Old Man River, Old Man War.

Muscatine pearl buttons.

My trip to Muscatine with a friend from Iowa City was magic: a Mississippi town that boomed, then busted on making pearl buttons from river clams (close relatives of paua, abalone). I loved it, an older rural America on the way there and not a strip mall in sight in the town’s central area. The locals are mostly opposed to Walmart and its clones wrecking their history (it reminded me of Oamaru back home, or Wanganui).

The river is unspeakably huge – not quite the Amazon, but pretty impressive. Seeing one of those massive barges dock when we drove up to see the lock was something else. I had a great time talking with my driver there and back – as well as getting out of Iowa City and away from hotel cabin fever. Turns out that PTSD aka combat stress/adrenaline addiction is haunting and following me – his brother-in-law is a case in point.

Ex-army, ten years in uniform, an Iraq War vet, he’s a security guard in Kabul now. He’s an All-American guy with a family he leaves behind to work with guns and violence; peace and domesticity unnerve him, having tasted too often the power involved in killing people. It seems he enjoys it. Guns, my informant says, are equalisers. The small guy is as big as Rambo if he draws and fires first. So they do.

I had a similar conversation with another friend this morning (yes, I am protecting my sources): a former lover, a veteran once asked her not to be surprised if she found him in the corner of the room one night speaking Vietnamese. We all know where he got that from.

In 1968 on a trip back to New Zealand from Western Australia where I was shearing, we got held up by a crew strike at Sydney Airport. Three hours with nothing to do but people watch.

Buses pulled up outside (it wasn’t so big then, you could see the departing passengers coming in from the street while you waited). Lines of young, tall, crew-cut men filed through and out the back somewhere. They looked depressed, hungover – with good reason. They were Marines going back to Vietnam after R&R in Australia.

They were going back very likely to die. They were facing more bloody trials in that initiation into the blood camaraderie my father knew. I am reading Karl Marlantes book on PTSD right now. He speaks of this in depth, he’s been there (What It Is Like To Go To War).

Many years ago I bought a tape on poetry and the sacred from a Catholic publisher in the US. Inside the package was a flyer for another set of audio books, one by a writer named Richard Rohr on male initiation and the need to pass through life stages with socially ordained rituals.

Marlantes observes that we don’t have these rites of passage so universally now in our world, obsessed as we are with personal freedom (I am not saying they don’t exist all) – so we can avoid such trials.

He believes war is one such constant, the experience of combat providing the passage from ordinary life to a confrontation with our mortality, an extreme entry into the present moment where nothing else exists but the danger and the surviving of it.

This was what my father knew, in those seven seconds the kamikaze broke cloud and dived on his ship, was hit, deflected and exploded alongside in the sea. He saw his death coming.

Back to Rohr: I clipped this from the blurb about his audio tape and it is in my little meditation book and I read it from time to time, never exhausting its simple truths:

1.Life is hard.
2.You are not that important.
3.Your life is not about you.
4. You are not in control.
5. You are going to die.


About paparoa

Writer and researcher.
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