The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Archive for November, 2019

Grief and gratitude


For most of us, when some tragedy enters the news cycle we read it, and before long we move on.

ARA San Juan, S-42

And that is how it should be, I suppose.  We can’t all embrace the totality of traumatic impact.  It would be good to let these things go, to relegate that knowledge to the bin of things about which we simply say, “but life goes on”.

Healing matters.

But that doesn’t mean we should adopt an inward indifference to the trauma around us.  Because many of the people around us cannot, even if they wanted.  And this affords us, the distant observer, to use our UN-traumatized abilities to do some small thing to ease the journey of the hurt ones, whose remaining life experience is unwillingly colored with painful memories, or dysfunctional processing of the world around us.

I would imagine most of us have some thing that has happened that gives us the ability to empathize to some small degree, if we wish to.    And in empathizing, we can open the door back into society for people who suddenly don’t feel welcome there, who can’t fully understand what has gone wrong with themselves, who are embarrassed and ashamed sometimes by their own odd behaviours and reactions.

It would perhaps seem odd to suggest that an average person could empathize with those things connected with the loss of a submarine.  To be able to feel the tension of losing the means of returning to the surface – no propulsion, no hydraulics, and conditions that prevent using the emergency blow system – if you haven’t been there, the imagination has a hard time recreating that feeling.  A few of us have, and can.  But there are still aspects that anyone can relate to in some degree.

The ARA San Juan, S-42, of Argentina was lost two years ago about this time of year, under mysterious circumstances at the time, without notice, without message, without a trace.  44 men and women seemed to the rest of us to have just ceased to exist.  But those 44 people were not islands to themselves.  While the news focused on the search for a few weeks, most of the world went back to doing what they were doing after the search was called off.

But down there in a remote part of the world, 44 families – mothers and fathers, children, brothers and sisters – all still proud of the accomplishments of their sailor – looked in vain at the place where a face should be, and was not.  Perhaps they always will.  A community of consummate professionals will always see an empty spot on the pier where a boat should be pulling in and out periodically, a blank spot where something about the skills and efforts of their profession failed, a little patch of doubt that niggles in the back of the mind, and at test depth rattled like a saber.

And across the globe, there are other families of other nations doing the same thing.  Children going through life with an unspecified fear of the unknown, communities stained with loss, and doubt, and a sense of failure.

It isn’t important that this be about submarines.  There are as many types of tragedies as there are people, I suppose, each with something unique in their patterns of grief and trauma.  But the more we can observe and remember, the sooner we can begin to see ways to connect in the common things, to reassure those uniquely hurt that there is still humanity in them. We who can respond without being overwhelmed can offer an acceptance back to humanity for those who struggle.  Regardless of the nightmares that yanks them awkwardly awake from their sleep, despite the unnatural reactions to daily life that confuse and sometimes hurt those around them, despite the guilt of having lived by virtue of luck, or the shame of some small factor that suddenly seems like the one mistake – something that should have saved them – we can offer the promise that they are still human.

Here in America, we have a day to relive the joy of Thanks.  We get out of practice, so it is good to remind ourselves of our humanity.  It started as little more than nervous smiles of survivors, celebrating little more than another breath, another heartbeat, another sunrise.  And perhaps that’s all this Thanksgiving of ours should be.  In the midst of feasts, and the touch of family, maybe the real celebration should be had by exposing ourselves to the host of traumas we have shared as a species.  Maybe we should take a moment to gaze into the eyes of a troubled child, or a haunted soldier, to hold the hand of a terminal old codger staring into the grave, to see through their eyes what brings them fear and self-doubt, and lift them back into their humanity.  We should do this not to gloat about our own relative comfort, nor to brag about how much we may have experienced, but to reconnect mankind in whatever small way we have been afforded, whether it be by circumstance or providence.

We each here are survivors of something.  

A friend of mine has set up a means of doing just that.  When the San Juan went down, and was given up as lost, he and others responded to the grief of the families with empty places in their Christmas celebration by holding a fundraiser for Christmas toys for the children of the lost crew. This has become an annual tradition.  There are many ways you can touch someone who feels the loss of family – this is an easy one. There are many other ways, with both your resources and your heart. I regularly communicate with family of the Scorpion tragedy of 51 years ago, and can attest that the pain of loss never goes away. But sometimes it can be transformed. And the transformative catalyst is your humanity.

Find something, and do it.  We are given two hands for a reason:  one hand to lift another up, and one hand to take the hand extended to us.  These are both things we do in giving thanks.

Speaking to that of God in everyone:

At the front of the restaurant where I take my usual breakfast while in Washington, there is a landing at the top of the stairs to the front entrance.  It’s big enough for maybe a couple people to stand and look down at the parking lot, or out across the way to where the cars and trucks are speeding up and down the freeway north and south.  It’s a fine place to bask for a moment in the afterglow of a full belly of good breakfast, before taking your leave and diving into your day.

A fine place for brief meditation.

As I swung the outer door open into the wet grey morning, an older man stood at the handrail looking out, his countenance fixed far beyond the stream of distant traffic.  It struck me that he wasn’t looking at a place, but at a time.  Wherever and whenever he was looking at struck me as being a melancholy thing, a bitter-sweet memory.

And maybe it was the presence of so much transportation going on at once here, maybe it was my breakfast conversation with Al, a man I wouldn’t recognize if he wasn’t on the fourth stool in from the left, but whom I feel I know more about than some of my own kin.  Al was a truck driver, and an ace mechanic, and spent time as a crewman for funny cars.  We talk a lot about these things.  Or maybe it was having talked last night online with a bubblehead friend of mine who restores old cars, especially classic muscle cars.

Maybe it was just a compendium of all the conversations I’ve had over the years, about love and loss, both personal and…well… not to over-dramatize it but…machines.  I don’t know for sure. These things just come to me.

But as this stranger stood there, not even flinching as I burst out of the doorway behind him, I felt moved to speak.  I sidled on up beside him, joining in his gaze, trying to see what he saw.

“She’s not coming back”, I said after a moment with that finely honed surety that complete strangers always use when they haven’t a clue what’s going on.

“Huh?”

I picked a muscle car out of recent discussion memory, “that ‘71 GTO… it’s not coming back.”

I spoke with the special reverence that longing for the past always requires.

I don’t know why I speak to strangers this way, but it means I meet some nice people.  Their reaction to the oddity tells me a lot about them, I guess.

He stood silent for a few seconds, measuring no doubt what the heck was happening, but a a slow nod came to him – I think I felt it rather than saw – and he drew a breath to speak.  I expected… I don’t know, I expected a confused answer, to which I’d smile and chuckle, and after a greeting be off to my day of shenanigans.

But instead, he drew a breath, turned to me with a wizened face marked everywhere with life and experience, and said in a solemn “rest her soul” tone,

“‘64 Peterbuilt”.

And we smiled a warm smile at each other.  The fondest memories inside each of us, entirely different in technical detail but exactly the same memories of busted knuckles, wild rides, and intricate skill – teamwork between man and machine that ties them together forever – these swirled behind our eyes and communicated with the other.

It was a long conversation of maybe 20 seconds.  We closed it with a mutual chuckle, he going in for a meal, and I descended the stairs into my day.

My dad tells me stories of Great-Grandpa Sutton, and his driver, Ring Schneider.  Grandpa liked to build race cars.  A machinist by day, he would through the winter months keep himself out of Grandma’s hair by building cars, and racing them in the summer season.  Ring was his driver.  My dad as a boy would watch them work.  Seldom would they speak, and yet, inexplicably, each would know what the other was doing, one-word answers served as technical discourse.  They trusted each other enough to not have to ask questions constantly, if the other spoke, it was as if each themselves had spoken what the other did not explicitly say aloud.

And their bond was forged out of earned trust, into the mutual respect of men who knew what they were about.  

It is the same bond that men who have sailed beneath the Sea.  Or on the battlefield.  Or in the air, where mistakes cost lives, and the survivor’s stare into another time, at some distant morning outside a breakfast cafe, and understanding one another without the interruption of words.

Talk, as opposed to, say, money, is sometimes valued inversely proportional to its quantity.  A man who can say a lot with few words is rare thing, but as beautiful a phenomenon as any of the intricate relationships in nature.

This Veterans Day, you may feel the urge to say “Thank You” to some old codger with a ball cap from an old boat, or from an old war.  The response will very possibly be awkward.  What he says back may sound like a practiced platitude, or a gruff push back.  Don’t be put off by this.  By no means let it stop you from saying it this once, or again to another veteran.  If you aren’t a veteran yourself you aren’t likely to be able to speak on his frequency, but the acknowledgement still means something to him.  It lets him know that his time spent was relevant, that his work, while unknown to you, earned the recognition every human strives for, even if that work is as foreign to you as Space Flight.

And yet… perhaps it isn’t so foreign.

Perhaps it is, at its core, no different than driving a ‘64 Peterbuilt on logging roads in the mountains.  Or a mother wrestling 3 rambunctious toddlers through a grocery store week in and week out.  Or talking an irate customer back down into sanity.  If you do something, and do it well, there is at least one thing you have in common.  Find a way to connect and let that old guy know that as distant as his experience is from your own, it is a human experience.

Sometimes we just need a reminder that our inhuman experiences, sometimes atrocious memories, and skills that seem to have no relevance in the modern world, have not really rendered us inhuman. Perhaps that bit of us that is “of God”, as George Fox referred time often, is what we also call humanity, the thing that remains when all our deeds have been done, things have passed into memory, And we look to our Creator for a little feedback on our work.

Tell a veteran tomorrow that they are, and always have been, human. It is the most important thing we can be.