid—perhaps this was echo of his noblest motivations for becoming a soldier in the first place. He wanted to give me something out of gratitude for our chance friendship, perhaps, but at the time I didn’t think anything I said or did could have relieved his pain even a little. I, too, felt grateful for his friendship, and grateful to glimpse within the suffering person tilling his front yard in the harsh winter air a man who was gentle, concerned with the welfare of others, brave, willing to protect the vulnerable, and—at heart—horrified by war.
Thinking back now, I wonder if my words to him that day had any effect at all. I wish I’d been able to offer the advice that Thich Nhat Hanh offered to his veteran friend. Maybe knowing that one person refused to condemn him for his past gave Dan hope that others would accept him too. Maybe today he is in a mental institution, maybe he is dead. I don’t know; I’ve passed by what I thought was his house so many times since our chance meeting, but I’ve never seen him again. I’d like to see him again, I’d like to ask how he’s getting on, if he’s doing better, if he’s found some meaning in, some respite from, the pain that he experienced as a soldier. I want to tell him I hope he’s happy, that I’m grateful he told me his story. The only thing I can do now is to pass his story on and remember the moment of tenderness that passed between us—a moment of understanding, of spontaneous compassion, in the hopes that it will illuminate the lives of others who might choose his path—or might choose otherwise, if they only knew. Share this Post
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