FRESH YARN presents:

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!"

Like the rituals of Thanksgiving or Christmas, like the carving of the Easter lamb, this evening show of horrors played again and again so far as I can remember back to the beginning of time, back, at any rate, to the beginning of my idea of time, as far back as a boy could imagine, past all recollection, all the way back to before I was born. "Before you were born…" That mist-shrouded family past up from which vague information percolates and seeps and burbles in the urgent half-tones older relatives use to communicate unspeakable things. Such kindling to a child's mind.

"The North Korean mortars." "White phosphorous burns on your father's hands." Words such as these conveying so malevolent a freight of loathing that 30 years later my testicles draw in and the flesh of my back pulls tight at just the thought of their telling. Unutterable things of which we hear only enough to fire the want to know more, that grow into legends in our minds, legends that wax heavier and only more mysterious with the passage of time, that we portage through life until our spirits so long to be rid of them we confess our disgrace without stipulation, asking only with our cry, "But then how shall I do it? But how? But how? But how? But how?!"

And the answer ringing back for some reason that if we could just piece the fragments of story together -- the half-spoken words -- just assemble the truth of the tale, the adult knowing itself might lessen our burden. Such, at any rate, was the answer that rang back at my moment of frustration and paralysis and panic. It rang that nothing but fact could mend me, the start of the thing, the acts themselves as they'd happened.

And so it was, one foggy late spring day in 1993 after riding the 5 Fulton Express down to the old San Francisco Main Library on McAllister Street, that, in a reading carrel behind the history stacks, I found this fact out: the battle occurred along the 37th parallel at a place near the Im Jim River.

To the North of Seoul, there is a place where the river-channel carves a lazy 'm' on the map. And at that place, I learned, along a ridge and series of hills the army map guys called THE NEVADA COMPLEX, on the night of May 29th, 1953, only weeks before the truce was finally settled, fifteen thousand Red Chinese infantry threw themselves against the hundred and eighty Turks defending outposts Vegas, Elko and Carson. And the regimental history informed me how the first hill fell and then the second and how the third was going down when help got begged of Uncle Sam. And Company 'B' of the Twenty-Fifth United States Infantry Division in General Douglas McArthur's 5th Army got thrown in for support. And among the men of company 'B' -- 'Baker Company' in the army lingo -- was my father.

A sheaf of information, to be sure, and yet I wanted more. I wanted more for, as the family whispers told it all my childhood and youth, before I was born, our Grandmother each day had read the morning San Francisco Chronicle and our Grandfather, the Examiner, which came out in the afternoon. And they told how it happened on a legendary Saturday in May of 1953 that our Grandmother had looked at the front page of her morning Chronicle and been so appalled by what she'd read she'd hidden the paper where her husband Raymond wouldn't find it and withdrawn to the Church of the Wayfarer to pray.

And the story held as well how when the afternoon Examiner had been delivered, our Granddad Ray had glanced at his front page and being likewise blighted had jammed the distressful headlines out of sight to slip away and staunch his day-mare with the poultices of faith.

At least that's how the whispers told it, in sketchy pieces, details withheld, rickety framework encumbered only by its lading of sad intimations and ache, vagaries that urged me -- past combat reports and battalion postings and the rest of the historical record -- to grasp for the life of the thing, to see in genuine print the headlines as they'd been seen, to put myself in the shoes of those who had lived the experience that had prompted the story, and find in their footsteps my way to release.

Because isn't that our belief? That seeing clearly the events of the past will un-harness that great sack of potatoes we carry through life while colleagues and friends from college and work seem to glide through it all on vacation in comfortable sandals and worn denim shorts? Isn't it in the end, for example, what psychoanalysis is all about? Sleuthing out the thing we know but do not know we know in the belief that somehow awareness itself will reduce our pain? Lighten our burden of life? The volume of memory that grows so heavy?

And so, many years after the tellings and the listenings had given way to a prosaic log of rent checks, work commutes and relationships that always seemed to be breaking down, as a prematurely tired and grief soaked man of 30, I found myself in the public library microfiche archives searching for the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner of May 30th, 1953.

And I found them. And under the fluorescent lights of the periodicals room, paid a quarter to run them through the printing machine. What was it that Gram and Ray had hidden from each other in the sharpness of their love and fear? Two shiny papers slid down to the copy tray. I held them in my hand. The legendary articles of the Church of the Wayfarer.

But before I share them with you, imagine for a moment that you're a Mom or a Dad with a boy in the service. You can't get much information except the name of your child's unit, which you remember in your prayers -- B, that is 'Baker', Company of the 1st Battalion of the 14th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. 25th -- and that they're serving in Korea where the war, as you've read, has been winding down. Daily you've learned with hope of diplomatic breakthroughs, settlement deals, peacekeeping forces and U.N. plans. And then with your morning coffee or your afternoon cup of tea one Saturday in May, you pick up the paper and read…

Can you feature that? Tucking the paper away behind your needlework and walking into town? Kneeling in a corner pew and mumbling the 23rd Psalm? "He maketh me to lie down -- He maketh me to lie down-- He maketh me…"

And can you feature, too, that man of 30 standing on the after-edge of youth, looking into middle-age with nothing but his bag of third-hand memories and second-hand grief clutched so instinctively tight the knuckles of his soul are white? Finding the article again, 40 years to the day almost since it was written, and waiting for the great sigh of relief, the undoing of the burden, the letting go of pain? Can you stand with him in his hope to be free to finally walk into adulthood an independent agent? All the time knowing, of course, that that's not what would happen? The weight would not be lifted? Because the lesson left for him to learn was that holding an article about a 40-year-old battle in your hand is just another kind of hanging on. And that the hanging on is permanent because it's what we're made of. And that what is left then can only be forgiveness, if he can find it, and learning to befriend the ghosts.

My ghosts. For as I said, despite my youth, I served in the Korean War. I served in it with my father in the bindings of love, and it seems, for all my efforts to escape it, that, day over night, I serve in it still.

So I wonder. Can we pierce the disillusion and the cynicism of our jingoistic, Disney-fied so-called culture, the advertising blitzkrieg we live inside, long enough to memorialize beyond the box-office grosses of whatever weekend we happen to be in, the actual havoc wreaked for generations in actual families' actual lives by the wars this community we call a country commits, and to remember the men who fight them -- and now the women too -- and whether we're grateful or not for their service, to give up a moment for the price they pay?


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