Tuesday, April 17, 2012

No, make the Marines zombies

Yesterday I flew to Hilo for an artist residency at the University of Hawaii dedicated to Poetry Scores. The flight from Dallas, where I connected, was eight and a half hours, so I was pleased to have an aisle seat. A man squeezed into the middle seat next to me, and his wife squeezed into the middle seat behind him.

"If only she was sitting there, I'd let you guys trade seats," I said, pointing to the young man in the aisle seat behind me. This comment alerted the young man to the situation, and he shot right up and took the middle seat next to me so the two spouses could sit together.

"He's nicer than I am," I said.

As I sat back down, the young man muttered something very surprising for someone who was headed to Hawaii. "I hate going back there so much nothing could make it worse," he said.

I got him talking. He was a 20-year-old U.S. Marine from Alabama returning to base in Hawaii from a rare visit home. His heart was in Alabama, on a family farm and with a high school sweetheart, his best friend for seven years and his future wife, if he lives that long. He's deaf in one ear from improvised explosive devices going off near him in Afghanistan and bound to Japan for a possible theater of conflict in South Korea later this year.

Hawaii is home until then. I wondered why the natural beauty wasn't enough to tide him over.

"Alabama is beautiful enough," he said.

When I said I'd heard Afghanistan was beautiful too, he whipped open his laptop and showed me what seemed to be very ordinary fields, pointing out which crops the Afghani peasants had planted. His unit's job was to keep one bridge and its artery road cleared of explosives. They built an improvised military post near the bridge. They only had enough tents to protect the sensitive equipment, so the men slept in the open air.

This guy had been sleeping in full combat gear on the ground in Afghanistan. I could see why taking the middle seat on an airplane was not a meaningful sacrifice to him.

I felt compelled to wake this young man up to the value of living in Hawaii, but it was a dead end. The Marine base occupied the most beautiful beaches, he said, but he was alone on the beach or with other Marines who felt alone. When he went off-base, he met resistance from people whose best beaches were occupied by what amounts to a foreign military. Hawaii, he said, was the one place he'd been spit upon for being a U.S. Marine.

"I read up on the history, trying to understand," this young man said. "The Marine base is built up on some of their most sacred sites. Now no one can get to them except the military." His reading for the flight was a book about the meaning of heaven. He understood how people could resent the military occupation of their sacred sites. "I hardly leave the base anymore," he said. "I like Afghanistan better than Hawaii. There at least I got to do my job every day."

I told him why I was flying to Hawaii. The community-based arts organization I co-founded plans to do a major project with a native Hawaiian poet, Wayne Kaumualii Westlake. After putting his long poem about being a janitor on Waikiki Beach to music, we will shoot a silent movie to that music -- a silent zombie movie.

"The tourists will be the zombies," I said. "The real people will be the janitor and his native Hawaiian friends. But you make me want to make the Marines real people too."

"No," he said. "Make them zombies. Most Marines are not like me."

Then he put his face flat on the foldout tray and slept all the way to Hawaii.

After we had arrived in Honolulu and I'd wished him and his girl well, he had one last thing to say to me: "Make the Marines zombies." Then he stumbled off toward the military base.


Image from The Mary Sue.

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