Friday, December 31, 2010
Church of Lost Hats Sample Chapter
A Tender Gale
"Make us to choose the harder right than the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won."
From the West Point Cadet Prayer
“Long you must suffer, knowing not what,
until suddenly out of spitefully chewed fruit
your suffering's taste comes forth in you.
Then you will love almost instantly what's tasted. No one
will ever talk you out of it.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
It was a rainy September day at
West Point, and I was living a nightmare. I sat in my room in Eisenhower Barracks with my head in my hands. I was confined to barracks again because I had failed my Saturday uniform and rifle inspection. The cadre had gathered around my M-14 rifle like sharks after chum, peering down the shaft of my rifle, zeroing in on my unworthiness as a cadet. Their looks of disgust had been so dramatic and fatherly in their awfulness; they weren't even playing it up like they do sometimes. I had not measured up. I was not squared away.
The funniest part was I felt like laughing at them, at myself, at the Academy. I knew I was losing it big time, letting the old dream slip through my fingers, ready to laugh at the boy who had driven me to this hell without haven. I was marching and bracing even in my dreams and restless sleep; not squared away for the inspection of my soul.
I got up from my desk and the rifle I had been sentenced to clean on Saturday while the Army football team played Holy Cross at Michie Stadium. Tailgate parties, a few brews, actually talking to girls who don't wear Army uniforms. Not for me today. Cadet Geary was deep in the dog house.
I stood in front of my sink and mirror and looked at my reflection. My crew cut made me look like a holocaust survivor, not a war hero, or a warrior in peacetime. The scar on the back of my head was visible, and I had made up a story about hitting my bedpost while rough housing with my sister as a kid. That's why I have the scar, not because of some tumor.
I looked at the grey uniform with the black stripes, and I looked like a cross between a priest and a bellboy. I frowned at the bellboy for his shoddy service. Someone ought to fire this guy. With my haircut all I could see was the boy with cancer. Not a man, not a cadet. Certainly not an Army officer. Just a sick kid, a little boy running from himself and his fears. I stared at the haunted brown eyes, and I saw in my presence a spark, a flash of recognition, that wanted to tell me the whole truth. What was it? What was I missing that was as close to me as my own hands?
There was a sharp knock on the door: A pistol-like report of paranoia. Gestapo knock. It was someone to mess with me, one of my buddies in the Hitler youth.
I snapped to attention as the door opened: Cadet Crossman. Inside I relaxed, but I gave him all my respect. He was a good person, an upperclassman, but not so uptight, like the assholes who believed every little detail in your day could have won the Vietnam War. From the first day, Reception Day, Cadet Crossman had been kind to me. He had blonde hair that he wore as long as possible and grey eyes. He never yelled at the plebes when he made corrections; he said things quietly so no one else could hear. I would follow him into battle. I would follow him into the fire.
"How's the rifle coming, Geary?"
"It's going ok, sir. Your cleaning kit helps a lot. Thanks."
He waved off my thank you with his left hand. The rifle lay across my desk, and Cadet Crossman picked it up and stared down the barrel. It was much shinier now. I thought of him blowing his brains out as he stared down the dark barrel.
"Much better. You can't call attention to yourself in inspection like that. Now those guys will be looking for you to screw up."
"Sir, how come you're not at the game?"
"I'm reading some poems," he smiled. "Plus, this isn't exactly Army-Navy. Holy Cross is getting pasted by the good guys in black and gold."
"What are you reading?"
I grimaced as I forgot the "sir" punctuation. More than anyone, Crossman was my superior. But the rules of language at
West Point could drive you crazy pretty fast. Yes sir; no sir; no excuse, sir; sir, I do not understand. Those were the four responses we were allowed. The last one was my personal favorite, and I tried to use it as often as possible. It could drive an upperclassman off the deep end by trying to explain himself more clearly.
"I'm reading Emily Dickinson," Crossman said. "I'm giving a presentation on her understanding of death and God. Iconography, feminine imagery, that kind of stuff. But I'm not getting it exactly."
English Literature was the rarest of majors at
West Point. It really was still an engineering school like in the 1800s. But if literature were a window into human nature, what better major for a man who would have to lead men into battle? Crossman was on the right track. He was also the middleweight boxing champion of the regiment. Not even the tactical officers would mess with him, he was so squared away.
I shuddered as I realized he was beautiful. Not handsome, though that's what people would call him.
"Sir, what is it? I might be able to help."
He gave me a quizzical look and walked over to the window and looked at the dark river flowing by. It was a wonderful view of the
. The window was my favorite part of Hudson West Point. If the fun kept up, I might have to jump out of it.
"I don't understand the dashes, the hyphens she uses. It's really neurotic."
"They're not dashes. Or hyphens."
He turned from the window and looked at me. God, he was in shape, I thought, as he stood there looking not anything like a bellboy. He was a warrior, something I would never be.
I was a sensitive.
"They're stitches," I told him.
"It's her secret. Some writers use painting as their motif as they write; it really opens things up in the narrative style. Virginia Woolf and Hemingway both thought of writing as painting, giving vision. Emily is instead stitching. Soul stitches as she brings patterns in words together. The death poems, I think, suggest that she is making her own shroud."
"How do you know that?"
"Sometimes the simplest things are the hardest to see, sir. I've never met a teacher who understood the stitches. But once you know they're there, you can't miss them."
"You're a real trip."
"Yes, sir. Been that way roughly since birth."
I caught my own eye in the mirror again, and it suddenly came to me. The vision. For a split second, my cadet uniform was a priest's, and my grey tunic was black. In another flash the collar was white not black, a blink of an eye showing the future. Kindness washed over me.
My eyes filled with tears.
Crossman crossed the room to my closet, and my eyes followed him. I wiped the tears away as fast as I could. My closet was not squared away, though my roommate’s looked great. He was at the football game. I frowned as Crossman passed his hand over my uniforms absently.
"Geary, you're a terrible cadet. I mean, you're not really into this little program we got going here at old
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to leave."
He didn't say anything. He didn't seem surprised.
"How come?" he finally asked, probably out of genuine curiosity.
"I have cancer," I blurted out. Interesting slip.
"I mean I had cancer. When I was a boy. I've tried to forget it by coming here, but it's everywhere. From the mist on the parade ground in the morning. To the feel of the uniforms, down to the stitches. It's always on the river, the ghost on the surface, the angel on the water. The way I smell too. It's in my eyes in the mirror. I lied on my medical history."
Honor violation in this tribe can just about kill you.
"I figured something big messed you up. But you remind me a lot of me when I got here."
I held my breath. How could a skinny kid from
remind Crossman of anything? He watched my surprise and smiled. California
"A lot of time in the weight room, Geary. Give it a try some time, you little shit."
"What kind of cancer was it?" he asked after a pause between us.
"Bone cancer, sir."
"Knock the sir stuff out. If you're going to resign, I guess I can recognize you now. My name's Ben."
He held out his hand. Recognition came in June, but it was coming early this year for the Californian. I shook his hand, and his grip was firm. I thought he would have tried to talk me out of quitting, but the opposite was happening. I decided to tell him the whole story.
"There was a woman."
He straddled my chair after turning it wrong ways.
"There's always a woman," he said with a smile.
"Her name was Gail. She was my friend's mom. We were swimmers. She had leukemia when I had cancer."
I continued. "After swim practice, she would take my hand. Chemotherapy shots are given here."
I pointed to the back of my hand just above the wrist.
"After a treatment, a bruise would come up.
Plum colored, pretty dark sometimes. Then they switch your hands for the next shot. Gail would massage my hands, the bruise, away with her fingers. She never said what she was doing, and I never asked. I loved Gail, though I hardly knew her really, just her tender touch. She died about the time my cancer went into remission. She was an angel to me. She's still with me, in me."
I stopped talking and looked into the window of his eyes.
"She taught me what it really means to be strong, but I forgot the lesson. Not like the B.S. here."
"Do you like it here?" I asked out of the blue.
"Hell no," said Crossman.
"What keeps you here?"
"I'm a soldier. It's in my blood."
I nodded. Crossman was a warrior to the core.
"What are you going to do, Nick?"
I didn't even know he knew my first name. I took a deep breath. It was strange to say the words out loud for the first time.
"I'm going to be a priest. It's in my blood too. I guess I moved three thousand miles to figure that out that little secret, to stitch my past and future together. I've always known somewhere deep down inside, but Gail seems to have righted things again, smoothed the bruise away. This time at West Point."
"A priest, huh? Be a damn good one."
His hand found mine, and we shook for a long moment, the hands firm. Ben held my hand with both of his. Over the same spot near the wrist. Gail had touched my hands again through Ben Crossman, and I would become a man in her image. Gale and the Holy Spirit seemed to be a third presence between us in that moment. Something strange was in the room with us, and I'm sure Ben felt it too. I had goose bumps. Looking into Ben's grey eyes, I realized his strength was feminine as well, deep down inside, the interior presence. It's funny what you can find when you're trying to be manly and strong at West Point on a rainy football Saturday.
The cadet boxer with soldiering in his blood smiled as he spoke the secret words between us.
"The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that kicks the ass."
Ben let go of my hand at the soft spot, turned slowly, and left my room. He swaggered down the hall, my image of the tender warrior forever.
"Sweet cancer," I said to myself and the gale I knew was blowing down the