Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Bread Gun, or "You can raise a Pacifist."

I was at the optometrist's office on an ordinary Tuesday morning waiting to get an errant lens put back in my glasses, and I ran into a man I know from work who was talking about his kids and something about how they want toy guns for Christmas, but he and his wife don't like the idea. I pulled out one of my favorite old stories, going way back to my Laguna Beach years about a friend of mine and her then about two-year-old son. She and her husband decided there would be no toy guns in the house, and they would raise their kid right, to not be violent, to be loving and cooperative. Then one day Teresa walked into the kitchen and there was her kid pointing something at her. It was a gun. He'd made it out of bread. Bang, bang, mommy.

So then the doc came out and called my work friend in -- he's the doctor responsible for the eyes of about 2/3 of UM - Flint -- and I settled in to wait for my glasses. A middle-aged woman sitting at my side had heard the whole thing. She leaned over toward me and said calmly, "It's possible to raise kids to be pacifists, you know." Hmm...she certainly didn't look like a radical. Certainly didn't look like a hippie. Just a middle-aged, slightly thick, gray-haired woman who eventually said she was from Lennon. She had two sons and she thought they were growing up to be pacifists. "It's not easy, you know, but you can do it." Then she said one of the males in her family -- a nephew, I think -- was going to Afghanistan and everybody was worried about him. I said something about hoping Obama knew what he was doing. She said, "We can't just think about this as one man, one guy. It's about all of us."

I never raised any kids of my own but I've always been awed by how hard it must be. About the time the first Gulf War started, my stepson Eliot abruptly joined the Army. He'd signed up secretly at an extremely difficult time in his life, and his father and I didn't approve, thinking of ourselves as pacifists and horrified at his timing just as Bush One started the thing. But Eliot was of age and there was nothing we could do to stop him. Basic training at Ft. Sill OK, however, shocked him. One day we got a letter: he informed us he was going AWOL. The letter started out, "by the time you read this, I'll probably be gone..." Well, an amazing transformation occurred in our pacifist household: my husband and I called Ft. Sill immediately and told on him. Gratefully, he hadn't followed through, and his commanding officer called him in and made him call his father from there. To my astonishment, I heard my husband say, "Son, I didn't agree with you for signing up, but now that you're there, be a man. You made this choice, now stick to it." We were both shocked by the ferocity of our expectations. So was Eliot. I think he'd already calmed down and decided not to run, but our indignant reaction was eye-opening to us all.

Fortunately for us that first Gulf War was over before Eliot finished basic training. We flew down to Ft. Sill for his graduation and beamed with a weird sort of pride -- neither of us had ever been on a base before and the Big Guns of Ft. Sill, everywhere we turned, and Eliot's appearance, shaved and trussed and sober, startled and worried us. But he followed through on his commitment, and that mattered to us. He lucked out. He went off to Germany where he had an office job for two years. He came home safely and eventually went to graduate school and turned into an avid Marxist for awhile and got a lot of tattoos and then met a great woman, got married, finished his PhD, got a great job, and now has an adorable son of his own. Who's only one year old. And I hope never has to go to war. Raising children to be pacifists, and then making sure we don't send them off to be killed -- it's about all of us.

Anyway, I thought about Eliot's near-AWOL when I found myself sitting at the eye doctor talking to that kind woman from Lennon. I'm not used to having chats like that in Flint. There always seems to be somebody spouting reflex patriotism around here, and it never seems to be paired with pacifism -- something I can never understand. We have to cheer for military action if we love our country? Even if it means sending off thousands of our children into terror, brain damage and death?

Pretty soon my glasses were done. I thanked the woman from Lennon for the conversation and walked out of there blinking into the sun, happy to see everything clearly again.

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