I have a friend. Tim Hammond is his name. We are best friends. We grew up together. We met at too young an age to remember when we met, that’s how far back we go. We were introduced by our mothers, also best friends. Best friends. It just feels good to say it.
When we were young I liked to goof off. I read comics, made model airplanes from scratch, worked on my bicycle. Tim studied a lot. He also took guitar lessons as a kid and ended up playing pretty good Flamenco guitar. He taught a couple of us how to accompany him on the song “La Bamba,” and we played a gig when we were twelve years old. A nice neighbor lady hired us for her cocktail party. Tim dazzled the guests with his lively Flamenco strumming and picking; Barnaby and I, the backup musicians, were the recipients of polite smiles, like those smiles parents give when they hear the first stage performance of the grade school music class.
I moved to Iowa before my sophomore year of high school and lost day-to-day contact with Tim. I knew that he continued to excel, getting A’s and being elected student body president. This was in the heart of the 1960s. Before the end of his senior year, Tim had let his curly blonde hair grow out. He resigned as student body president. He began to see life in a different manner than I did. But we were still best friends.
Things happened with my life, and I ended up in the Army, training as a helicopter pilot. The day before I left home to go to the war in Vietnam Tim said goodbye to me. He shook my hand and hugged me and patted me on the back and he finished by saying something that irritated me. I don’t remember what it was, but he was being casual about the fact that I was going to war. I thought he was trivializing something that was big in my life and the lives of many others. I said goodbye to Tim while being mad at him.
I stayed irritated with Tim for my first few months in Vietnam. And then I got a letter from your mom. Tim had been in an automobile accident. He had a head injury and was in a coma, in critical condition.
I wrote home several times the next week or two asking about Tim. The last time I was plain blunt. “How’s Tim?” I think that was the whole letter. My mom, your grandmother, wrote back and told me Tim had died. They hadn’t wanted to tell me and upset me.
The news was not unexpected, but I was still hit. What I had dreaded was now fact. I imagined Tim’s parents standing by his bed, watching him and seeing him not take another breath.
Tim has been dead for thirty years now. Today I remember his smiling face from a mental snapshot I keep of the last time we met. He was truly glad to see me then and I was smiling back at him, feeling that special bond that best friends have. I still feel it. I don’t nurture it or renew it. It, simply, is just there.
Once I asked Tim how he had avoided the military draft. He said he was registered as a conscientious objector, which exempted him from the military. I thought he was just playing the system, pulling a scam on the draft board as so many other young men our age wished they could do. So I chuckled and asked him how he pulled it off. Tim got very serious and slowly, thoughtfully, told me how he felt about the immorality of war and how he was opposed to killing any person for any reason. He really was a conscientious objector. My God, I respected him for that even though I didn’t hold the same philosophy. Tim didn’t go to war but somebody else did in his place. Maybe I was the one. I went to Vietnam and didn’t get a scratch. Tim stayed home and got killed before Christmas. You just can’t figure this stuff out.
It is September 20, 2001. I haven’t been sleeping well. I lose concentration when I’m flying. I feel my temper appearing, which is something I many years ago decided was a useless thing to bring into the cockpit. In my mind is the image of an airliner penetrating a skyscraper. Immense columns of smoke rise from a camera shot of New York. People climbing on the ruins looking for their friends. Dreading the fact.
Nobody deserves this violence to be brought upon them. I sit on the porch with Polly and stroke her fur and tears flood my eyes.
When I was a child I wondered how I was lucky enough to have been born in the United States. Really. Back then we all were told stories about famine in China and destruction in Europe and poverty in most of the world, and I thought about being a kid living in those places. I grew up in a happy place with lots of love and food and toys and clothes. I really wondered how I had been so lucky, and then I went back to playing or whatever a kid does after burning through his thirty-second attention span.
Now we are at war. Back in my kid-dom we were also at war, in Korea, but to me that was abstract. Korea was faraway. It affected no one around me.
What do our children think now? Their country has been attacked, a sneak attack, to start a war. Our children saw it happen. Do they feel lucky to live here?
I saw a woman on television today say she was glad the United States had been attacked. She said that now we know what the rest of the world has to live with. We aren’t as high and mighty, as untouchable as we thought. She was an articulate, educated woman from Egypt.
What’s going on here? Does the rest of the world accept this gloom of terrorism as part of life? Living life under terrorism isn’t living life.
I have to get some sleep.