Clarity of Intention
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Yesterday was Veterans' Day, and today's the federal holiday. The Urban Man missed the parade, but I spent hours looking for a picture of my father, taken on an aircraft carrier in 1944. I tore apart closets and rummaged through boxes.
I'm sure it survives somewhere, buried under snapshots from my own scattered life. But somehow, I just can't lay my hands on it.
The photo showed a 20-year-old standing shirtless on the flight deck of the USS Lake Champlain with an open leather jacket hanging loosely from his shoulders. He's handsome and sure-footed. He looks at us resolute but unsmiling. He's proud of the muscled abdomen he's built in basic training. Behind him looms a gray anti-aircraft gun and the far rim of a gray Atlantic.
I liked this photo because there, in my father's eye, I saw no uncertainty.
Maybe you share my habit of speaking to old pictures as if they offered a time-warp portal to an instant in the past. For some reason, it only works with the original print. When I stared into this one, I could feel the cold wind and the big sky and hear the men milling on deck, just out of sight. Back in port, one of the guys had bought a new camera.
"Art," he says, "I'll get you in front of the gun."
At once my father unzips his flight jacket and poses while his buddy tries to figure out the lens.
"Hey, hurry up, I'm cold."
In the millisecond before the shutter snaps, I'd get my chance to speak. I'd say:
"Listen, dad: It's your unborn son talking from the future. Yes, time is a bigger mystery than wars or oceans. Already I'm much older than you, but you may be surprised to learn I'm not much wiser. In fact, at this moment, you own a certainty of intention I have always envied. You will survive, marry, finish college, spawn children, die at eighty-one. But this may be your greatest moment. Never again, in either of our lifetimes, will righteous national purpose converge so perfectly with youth and strength. Go on: taste that morning breeze. I'm sure it blows entirely without irony."
People in old photos don't get to talk back. And anyway, just then, the camera goes click.
In the intervening years, of course, our nation has sustained many ironies, along with a lengthening list of wars fought for ill-defined or problematic purposes. And yes, like most Americans, along with trying to hold on to the meaning of freedom while living in the gaudy funhouse of freedom—I keep trying to retrieve the clarity of that moment in history. The brave consistency of that hour. Like the greatest generation, I want to, you know, identify the enemy, feel a clean and resolute wind in my face.
And damn if it doesn't get harder every day.
I mean, often I lose clear intention among the chic restaurants and luxury emporiums, the androgyny, heterodoxy, and unrestricted flow of capital in the nonstop wild west of my liberty. Often cynical leaders use the merest scent of brave purpose as a lure and a snare. Still, like any urban man or woman worth his or her salt—I do keep trying to sniff it out and hunt it down.
My father is gone. His whole generation is fading fast. But I believe that—as in a photograph—every person gets to inhabit his own greatest moments forever. And yes, I promise to find that lost print. Like I said, I'm sure I have it buried in some closet, under some pile of lesser pictures, or preserved at the bottom of some forgotten box…somewhere.
Copyright © 2007 Marc Porter Zasada. All Rights Reserved. P.S.: if you run into a vet this evening…say thanks.
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