Unleashing a Memory…

vet (3)The first time I saw someone slit his wrists, I was on the edge of a barracks bed about three feet away from the slow ooze of dark red blood. I was an Army draftee, June 1969, nearing the end of day one of basic training. I don’t remember his name. He was a soft looking guy with dark stubbles on his head and hallowed eyes that made him look unhealthy. His face went a ghoulish pale right in front of me.

The three sergeants who had been screaming at us for the past hour descended on the victim like hungry raptors. They took the razor, put a white t-shirt around his wrists—both were cut– and carried him out in seconds, as if they’d done this before. That’s what I remember best—that it was pro forma. This is war. Some of you will die. For what? We never got to that part.

Crosses in the Forest

Crosses in the Forest

I stood in an alpine forest last week with the sun behind me, its light filtering through giant fir trees that formed crosses on a grove of ferns in front of me. Other people might have focused on the bright green fronds escaping the dark shadows, but I saw shadow crosses because religion, for better or worse, has been part of my life.

In this fern grove I went back 40 years ago to an interview I did with an eye doctor who worked with poor kids, the ones who didn’t know that wood to build houses comes from trees—they only knew concrete. He said they don’t see what we see because their world was confined to apartments, sidewalks, police sirens and images on TV. I later guided teenagers from an inner city through a California redwood forest. They didn’t know about the tree to house routine. But they savored the sound that wind makes and the low light courtesy of trees that towered over them. Their senses were on fire, eager and excited.

The joy of this long ago moment was tempered by something else I saw in this fern grove: the crosses of war from 9/11, the crisis in the Middle East and all the troops we’ve lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cross that once stood for “he died for our sins” has become a tragic marker for nameless lives lost—and that’s what I see, Mr. Eye Doctor.