The Joy Menu #47: Duty

“So I lined up, and when I got to the little table, I told them that I wasn't going to go.” He chuckles, shrugs, smiles his little smile. “I told them that I wasn't going to be serving.”

This week’s newsletter picks off where last week’s left off.

Dear Creators,

In the tan armchair beneath the bright window, I ask and I listen. 

My father sits on the chair we gave him for his fiftieth birthday (what do you get a man who likes, more than anything, to sit and to read?), beneath the green artwork, the naked woman lying sideways on a park bench, an image I have seen nearly every day of my life. 

He tells me his stories and I record them on my phone.

“Is it like reporting to the DMV?” I ask. “You get in line, you take a number, and you go to the front when they call you?”

“No, no,” he says, and shakes his head.  “They give you a date. They tell which building, what time. Say your group is going to report on Tuesday the 16th. You show up, and you hang around, and you schmooze with the guys, and the guys have a little smoke. And then they say, ‘Okay guys, line up.’ They come and then they talk to you, or you sign in, and they say, ‘Okay, we'll see you in…’

“So it’s like a waiting room.”

“No,” he says. I can tell he sees a mental picture, which I do not. “You’re just hanging around outside. There’s an awning, a little desk. It’s a little out-building, and they put a little table out in front of it. It’s all very, I don’t know—family-style.”

“So when you went, how many of you were there hanging around?”

“Oh, there’s thousands,” he says. “Thousands. In different groups, come to do different things, for different reasons. But my group? Truck drivers? Maybe 200. All in all we were probably 200 or so. 

“So they line you up, all 200 hundred of you, and one-by-one they give you your assignments?”

“Yeah,” he says, nodding. “That was the idea. They say, ‘Okay, you’ll come on this date to Gaza, and we'll be going over to this camp.’ And they tell you what you’re going to do, and they tell you how many days you’re going to do it. Usually it was 30 days. Or maybe for the drivers it could’ve been 60, which would have been normal. 60 days a year was not unusual, I don’t think, back then. Especially for that kind of dumb work. Maybe if you were going to fight, or you were going to be on guard, they would take you for 30; but I think in those days it was 60. 60 days a year you had to do.”

Now I nod. I believe I’m getting close to imaging. I think of the massive complex—the hospital, the cancer ward, the psychiatric institution, and then this little table outside, under an awning, surrounded by 200 men, all between 21 and 45, lives put on pause to do this, to be here, smoking their cigarettes, waiting to be told where they’ll spend the next 60 days of their lives. Or, as in my father’s case, where they won’t.

“So I lined up, and when I got to the little table, I told them that I wasn't going to go.” He chuckles, shrugs, smiles his little smile. “I told them that I wasn't going to be serving.”

“Just like that?” I ask. 

I’m not surprised, really. Not by the fact—maybe a little by the mode of delivery.

I know this much. It’s what we’ve always known: he’s called to serve, to do his Reserves Duty, and he refuses. The rest of his story depends on this fact.

But I’m trying to paint a picture: the awning, the hospital, the petty bureaucracy, the men standing around smoking. My young father with his boyish face hidden behind a big, rough beard, as resolute in that moment as I’ve known him to be my entire life. Not quite stubborn, exactly, as stubbornness implies effort and he’s at ease in the immovability of his conviction—any conviction, really. More a flag pole planted in concrete than the flag itself waving, resolute, but loose, in the wind. 

He nods.

“Sure,” he says. “Just like that. They say: ‘Ok, stand over there,” and they sent me to the side. They told me to come back for my trial. Gave me a date and said, ‘See ya then’.”

“And you came back for your trial?”

“The first one, yeah.”

As vividly as I can imagine him there, doing this, it is still a world I’ve never known, can never know—one I can barely see in my mind’s eye.

My imagination is poor: it is a scene I see as if from movies: American movies, war movies. Completely unrelated movies—high drama in desert encampments. They carry none of the mundanity, the normalcy of what he describes: the mumbling bureaucracy which takes you out of the flow of your life, asks you to do what society deems necessary; to drive, to schlep, to move, even to steal, to kill, to die.

Years later, when he balks at putting on a Boy Scout uniform. When he eyes my Selective Service card dismissively. When, after 9/11, a man walks the streets of our neighborhood, offering everyone a complimentary American flag to hang, pridefully, alongside our garage doors: “So we can all stand in solidarity.” 

My father comes in, shaking his head, mumbling, “Bullshit.” 

“What did you tell him?” We ask—nervous that he’d started a confrontation.

“I told him ‘no thanks.’”

An undercurrent, a feeling that this pose, his poise, was not mere posturing, not an abstract conviction, not a vague political feeling.

I imagine the man at the door did not argue. You did not argue with my father when he was like that—not if you could avoid it.

Remember: At the end of this story he leaves the country and never returns.

More next week.

For now — onward toward creative joy,