Coming Home, One Last Time

The Things That Carried Him

I read this Esquire piece, about a fallen soldier’s final homecoming, last month when I got the magazine. They’ve posted it online now. You should read it.

34 Comments on “Coming Home, One Last Time”

  1. The story “The Things They Carried” was maybe the first thing I read that was modern and well-written in a “literary” way (as opposed to my preferred genre stuff), and I’ve always been fondly disposed toward it and its author. It will be interesting to read this piece and see why it chooses to take this particular referential tack.

  2. changterhune – Before you hear lies from Chang Terhune himself, we thought we’d tell you the truth: without us, his old action figures, he’d be nowhere. He loved science fiction from way back and began reading it at an early age, but it was through us that he acted it all out. That’s what led to the writing. He watched a lot of science fiction shows like Star Trek, U.F.O, and movies, too. But we were always there to do his bidding. And it’s like they say: you always forget about the little people on your way up. Oh, the 70’s and early 80’s with him were good times! He’d use these blocks and make all the crazy buildings for us to be in his stories. I gotta say the kid’s imagination was pretty damn fertile. Oh, he had friends, but they just weren’t into it like him. He was like the Lance Armstrong of action figures. And of science fiction. At first, when he began writing in the eighth grade, we didn’t mind. He still made time for us. And we knew that when he was holding us in his sweaty little hands and he got that far off look in his eye, he’d come back to burying us in the back yard or - god forbid! – blowing us up with firecrackers. But it was worth it for a part in one of those stories. We loved him for it. He kept us around even when we were minus a leg or two - or even a head. In that mind of his, he found a use for all of us. Then he discovered girls. October, 1986. It was like the end of the world. One day we’re standing in the middle of this building block creation he’d pretended was some marble city on a planet near Alpha Centauri and the next we were stuck in a box in the closet. Not even a “See ya later!” Nope, it was into the closet, then we heard some high-pitched girly-giggles then silence. We didn’t see him for years. We got word about him once in a while. Heard he took up writing, but it was crap like “The Breakfast Club” only with better music. We couldn’t believe it. Not Charlie. What happened to those aliens with heads he’d sculpted out of wax? Spaceships? Those complex plots? All gone. For what? You guessed it: Girls. Emotions. “Serious fiction.” I tell you, it was like hearing Elvis had left the building. During our two decade exile in the closet, we heard other things about him. He went to college. He wrote a lot, but not much he really liked. We knew it even then. It was like he didn’t dare write science fiction. Some of us had lost hope and just lay there. Others kept vigil, hoping for a day we didn’t dare speak about. Then we heard he’d stopped writing in 1996. Did he come to reclaim us? No. He took up music for ten years or so. He took up yoga. Once in a while, he’d visit us in the closet. But it was half-hearted. His mind was elsewhere. Then one day, he really did come back for us. One second we’re in the dark and the next thing we know we’re in a car headed for Massachusetts. Suddenly we got a whole shelf to ourselves out in broad daylight! Then he bought a bunch of others form some planet called Ebay. He’d just sit and stare at us with that old look. But why were we suddenly back in the picture? He had a wife now, who didn’t mind that he played with us. So what had happened? Turns out he’d never forgotten about those stories. He’d been thinking about all of us and the stories he’d made up and then remembered he’d been a writer once. From the shelf we could see him typing away. Before long he’s got a whole novel together! Then he’s working on another one. Word is there are two more in the planning stages! Some short stories, too! It’s good to see him using his imagination again. Its good to know he never abandoned us. He returned to his true love of science fiction. We hear the stories are pretty good. Someday we’ll get one of the cats to score us a copy of the manuscript. Man, it’s good to be out of the damn closet! --- I'm smarter than you I'm harder than you I'm better than you I'm just raw I'm hotter than you More popular than you More clever than you And goshdarn it, people like me I'm smarter than you I'm harder than you I'm better than you I'm just raw I'm hotter than you More popular than you More clever than you And goshdarn it, people like me
    Chang, fan of boobs

    Heartbreaking. Both in the writing and in the story it tells. Makes me so sad, this war.

    Sean @1, Tim O’Brien is great. I love his writing. I met him a few times at the video store I worked at and he was always a great guy.

    I’m sure he’d be honored to have his work referenced in this way.

  3. That was a very moving piece, and very difficult to read. Not because of the emotional impact, but by the distracting ads for “sexiest women ever” and pictures of Tina Fey.

    Esquire! What the hell!

  4. @Sean and Chang, yeah O’Brien’s stuff should be on everyone’s to-read list. Particularly The Things They Carried and If I Die in a Combat Zone. The latter always makes me cry at the end, and few books actually get me to that point.

    I can’t read this article at the office ( = firewalled), so I’ll have to check it out tonight.

  5. theWallflower:

    Just click on the “print this” link (or whatever it’s called) and you’ll get all the text on a single long page without the ads, etc. That said, I consciously clicked to the version I did because Esquire makes its money off ads, and they deserve the money in this case.

  6. I’m firewalled too, but if it’s anything like the Fresh Air on NPR yesterday where they talked to a Marine colonel who spent three years being the guy whe has to give families the bad news, I wouldn’t want to read it at work. I’d have to explain why I was sobbing…

  7. amandageddon – She is a slacker of the highest order, a geek of not so much, went back to school to become an even bigger geek and possibly get paid for it. She loves it when a plan comes together.

    I haven’t even finished it and I’ve had to stop a few times to keep myself from crying. (I’d get funny looks from my coworkers if I was sitting here all blotchy-faced and teary-eyed.) The article is so powerful, I honestly don’t know what else to say.

  8. Thank you, John.

    I’ll quibble with the author about the size of the “coffin flag”; American (USAian) flags are supposed to be 10:19, not 10:16. That many more 5’x8′ flags are made than 5’x9’6″ is just inexplicable (well, it’s probably that it’s cheaper!); I’ve also seen them made in 4:7 and 2:3, too.

    In the same vein from several years ago, a Marine’s journey home: Taking Chance: An Escort’s Journey, by Lt.Col. Michael Strobol, USMC.

  9. There are few things in this world that leave me speechless. This piece was one of them. While the writing was well done, the emotional aspect of this story caught me from page one until the end.

    Just when I’m finding myself angry with our government in light of bad housing conditions and horrible VA hospital treatment, there is a small comfort that there are still people who work in the broken system who take pride in doing things respectfully and right.

    I wouldn’t consider this a pro/anti war piece either, which is unique when referring to the ongoing battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. I saw it for what it was; an honorable tribute through the eyes of the men and women who helped bring this fallen Soldier home. It wasn’t the plane, or the Humvee or the coffin, it was the people who carried him, saluted him and loved him that meant the most.

  10. I hope to meet George W. someday after he’s no longer president. I want to meet him so I can kick him right in the nuts.

  11. My fiancée and bes friend are members of the Funeral Honors team for the North Carolina National Guard. They’re full time job is providing military honors to all fallen soldiers. Whether retired veterans of WWII or more recently deceased in action overseas. They both say it’s the toughest and most fulfilling jobs they’ve ever done. Their job depends on the funeral, but their tasks include pall-bearing, flag folding, bugling, firing party and presentation to the next of kin. Sometimes they perform casket guard at the airport when the soldiers come home for their final rest. I’ve seen them perform their duties, typically in their Dress Blues, several times and have had the honor of photographing a couple. I’ve witnessed the care and professionalism of the Honor Guard. It’s an amazing thing to witness, especially the six man flag fold, the most difficult and exacting means of folding a flag during the funeral honors. It was really touching to me to see the whole treatment in this article, especially the sense of respect the author seemed to have for the whole event and for those chosen to honor their fallen comrade. Thank you for posting this, John. I have to forward it around, now.

  12. I heard the author of this article speak on an NPR show recently. I believe it was Talk of the Nation, which is on at 1 PM on Chicago Public Radio. It may be that they have that show archived and that you can listen to it as well. It was also moving, and could be of interest to people here as well.

  13. Thanks for pointing us towards this, John. A very high quality article. As a vet it was difficult to read – but necessary.

  14. Dulce Et Decorum Est

    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

    GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
    And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
    Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

    — Wilfred Owen

  15. Wow. I’ve got a list of things to do today as long as my arm, but I still sat down and read the whole thing through after reading the first few paragraphs.

    “The Things They Carried” is also a favourite discovery from college Eng Lit classes.

  16. This reminds me of a photo essay of a very similar storyline involving a serviceman’s remains returning to the Pacific Northwest. The iconic image was of the young widow camping out with blankets in the viewing room where he was lying in state, unwilling to leave his side. It was equally poignant.

  17. mithriltabby – United States – Reader. Gamer. Maine Coon Cat wrangler. Software engineer. Zen practitioner. he/him
    Max Kaehn

    Wow. That was powerful, and a superb testament to the humanity of the people every step of the way.

  18. That was amazing – it made me cry more than once. Not only was the writing superb, but the point of view – all the people who care so much, even though it keeps happening – was very insightful.

  19. Thank you for posting this great article. I probably would never have seen it since I don’t even look at Esquire, let alone open it to read the articles. Thank you again.

  20. That was some difficult reading; I had to take a few breaks along the way, and I still couldn’t hold back the tears in a couple of places. Thanks for the link.

    htom, thanks for your links, too.

  21. I spent the last 6 months of my Army career as the squad leader of an honor guard. Some days we did 6 funerals back to back. It never got old, never became a routine, it was probably one of the most important things I did in my 8 years of service.

    Thank you for posting this, John.

  22. Thanks, Suzanne M and Moioci.

    That photo got to me, too, perfectly showing that “to do and die” is the easy part of being a Marine. Marine wives and Marine moms (and Marine children and Marine husbands, too) have the hard part, to live on. (As do all of those who lose children, siblings, parents in such cause.) Now I’m going to stop, refraining from more tearing up and blubbering in public.

  23. Thanks from me too, John.

    The respect and honor shown by fellow military service personnel, law enforcement, fire depts, and civilians in these situations is heart breaking.

  24. Thanks for passing this along, John–just now got a chance to read it.

    Most of us probably ought to read something like this regularly. A select few of us ought to be forced to read something like this every day.

  25. dompaul – I'm an editor at a small-town paper. And occasionally, I like to fool myself into thinking I'm a novelist.

    Thank you, John. This perfectly illustrates what my uncle gave his life for. Thank you.

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