Memorial Day Weekend. Swimming pools are now open to splashers, the white purses and shoes of my childhood acceptable. I bought a pair of plain white Keds the other day, and they are already dirty, and comfortable. They are meant to last 'til Labor Day.
And here, below the Mason-Dixon Line, the switch for the central air conditioning is turned to ON, until October 1. The Labbies wander outside in the afternoons of 92 degree humid heat, do their business, then scratch on the front door to be let back in the cool.
And the roar of Harleys and big bikes abound on Virginia roads this weekend. It is called Rolling Thunder. It is memory in sound, redemption sought on wheels, a quest to continue to make some sense of it all.
Veterans are everywhere, even in grocery stores. I watched a group from Jersey and Pennsylvania, who silenced loud bikes with simple turns of keys in the parking lot, talking quietly among themselves in the produce department, selecting apples and lettuce, as many people do.
Last year, heading north on I-395, I heard the unmistakable roar of Harleys coming up behind me, and soon was surrounded by many grey-haired Rolling Thunder participants headed toward DC to the annual memorial gatherings. On one overpass sat a Vietnam vet in a wheelchair, holding an American flag. The cyclists around me gunned their Harley engines in unison as we passed under the chap, saluting their comrade.
Loyalty has its own voice. It is that of a motorcycle engine, metal song in search of someone so very far away. The sound of my old man telling his children, "Don't you ever quit." Is that same statement the one so many heard, the sentence that made them sign up, volunteer, end their lives, or survive to return to a land where no one understood them? 'Cause it was a job to be faced, embraced, yet one you came to understand could destroy you. Some voices are silenced young. How old are we when we start to lose our friends? 50? How about at the age of 18, as so many have? It's unfathomable to me.
I remember a man I knew in school, a young fellow trained as a Green Beret, dead set ready to go to Vietnam, only to have the rug of truce sweep the war out from under his feet. "I go down streets at midnight," he told me. "I punch brick walls with my bare fists 'cause I don't know what to do. I've been trained to kill. And I am stuck in a place where I dare not achieve what I have been taught."
That's why there is a roar of cycles in DC the end of every May, and why I continue to listen to that music. The few times in my life when someone has said to me, "I cannot do this any longer. I am moving on," has hurt more deeply than I can ever explain. For to me, this Celt, it is disloyal, but standard issue of the human condition. Whether it be in Laos, or Virginia, or down the street from where you have lived all your life, it is a demise, the experience an end of some consequence to us all. But it is the death of relationship, physical or emotional, that makes us veterans of life. And I, as many, live my life as a first draft and final. No way to edit what has been done.