Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Campaign Ribbons, Then and Now

As a youngster who grew up in the midst of World War II, and lived for a time close to an imaginary line dividing two basic training centers for draftees and recruits, your daily life was filled with military insignias.

Such forms of identity meant a great deal to you then, considerably more than when as a student later at a campus of the University of California, you were required to take ROTC courses, including ones where you needed to be able to identify such insignia and their functions.

The pre-teen you had his pack-rat collection instincts grow from the premium pictures of airplane pictures your father got with his Wings Cigarettes to an extensive collection of shoulder patch insignias worn by servicemen to identify their larger organizations and more significant, idiosyncratic smaller divisions.

You spent a good deal of your income from selling out-of-town newspapers or the Miami Herald to servicemen in army-navy stores, buying the more colorful of those imaginatively embroidered identity patches.

By the time you reached high school, your interest in things military had turned in other directions, focusing instead on cereal boxes, pulp magazines, and massmarket paperbacks (many of which you have today).

Identity meant different things to you at different times.  You still "collect" cultural tags by nothing such varied things as speech patterns, posture, clothing, jewelry, types of tattoos, etc but in general you are now more interested in classifying your own past approaches to your culture, your past and present reactions to politics, and the inexorable evolution of how you are a product of your experiences as well as your responses to them.  This does not preclude judgment, either of yourself or of others, but it does allow you a perspective you lacked before.  You are now as close as you've ever been to being able to withhold judgement on your characters until you have them in third or fourth draft.  You can more or less trace your evolution from being much more judgmental and critical of others than yourself to the point where you are more apt to be critical of yourself than of others, comfortable in the belief system whereby your best shot at changing anyone or anything is by changing your own approaches and/or techniques.

When you were collecting military insignia, you also had a growing collection of what was called fruit salad, small ribbons resembling regimental neckties in pattern, worn by service men and women on their uniforms as a sort of visible curriculum vitae or resume.  These ribbons included being stationed in various theaters of operations, having been awarded medals or citations, having been wounded in battle, and other capabilities.

There are no civilian equivalents for many of the "campaigns" or services you have experienced, leaving you to discover such things about others from conversations, research, gossip, and other forms of civilian activities, including that most civilian activity of pure speculation.

Many of your speculations prove accurate to amazing degrees.  Others are so far off the mark that you are taken aback by your own naivete and wrongheadedness.  Your closest equivalent to the military Purple Heart or having been wounded in the service of country is your survival of cancer, including the excision of tissue you were issued at birth.

Hardly anyone of your age has not lost both parents, nevertheless you continue to experience effects of those losses and have come to expect that most others have similar or near similar responses.  You have kept a number of your mother's favored tea antiques, including two cups from which, whenever you prepare boiled eggs for yourself at home, you use as egg cups.  To the best of your memory, you've never taken tea from either, nor made tea in the pot, although you frequently use the tea pot to hold bouquets of flowers.  You often see your father when shaving and are of relative certainty to spot him at least once a month in one or more dreams.

You sometimes find yourself in a dream conversation with your sister, which invariably ends with you in the dream coming to the awareness that this conversation cannot be real because she is dead, a condition that produces the racking sobs of grief.

In the past year, you've taken on two more campaign ribbons or, to follow the military tradition, there is a ribbon for major deaths.  Yours has two oak leaf clusters, signifying the death of two of your oldest, dearest friends.  Your reactions to these are to catch yourself thinking Digby or Conrad would have enjoyed a particular book or film or play, then swearing to the cosmos at their absence, followed by a sense that you wish to be as much a presence to your remaining friends as possible.

You've had a piecemeal relationship with flowers most of your adult life to the point of thinking your surroundings were incomplete without something in a vase or pot nearby.  There are perhaps other ways of describing your late wife's relationship with flowers, plants, and trees than saying she was unyielding in her passion for their welfare and positioning and care.  A way of describing this effect on your relationship with plants, succulents, and flowers is to say it is a rare shopping trip you make where you do not bring something growing home for the purpose of hanging out with it for its time.

The back yard is a tribute to your attempts at hanging out with potential plants from avocado and chiramoya seeds, each one thinking things over in its own container.

You have the civilian equivalent of relationships with a number of cats and dogs, a history that appears to have eased your awareness of the relationships of friends and remaining family to their cats and dogs.

Perhaps some of us are able to see these various civilian equivalents of campaign ribbons; perhaps this special sight helps us form friendships and reactions.

In any case, you do not need tangible sight of these civilian campaign decorations nor do you need the equivalent of a uniform on which to display them.  They are all a part of you.  You may forget about an individual one for a day or two, but then, in some quite ordinary braid of event, you'll think to have boiled eggs for breakfast, or you'll think to spray some water on a cymbidium, or catch a fleeting glimpse of Jake in your face as you lather up for a shave, using the brush Conrad gave you one Christmas, or you'll note a bucket of Dutch iris in the market and think, was it that Anne was so fond of these, or did she grow them because she knew you liked them?

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