Inspired by the experiences of David Wiseman
The Folk Singer
by Steven Prouse
Traveling for work, I found myself at a bar outside of Asheville washing the taste of the day off my tongue with a scotch and a burger. My button-down cotton blend had the top button undone and my quirky deep purple tie with tiny black bats so small they looked like dots let me have my little rebellion while I waded through my data management presentation for a room of cookie-cutter bank execs. All I wanted was silent solitude. But I wasn’t getting that tonight.
The news blared from a few monitors around the bar. Bombings here. Pandemic there. The screw up in the rapid withdrawal from a war almost as old as I am. I rolled my eyes and did my best to block it out. Too exhausting.
When I was halfway through my burger, the lights in the room dimmed and the ones over a small stage in the corner behind me came on. They were doing an open mic night or something. I looked around the room and saw several folks with instruments that I hadn’t noticed before.
An older guy with long white hair started the night. He stepped up and sat in a chair in front of the mic and pulled out an acoustic guitar. Most everyone in the room ignored him but for a few people in a booth beside the stage who applauded him. Obviously friends of his.
He strummed a few chords to tune the guitar and introduced himself. David something. And talked a bit before beginning some folksy anti-war thing. I really didn’t have the patience for the noise so I got the bartender’s attention, paid the bill, and left.
It was fall and the brisk night was still young and I had no interest in heading back to the hotel this early, so I turned left and began a walk that meandered the streets a bit until I found a park. The park had a decent walking path, so I wandered through and did a bit of people watching. Not too many out: a couple strolling. Some lady walking her dog. A few joggers. There were a couple homeless people settling onto some benches up ahead. Not wanting to deal with any panhandling, I casually turned around and walked back toward the park entrance and the bus stop there.
Exiting the park, I noticed the bus driving away. Just missed it. Another would be here soon, so I grabbed a spot on the bench and pulled out my cell phone to scroll Facebook and to numb the mind and waste time with a candy-matching game.
I didn’t notice the white-haired man take a spot on the bench next to me.
“I saw you back there at Jack’s, right?”
I looked up and immediately recognized his face. The folk singer from the bar.
“Yeah, that was you,” he said in a strong voice that impossibly seemed both tormented and jolly. “Left during my set. Not a huge music fan?”
I tried to stammer a response but stumbled.
He gave a hearty laugh and rested a strong hang on my shoulder. “I’m just fooling around with you, friend. Just busting your chops.” He let silent relief hang in the air a bit before continuing somberly. “You know, I’ve gotten pretty good at reading the room. If you don’t mind me sayin’, like you’re bearing a load.”
“Just a long day, I guess.”
“I get that. They all seem long anymore “
“Yeah.” His idle chit chat was becoming a burden. I don’t know why I felt confrontational with this stranger, but I set him in my sights. “They do. And ending them with yet another folksy, anti-America song by yet another has been isn’t how I enjoy ending them.”
He was silent. Probably wounded. Hopefully humbled.
“I’m sorry,” he begins. “I didn’t know you served.”
Hot cold burned up my spine. “I haven’t,” I barked. “But don’t you think it’s a little disrespectful?”
He sat back against the bench and inhaled deeply. The sound of the traffic seemed almost muted and the birds or bats dotting the night sky soared silently.
“I love my son,” he says after some time. “ Both of my kids. More than anything. There aren’t words for the love a man has for his children. Especially when he knows he didn’t always do right by them but he is still impressed with the people they’ve become.
“My boy’s a Marine. Active. I wrote Children Come Home for him.”
It was my turn to be silent.
“We used to have a solid anti-war movement. Back when people thought that being seen as cruel and violent was not how we wanted the world to view America.
“Have you heard of the Highway of death?”
I shook my head and desperately longed for the next bus.
“Major four-lane highway leading to Safwan, Iraq on the Kuwaiti border. Back in Desert Storm, Sadam’s army was using it and any vehicle they could find to retreat. We’d shut down their supply lines for weeks and they were starving and beaten. We boxed them in. Decimated them. Ten thousand or so of their people. Miles of highway full of burned and bombed out cars, trucks, and tanks.
“I wasn’t there for that part. I came in with one of those humanitarian pushes after. Hearts and minds crap. We won neither.
“We had soldiers running up to us and begging to surrender. We’d throw out some MREs and put some wire around them and tell them not to move. We’d call the MPs to come pick them up.
“Pork isn’t a part of their diets. You know, being Muslim and all. But it’d be in the MREs we’d throw out to them. They’d choke it down they were so hungry. We thought that shit was funny. Can you imagine how humiliating that was? To have your personhood degraded and erased just by being forced to eat an unclean food your culture rejects to survive? Can you imagine being forced to eat dog or die? Can you imagine doing that to a Jewish person?”
I really didn’t care for where this was going. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you served,” I interrupted.
“Had to beat those red commie bastards. I was twenty-one, married, and a new kid at home. But I did what I was supposed to do. What I thought I needed to do.
“I joined the army and was stationed in Germany in the early eighties. The red commie bastards. Over and over. They weren’t people. They were generic bad guys. Disposable. Not human.
“Then, it was the Iraqis. Hussein was Lex Luthor and the entirety of Iraqi culture was erased and the people of that country became masked henchmen out to kill the Kurds; as if we ever really cared about the Kurds. It was the oil we wanted.
“Because they weren’t human to us, it was easy to think they didn’t deserve to live. Easy to kill ‘em. Easy to humiliate them. And easy to pretend we cared as we tossed out minimal care to atone for destroying their homes and families. For mining the places where their children played.
“Hearts and minds my ass.
“After we made our way out the Highway of Death to Safwan, we were stationed to hand out relief. There was this kid there. He had Down Syndrome. Sweet kid. Kept coming back each day for more food. The boy was around my son’s age at the time.
“I get a warning, ‘Don’t get too close to ‘em. You’ll get ‘em killed.’ You see, if we were too nice to them or if they looked like they liked having us there, their lives were in danger.
“Here’s the thing. You go in thinking you’re doing the hero thing. It’s too late you realize you’re the villain.”
The air weighed heavy around me. I could hear the choke and silent sob when he said that last bit. My mind was a storm spinning and incapable of a coherent thought so I stared at the sidewalk and said nothing.
After a few minutes, he gathered his voice and spoke again. “I came home and crawled into a bottle. It took many dark days and the support of my current wife to climb out again. But I’ve lost a lifetime.
“My son and daughter are close, but I’m on the outside living in the same town only seeing them once or twice a year. They’ve carved their own lives and I am so very proud of who they are despite me.
“I want the best for them. I want them safe and happy. I want them to live in a society that has a hard time erasing an entire culture just to feel good about being an American. I want this shit, this violence, to stop.
“So I do my part. I just wish everyone else would do theirs.”
He stood up, placed his hands on his lower back, and leaned over popping vertebrae into place. Then he gave a groaning stretch before picking up his guitar case. He offered a hand.
I offered mine back. His rough and calloused hands dwarfed my soft ones. His grip was as commanding as his presence.
“Thanks for letting me dance around a few tangents. Sorry I talked your ear off.”
As he started to walk away, I hopped to my feet. “Wait! The bus should be here soon.”
“I wasn’t waiting on the bus,” he said, brushing me off. “I live around here.”