Today, to raise money for The New York Immigrant Fund’s Let My People Go campaign, I offered to write at least 200 words for whoever gave at least 18 dollars, on the topic of their choice. The offer is still standing, and I’m still writing, but here is the first piece I wrote, on the topic of “Someone who taught you something important about Peace”
So many men have taught me about war. When asked for stories of his time in the Second World War in the US Marine Corps, my grandfather used to shrug his shoulders and say, “Ever seen a 10 X 4 truck? Stack that about your height high with bodies. That’s war.” My father was a Civil War buff, he’d take us to the battlefields on family vacations; Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Antietam. He’d point out at the rolling hills of the United States and comment on advantageous positioning of guns and cannon, flanks of ghostly Yanks and Rebs. Then there were my actual teachers, of course, and the politicians on tv, and my neighbors who hung flags up, and the movies.
Mostly what I’ve learned is there is nothing so self-effacing as a war. “Oh, I think I’m more of a police action, don’t you?” “I’m a national security policy, that’s all.” “I’m protecting our interests overseas, not a war as such.” “Just a brief rebellion about to be put down.” And then suddenly they’re “conflicts.” The developing conflict in the Balkans. The ongoing conflict in the Middle East. The eternal conflict between Good and Evil, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of THAT line.
It is much harder to discern who has taught me about Peace. Peace in what sense? What peace have I known, here at the end and beginning of two disastrous centuries? But the truth is, I’ve seen very little of war, like most Americans my age and class. Our wars are cowards, they hide from us overseas, where they bully and demean others. So I am a curiosity of the ages, come see the boy who knows not war and knows not peace.
All the same, I’ll share a memory with you. I used to study Latin. My sister gave me the bug for it, she took it so she could improve her already robust vocabulary and I took it to be like her. By high school I was studying under Mr. M, a sad-eyed, Catholic educated man who had never moved away from our hometown. Mr. M was a classic depressive, with a defeated posture and a low, hushed voice, but all the same, something about him always reminded me of Bruce Springsteen. Perhaps the air of humbled Americana that oozed off him once I discovered he’d been a boy scout and still collected baseball cards. He seemed to hate Latin, pity us, his hormonal students, and to generally be going through the motions until his pension was good enough to retire. He always seemed bemused that I cared about the subject he taught, just as my sister had.
One day, a student brought a guitar to class. Mr. M asked to see it. As soon as it was in his hands, a remarkable but quiet transformation took place. Mr. M folded around the guitar, lovingly. He sat on the edge of his desk and began to play. We got no declining or conjugating done that day. The guitar never left his hands. Occasionally he’d softly sing into the increasing roar of us having our teenaged conversations. He was happy to just hold a guitar, stealing time from the city school district. He was happy, and at peace.