And because I see it this way, I came to hate Bush for taking us into that war. I hated him because the war seemed totally unjustified. And I hated him for the pain he was inflicting on so many good people across the country. I opposed the whole thing, but that didn’t mean I didn’t care about those who had to go do it. One send-off ceremony in particular stuck in my mind. Most of those affairs were pretty similar; they’d decorate the auditorium with lots of flags, some dignified-looking officer would give a rousing speech about the sacrifice being made by the soldiers, they’d read the names of everyone shipping out, and then somebody would sing “Proud to be an American,” or “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserable. Both of them got the same results. Families sat there with tears streaming down their faces.
I usually talked to some of them for my story, and it seemed to me that they knew the reality of this whole awful mess better than the rah-rah, flag-waving Bushes or Bakers or so-called patriots who lined the parade routes. Lots of them admitted their son or daughter, husband or wife, had enlisted because they had few other options for earning a living, or because they intended to let Uncle Sam finance their education when they got out. Time after time, they said, “We never expected him to actually go to war and get killed.” And then they usually started crying, again. I wondered if George Bush really understood the sacrifice these people were making. I wondered if he could still do it, if he knew how much he was hurting them. All for some fucking oil. At that point, I was a long way from the theory my friend on the bench was leading me to.
It was a while before I ran into him again. And I really wanted to talk to him, because the stirrup thing I’d discovered about the Huns seemed fairly promising as at least part of the explanation I was looking for. I was coming out of the grocery store next to the smoke shop when I saw him on the bench—same shirt, same everything, down to the home-style joint he was sucking on. Of course, he’d rolled it to look like a regular smoke, but when I walked up behind him, it wasn’t hard to detect some fairly musty smelling tobacco. I lowered my paper bag to the ground and sat down beside him.
“Remember me?” I asked, to get things rolling.
He turned toward me slowly, spent a few seconds studying my face, and brightened when he recognized me.
“Hell, yes, you’re the guy with the weight of the world on his shoulders. I recall giving you some advice about that. How ya’ doin’?”
This guy made me smile. He reminded me of some of the bigger “heads” I’d known back in college, except that he seemed to be surviving what looked like constant immersion in consciousness-altering substances a little better than my old friends. This guy was mellow, but still pretty much aware of what was going on. My drugged-out friends liked to be around people, and never missed a party, but when they were there they were either looking for a smoke or laughing or eating or all three at the same time. They had basically moved on from casual conversation. Maybe the new generation of pot-smokers has figured out a way to handle it that we didn’t. In any case, the guy next to me was still up for talking.
It had been a while since I discovered the thing about the stirrup, so I wasn’t as cranked up as I was when it first hit me, but when I started telling him about it, I got pretty enthusiastic.
Yeh,” I said, “you told me to take a look at the Huns and Attila and see what they were up to. Pretty interesting guys, by the way. But here’s what came to me as I read about how they turned into this amazing war-making machine.”
I paused for a second, to see if he was paying attention. He looked at me again and raised his eyebrows slightly, which I think for him was a major facial expression.
“And, you found,” he said slowly, like a college professor trying to lead a kid to the right answer. “You discovered,” he said, and left it hanging in the air.
“What I discovered,” I said, “is just a little part of this thing we’re talking about. But, what I discovered is that the Huns probably couldn’t have done any of that stuff if one very simple thing hadn’t happened.”
“Which is what?”
“The iron stirrup. I know that may sound a little goofy, but think about it. This one guy comes up with the iron stirrup, which makes the Huns solid as a rock in the saddle, as they fire arrows from the bows somebody else came up with, and turn into this firestorm that cuts down everybody else around them, and almost even the Romans.”
I was a little breathless after running through the whole litany. “How’s that sound?” I asked, hoping for some confirmation.
He paused a long time, took an extra long toke on his joint, held it for a little while, exhaled slowly, and made a sort of humming sound.
“You know what?” he asked me, but it was a rhetorical question, because he proceeded to answer it right away, adding one of his forefinger wags for emphasis. “I think you’re onto something. What did you say you do for work?”
“I’m a TV news anchor.”
He turned and looked at me again, both eyebrows way up. “And you came up with this, just after reading about Attila and the Huns,” he said, with a fair degree of incredulity in his voice. “I’m impressed that a news schmuck could pull that off. They usually can’t see the forest for the trees.”
I really didn’t know this guy that well, but I was pleased with his reaction. To think I was actually making progress on answering the big question after all these years, was pretty exciting to me. What I had always figured was once you got the thing figured out and understood why people do such awful stuff to each other, maybe you could begin to reprogram them or something, and save a lot of pain and suffering. I was hoping my smoking buddy was going to help me push this thing all the way to the end. I didn’t take his swipe at news people personally; I had long since reached pretty much the same conclusion myself.
“So,” I said, trying to move things along,” is it as simple as that? Just stop people from inventing weapons and get rid of the ones we already have and we’re in for a perfect world?” I waited expectantly.
“Hey, you’re puttin’ a lot of weight on me, my friend. I never said I had it all figured out.” He seemed to sag on the bench. “I just said I was working on it. From a scholarly perspective, I guess I would say you’ve got some good ideas there, but maybe we need more evidence before we can reach any definite conclusion. You got any more examples of the invention leading to the killing?”
“Not right this second, I guess,” I admitted, a little disappointed that he was making me do all the work. I mean, when you’ve been aching over this for decades, you don’t mind if someone else offers to do some of the heavy lifting. Of course, you probably already know that. I don’t mean to talk down to you. If there’s anything that really pisses me off, it’s people who insist on telling you stuff you have already known for God knows how long.
“Well,” he said, slowly standing up, “then maybe we should both give it a little more thought, you know? I’m sure I’ll see ya’ around. I’ve got another six hours going at the university this semester. And this is my favorite study carrel, so we should be running into each other some more. See ya’.” And he ambled across the parking lot toward downtown. I’m guessing he didn’t have a car, but there’s pretty good bus service to campus from Old Town.
“Alright,” I said, staring at his back as he walked away,” you take care and I’ll see you later.” I thought, maybe this guy is more of a pothead than I want to admit. In terms of social skills, he’s a little behind the curve. But what I’ve discovered over the years is that those of us who try to answer questions like this are in for a solitary ride; there just aren’t that many people who need or want to know the answers. When you find someone, whether it’s a blond on a bus or a pot smoker in a shopping mall, it’s worth putting up with a few eccentricities just for the company. I drove home through Old Town, where the speed limit gets up to thirty and even forty, at one point, rather than that twenty-five mile an hour shit by UMaine.