Youth Evolving

Picture a picture.  A photograph.  I’ve got a specific one in mind, but it’s likely one you’ve not seen.  Any photograph will work for this lesson, but if it’s one of your own, one from your youth works best.  Your teenage years.  The photograph that I’m imagining is one of a slightly older friend of mine.  It shows him as a teenage machine-gunner in Vietnam.  I didn’t know him at the time, of course; I was too young to be sent off as a national sacrifice for a police action to protect capitalism.  In any case, I got to know this friend later, after he’d survived the conflict, wounded but alive, and I was struggling to survive puberty.  Emotions at that time were off the charts, but I never saw the photo until I was an adult.

Why am I asking you to think of old pictures?  I was recently reading a discussion where intelligent people were wondering why, throughout human history, we have idealized youth.  I suppose there’s no single answer, but I have a suspicion that it has to do with evolution.  We often wrongly assume that we can get at the naked truth.  As if we could somehow get outside of our own frame, our personal point-of-view, and look at reality objectively.  Our brains, however, evolved to help us survive in an often hostile environment.  The “point”—if you’ll allow me to hypostasize a bit—of evolution is to survive long enough to reproduce.  Many species with young that can care for themselves simply die at that point.  Mission accomplished.

As human beings (and mammals) our young need parental care to survive, at least for a few years.  Biology would seem to dictate that by the time we can reproduce—that self-same puberty which is such a difficult age—is the point at which we’ve reached our evolutionary goal.  There’s something deeper going on here, of course, but I wonder if this might not be behind the question of why we idealize youth.  We remember with a sharp pang—don’t need to see a doctor about that one—the incredible and unsurpassed discoveries we personally made at that age.  There will be other surprises as life goes along, of course, but nothing will ever equal our biologically determined goal.  I’m oversimplifying, I know.  Still, this may be one mystery that is less mysterious than it seems.  I know this because I have a photograph of a young man.  It matters not if it is of someone I know or me.  We have made it through our most awkward age, and we reflect on how it made us into who we have become.

Was I ever that young?

Fighting Nightmares

Some things are so personal, and inexplicable, that they’re difficult to put into words. Not only that, but they often involve other people and I try not to comment on those who actually know me in person. Still, having just watched Apocalypse Now for the first time, I feel I must. One of the people I admire most was a high school teacher. Although I never really said as much to him directly, he is one of the most formative people in my life. He served, and was shot up in Vietnam as a youth. His outlook on life, one that I’ve tried to emulate especially when my petty foibles overwhelm me, is an inspiration. I’m sure that he doesn’t know it, but every time I think of Vietnam he’s always in my mind.

Never a fan of war movies—I’m baffled that anyone can think of war as anything other than pure barbarism—I generally can’t watch them. Apocalypse Now, however, was widely discussed when I was in high school. It was released in 1979, just four years after the war had ended. It illustrates well the fog of war, and the Doors have been seeping in my head ever since the movie faded to black. When my wife and I began renting movies—VHS, of course—we made a list of must-see titles. First, partially for alphabetic reasons, was Apocalypse Now. That it took us almost two decades to get to it says something about the nature of life. And also my fear of war movies. Still, I knew I needed to see it. I figure that unless someone is even more behind the times than me, nearly forty years is safe from spoiler alerts.

The idea, based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is that Colonel Kurtz has gone insane and Captain Willard has been called in to assassinate him. As he makes his way upriver Willard finds out that Kurtz is treated like a god. He has a cult following and does appear to have lost touch with reality. In the climatic scene, Willard hacks Kurtz to death as a cow is being hacked to death outside as a sacrifice. Ending with Conrad’s original words, “the horror, the horror,” an ambiguity lingers over what a people will do once their god has been killed. In fact, language of people being gods occurs early in the film as well, bookending this concept. The truth, of course, is that there are no gods here at all. I can’t guess what Conrad would’ve thought of this adaptation of his story. I know that when I saw it my thoughts returned to one man whose impact on my life continues in ways unexpected and deeply hidden.

Year of Poe

Apart from sharing a “middle” name, I would never dare compare myself to Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, I dabble in the literary arts, but every acolyte recognizes a true priest when he sees one. So as my train pulled into Boston, a city that has deep emotional resonances for me, I decided to stop and see where Edgar Allan Poe was born. The actual site is now a parking structure, an unexpected parallel between our emerging universes. All of my childhood homes, with one exception, are now parking lots. Standing at the foot of the memorial plaque near Emerson College, I reflected on my Poe year. I visited his college room at the University of Virginia in February, his one-time apartment in Philadelphia in March, his burial site in Baltimore in August, and now his birthplace. Not in any chronological order, but a voyage of discovery nevertheless.

This is the essence of pilgrimage. It is not rational and not really practical, but it is something people do. With religious intensity. I am in Boston as part of my secular job, but the city has sacred associations for me. I met my wife here, and that single event has changed my entire life. Boston will always be the place where something extraordinary happened to me. Poe did not like Boston, but for me it is the eternal city. Even the places with negative associations stake claims upon us. Over the weekend a friend posted a picture online taken before combat forced his evacuation from Vietnam many years ago. I kept coming back to that picture throughout the day. Lingering. Staring. Even though I’d never been there, it was like place had the ability to haunt those who’d even dared to look.

Poe and my friend are both writers who’ve drawn me into their worlds. What better way is there to learn that the universe is indeed infinite? Looking out my window at a Kenmore Square I recognize only by the giant Citgo sign that shed its garish light on many an evocative student night, I realize even eternal cities change. The last time I was in South Station I was saying goodbye to the woman I hoped, but did not know, would become my wife. Almost as if on cue, ” Lola” by the Kinks spills out of a local store as the Citgo sign flickers to life over the scene of my coming of age. In Boston I will always be twenty-three, wars will be long over, and Poe will remain alive forever.

Hair Cut

“This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius.” So we hear in the first number of the musical Hair. Since my daughter is learning about the 1960’s counter-culture in US History, she asked her middle-aged parents what life was like then. Well, my wife and I were both born in the early sixties and were a little young to get the full scope of things through juvenile eyes. Besides, I was raised in a biblically literalist family—probably not the best place to gain a great deal of insight into popular culture. We decided to watch Hair instead. One of the few aspects of that era I recall is the Vietnam War (something George W. Bush apparently didn’t remember). The optimism of the hippie movement never really came to fruition leaving an entire era of disillusionment to hang over the remaining years of the millennium. Nevertheless, there is a sense of freedom in Hair that conveys the exuberance of young idealism—something I can honestly claim to have never outgrown. Without idealism we, as a species, are lost.

As I watched the movie for the first time in years its biblical subtext occurred to me this time around. The identity of the youthful protestors is in their counter-cultural hair. Indeed, the show takes its very name from that aspect. Apart from the ubiquity of the hirsute righteousness on the screen, it is essential to the plot. As Claude Bukowski stops in New York City on his way to join the army, he falls in with the Philistine element of society—the long-haired (read uncircumcised) misfits who defy the principles of decency. The dinner party at the Franklin residence makes that perfectly clear. When thrown in jail Woof protests over-strenuously to having his hair cut, leading to the title number. When the friends decide to visit Claude on the army base on the eve of his departure for Vietnam, George Berger has his hair shorn (by a woman) and subsequently loses his strength. His vital force of arguing his way out of any predicament is sapped as he marches to the troop transport plane that flies him to his death. Singing about believing in God as he goes.

I have never used drugs—life has a way of being weird enough already without them—but the sixties seem to have had a moral righteousness that the Tea Party just can’t claim. It was a righteousness borne of speaking the uncomfortable truth to a society that honored the status quo above all else. The very status quo ante the Tea Party craves—a society of bigotry and inequality. A society of privilege and strict conformity. A balding society that has lost its voice. Drugs are not necessary to see unbelievable things. One of the Bible’s original Avengers, Samson tears his Hulk-like way through any crowd, felled only by the cutting of his hair. Hair also led to the death of Absalom, the son whose life David valued more than his own. At the end of the show it is quite clear where the righteousness really lies.

War and Peace

A few weeks back a friend pointed me to a Facebook-style website someone in my high school graduating class had put together. In high school I was awkward, shy, and a little too obvious about my religious beliefs, so I was a bit timid to join. Nostalgia eventually got me in a headlock, just like in gym class, so I signed up. One of my classmates helped me to find one of the people who had a profound impact on my life. Although I never had him for a class, Mr. Milliken was my Creative Writing Club advisor, and a person I utterly respect and admire. I’m not normally a hero worshiper, but Mr. Milliken had been through more suffering than many men his age and had come out of it a sincere, caring, and thoughtful individual. When I found out that he had published a brief collection of his poetry about his time in Vietnam, I immediately ordered it.

Available from Lulu.com

War has always haunted me. Perhaps it was partially because of the tales Mr. Milliken sometimes told, or because of my macabre reading about the terrors of twentieth-century conflicts, but whatever the cause for my fear, it was real. War has been with humanity for as long as its more docile cousin, civilization. Being rational creatures, there seems to be no reason that we should not be able to reason ourselves out of armed conflict, but we don’t. Knowing that one of my most respected high school influences had nearly died in Vietnam chilled me. Reading his poetry, I shiver once again.

While justifying it on theological grounds, the Hebrew Bible takes a fatalistic view of war. Killing of enemies who stand in the way of god’s plan is sanctioned, commanded even. The victims, however, are humans just like the victors.

When I get caught up in the complex web of difficulties my own life has woven into, I find it easy to complain. Reading when they come with guns, however, reminds me that many have had it much worse and have come out as superior human beings. For those who are victims of war, we can only hope that forgiveness will somehow descend on those of us who have not yet put an end to it.