Last night my hands shook as I checked my iPhone battery obsessively, focused my camera, and touched the American flag on a stick in my back pocket. I didn’t want to gouge somebody with the flag, but I couldn’t hold my sign, banner, and phone all at once. My sign read, Welcome home, Rich. His wife made a batch of them for us who gathered with her. I did not want to miss the loving moment 49 years in the making. B had waited that long to welcome home her soldier.
On July 4, 1969, R left for Vietnam, giving his fiance a rhinestone American flag pin. He married her, perhaps with reluctance as most returning Vietnam soldiers felt like damaged goods, unworthy for loved ones they had left behind. Many broke off engagements. Many lashed out at wives, initiating cycles of generational trauma. Some rode out the storms, finding help, finding balance, finding peace.
B waited for R, and they exchanged vows. Their marriage has been both loving and fraught with the specters of Vietnam. Every veteran adjusts — or not — differently. The spouses do, too. Those who are strong, like B, hold onto their identities, advocate for healthcare, and shake up their veterans when necessary. At lunch a few weeks ago, R told me his wife is a pit bull. He means she fights for him as committedly as he fought for his nation. He then said I was a pit bull, too. I take it as a term of honor, coming from a combat veteran who fought an unpopular war.
Standing next to B at the Delta County Airport in Escanaba, Michigan which is 200 miles from their home on the Keweenaw, I asked her what it felt like to welcome home her hero 50 years after he had left for Vietnam. She confided that she never thought she’d see the day. R never spoke of what he experienced in-country, but he finally opened up after seeking help for PTSD ten years ago. Like me, B was surprised to meet other combat veteran spouses. We are so invisible that we don’t even know about each other until we end up in groups like ours. The Vet Centers of America are the only organizations that actively include veteran spouses in readjustment counseling.
Three of us BABs (veteran spouses) stood next to B on the tarmac, watching the sunset turn the scattering of horizontal clouds copper. We waited with B to welcome home R from the Mission 17 UP Honor Flight to Washington DC. It’s a project that helps combat veterans find closure. They visit war memorials, meet their state representatives, read mail call on the flight, and return to a patriotic reception. Koppers, a local plant, charted a bus and catered our dinner, all free of charge, so we could travel the 400 miles to be part of the crowd that welcomes home our veterans. R. was on Mission 17 yesterday.
B with her new blue hoodie that reads on the back, “It’s never too late to say thanks,” printed off greeting signs for us. One of our other BABs bought us all small flags to wave. B wore a huge smile and her 50-year-old pin. Beneath it was a new one to commemorate the Honor Flight. She said she never believed she’d see the day R would be welcomed home. A youngster waiting in the crowd told a bystander, “My friend thought it was disgusting that my grandpa got spit on, but we are not going to spit at him this time.” No, we were going to cheer and hug.
And I was going to capture that reunion. A welcome home born of war, cancer, and interludes.
Just like when we write a novel, life holds key kernels, those events that shape us and our relationships. All else are satellite details in terms of narratology. But the interludes add up too and quantify who we become. Despite war on one end of marriage and cancer on this end, B and R have had sweet interludes with family, friends, and living on the Keweenaw. B was there to welcome him home like they were young and in love all over again. She was going to welcome him home with the expectation of the young woman who waited 50 years ago, not knowing if she’d ever see the young man who gave her a pin. B was going to welcome him home with every ounce of energy she had left in her bones and soul.
Interludes are not the transitions, but the sweet music that fills in the gaps of life. After we graduate school, often we take an interlude of traveling or working. When the kids leave home, we fill the space with distractions until we find purpose again. Writers complete a novel and paint until words come again, and a new novel takes seed. Veteran spouses know many interludes and are adept at filling the space. I find that my own life has entered an interlude of sorts. Not a transition, not a beginning or an ending, but a song until the orchestra returns; coursework until I’m ready to tackle the manuscript with new vigor.
Soon, I’ll be starting the workshop process. I want to learn both sides — as a writer and as a teacher. One gap I see for indie writers is the lack of access to creative writing critique. It’s crucial to development, and yet it can be crushing if not executed with respect and expertise. Kind of like squashing the spirit of a veteran who is trying to find healing and closure. For now, I’m learning with an eye to offering critique groups in the future. It can help develop a book to prepare it for an editor. My instructor has advised us that how we learn to critique is like developing our own editorial style. I hadn’t thought of editing being a style like writing.
And so it progresses. Life with its big moments and small interludes in between. How can we use those to tell stories?
September 19, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an interlude. It can be a pause between two key moments, the pause between acts in a play, an intermission, or a temporary amusement Go where the prompt leads you!
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To Be Left Behind (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Iraq was Ike’s interlude. He said it was what he needed to do between jobs, something temporary, a way to make money until they got better situated. Danni sensed it was greater than a diversion. Iraq threatened her marriage. It was the husband-stealer, a merciless sexpot siren with a hunger for middle-aged soldiers, Dolly Parton’s Jolene. “I cannot compete with you, Jolene,” the words sang without mercy in Danni’s mind, clenching her chest. Interludes end and the main event picks up again. Ike would come home. But Danni could not get over his leaving. What if Iraq kept him?