By Mike Meyer
We all have the moment when we learn that the world is not what we thought. That can take many forms and, for some, people doesn’t happen at all. As an American from a Midwest farming community that became a suburb while I was in high school, I was a product of the American Dream and knew it. Those were the years when America was what the rest of the world wanted to be. And I was born and raised knowing I would help them do it. It was a basic part of the religion that we couldn’t escape even if we wanted to. My friends and girl friend never even thought about it.
There were ups and downs but the overall path upward was guaranteed. My elementary school years had taught me with wonderful movie afternoons in the church basement that rows of smoke stacks belching black smoke, giant blast furnaces, oil wells geysering while workers cheered, massive B52s thundering off to frighten Russian Communists, would make the future for all of us if we would just do what should be done.
The cars kept getting better and the planes faster. Space travel was on its way. The downs were caused by others. Castro going bad in Cuba and then Krucshev trying to put missiles with Castro but John F. Kennedy faced him down. That hit home as my girl friend and I sat in my car and thought about what we should do if fighting started. We knew about those things because all the old WWII movies on TV told us about men going away to war and their girls waiting at home. We knew about it but suddenly it was us. But it was Ok.
Everyone remembered where they were when the news came that JFK had been shot in Dallas. Things became steadily more complex. Music was really good. We really did want to hold hands. Movies were asking questions about those things that were already answered. Or maybe not.
The president of my senior class had gone to march with SNCC and the NAACP. I barely knew him but was still proud. It was a distant pride, though, because in our large, glass and steel suburban high school I had never seen anyone who wasn’t white. Those people stayed in the city schools and washed dishes later in life. But we were doing the right thing.
We were proud that we were leading everyone. And would spend our money to help them do the right thing, too. All they had to do was pay attention.
Two years later, a different girl friend and one too many wild college semesters and my draft notice came. I really wan’t sure of this stuff the way I had been but the US Air Force was willing to enlist me and put me in the inactive reserve until a slot was available. Screw the US Army. I took the four years.
Two years after that I was standing by a stream next to a small village in northeast Thailand with the people and two Peace Corps guys trying to build a little dam on the stream that would go dry every hot season. The cost and trouble of trucking in water was a real hardship. The stream was already low but the simple dam should be able to create a pond. It would help.
My job was war with what had just been renamed a Special Operations Unit. I worked in the intelligence operations center all night learning about lies and the reasons to lie and tried to spend one or two days a week with the Peace Corps people. Still doing the right thing. Maybe. Kind of. It should have made be feel better but it didn’t. I couldn’t have told you why.
Suddenly everything stopped. The village kids were running back to their parents and the men started walking over to the edge of the forest. The two Peace Corps guys stopped and were looking for the provincial coordinator who was always with us to translate and handle things.
An old man with only a loin cloth or pakama walked out of the forest, looked around, and then climbed up on a pile of dirt to sit down. He was talking to the kids and to the men who were gathered around. I caught a little of what her was saying and heard that he was a serious monk in the region. I tried to get behind some of the men to stay out of the way while women came running form the village with drinks and fruit.
The Peace Corps guys had disappeared I realized and the other Air Force folks I was with had retreated to our truck. Ok. Maybe I would learn something if I watched.
After a while the old man stopped talking and thanking the people for his drinks and fruit and looked around at our small civil project. The men told him what was being done and he nodded.
Ok. At least he’s not pissed. You never know in these situations.
Then he saw me. And waved for me to come to him. The memory is clear all these years later. If I’m going to understand these people, I thought, I need to learn. So I walked up to him just as the young woman who was the Peace Corps liaison for the province came running up to stand behind me.
The old man talked at me a bit but I could only catch a little of what he said. Then he smiled and started talking to the village kids again.
“What did he say to me?”, I asked. Our liaison looked at me, paused, and said, “He wanted you to know that he is working on it. Your people have brought all of this equipment, trucks and air planes dropping bombs and with all the things you do it is obvious that you are very, very unhappy. He is trying to find a cure for the disease that you have and he thinks he is close. He just wants you to know that there is hope and he will help you as soon as he can.”
At that point the planet changed poles for me. I could feel it roll to a new position. I was no longer at the center. In fact I was as far from the center as you could get.
All these years with ever greater change and I’m still waiting. I’m pretty sure he will find the cure. Maybe he already has.
We just aren’t paying attention.