Thursday, April 29, 2010

Love and Duty

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Randall Jarrell, “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” 1945

Mr. and Mrs. Kreslyer came in about 5 AM last night, and I could not have asked to meet two nicer people in the world. She was concerned that her blood pressure was up at home, and that she had a little bit of chest pain. He was concerned because he loved her.

They had been married 62 years, been together since just after World War II. He had been an Army Air Forces pilot, flying left seat and bombardier in B-17’s out of Italy. Small, wiry, full of life, still handsome in a roughish way, he wore a leather jacket updated for the times, but one that let you know who had been and the horsepower he had led.

“It wasn’t at all like they tell you. Things like the Memphis Belle. There was never any crew that stayed together for all their missions. Half of everyone in your crew would be dead by the time you were done. Some of them died from the enemy planes. Most of them died when we got to 30,000 feet and 65 degrees below zero. The planes weren’t pressurized, and the oxygen system froze.

They only added the chin gun to the bombers when the Germans learned the front of the airplane was unarmed. They would go for the front and shoot the bombardier so the plane couldn’t drop it’s bomb load. You could get out the body, but you had to use a hose to wash everything else out of the bubble.

You never flew the same plane. You flew a mixup of all the parts they could scavenge from the planes that were damaged to fix whatever had broken on your ship, and you hoped for the best.

Planes now have satellites from the sky to tell where your direction. We had to memorize sixty constellations to find direction at night. During the day, once we got to know an area, we just followed the roads.

After my 35 missions, the war was over in Europe. They said they’d make me a first lietenant if I signed up again to fly over Japan. I told ‘em they could make me a major general and I still wasn’t gonna do it. So I didn’t.

Young man, I really appreciate your asking me about this. There’s only about 3% of us old vets left, and your generation is losing what we’ve learned.”

Through it all, Ms. Kreslyer, who must have hears the story thousands of times, gazed at him with pure adulation. A smaller woman, but making up in life what she might have lacked in size. Fully made up, enticing smile, bright cheeks, saucy blown brown hair. Not a charactiture of an older woman trying to be young. A geniuine octognerian temptress.

But back to business. I examined her and found that her legs were bent and crippled. It was only then that I noticed a wheelchair in the corner of the room. “What happened?” I asked as gently as I could.

She took my question in stride, her smile never fading. “I got chickenpox 54 years ago. Made me paralyzed from my waist down. But its never gotten in my way. “After all,” she confided with a wink, “we did have some children!”

Good Lord, they were in love. They had met, climbed the peaks of joy, and never fell back down to earth. And this despite trials over half a century that would have induced many people to leave, and that few might argue with, they were still were two kids walking down the aisle in 1948.

“Life is a lot of missions,” he said. “Had that first one in the war, and then,” looking at his wife in what can only be called bliss, ”I got this one. A few others along the way. I’ve been a lucky man.”
"We are creatures of duty, captain. I have lived my life by it. Just... one more duty... to perform."

Romulan Commander to Captain Kirk, Star Trek, “Balance of Terror,” 1966

I awoke with a start this afternoon with thoughts swirling through my head. Some of my most abstract thinking, and (to be frank) some of the creepiest comes in that moment between sleep and wakefulness, when your subconscious has been cruising the Talladega of REM sleep and your mind still hasn’t filtered the idea that you’re back into consciousness.

Mr. Kreslyer was wrong. Life’s not a series of missions. Not everything you do is directed towards something. Life is instead a duty. It’s full of imperatives. Be born. Grow. Work. Marry. Have joy. Feel sorrow. Go the heaven. Go to blazes. We’re all Romulans.

Life is not pain. We’re built for happiness. But being happy is still a duty. From the moment of conception, there’s a job to do. Develop, live, learn. It seems that only at the exact moment of death is there true freedom. When you die, when the process has begun, in that moment you don’t have to do anything. You just do it, and you die. But what a maddeningly absurd moment that must be, to finally be really free, and know it’s about to be over.

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