Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Grappling With Ghosts

I can still see him clearly in my mind today, six years later. There was nothing spectacular about him, nothing outstanding, but I have not been able to get this stranger out of my mind. For awhile, I wished I'd quietly taken a photo of him, as he watched the concert that summer evening.

Let me go back to July of 2003, to a place in Nebraska called Comstock, where weekend music festivals are held during the summertime. The weekend lineup of rock groups were from the '70's and 80's, and Jerry and I were excited to have a weekend getaway to see these acts perform. Rock giants like Steppanwolf, Blue Oyster Cult, Grand Funk Railroad, George Thorogood and the Destroyers, Creedence Clearwater Revisited, Little River Band, Foghat, the lead singer of Foreigner, and the headliners Def Leppard, among others were on the schedule from Friday night till Sunday night.

Friday night we were all sitting in lawn chairs or on blankets on the ground, far up the hill from the mosh pit. People were in groups of two to twenty, waiting for Creedence Clearwater Revisited to come up next. The first two acts had just finished up and the heat of the day was starting to dissipate a little. The high for the day was 105.

He wore a white t-shirt and a pair of denim overalls, with farm boots and clean white socks. The cap on his head was printed with a"Vietnam Vet" VFW gold insignia. I figured he was a farmboy from Nebraska who had been called up by the draft in the 60's. Throughout the first two acts, he had laid all chilled out on a lawn chair with a footrest. During intermission, it appeared he might have dozed off for awhile.

But I digress. He was totally relaxed and chilling on that lawn chair, with the pup tent shielding him and his wife from the hot sun, until the announcer introduced Creedence Clearwater Revisited and they launched into the guitar introduction to "Run Through the Jungle." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that reclining, middle-aged, gray haired man, jump up and leap into the air and let loose a whoop to join the rest of the audience that was on their feet, too.

He whooped and leaped once more, and then he fell back on that rickety lawn chair, which unceremoniously dumped him onto the ground, as it fell to the side. And I watched spellbound as he sat up and just sat there on the brown grass, totally dejected and physically spent. His body was in Nebraska, but his mind had broke through the time barrier and leaped over 3 decades of time. I had the sense that he was back to 1968, sitting in the jungle cover, in the mountains of Vietnam, with his M-16 in his hands and the ghosts of his buddies calling to him over the span of time.

I tried hard not to stare, but something about this man's nostalgic journey back in time grabbed at my heart and I could not take my eyes off him. I had never seen somebody of his age become so animated and enthusiastically react to the music of his generation and then slump into what I thought may have been a post traumatic stress episode so instantly. I had never seen somebody jump so high physically and then emotionally crash, just as suddenly.

After several minutes of "Running Through the Jungle", they went through the other songs in their repertoire: Suzy Q, Proud Mary, Green River and many others. The crowd was appreciative and rowdy, but that veteran was totally still and unresponsive. Each time I glanced his way, I felt like I was intruding into his space, but I couldn't seem to stop myself. There was something about him that really yanked on my heart. He was there, but he really wasn't "there."

I have no idea who he was, or where he lived, but I have found myself thinking about him every now and then, and I find myself saying a prayer for him to find peace for his memories and the past, and to find a way to weave all those experiences into the means to live as a whole person today. I pray for all of those who grapple with the gray ghosts in their past, which are triggered by a few familiar chords of a favorite chart climber from that era; just a few notes are strummed and the past may be resurrected.

As Creedence Clearwater finished up their set, he and his wife folded up the pup tent, lawn chairs, and their "baggage" and slipped quietly into the shadows of that Nebraska night. When I glanced over a few minutes later, another group of concert goers was spreading out their things and claiming the spot.

I'm thankful, now, that I didn't take a photo of him. It would have been a sacrilege. I'm glad I didn't intrude into his personal space and add to his grief; but, I will never forget that vet.


Dave Ja Vu said...

Wow. That's all I can say. It really makes you thankful for those who spend their youth fighting for our freedoms while the rest of us go on about our everyday lives. We truly are blessed to live in this country.

teddybears place said...

Tami that was very touching ...thank you for sharing

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful story. I find I am more often then not a people watcher. Wondering who they are, where they have been, and where they are going. This is a remarkable vision of just that. Thank you so much for sharing "him" with me. I remember an exerpt from a movie said about choosing to spend your life with someone else. We need a witness to our lives, someone who knows we existed. Someone to say this life has meaning. You did that for a stranger here. You brought his existence to the hearts of others so he doesn't go unnoticed.