Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A personal tribute & acknowledgment of two strong women. Chicag(n)o Poetry Reminder..

Michael Sedano

Last week I had the pleasure of reviewing Benjamin Alire Sáenz' Names on a Map. I noted that gente who'd gone through the Draft would form a personal connection with Sáenz' plot involving a community's response to war, and a twin boy's awareness that he'd soon open the mailbox to find his Draft notice waiting. I thought most young readers wouldn't immediately understand those feelings but should read the novel to get a sense of them. All our soldiers today are volunteers. Which doesn't make their shipping out any easier.


THE NEWS TRIBUNE. Published: April 13th, 2008 01:00 AM.
Kathy Fendelman tries to comfort her twins, Samantha and Benjamin, 9, on Saturday after saying goodbye to their father, 1st Sgt. Barton Fendelman. He was leaving Philadelphia for eventual deployment to Iraq. The soldier is a member of the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade. It will be his second tour of duty in Iraq.


I look at this photo and what I see is how strong that wife is. And my heart goes out to her. The kids, twins, are completely overcome at the grief of parting. Their dad, a First Sergeant--a really high position in the Army, there are only two ranks higher for EM (non-officers)--is shipping out for Iraq. Look at that woman's face. She's holding it in as much as she can, but you know she's giving in to her worst fears. What happens to a guy who's going into the invasion zone? Death isn't the fear--everyone dies. It's being blown to bits by a roadside bomb; it's thoughts of disability--how many people does she know who went off to that country only to come home without a mind, without a pair of legs, missing an arm or an eye? Maybe Top--that's what all First Sergeants are called, "Top"--will come home confined to a wheelchair, or bounce in and out of mental institutions for the rest of their "til death do us part" lives. But she has to be strong.

Then my thoughts shoot back to Fall, 1968.

My wife Barbara and I were married in August 1968. We were incredibly happy. Still are--this August it will be 40 years. But at that time, she didn't understand what I understood. Only a matter of time and I'd be heading off to some uncertain future, like the one captured in that news photo.

One day Barbara and I were on our way to a fun day at the Santa Barbara arbortetum, a lovely peaceful place. And it was free, all the more attractive because we were stone cold poor. Graduate students. From the front porch I see the mail has arrived. Barbara says "leave it 'til we get back." Something told me it was the day. I had to open that mailbox.

October 1968. I open the mailbox and see that brown manila envelope I knew would come. Richard Nixon has ordered me to report before Thanksgiving day.  This is why, every Thanksgiving, I play Arlo Guthrie's "Alice's Restaurant" the whole day. We played that song that November 1968 and filled the room with laughter. She laughing bitterly about Arlo's beating the draft singing that silly song, me laughing hysterically at the irony. I couldn't beat it. I was on my way and there wasn't a god-damned thing I could do about it. I was gone. Punto final. What a wretched Thanksgiving Day that was, but our friends the Greelis' shared it with us and we all put on happy faces and enjoyed one another's company.

I managed to delay induction until January 1969. The morning Barbara took me to the Santa Barbara Greyhound Bus station--really just a parking lot in the middle of town--she dressed in her best outfit, wore her brave smile and kept her head high as she drove me into town from Isla Vista.

It was one of those grey, drizzly Santa Barbara January mornings. (I tell everyone you can still see my heelprints etched into the sidewalk where they had to drag me onto the bus, but that's a fanciful tale. I went willingly.) A whole bunch of people like us had gathered to board the bus, to bid farewell to their soon-to-be-soldiers. Who knew what would happen to us in the next few years?

I waited until the final call to present my papers, lined up and boarded the bus. I found a seat and leaned toward the window where Barbara's anxious eyes finally spotted me through the darkly tinted glass. She smiled and waved. I smiled and waved. Her lips moved, "I Love you." My lips moved, "I love you." She held her head high. The driver gunned the engine. In the instant the bus lurched toward the street, Barbara buried her face in her hands. That's how she was standing when I lost sight of her, the Greyhound turning right onto the road that would take us to the Induction Center on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. We were on our way.

Please join me in wishing that family in the photo all the best. Parting is not a sweet sorrow. My heart goes out to that woman because I can only imagine what it must have been like for Barbara back on January 15, 1969.

In under two hours, the bus is in LA. Poke. Prod. Test. Move. No "Group W" bench, no singing that silly song. Pledge allegiance and swear to defend. Another bus ride. We pass through Santa Barbara in the dead of night and keep going, putting distance between ourselves and home. Ft. Ord in the pre-dawn stillness, following orders: "Stand on your number and shut the fuck up."

Poetry Reading in Chicago by Chicana Chicano Poets Lorna Dee Cervantes and Rigoberto Gonzalez

Lisa Alvarado gave a heads-up on this event recently. Tempus has fugit-ted and it's time to carpe the diem for this Palabra Pura in the city of the big shoulders. 

Wednesday, APRIL 16 -- PALABRA PURA
Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted, Chicago
Doors open at 6:00 p.m. Reading begins at 7:00 p.m.
Free admission. Books for sale. Authors will be available for signing.

In honor of National Poetry Month, two internationally renowned poets -- Lorna Dee Cervantes and Rigoberto González -- will read for Palabra Para at the Center on Halsted.

A fifth-generation Californian of Mexican and Native American (Chumash) heritage, Lorna Dee Cervantes has been a pivotal figure throughout the Chicano literary movement. Her poetry has appeared in nearly 200 anthologies and textbooks, and she has been the recipient of many honors, including an NEA fellowship, a Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Award and a Pulitzer nomination for her book DRIVE: The First Quartet. She lives and teaches in San Francisco, California.

Rigoberto González is the author of seven books, most recently of the memoir, Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa, winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. A story collection, Men without Bliss, is forthcoming. The recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, and of various international artist residencies, he writes a book column for the El Paso Times of Texas. He lives in New York City and is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University/Newark.

And here we are, April's third Tuesday in 2008. Still stuck with memory of that awful time waiting for the mail and that brown envelope. Sheesh. It's the Ides of April--tax day-- maybe the cruellest day of the cruellest month. No lilacs in my dooryard blooming, plethoras of sad thoughts looking at that photo, that woman, remembering. Thinking what Nixon's successor is doing with our tax money. See you next week. I'm gonna go find something happy to read.



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1 comment:

Ann Hagman Cardinal said...

Wow, Michael, this is so powerful. Thank you for sharing that memory and the photograph is incredible, heart-wrenching. Now I want to know when that man makes it back.