It didn't begin well.
Alexa awoke me from a deep sleep that began somewhere around 1:30 AM. It was only 5 1/2 hours later, and I sweated through my blankets. That feels ok underneath them, but when you pull them off you, the chill is annoying and gross. I didn't have on either watch or fitbit. My voice was too croaked and dry for Alexa to reckocgnize me ask for the time. By the time I managed to keep warm and dry off and get out of bed, 27 minutes had elapsed. The shower water was still cold 5 minutes later and Doc was due by at 8. Or maybe he meant to meet me in Westwood at that time.
The 405 Northbound was mostly empty. A few speeding convertible Mustangs zoomed past on my right. Doing 70 mph right at LAX made me think more about my novel that I have begun again in earnest. That 405, 50 years in the future will be this empty for the reasons of collapse. I'm thinking about whether or not I should have the bridges across them crushed to the pavement, or still standing, walled off to through traffic. I'll figure it out. Doc is waiting in Westwood at Gayley and Kinross. Or at least that was his text 15 minutes ago. I had to get gas and Red Bull.
There is only one entrance to the Los Angeles National Cemetery. I had driven by it hundreds of times, and now it was time for me to go in. I didn't realize there was only one so if it looked like I was getting out of the long line of cars on the right only to merge ahead of them from the opposite direction, I didn't mind them thinking so. After all, my brother Doc was waiting and I felt late. I made some negotiations with the man waving traffic. As I drove into the 117 acre facility with its 88,000 plots I think of how easy it would have been for all of my brothers and I to have joined up. Pops was USMC. We lived that life of discipline and purpose at home. We were drilled. We all have that deep within us. I say 'we all' as if my other two dead brothers were here today. What are the chances that four boys make it alive? I parked the truck in the second queue of parked cars, behind the Challengers of the Challengers club. I step out of the door and collapsed sobbing.
It took about 100 yards of a slow walk to finish crying. I'm still not finished, but at least now I am breathing normally and these are only somber tears. These are the tears of recognition, the tears of pity for the sadness of humanity. I want to finish my weekend with a clean bedroom, but I remain melancholy, and only the need to share a personal reflections takes me away from the bitter muse of my dystopian future. I need a stinger to start, and the book I'm now reading reminded me of 9/11. So the paragraph came, finally thinking of the end of all things.
Collapse comes quickly and slowly at the same time. Nobody is prepared for it because they’ve survived all the near misses, but everybody sees it coming. Everybody gets used to being frightened for a time, bleating all of their emotions out to everyone for two or three weeks and being sensitive for a year. Finally, nobody in your family gets H1N1. Nobody in your town suffers a school shooting. You move on ready to be outraged at the next outrage, sure you know which political partisans, ethnic minorities or religious fundamentalists were behind the conspiracy. All near misses are like two semi trucks speeding in opposite directions on a dark desert highway in the middle of the night. They allow you to survive and curse the idiot on the other side. You tell the story of rage in the next roadside rest. People give you comfort. Disaster is just matter of inches this way or that. Nobody survives the head on collision and nobody knows to look until the next day. Collapse is when everybody dies on the highway between towns, and then the towns go dark. Sometimes a stranger happens to cross an intersection full of bones, blood and twisted metal. He picks through the wreckage to find out what happened. Sometimes the stranger just escaped another wreck and keeps on stumbling forward without a second glance. After the plague and collapse of 2037 it took years to sift through the carnage of humanity. People who lost everyone and everything tried to keep walking forward, but they always looked backward over their shoulder.
That ought to hold your monkey ass, you bitter muse.
Doc and I bore up during the 200 minute procession of speeches and gratitude and heartfelt applause. It was the most strange incongruity to see a crowd of hundreds in a city of millions to pay tribute to several thousands. We were all a tiny minority trying desperately not to cry and get choked up. Trying not to sound too pretentious or obsequious. There was only one standing ovation given, to the two dozen diplomats from Argentina to Korea to Turkey who showed up today with wreathes to this, the second largest military cemetery in America, the third largest in the world.
We looked for our uncle Phil Thomas who we were pretty sure went to Korea. We found a Phillip Thomas who was in spot 319, but couldn't find the plaque. There is a kind of self-serving conceit to these kinds of tributes. It ought to be common sense and common practice, and when you discover yourself outnumbered by indifference and BBQ ribs, you feel so very out of place. Yeah I was there. So what? The dead were really there. But it could have been me. It could have been you, forgotten and taken for granted like so many lives are. When the trucks don't collide, it's just another headache for beer. And yet there they were, that special contingent from Korea, and the 100 year old veteran who translated for the American diplomats for the signing on the USS Missouri on September 2, 1946. There may or may not be a Korea Summit, but the Koreans were here in force today, more than any other foreign contingent. We may just miss. We may just hang on. We might look over a crowd of a few hundred Americans when we are 100 years old, when everybody we know is dead, and these are the remembering remnants.
So those in charge of reminding us to remember pulled very gently at our better angels. One surgeon talked about being the youngest doctor around when the Scud missile landed. One veteran talked about what it's like to deliver the folded flag. So we all bore up under the sun and the clear blue empty sky with our silent tears, remembering what nobody wants to remember even though we often ought to, compelled by those who testified that they can never forget, even if they wanted to. It's never graceful to stumble forward. It's never comforting to look backward over our shoulders, even when we see nothing. And when it came time for the man in the denim shirt and white beard to sing Lee Greenwood's song, the PA system broke down and he belted it out a capella. Sometimes you don't get accompanied. You just hope somebody stands up next to you.
The horn from taps sounded far away. The flyover was nowhere in sight. The cannon fired off the salute and it felt almost like closure. We walked past a hundred graves to our cars and the grass was thick, impeding us from speeding on our way. The small flags stood and the carnations lay flat parallel to the bottom edges of each marker. An army private from Oklahoma. A man named Alvarez who died in 1973. Nothing about the order and symmetry of the marble straightens out the road of memory. It goes from history to a personal thought to an assessment of a nation's sins and sorrows. They say war destroys the things it is fought to preserve. Peace also destroys the memory of what it costs to achieve. So we stand between a clumsy earnest desire for order and the fact that chaos inevitably leads us back into the tragic circle. And we'll always be prepared, and we'll never be ready.
I returned to my truck and the planes flew by. An ancient roar.