"Ladies and Gentlemens:
Thanks for having me here to honor those who've served. I was a soldier. Then I was a teacher. Now I'm just a... well, a citizen, I guess.
A teacher. One day I'm dozing through a meeting of the English Composition section at the little college where I've washed up. My colleagues are selecting topic essays for a timed writing exam. Idea is to give a common text, ask a couple of saccharine questions, extort from students some kinda expository prose. Profs reading aloud timely passages to urge on the group. It's the catalogue of the times: Acid rain. Urban crisis. Nuclear winter. Violence in the movies. Campaign finance. Some kinda owl.
I feel my chin sagging to my chest. Lids settling. May be drooling. I'm in a state of grace. Through the cotton I can hear a voice reading out the first lines of a specimen essay by Paul Theroux: "I am ashamed to be a man. Being a man means being unfeeling, obedient, soldierly, stupid…" Soldierly. Stupid.
No. Hey. Now we've got the whole Faculty hammering out a new curriculum for our little college. Agenda item is the "problem-solving curriculum," where we put… I dunno: "problems" before the students and they ...whatdya figure... "solve" them. One prof gets up to object: "Problem-solving? That's what Kennedy and his advisors tried in Viet Nam. Problem solving. And look at the stupid solutions he came up with… enclaves, carpet bombs, Green Berets…" Green Berets. Stupid.
No. Hey. I'm just outta the war. Back on campus trying to go unnoticed. Snoozing through graduate courses, schlurfing beer, chasing girls. One afternoon, I lure a nubile coed into a yogurt stand where I spring for a carob bean cone. "You got drafted?" she asks between flicks of her tongue… "No. I enlisted," I say without thinking. Pause. "That was stupid…" Enlisted. Stupid.
No. Hey. It's inauguration day for that Black Wall up in DC. Civilians all mooing about it. I wander along its length, look down at the stuff laid along the Wall. Mementos: poems, six-pack of beer, flowers, combat boots, dog tags. A popsicle stick jammed in the ground with little banner glued to it catches my eye. I stoop, pick it up. It reads: "Nomina stultorum parietibus haerent." What? Figure it's some kinda Latin tribute for the dead? You know: "Dulce et decorum…" "Here lie in in honored repose…" Something like that? It's Quintus Horatius Flaccus… Horace, the Roman poet: "The names of stupid men appear on walls…" Dead. Stupid.
Well, I was a soldier. 26 years, peace and war. And I suppose that if I'm not all those things just this minute—unfeeling, obedient, soldierly, stupid—I have been over time.