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Hanging On
By David Chrisman

We hang on to things. We come into this life grabbing stuff and we leave it thinking we can take whatever we've picked up along the way out with us to heaven.

And don't think it's a matter of choice, either. No. It's got to be an instinct. I mean, why else, when you lift him in your arms, does a day old infant grab your ear so damn hard? Or take hold of your new shades with a grip like Spider-Man that bends the temples all out of shape? Or wedge his tiny finger up your nose and fasten down like he's gonna pull the thing right off your face? You know what I'm saying? He's grabbin' on. Anything shiny, anything warm, anything looks like it might be good. It's hard-wired into us from the start. And I get that. But what I don't get is why we hang on to the pain. As if it were the gold of our experience, we hang on to it tight.

To see me, a guy around 40, reasonably good shape, looks late 30's, you'd say I could never have served in the Korean War, 1950-1953. But you'd be wrong. As a matter of fact, I'm still serving in it -- well, hanging on to it. In view of Memorial Day, a holiday which is, after all, not just a great excuse for mega-corporations to hold a giant five-day box office fuck-fest between Anakin Skywalker's light-saber and J. Lo's pseudo-pneumatic, over-insured, back-end assets, but is also a reasonably significant holiday at the end of May, in the beginning of summer -- you know -- when we think about the war people. And as I said, I served in the Korean War.

So come with me. Dinner-time with the Chrisman family: Five boys and one girl, three to a side of a long kitchen table, kneeling on benches with Mom at one end -- the beatific provisionary of all things good -- beaming over the banquet she had set before us -- a roast leg of lamb, say, with peeled and halved potatoes basted in the juice of the lamb -- beaming over her brood -- her darling six children -- and across to her black-bearded, deep-voiced, six-foot-two-inch MAN at the other end of the table, him carving the meat with a sharpened knife where he stands holding court, raconteur of vivid tales coloring the events of his experience with a reverberant rich baritone.

Come with me and see us all reflected in the California picture-glass windows. And hanging over our glowing table of plenty, three balls of light -- one of those sixties' chandeliers (basketball sized, Italian blown-glass globes suspended at uneven heights) burning rich red and orange-yellow and turquoise-green, throwing a warm halo over the meals of our childhoods and reflecting in the windows, blackened by the night outside, along with the repeated form of our colossus, the unfathomable male of our house, our Odysseus, Channing Burke Chrisman, AKA Chan, AKA 'Chan Chan the shirttail man,' AKA, Daddy. My Daddy standing there like the apotheosis of man at home, a king in his castle.

And next to him not a glass of wine, not a bottle or carafe, but a great California jug of Zinfandel from the Napa Valley. Him drinking and swallowing and chewing with the living gusto of a character out of Gilgamesh, dark eyes shining, hair curling black around his ears, face, illuminated by a sheen of almost imperceptible perspiration, the gloss to his joy of life. And that great jug of wine lifting and pouring and lifting and pouring until, by random selection on a night chosen by some devil at the roulette wheel of domestic suffering, the joy transmogrifies, the narrative of adventure darkens and the bitterness of his sublimated experience empties forth.

And one night it might be a disquisition on the uselessness of women, the incompetence of our mother or the "bitches" that ran the PTA, and another on the mendacity of politicians or the hippies in Berkeley, the "long-hairs" whose "hypocrite blood'll be the first to run into the gutters if they ever get their GODDAMNED REVOLUTION!"

And on yet another night, on one particular night each year, as if from a trance-spell spun out of the recurrence of the season, at the end of spring, on Memorial Day, a certain memory would begin to play. Projected like the shifting colored lights of cinema streaming out from my father's fugue-state unconscious onto the receptive blank screens of our enamored and entranced childhood souls, the story would un-spool, The Terrors of the Rear Guard.

Surrounded by Chinese infantry, alone in the hills of Korea, protecting the retreat of a badly crippled unit, "Your father…" him speaking third person now, "… and one private first class from Minnesota, look away from the flies crawling in and out of the split skulls of dead GI's by the trail, grab up from K.I.A. to each side as many rounds of ammo as they can stuff into their pants and jacket pockets, and listen for noises in the dark." And listen close, too, 'cuz the Chink had been takin' off his boots, sneakin' up in his socks and killin' guys with just a bayonet or a hatchet."

But there was nothing to hear, nothing, that is until the long whine of artillery shells and instant thunder, the burn of phosphorous from the mortar rounds, the shrapnel imbedding. Then waking up later on a hospital ship at Inchon Bay, "the U.S.S. Haven," he would say. "And they got me in a -- I'm lyin' next to that private from Minnesota. And his intestines are hangin' in a sack on a stand beside his bunk. Got a pump circulatin' salt water." Waking up then, and jerking awake nights at the slightest knock for years since. Fourth of July or New Year's, leaping from sleep to cower beneath the California-king-sized bed and shiver like a dog afraid of an electric storm under his wife's helplessly loving hands.

The deadly Chinese. The fear of the dark night. The beauty of the hills. And the "good men, boys." "My driver, Kim." "Your uncle Big Red Dave Johnson." "MY GUYS!"

And after another glass of wine and another, exploding into tears of frustration and rage at the pacifists and lefties and women in government who'd let the nation lapse into unprepared-ness, who'd "sent those guys boxes of ammunition more than ten years old, stamped, literally, 19-goddamned-40, the date on it, before the GODDAMNED SECOND WORLD WAR!"

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