The Restaurant and the Vietnam Vet.
On the first night in Calgary - pre the Calgary Literature Festival - I am dining with Ann Green, producer of the festival, Ian Samuels the artistic director and an Australian author who has a smile and a twinkle in the eye that says “yeah I’ve seen it. I’ve done it. And I like it.”. He shall remain nameless for reason s which will become apparent. There's only one person who is not here who was supposed to be here - the ex president of Canada. She like many an ex president has written a book and will be reading at the festival tomorrow, is tired and staying at our hotel.
The restaurant is at the top in a revolving room of the tower 525 ft in the air by the aptly named Vertigo Theatre where I am to perform on another day. The online catalogue describes it as "the third largest tower in Calgary". BThe Tower was built in 1968. I was born in 1967. The Vietnam war began in 1961.
As we sit to eat the sun falls behind distant mountains and throws up fists of fire from behind mountainous trenches.Thesky is at war with the night. The lights dimmed in the revolving thing and the night entered the restaurant. Wine poured itself and the conversation spilled into the air. A slide of blood and fat curled from my steak and seasoned the plate as the serrated edges of my knife slid back. Here's to conversation. We, the five of us became the lava inside its lamp, rising and gently falling as others rise and gently fall and this is how conversation should be - in warmth like vocal Ti chi.
And maybe it was the redness of the sky against the darkness of the night. And maybe it was that we were 500 feet or so inside the sky spinning in slo mo like a UFO (unidentified food object) but here an unsentimental story began to rise as we circled it. It was about something that had happened recently to the Australian authors brother.
He was in the Vietnam war, his brother, he was drafted and fought and experienced allthe dark delights that war brings. He was a waiter at a banquet of bursting bodies. He did his job. he served his country. He’s there for two years or so, his brother. And in the click of a safety switch The War Is Over. He is back in America. There’s no welcome committee waiting for him. No ceremony. No ticker tape parade just a a quiet resentment of him. A seething. A loathing. The kind you find in the film Jacobs ladder. The kindof loathing that is only picked up in peripheral vision.
He’s in the city. Maybe it’s New York maybe it’s LA. But if they think this is a fast city then they have no idea what fast is. He’s a man who knows what fast is. How fast a life can pass. How fast the decision to defend and attack. How fast. This man is a survivor. His brother. And he immerses himself in work. He sets up businesses, sells them, sets em up and sells em again. It’s a jungle out there. He got through the American nightmare and was living the dream. Forty fifty years ago is it now. His brother survived and thrived and married and all was good.
A few weeks ago he’s dressed to go to his downtown office, right. Same old system. Suite’s clean, teeth sparkling, shoes polished, socks laid out and put on. Left first and then Right. Left first and then right. And he aligns his tie in the mirror, right. Maybe he’s got a little shaving cut. No problem. He checks it out. dabs it with his finger. No problem.
The news is on the radio blathering away as it does something about Iraq this and right to defend that. He fixes his pen in his pocket. Loves the pen. Present from his father. As it was a present from his father. He turns his head looks out of his house window and the the car’s waiting for him. The same car that waits every day and the driver’s reading The NY Daily Post.. On time. Its an autumnal morning, the shaking trees the sharpness of light, autistic almost. He hears the slow purr of its engine as bouquets of white smoke spread from its exhaust. Maybe there’s a frost today. The radio is blathering about, president bush “supporting the troops in the field and some foreign correspondent is almost shouting because “if you listen you may be able to hear the insurgence attack”…”.
And it’s one of those rich crisp molten morning suns. Maybe there’s a frost today. And he sees through the diagonal bars of sunlight through the speckles of dust to the car.And he looks back and he straightens his hair and he straightens his tie a little more because his ties feels a little un-straight. And the radio is on. And “there’s been an explosion and…. people have died” and he can hear quiver of fear in the journalists voice He straightens his tie again and the man in the car is now at the window. It’s beenan hour since when?. Hasn’t it. Has it. He looks through the light through the speckles, through the window from the mirror where he is standing and he seesm the man at the window cupping his hands and peering in to the front room and he looks back at themirror and he straightens his tie. Cause his ties not straight.
He’s there for four hours. And it isn’t news any more on the radio. And it wasn't radio. It was TV. It’s The Simpson's that’s on in the background. He hears the beginning of Thetheme tune. But it starts to echo in his head. Distant echo. Dah dah dah dah dah dah dadadada”. And he wants to make a phone call to say “mom mom I’m okay. I’m okay really”. But he can’t get to the phone right now. He remembers there was a man at the window waving at him. But he couldn’t hear because the sound was muffled. And the man has gone like his breath on the window - gone like that. Evaporated. And the shadows are crawling around the room in concentric circles. They are actually drawing into him The shadows – until he is enveloped in darkness
By now myself and Ann have let our food cool in the forks that are resting mid air frozen mid step - poised like soldiers in the bush. “It’s the war.” Said the Australian author “TheIraq war. It triggered something in him. Like a landmine left in the fields.It Blew up. Mybrother is now in hospital teaching his brain how to teach himself to teach his legs to walk.". Ann asks how his wife and children are coping "one step at a time" says the author "one step at a time".