A Bit About Two Veterans

 

They are zooming toward us like cannon balls, screaming past the black diamonds, on plastic seats attached to a single ski. They are butt-slaloming. Meantime, my co-worker is being a butt.  He’s complaining. He’s rude to guests. He’s yelling at me. He is miserable, but I am thrilled as I watch my new friend, Lt. Colonel Greg Gadson shush past. He is followed by a tall guy in a red jacket on real legs, on two skis. This, I learn, is Lt. Colonel Chuck Schretzman. My insides are warm, but my hands, face and ass are freezing. The cold shoulder from the videographer who is apparently suffering from some sort of altitude dementia, does not help. We are on the side of a mountain in Breckenridge, Colorado shooting a story about wounded warriors learning to ski.

Schretzman and Gadson met on what they call the “friendly field of strife,” in the early ‘80’s at West Point. They were both defensive ends, vying for time on the turf. From that competition, grew a life-long friendship. Weddings, kids, many deployments and one downhill run later, they ended up here, with me, at the bottom of the mountain.

Schretzman is tall, broad, blue- eyed and blonde- the opposite of Greg. Pretty stunning, actually. I chat with him, while trying to mask my colleague’s impatience. It’s like trying to casually shake a lobster off my hand. We’re chatting when Schretzman leans closer and says,

“Do you need me to talk to that guy?”

I’m embarrassed and say no, and wish I had a 2×4. But I’m also impressed by his observation and kindness.

Then it’s Casino night at the lodge and Chuck buys me a beer which I nurse for hours.  The next day we’re back outside and he yells from the lift.

“Hey are you still drinking that beer?”

Mr. Grumpy and I finish shooting that afternoon and go inside. I see Greg and Chuck sitting alone at a table. I grab beers and sit down. It’s only then I notice the tears streaming down Greg’s face. They are looking at photos of the blown-up Humvee.  I don’t want to intrude, but I don’t want to chicken out. So I sit. I give Greg a hug, which seems stupid and futile. Like that’s going to fix things.

But I learn about staying.

I’m sitting at my desk at the Pentagon Channel and Chuck calls to tell me that Greg is going to the Super Bowl and will be talking to the New York Giants before they head out onto the field. It takes me a few weeks to get the whole story. Greg had been speaking to the team all season, about teamwork, about thinking of nothing but the guy next to you, about the reason he is alive was the guy next to him. He talks to them the night before the playoffs at Green Bay. And they win. And then, the New York Giants, against big odds, win the Super Bowl. Because they had this lucky charm. It’s just this freaking great story.

I know very little about the military, and nothing about football, so I figure I’m the perfect person to write this story. And I ask Greg if he minds being the subject of a book. It takes him a while to say yes.

I spend the next couple of years interviewing his mom, his dad, his daughter, his friends, his doctors, therapists and teammates. I even get to talk to Michael Strahan and Coach Tom Coughlin. It takes me months to find soldiers who blew up in that Humvee. Kim, his wife, does not want to talk but emails wonderful excerpts from her personal journal. I learn about battlefield medicine, the golden hour and how to annoy Army public relations folks. I become exceptionally good at annoying public relations folks.

I talk with Chuck about the moment he heard Greg had been hurt- how he’d just picked up his keys and got in his car. Chuck told me about meeting Greg’s wife, Kim at Walter Reed, and watching Greg be wheeled, unconscious, on a stretcher, to the ICU. He told me what Greg’s legs looked like, before they were amputated. Best of all, he told me the story of Greg coming to, a few days after arriving at the hospital, as Chuck stood over him reading letters from West Point teammates. Greg had simply opened his eyes and said the words, “Golden Rule.” Chuck was baffled, so then Greg blurted, “Be on time!”  It was their West Point football coach’s golden rule – to be on time.

Eventually I feel like the book is done. It ends with the Super Bowl victory. I am an okay writer, but terrible at marketing and as time passes, so much more happens. Greg’s in a movie called “Battleship,” he goes to the Olympics in Beijing, he becomes a model for Ossur, which makes prosthetic legs so he makes a lot of Zoolander jokes. He admits to having suicidal thoughts, in his early days of recovery. And I feel like I need to re-write.

So I keep talking to Greg about things, because by now he is my good friend. And he calls one day to say something is wrong with Chuck. Then he calls weeks later to say Chuck is fine. Then he calls after that to say Chuck has ALS.

It is now Greg’s turn to be the rock. For Chuck and for his wife, Stacey.

I know nothing about ALS. Except that so far, no one has survived it.

So, I am the perfect person to write this book.

At least I’m going to try.

Chuck and me at Greg's - Copy

Talking with Chuck.  Photo by Greg.

Bubble Wrap for the Soul

I didn’t cry until I heard his voice.

On my way to the gym in the early morning darkness, even NPR couldn’t make him sound better. How dare he try to sound conciliatory. Just one more artless con, I thought, spilling tears so fat I heard them splat onto my spandex.

I bumbled through body pump class, staring straight ahead, knowing that any number of people in the room had colored in a dot next to the name of an international joke. I recalled the November, 2004 cover of London’s Daily Mirror, which featured a picture of George W Bush and the headline, “How Could 59,054,087 people be so dumb?”

The only folks I could see benefitting from this election are the cast and crew from Saturday Night Live, but I’m not sure Alec Baldwin really wanted a fulltime gig.

At Starbucks, I ran into my friend, Susan. We hugged and cried in the parking lot then walked in together. I pulled my jacket around me tighter. I wished I had on baggier clothes. Lots of them. Because now it’s apparently okay to leer at women and make disgusting remarks. It’s so okay, that people elected a man clearly prone to this behavior, as their president.  I looked at the floor and Susan and bags of coffee. She talked about her daughters. I thought about a moment earlier in the campaign when I’d seen a little girl watching him speak, and I’d wanted to cover her ears.

Driving home though, I was forced to note traffic milling along at its normal pace.  Buildings still stood, the sun was rising. Indeed, the heavy curtain at the temple of Jerusalem had not torn. America didn’t seem broken… at least the Edgewater part of it. But I felt broken. Or at least soundly kicked.

Back home the girls hovered, nosing at my hands and leaning into my legs. I’m amazed at how they understand when I’m sad and do their best to bubble wrap my shriveled little soul.

My friend Jenn had asked Lillian and me to pay a visit to their neighbor, Andy, who was now in Hospice. She and her husband Craig had helped him out – cleaning up his yard and keeping an eye out – as his disease claimed more and more of his mobility.

I did not feel like visiting with strangers, but I’d said I’d go, so I bathed both girls and headed to Pasadena.

“Oh look who’s here!” one of the nurses called out, gleefully.

God, who could be happy today?

“Our regular therapy dog is out this week. People will be so glad to see you!”

Normally there are only a few patients well enough to visit, but there were many, along with their dog-loving visitors. We spent some time with Andy, who petted Lilly, gave her a treat and called her “pretty.” We traveled the halls, bestowing licks and love and accepting the compliments of sick and weary strangers with sloppy, happy grace. Lillian does not mind admiring glances. We stopped back in on Andy before we left.

On the way home we went to Jon’s office where both Lillian and Delilah frolicked from room to room, putting on a great show of irreverence and misbehavior. The girls obviously hadn’t listened to NPR that morning, and had ignored Chuck Todd the night before. They were soft, furry, exploding swirls of pure joy.

Later that same evening, I attended a fundraiser, dreadfully certain that I would be surrounded by victorious Trumpettes. But two women, for no apparent reason, immediately befriended me, and I had quite a nice time getting to know them and about the cause: FoodLink, which at that moment needed emergency cash to buy meals and diapers for local families.  I offered them free writing services.

The next morning, I checked to see if the President-elect had become bored with his national prank. No luck. I summoned my seeped energy to attend a veterans’ event hosted at the Washington Post. My friend Gina had invited me to watch what turned out to be an interesting series of interviews. She bought me lunch after. And she gave me some great tips and leads to find a few new clients. She was sad too, but still generous, kind and helpful.

Sometime that afternoon, I got texts from Jenn and Craig. Andy had passed away. They both thanked me for visiting. He’d mentioned us. It seemed a bright moment for him. We’d done a good thing.

The fog was beginning to lift.

I appreciate President Obama’s calls for unity. I’m humbled by Michelle Obama’s ability to politely host her incoming replacement. But I’m not ready. Not yet. Because I cannot unite with hate, exclusion and bigotry. I don’t embrace narcissism. I’m still shaking off the shell-shock  -the realization that half of this country threw its support behind an immature bully, who has so little regard for others.

But the last 48 hours have reminded me:  For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Each act that attempts to tear us down must be met with a powerful thrust of thoughtfulness. Every bruising blow must be mended by the sweet salve of kindness.  Insults- paid forward with hugs and dog kisses.

That is how we will fight.  We will put on our furry bubble wrap and hold on to our truths and our values. We can run happily from room to room and bring joy to others.  That is how we will fight and how, in the end, we will win.

 

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