"Remember when the music … "
Dateline: Urgoon, Afghanistan: 9/11/02
I grew up with bullets, and bouquets.
On a black and white TV I learned of “Make Love, Not War.”
In color on the streets around me I learned of “Make War, Not Love.”
I knew young of flower power, and fire power.
And through it all, in my soul, there was song.
" … came from wooden boxes strung with silver wire … "
The world came to me, through music.
I learned of Liverpool while lying on my parents’ bed as they watched the Ed Sullivan Show.
I discovered the universe on the night I heard "Rock Around The Clock," and then walked outside and looked to the clear Buffalo sky to see if I could find a comet.
I feel asleep to the sound of the south and hound dogs as a Philco transistor radio played hidden under my pillow.
And through it all, in my soul, there was song.
" … and as we sang the words, it would set our minds on fire … "
Every word in my head, rode there on a note.
I don't see words, they sing to me. They play, for me. I hear them, in there.
They are the notes my mother sang over my crib.
They are the lyrics I heard while sitting on Gram’s lap.
They are the melody of my father as he hummed while working at his tool bench in the basement.
And in this symphony around me, I felt safe.
" … for we believed in things, and so we'd sing … "
I have no song for my children.
I have no melody to wrap them in, no humming to hold them.
Make Love, Not War.
Love brought them to me, and it is war that I will leave them with.
I have no song for my children. Or yours. I can't hear the words through the tears.
I grew up with bullets and bouquets, gardenias and grenades.
I grew up born between flower power, and fire power. Peace symbols and mushroom clouds.
But the song in my soul, always played.
That song, now grows dim.
Because I hummed the song of peace.
Because I hummed the song of love.
Because I hummed the song of children.
I rocked them to sleep in a melody of love.
In a house with the melody of peace.
I did so, to help my grandchildren sing. To pass on to them, when they come some day, to give to them, the song of our lives.
And yet I have given them this.
A song growing dim.
My grandchildren's symphony, and all those children out there born after 9/11, will be an Opus of never having grown up in a land that had never been attacked on their own soil.
In the city of us all.
In the neighborhood of us.
I have left my children with the song of patdowns, with the melody of suspicion, with lyrics filled with doubt.
9/11/01 was for me, the day the music started to die.
Where the song, is near silent.
In my soul.
" … remember when the music
was the best of what we dreamed of for our children's time … "
"I actually saw Poco there … you remember them."
And in spite of myself, as soon as Dr. Mac said that as we drove by Infinity Hall in Norfolk, Conn., in spite of myself I began humming … Crazy Love.
Dr. Mac and I are on our way to the northwest corner of Connecticut … to Twin Lakes to fish and talk about 9/11.
"When I got that call that my unit was being mobilized and when I went home to tell my wife, when I got there it was so peaceful, the kids were watching TV in the family room and LeeAnn was sitting there downloading the Kinks."
And All Day and All of the Night played softly in my head.
So as we drove through a Norman Rockwell painting, of pine smelling hills, century old stone walls, white homes with green porches, white churches with towering steeples, Angus in the field, Bentleys in the driveways, Dr. Mac spoke of a land far, far away, but of a time still very, very close to him.
He spoke of Special Forces "A" Team Fire Base Urgoon, Afghanistan.
"I brought my Forward Surgical team there … 20 of my guys … 4 trauma surgeons, a general trauma surgeon, a vascular guy, a G.I. Guy ... "
And Dr. Mac, the orthopedic trauma guy.
Dr. Mac and the 947th Forward Surgical Team.
"We also had with us 16 nurses and various medical techs."
Standing there to meet them were 12 Special Forces guys, "they didn't quite know what to make of us. I told them we were basically a trauma unit brought to them, we had a bunch of boxes in the helicopters and we could push the boxes out the back door, set everything up and be able to crack a chest working on someone shot in about 15 minutes."
And that's pretty much what happened … a young Special Forces soldier came in with a chest wound, and on the spot was operated on, stabilized, and his life saved.
"Is that when you convinced them of the value of the unit, made your bones so to speak?"
All he did was smile, the smile that I know as a friend, means a story is coming.
And was it ever a story, I'll let Dr. Mac tell it:
"Can't really get into specific details … but we heard a Special Force Unit was taking fire and suffering casualties … and I wasn't actually doing anything, so I see this Chinook transport helicopter refueling, and I grab this medic and I walk over to it and ask the pilot if I can borrow his helicopter for awhile … now Don you have to understand I pretty much never wore a uniform, just jeans, T-shirt and my UCONN baseball cap on backwards … so this pilot looks at me and starts laughing like I'm a joke or joking, so I take my UCONN hat off, pick up my Kevlar helmet and put it on and spin it around so he sees my Lt. Colonel rank … and he stops smiling. That pretty much convinced him to change his mission."
He stops just long enough to pop a donut hole in his mouth and take a hit of hazelnut coffee.
"So we fly out on this tin can Chinook and we find where the action is taking place and I tell the pilot to land and when he asks where I tell him right down there where all the shooting is going on, and after I convince him of doing that down we go and we jump out and pull in this Special Forces guy who took three bullets to his chest, and I tell the pilot we better go now."
Another donut hole, another swig.
"So as we are in the air we start taking fire of course, but this soldier is in bad shape so me and the medic get back there with him and start operating on him."
You heard that right, a God honest quote … Dr. Mac is in a Chinook helicopter with no armor or weapons to protect it, it is climbing out of a front line fire fight and he is in the cargo bay and, "I need to save this guy so I get chest tubes in him, his lungs had collapsed, and as we are being bounced all around I would hold on and the medic would do something and then he would get bounced off and I would be able to grab on and do something, but the soldier was going to die if we didn't do something. So we did. That's the reason we were there, to save lives."
And the soldier who had chest surgery inside a bouncing around Chinook Helicopter … LIVED.
"Does LeeAnn know about this?"
"Not sure … it's in that letter I wrote to her but would never send."
It's been sent now.
" … remember when the music
brought us all together to stand inside the rain … "
I asked him as we were driving, "What is it that you remember the most of your time in Afghanistan?" He spoke not of doing surgery in a goat barn while it was being shot at, he spoke not of borrowing the Chinook helicopter, of this, he barely spoke.
Spoke so softly I could hardly hear, I had to lean over in my seat to capture the whisper.
"It was 9/11/02."
And the song in my soul was silent.
"A year to the day … I'm 10,000 feet up in the mountains of Afghanistan, and on that day at the camp a Chaplain showed up, and he held this mass, and he talked and he preached, and the whole base surrounded us and listened and as he spoke, and as he prayed, and as he talked about 9/11/01 and all those lost in that attack, we all prayed and all these people had their heads bowed and when I looked around I saw all these people…the 101st Airborne conventional warriors, the Special Forces "A" Team … professional soldiers of war, and when I watched them as the Chaplain spoke, every one of them, every one of them, was crying."
And I wasn't able to say a word, until much later when we got to the lakes.
" … and as we'd join our hands, we'd meet in the refrain,
for we had dreams to live, we had hopes to give … "
As we pulled up to the lake, Dr. Mac told me, "This is the place I dreamed of in Afghanistan," and I smiled because I knew at that point, Mac had brought me in, brought me not to his fishing hole, but to his church.
"I would dream of being here, dream of being on this lake with my two boys, with my wife fishing, and then I would wake up in a green canvas Army tent in Afghanistan and I would start yelling No … no … no."
It's a lake of memories, his boys’ favorite lake.
In combat, it’s the quiet times that are the most scary.
In war, it's your dreams you most fear.
In the sand, it is the water that is your saviour.
As it was for Dr. Mac.
"When I was shipped back, I thought I was OK, and I was. I'm a medical professional. I understand these things, so I get out in New Jersey and LeeAnn comes down to meet me and we get this hotel room suite down there for a couple of days, and I remember walking into the bathroom and turning on the water in the sink, and just staring at it, and I told LeeAnn … 'You know that's a miracle to half the world out there,' and she just looked at me and said, ‘What is a miracle? … and all I said was running hot water."
"One night she found me just sitting in the living room in a chair … wasn't watching TV … wasn't reading … I was just sitting there in the dark looking out the window at all the lights."
The only lights of the Afghan nights came with bullets attached.
"And then it happened … in the cereal aisle no less. I just froze, just froze, and when LeeAnn came and finally found me I was just standing there and all I could say over and over was … “Look at all the cereal, look at all the cereal.'"
"You know Don, there was a medic friend of mine, one of my guys, that when he got back to America, he wouldn't walk on the grass … couldn't walk on the grass anymore, was afraid of walking on the grass … and it was because you couldn't in Afghanistan because there were millions of land mines buried underneath it, so he couldn't walk on his own grass for a long time … for me it was the cereal aisle … "
The lucky ones leave the battlefield.
But it is the war that never leaves them.
"Remember when the music … "
For about two hours D. Mac and I floated around the lake, saw a bunch of fish on the fish finding thing, he threw some at them, but even when he cast to a large hump, he talked, talked of the lake.
His safe place.
"I was home maybe a week, not even, and I was out and on this lake. That first year back I bet I was out here probably 30 times, easy. Mostly came alone, unusual for me, normally I like to fish with my boys, with my wife, or my friends. That year I came mostly alone."
"Did you fish?"
"Didn't think so."
Here's the importance of that statement … Dr. Mac is a fish … being on the water is in his being. To go out there and fish, "some" like today means it is not a fishing trip at all, it's a finding trip … finding yourself.
"I wouldn't trade my experience over there for anything. It was easily the most fulfilling experience in my life for a million different reasons … it made me a way better person."
"I think of all the good people I met in Afghanistan … you know … people are people are people … I talked to some of them every single day even though I only knew a few words of their language and they only knew a few words of mine. We talked, but not in words, we talked human to human. Life for me will never be the same, but honestly, I don't know if it even should."
" … was a glow on the horizon of every newborn day … "
I lost the song of my soul on 9/11/01, as did most of those around me.
But on a lake that seemed to cry as the mist and fog came down from the hills and engulfed the boat Dr. Mac and I were in, little by little, the notes began to play.
Maybe for us both.
Certainly for me.
I will still chase the number of the lives lost, the lives never lived, and what of those.
But it is the lives I have found since that day back almost 10 years ago that like Dr. Mac said, for me as well, "Life will never be the same, but honestly, I don't know if it even should."
It is those found who carry with them the song of the soul.
It is those found who served for us.
It is those found who will carry with them the song of those lost.
And for those I found these past 10 years, thank you for singing over my cradle.
For wrapping me in your melody.
For making me safe as you hum.
And as I drove home alone that night, all I could do was smile.
Smile, as in my mind, I heard the song of my soul sing loud and clear.
And it was sung by the voices of my grandchildren.
Who I know now, that when they get here … they will sing.
And it will be music brought to them by those who I have found.
When I thought the music had died.
But now know that no matter what you may do to us, there will be a song in our soul.
And it will play on.
" … and as we sang, the sun came up to chase the dark away,
And life was good, for we knew we could."
Remember When The Music