Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Triad, Part III: Bringing us out of The Hole

Around the time I finally began to climb out of "the hole," I had a conversation with a friend of my wife. This gentleman was a veteran of Afghanistan, an elite combat controller with the United States Air Force. He'd been discharged after suffering injuries in the line of duty, and after talking with him for a while, I began thinking about my life and feeling discontent with the way things were going for me.

Things had been improving. I had two jobs, and was busy apartment hunting with a friend. I was slowly starting to pull things together in my life, but still things for me seemed dim. Most of my friends were still enrolled in college, working toward degrees. I, however, was too busy working dead-end jobs in customer-service and sales to really worry about my future, and I found myself envying this young man. He was my age, and was busy working toward a Bachelor's in Pre-Law. He'd already done some things with his life, and regardless of how they had worked out, he seemed to know something about himself that I did not. I found myself envying him, along with all of my friends in the local National Guard or Reserve. I found myself envying my father, having served his country in the Navy. I found myself envying my grandfather, who had served in WWII as a Marine. Later, talking with Anne, I expressed a concern that I was nearly twenty-one years old, no degree, and already feeling that my life was going nowhere. I found myself jealous of my friends in the service. Half-joking, half-challenging, my then-fiancee told me to go and talk to a recruiter.

I don't think she actually expected me to do it.

A month later, I shipped off for Army Basic Training, at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. I had talked it over with Anne, having decided to join the Army Reserve, and we had agreed that, even just by serving for a weekend a month, the sense of pride and educational opportunities I might be afforded would be far better for my sense of self-worth and long term future than anything I might have been doing at the time. Make no mistake: I did not join the Army because I was poor. I am not a mercenary. I did not join for money. What I DID join for was a change of pace, a chance for something new, and a chance to make something stronger of myself.
The real reason I was able to climb out of the hole, ultimately, is because of Anne. She fed me, cared for me, helped me look for resources to get me back on my feet, and it is because of her help that, after Basic, we were able to come back to an apartment in the city I loved, Marquette. With her help, I secured a good job as a computer salesman at a prominent Midwestern retail outlet. And with her love and support, I found the compassion to sustain my morale through all the hard times, both through homelessness and Basic, even through the decision to switch to Active-Duty. I survived my bout with poverty because I had someone like Anne to love me.

Money does not solve poverty in America. Love--love for yourself, love for your goals, and the love of people around you--these things solve poverty. I learned some hard truths about poverty in America, and the chiefest is that there is NO love, NO compassion from the employer, the loan officer, the car-dealer, the bank teller. If one truly wants to get out of poverty, one must, as they say in basketball, have the LOVE. That passion, that drive, is essential to maintaining the will to continue. And it cannot stop with the stabilization of one's bank account. Because no matter what happens, there is always someone poorer than you.

Last week, a friend from college dropped me a line. He was taking a graduation trip through Europe, and wanted to know where I was at. We made arrangements, and he stayed with us through the weekend in Germany. We talked and traveled and caught up on old times, and now, years after we first met each other, tried to make sense of those first wild days of our independence.

During a tour of the Frankfurt suburb in which I reside, my friend and I were accosted by a ragged-looking gypsy in jeans and a tattered flannel shirt. He was accompanied by a woman who appeared to be his wife, and together in broken German they asked me for a cigarette. I gladly indulged, but neither had lighters, or indeed anything other than the clothes on their backs. After a few moments of awkward conversation, the woman spoke up. She told me, in German, that they didn't know this area, and were wondering if I knew a cheap place to stay. I looked at her. Her eyes were sunken, and tinged with shame. Her teeth were brown, and she had an ugly scab on the bridge of her nose.

I hesitated for a moment--my German is conversational, but not fluent. I glanced up the street of the marketplace in which we stood, trying to get my bearings. After a moment, the couple cast each other an awkward glance, and the man, turning to us, asked nervously, if perhaps we had a bit of money--small change, kleine geld. Aaron had nothing, and I had no change myself. At the same time, I knew full well that no amount of change they could beg from strangers would cover the cost of a decent meal or a roof over the head. I took a moment to consider, and then decided. I produced my wallet, and took out a bill for 20 Euro, which I handed to the man. He looked up at me, in shock. He attempted to offer it back to me.

"Zwanzig," he asked. "Are you sure?"

I looked him the eyes, waving off the money. "It's fine," I told him. At this the man's eyes welled up with tears, and he and his wife each embraced me in a firm hug. They each thanked me profusely, smiling, and shook both my and Aaron's hands in gratitude. I grinned, and asked the man his name--Romano, he told me. His wife's name was Maria. I smiled and introduced myself. I pointed up the street to a local inn, about two kilometers from where we were standing. They thanked me again, and after confirming my directions, turned to go. They waved at us, smiling, and called out "Tschuss," the German equivalent of "cheers!"

After a few moments, walking into the wine shop where my wife had sent me on an errand, I turned to Aaron, who looked at me, perplexed. I sighed.

"I can't do it, man," I told him. "I can't just walk past people like that. I mean, sure they might not spend it the way I'd like, but I've been there, and you learn to read people. Those two needed it." Aaron considered this, and nodded. I don't know if he understood the meaning of my gesture. But I know this: giving them that 20 Euro was as important to me as it was to them.

It is only compassion which will bring us out of The Hole.


Blogger anno said...

Interesting reading. Sometimes I think we've been fed quite a line about so-called self-reliance and the myth of the self-made man.

Sometimes I think that we have been foolishly allowing social contracts to be abrogated--between corporations and their employees, for example; between government and its citizens; between husbands and wives, parents & children--and instead of feeling liberated or empowered, we are left feeling alone, lonely, and forlorn.

When we refuse to recognize ourself in others, we make our world much smaller, and much less resilient.

Thanks for posting this.

3:31 PM  
Blogger cameo said...

welcome back buddy boy! i have to go take care of kids and then have a meeting, but i'll be back later to read this!

4:40 PM  
Blogger anno said...

Unrelated to your post, but maybe still interesting: a friend of mine just told me about a project to collect stories from war veterans. With your writing skills and current connections, you might be interested in contributing (or helping someone else to put together their story). The link is

5:35 PM  
Blogger cameo said...

you're good people milo.

1:28 AM  
Anonymous Bob said...

You're a better man than me. I wish I was like this. Nice.

3:56 PM  
Blogger cinnabari said...

I think you nailed it--Compassion (or compassion, if it's not a religious virtue) and love are utterly lacking... in unemployment, in health care, in a lot of strata in this society. I won't comment on the obvious ironies of that absence in an ostensibly "Christian" nation. Why is Cinnabari a little bit of a socialist? Why, because poverty is not good for a society. Miserable people--are not. We spend a great deal of time in America making up myths about how poor people deserve it, they're lazy, etc. That makes me bugshit.

I am glad, but not at all surprised, that you came through your little ring of hell a better person. Anne sounds like a wonderful, strong woman, too. Good on you both.

7:00 PM  
Anonymous S. R. said...

Man brother, sounds like me in the late 90's.

7:10 PM  

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