It’s almost 2006, a date that seems like something from a science fiction movie in which men are traveling around on teleporters and making weekend trips to Jupiter. But, no, it’s 2006, and most of the day I am still stuck in traffic, especially the traffic in my head. That traffic is thoughts of old times and of how much less time I have left than I did even a few years ago.
I’ve started asking friends what their favorite memories are, what their happiest days were. I get stories of love, of parents’ expressing love to children, of romantic love, of a man fly fishing with his sons in a river in Montana. I get stories of peace and stories of revenge. And this thought keeps coming to my mind, which I’ll share with you now.
Probably the happiest moment of my whole life was when I had just quit being a trial lawyer for the FTC, the world’s worst job, had moved out to UC Santa Cruz to teach, dragged my colitis-racked body into my tiny prefector’s dorm room, unpacked, and then gone to look around. It was a surprisingly warm August night in Santa Cruz in 1972. I found a picnic table, a sturdy table indeed, and lay down on it on my back just for a lark. I looked up at the stars. I had never seen so many and they danced all around in the California sky.
I was at peace, free from cares and worries, about to plunge into a new life of love and redwood trees. And I know I’ve told you about this before and will again if I live.
For the next several weeks, I had a riot of romance with various women around Santa Cruz, got my first Weimaraner, learned to say good-bye to the day by staring at the sunset, and became generally a new man.
The old, frightened Benjy was gone at least for a few weeks or months.
I was a hero of the revolution, James Bond raking in the girl chips.
I was happy.
BUT WHAT JUST OCCURRED to me today, December 29, 2005, is that none of this, absolutely none, not one bit of it, would have been possible without the men and women of the Armed Forces. While I was busy being born (and not dying), men and women were getting blown to pieces by German 88’s and Japanese mortars to win the big one. While I was growing up, our freedom was saved by the Strategic Air Command (“Peace is our Profession”) and by men and women patrolling in the Arctic Circle. While I was in elementary school, my cousin Joe and my uncle Bob were fighting and fine men and women were dying at Cho-Sin Reservoir.
And at the moment I was looking at the stars in perfect peace, far better men than I were getting killed in ambushes in Vietnam.
So, yes, I had a moment of peace and weeks or months of romantic glory, but all behind the shield of the men and women who wear the uniform.
Other happy moments flood back to me: lying in my parents’ living room not long before they died, with my mother offering me grapes and my father reading the American Economic Review, and all of us at peace. And this was a rare moment indeed. All inside the glittering dome made for us by the men aboard nuclear submarines and the women caring for the sick, and the policemen of the District of Columbia and the firemen and EMT’s, too.
And my favorite moments now, lying in bed in front of the fire, wind blowing through the palm fronds outside, with the dogs and my wife, napping while the dogs snore and my wife reads her mysteries: and all while far better men and women than we are fight and die in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families live in terror back home.
A glorious moment: speaking as valedictorian of my class at Yale Law, ’70, talking airily about peace and love and gardens of Eden, and all the while, as I chattered in my bubble, high on something, I am sure, with my coterie of girls watching and oooh-and-ahhing, far better humans than I, with far better claims to human decency than I, with far closer relations to the Almighty, were being held in prison camps and torture chambers in Vietnam.
Now that I think of it, every moment that’s great in my life shares the same foundation: we live large thanks to those who serve in difficult, life-threatening places and ways.
So, as the science fiction year of 2006 dawns, my main resolution is to keep in mind the guys in whose shadows we all walk, behind whose shields we all live, the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces, and God bless them and their families in 2006 and forever.
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