Saturday, February 28, 2009

A Quarter Million We Never See

In October of 2007, I sat in a motorcycle class with a man who lamented that young vets had effectively terminated whatever VA disability and medical care he was receiving. I was somewhat bothered to hear that, since it was evident he still needed treatment, and it may very well have been MY appointment that scuttled his.

Mike wasn’t even a Vietnam veteran, as one might expect. He was a special forces vet of Desert Storm. While over a quarter million troops served during that brief conflict, it remains difficult to find them. I have only met a few, and far fewer still that suffered injury. But Mike was one of those. As he explained what happened, he commented casually that it really wasn’t being shot seven times that really screwed him up. That was caused by being knocked out the 2nd story window he was standing next to when he was gunned down. He now walks with a serious limp (crushed pelvis, I believe), sports a cane, and is forced to literally pick up his right leg with his hands to straddle a motorcycle. But he still rides – avidly. And he has for years. He just has to tuck his cane somewhere on the bike before leaving. Somehow he’s managed to pull it off.

With his level of disability, Mike had enjoyed full access to VA facilities, until a new generation of veterans came along that took his place in line. He also insisted he lost his benefits as a consequence of this, too. At the moment, he relies on his employer for health care. Never mind that his condition is a direct result of combat injuries.

Jake is another man that has to jostle for his place in line at a VA hospital – and his injuries are by no means marginal. Part of the Army’s 82nd Airborne, he was one of the few that arrived in Kuwait very early in the “telegraphed punch” that became the first invasion of Iraq. A full six months later, the remainder of his unit showed up, and they soon pushed north into Iraq towards Basra, which was ablaze with oil fires. They were among the first troops to successfully push back Saddam’s army, participating in what was later known as the “highway of death” – the central highway north from Kuwait through Iraq where Saddam’s army retreated under withering fire from US and allied aircraft. It was a shooting gallery – and 19 years later, rusted hulks of tanks and armored vehicles still remain along that road. I’ve seen them myself.

A short time later, his aircraft suffering mechanical problems, the pilot made an emergency landing in the desert, unintentionally setting her down in a minefield. Fortunately, the bird and the personnel remained unscathed, everything was carefully swapped to another plane, and Jake was left behind as a guard. For five days, under a steady drizzle of oil fire grease, soot, smoke, and unknown airborne chemical agents, he remained. He had been issued no gas mask or chemical warfare gear. He didn’t explain details following his five days in the oil fires very thoroughly, but I believe it’s probably because he can’t very well remember them.

“When I woke up from the coma, I couldn’t read, write, speak, or walk. I didn’t even know who I was or where I was.” Nine months later, he was permitted to leave the hospital in a wheelchair.

“I spent most of that time trying to learn to speak again.” Doctors were baffled as to what agents he was exposed, which did the vast majority of the damage, and how best to help him.

“I was actually shot in the head, too, but it was the gas that I think did the most damage,” he remarked. In looking at him, I would tend to agree. His head seemed fine – operable, and covered with a “Desert Storm Vet” hat. His right arm was an immobile prosthetic, so I shook his left vigorously with my own left. 18 years after his prolonged hospital stay and efforts to relearn to speak, he still has a noticeable slur in his words. I leaned in close to understand him.

“You know, they took my damn license away from me. They didn’t think I could drive – not knowing who I was and all.”

Did they give it back, I asked?

“Oh yeah. My wife still threatens take it away again, though. Or just take off the ball on the steering wheel that helps me drive with one hand.” His wife started laughing at this and nods her head in confirmation.

It’s strange to talk to somebody who, now almost 20 years ago, has invaded, secured, and explored the same desert that I did in 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007. It is strange that the remnants of what they did is still very much evident much later. It is even stranger that we would have to return to fight an already-subdued enemy. I find myself hoping that this current conflict isn’t conducted and terminated as stupidly as the first. I don’t want to be the guy who one day long from now runs into men twenty years my junior that are back there yet again. The secret to killing cancer is to kill all of it – not just irradiate part of it. What will our withdrawal do to what remains of it? I’d really like to know…

Jake and I agreed that the doctor at the Charlottesville VA clinic is a really nice lady. Apparently he’s seen her, too. “Hell, I just came from an appointment in Richmond today, actually.” Unfortunately, however, most of his care cannot be handled at Charlottesville’s general practitioner, requiring a much longer drive to the full specialty facility in Richmond. I shake his left hand again, wish him luck, thank him for his service, and remark that I hope I run into him sometime in Richmond.

But in truth, I hope I do NOT run into him. I’m probably going to bow out of the health care line and let men like Jake and Mike move up. And in twenty years time, I will hope that the younger guys will do the same for us. I just pray they’re not coming from the same desert.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Thursday, February 26, 2009

And This

In the ongoing saga with James Madison University's "Breeze" article that painted Marines in such a poor light, the following developments are worth mentioning: The articles have been pulled - not so much because they were controversial, but because editorial staff placed a VERY high level of background research and quintuple redundancy on the next installment. The writer, being a full-time student with a real life to which he must attend, is severely lacking in the resources and free time required to sit down with DOD representatives to verify various claims.

While I have not yet determined its location, I have been told that a letter of apology has been issued by "Breeze" editors. When I have tracked it down, I will share it.

I have a number of thoughts on how this article's withdrawal was handled, and will attend to sharing them when I have the time. For the past two days, I have been extremely busy with work (yes, Ben still works sometimes), and writing has suffered as a consequence. Tomorrow's routine should be more forgiving.

I appreciate everybody's patience.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

This Just In

For whatever reason, the article that was intended to run in JMU's student paper "The Breeze" is nowhere to be found. I have begun searching for an explanation, and apologize to those who may have been looking forward to some additional inflammatory information. Perhaps it will run next week...

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

A Good Question

I was asked a question today that, despite assuming I would be asked it frequently, have rarely encountered. And I believe it worthy of an answer, too. That question was, why did I join the Marine Corps.

Each person will provide a different reason – so radically different, in fact, that it is impossible to make generalizations. For example, I knew one guy that joined because he felt God was calling him to preach to the troops. A few others had “nothing else going on” in their lives. A very small number joined for an education (you don’t often see this in the Marine Corps infantry). In the song “Alice’s Restaurant,” a 15-minute story marginally put to music, Arlo Guthrie told the recruiter he just wanted to kill, kill, kill. They proceeded to announce he was a perfect candidate, much to his chagrin. None of my reasons are quite as alarming as that, however.

In short, I was scared of joining, so I joined. I will come back to this.

I grew up playing “army,” romping through the woods, wearing camouflage (much to the annoyance of my parents), hacking at things with machetes, shooting rifles, hiking, and camping. Most everything was undertaken with some sort of military surplus gear. I was marginally acquainted with the inner workings of the military from veteran family members, but really knew little about it. There was an air of mystery that made it appealing and an uber-masculine appearance that caused me to wonder if I had what it took to be counted among their ranks. Additionally, I had long found veterans to be interesting men with colored backgrounds and a nearly endless supply of stories. I always enjoyed hearing them.

My fascination with the military thus began at a young age, and it only heightened as I grew older. I remember when, at perhaps eleven years old, I followed the progress of Desert Storm closely. The guns were neat, the missiles were amazing (as were their price tags, too), and the uniforms and body armor also caught my eye. Over time, my interest in the armed forces increased all the more, perhaps approaching an unhealthy obsession.

For a number of years, I shied away from making such a lengthy commitment to the military. I might not like it, I thought, but then I’d be stuck with it. Furthermore, and perhaps more daunting than any other consideration, I doubted that I had whatever physical and mental fortitude was necessary to be a soldier.

I did some poking about and found myself training with the Naval ROTC program at the University of Virginia during the late 90s (as a Marine office candidate), but a combination of being totally physically overwhelmed and intimidated by the men who by all counts were extremely patient, intelligent and mature for their age, drove me to abandon the training (and the officer program to which I had applied) after only one semester. As monumentally challenging as it was, though, I remembered it fondly (except getting up before 5AM several days a week).

By the age of 22, the constant self-doubt had reached its peak. The final straw was going to an event and seeing a Marine in uniform who looked extremely self-confident, comfortable, and carried himself well. I was simultaneously impressed and envious. Soon thereafter I made my decision. The only way to know if I had what it took was to dive in. It had become a matter of faith. If I was terrified of failure without even trying something, then I was of little use as a leader, a mature adult, and especially as a Christian. I apparently had no confidence in God’s provision – or at least was so petrified of failure that I would never venture out and try something challenging.

Within a week or two, I walked into a Marine recruiter’s office and told him I wanted to enlist for Marine Corps infantry. They looked at me as if I were nuts, but agreed to it. I did this without informing my parents of the decision – at least until it was done. I needed to know. Needed to make the decision without anybody advising or influencing me, and learn what I was capable of doing.

What Marines? Because they were noted for being the toughest, most-respected, and fiercest. Why infantry? Because that field more than any other would drive out all self-doubt and excessive worry. People learn what they’re made of when they get shot at. I knew that much going in. I was diving into the pool not knowing if it contained any water. Turns it, it did.

The US invaded Iraq while was in boot camp, quickly changing our training tempo from insanely stressful to, “you’re going to war, recruit.” And we knew it, too. Every aspect of our training became preparation for that inevitable placement in harm’s way. It would only be a matter of time. I was in continuous training from February, 2003 to August, 2003, and once in the fleet we trained almost constantly from January, 2004 to June the same year. A few days after July 4th, we were landing in Kuwait and conducting more training before heading north into Iraq. I was in actual combat exactly 18 months after showing up Parris Island, SC for boot camp. That was the first tour of three.

Am I satisfied with what I found out about myself? For the most part, yes. But curiously, the lessons were learned AFTER my service. While I initially attempted to define my masculinity or success as a man based upon my service, several months beyond it I realize that it had nothing to do with the Marines. Frankly, it had nothing at all to do with “things” I did. My character lay not in my combat skill or physical prowess, but solely in my willingness to try. Facing bullets, thus, is not the bravest thing I have done. Doing something I was previously terrified of doing, however, WAS. And this is the greatest lesson I carry with me.

Success or failure may not be particularly relevant. What is of far greater merit is my willingness to even try. Defeat may indeed come, but I have to show up for the battle first. The battle I won in all of this is with myself. I took a chance, gained much, lost much, learned much, and walked away in one piece much wiser, bolder, and unconcerned with jumping into life. I found faith in my successes, and grace in my numerous failures. Rather than hide for fear of something happening, I am now going (see the blog title!). The destination is insignificant at the moment. What remains infinitely important is my willingness to commit to the journey.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Techincal Issues & Updates

Folks, I want apologize to all of you who have been reading, attempted to make a comment, but were prevented from doing so by problems with the "captcha" image. I do not know what the problem is, have tested it myself, and found it worked for me. I have been attempting to contact the Google people and report the error. For the time being, please pardon the inconvenience.

On a more serious note, I wished to update readers to the goings on with the James Madison University "Breeze" article that ran last week. As many know, I read these remarks with marked disappointment, responded to them as best I could, and made every effort to correct any misinformation this article printed about the USMC.

Apparently I made my point. So much so, in fact, that I was contacted today by the writer of this article for the purpose of an interview. While I cannot ensure that my remarks will be perfectly cited or contextual, I am appreciative that "The Breeze" staff have acknowledged that there are opinions other than those that this anonymous Marine has presented. Thus, tomorrow morning the article will run in print and online (, and I will submit additional remarks or negation as necessary. I have a hunch, by the way, that they will be necessary.

While I have not at all agreed with the material published in this three-part series of articles, I do find it admirable that the editorial staff at "The Breeze" are attempting to provide alternating viewpoints. I am flattered to be the Marine they consulted on this issue. I encourage you to follow this article closely, since it stands to sully the reputation of the United States Marine Corps before a student body who, being young and relatively inexperienced, will be inclined to believe the presented misinformation without question.

Lastly, I apologize for no post today. I have spent the better part of the sunlit hours scrambling atop a roof and trying not to fall off. A post may come later tonight, or it may simply have to wait. I appreciate your patience.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kill Rates

During and directly following World War II, Army psychologists conducted extensive interviews with troops just returned from ground infantry combat operations. Their questions, however, did not pertain to the psychological welfare of the soldier or any difficulties with which he may have been suffering. The question they asked was simple. Did you shoot to kill? The answers they received confirmed years of inexplicable data, frustrating remarks from trainers and officers alike, and truly shook the foundations of military service.

In data that remained consistent through more than 400 interview battalions, merely 15 to 20% of the foot soldiers reported shooting with the express purpose of killing the enemy. The rest either did not fire at all, deliberately missed, or sought out a role that prevented them from facing such a decision (assistant gunner, loader, runner, etc). For whatever reason, they were unable to summon the fortitude to shoot to kill. This disinclination to killing did not even noticeably rise when failing to shoot meant placing oneself, comrades, or even the entire course of the battle in total jeopardy. They were simply unable to complete the act of killing. And those that DID shoot to kill, may have still done so with an habitual reluctance.

In the late 1700s, Prussian tacticians performed a test wherein they instructed a battalion to fire at a 6ft by 100ft piece of paper – representing the tight, rigid ranks of that era. At various ranges, despite their smooth bore muskets, the soldiers did quite well. They scored a 25% hit rate at 225 yards, 40% at 150 yards, and 60% at 75 yards. That figure, quite high given the soldiers’ primitive weaponry and range, was used as the kill rate for a single volley of fire from an infantry battalion. It was remarkably efficient. But battle statistics indicated a pronounced disparity between their kill rate estimates and their actual results. A few years later, two Imperial battalions held their fire as a similar-sized Turkish hoard closed in. At the short range of only thirty paces, the officers of the Imperial battalions ordered their troops fie, confident that the near perfect kill rates at that distance would immediately halt the Turks. In reality, only thirty-two Turks were hit, and both battalions were immediately overwhelmed. Despite showing superb gunnery skills in training, the soldiers had performed abysmally when their lives had actually depended on it. They, like the soldiers in World War II, could not manage the act of firing. It remained innately wrong.

These startling data are the only explanation that at horrific battles from Prussia through the Civil War, entire regiments could face each other at thirty yards and fire freely, yet only lose one to two men per minute. The soldiers, regardless of training and the risk they incurred directly under fire, did not shoot to kill. Thus, seemingly short engagements stretched to hours, or even days. They would face each other at close range and predominantly miss. What was once presumed to be fear, poor gunnery skills, or inferior weaponry was, in fact, human ability to knowingly take the life of another – regardless of his direct threat to the firer’s life (and those around him). The statistics gathered at the end of World War II simply explained what had been puzzled over for centuries. How were they missing? They weren’t aiming. It meant killing, and they largely lacked the desire or the ability to do so.

Since the invention and employment of artillery, the vast majority of combat casualties have fallen as a direct consequence of either artillery, or simply disease. Despite their enormous numbers, the foot soldiers were accomplishing more by looking intimidating than actually dispatching the enemy. This continued through World War II, when aerial bombardment added to the “distant,” highly destructive fire. The further the man firing from the enemy, the more likely he was to fire without hesitation. Years of research have determined the troops with the lowest incidence of nightmare and burning regrets are those from artillery batteries and airmen. In short, they did not see their enemy, quickly overpowering whatever inability they may have had with shooting to kill. They just dropped bombs or fired long range guns. THEY weren’t doing the killing, the rounds were – and at some location too distant for them to see. There was no immediate consequence graphic imagery, of profusion of gore. It was clean, safe, and distant.

Following these studies, the US military began making radical changes to the way in which they trained ground troops. Efforts were intended, primarily, to overcome whatever innate inability a soldier may have with killing the enemy. Their potentially superb hit rates in training in no way commuted to combat power. That, ultimately, would not be known until it was tested. But measures were made to increase the likelihood of combat success.

Israeli troops are trained to fire at close range on melons – which explode violently on being hit. It may seem simple, or perhaps even entertaining, but it serves a purpose: to familiarize the shooter with the graphic act of killing. In Marine Corps boot camp, every order received from the Drill Instructor is followed with the whole platoon screaming, “kill” in unison. On combat courses, loudspeakers loop the sounds of actual combat – heavy gunfire, screaming, and the pleas of the wounded. For hours, recruits crawl under barbed war to this din until they simply no longer hear it. In anti-armor school, Marine students are shown videos of Chechans beheading Russian soldiers. “This is your enemy. This is what they will do to you.” Troops are perpetually exposed to gore and violence for the purpose of providing good reason to hate the enemy. The secondary benefit is that the viewer is less sensitive to bloodshed. It happens on the battlefield, so be prepared for it.

Even terminology has been adjusted to "impersonalize" the enemy: a bad guy is an enemy, a target, a tango, or even a “crunchy.” Since World War II an unprintable list of racial slurs has been applied to Nazis, Japanese, Italians, Russians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Iraqis, and Afghans. While not officially sanctioned by the military, per se, they are permitted nevertheless.

These measures, in conjunction with a social evolution that once abhorred violence but now enthusiastically enjoys it in books, movies and video games, have greatly improved the shoot-to-kill rates of ground troops. From World War II to Vietnam, these numbers grew from a low 15-20% to a staggering 90-95%. For the first time in recorded history, a unit’s combat killing power was nearly equivalent to that of its range shooting skills. If they could hit a target on a rifle range, most would easily hit an enemy in combat. (While I have seen no data revealing it, I would hypothesize that shoot-to-kill rates in the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts are similar, if not higher than those of the Vietnam War.) Whatever natural inability to kill that once existed had been successfully turned off. Combat effectiveness increased monumentally. A much smaller unit was now capable of performing once-amazing feats in combat.

Curiously, the Vietnam War also marked the unexpected emergence of tremendous psychological dysfunction among combat troops. While such difficulties have always been present in documented conflicts, they were directly attributed to several factors. During World War I, for example, sweeping use of gas warfare panicked, blinded, and immobilized troops, propelling many towards psychological breakdown. Additionally, sustaining innumerable, withering artillery barrages created high incidence of “shell shock.” Between the deafening noise, gore, confusion, and terror, combat psychological problems were almost to be expected. After observation and repeated failures, commanders began cycling troops out of front line combat to reduce the likelihood of mental trauma. The fact is that an astounding 98% of modern ground troops, having operated in continuous combat for 60 days, will show severe signs of combat fatigue (or whatever other term one wishes to use for it). The minute 2% that do not show fatigue are those that exhibit pronounced aggressive, sociopathic tendencies. Better put, combat almost guarantees some degree of psychological strain. Yet throughout, artillerymen and airmen exhibit some of the lowest signs of combat trauma, despite the fact their weaponry accounted for the bulk of those killed on the battlefield. They were not seeing those they killed.

What I have not had answered to my satisfaction is the correlation of these increased shoot-to-kill rates to the increase of psychological dysfunction. In reality, it would be hard to quantify their connection. Too many variables exist, to include social changes, political and public popularity of the conflict itself, age of the combatant, cultural changes in the United States, racial similarity or dissimilarity of the enemy, and even the manner in which both enemies and friends were killed. Nevertheless, trends may be easily identified.

As it stands, a startlingly high number of Vietnam and Gulf veterans have at one time been homeless. They also have exponentially higher suicide rates (as per the VA). Even unemployment rates are above the national average. Though I have not seen statistics to prove it, it is quite likely their incidence of substance abuse is also elevated. What, if any of this, is related to shoot-to-kill rates? Thus far, I can find no answer.

In all fairness, the increased kill rates were an essential improvement to the combat power of the US Armed Forces. Failure to improve them leaves our military behind those of most nations of the world. Indeed, their shoot-to-kill rates are also on the rise. Yet since training in each country varies so tremendously, can perfected training schedules be given all the credit for the change in shoot-to-kill rates, or does this represent a worldwide culture shift towards a general contentment with directly inflicting bodily harm on others?

As for the US military, these improvements enable much smaller numbers to inflict once-unbelievable damage on the enemy. In terms of combat efficiency, it is an extremely productive betterment of the troops involved in ground combat, made all the more impressive by the fact that today’s military is strictly volunteer. But a streamlined fighting force may not have been achieved without dire social consequence. Today’s veterans, as a group, are prone to self-destructive behavior, elevated levels of crime, discontent, and psychological dysfunction. How much of this, we should ask, is the cause of teaching them to kill? And is this a price that we, as a nation, are willing to pay? Killing, at least in part, may be killing the veteran.

Predominant source: Dave Grossman, "On Killing." 1995. Back Bay Books. Boston.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Sunday, February 22, 2009

And They Danced

When the curtain raised, only two were on the stage, but the spotlight illuminated them brightly and you forgot how small they looked. She was wearing a golden dress, really a gown. It was strapless, exposing her delicate neck and shoulders, and a slender but magnificent figure, until the folds of the dress expanded at the waist and cascaded to the floor.

Her long, auburn hair was mostly tied atop her head, but a number of wavy ringlets had escaped and beautifully framed her face. Elbow-length white gloves perfected the ensemble. She was, without question, resplendent. In the spotlight her hair, her dress, and even her eyes sparkled. She was smiling at her dance partner, whose hand she held – a tall man in a military dress uniform.

His dress blouse was festooned in ribbons and badges, indicating he was neither new to the military, nor to deployments, stress, and combat. An expert rifle badge hanging beneath his ribbons caught the spotlight and glinted fiercely into darkened auditorium. His belt buckle and each polished brass button – and there were plenty of them – also caught the light. The black of the blouse magnified the color of his ribbons, and his blue trousers complemented his partner’s dress. He wore a half smile. Confident, but tempered. Dancing is serious business. By all standards, they were a beautiful couple.

And the music started – a lilting waltz with full orchestral accompaniment. He placed one gloved hand in hers, and perched the other on her waist, and they began to dance. Few displays are more elegant than a waltz, and few dancers can make it look easy. But they did.

They stepped back, then forward, then one way and the other, and he led her with ease across the floor. The spotlight caught their faces. He was smiling now, and she was grinning widely. The music played and they danced, their steps and their moves illustrating a perfectly choreographed romance. On stage, before an audience, they were falling in love. And the audience, watching silently and attentively, was falling in love with them. They harmonized each other’s movements, complemented each other’s youthful smiles, and continually moved about the stage. It was an exhibition of romance set to music and movement. And they were flawless.

The music began its crescendo and the couple lithely waltzed back to center stage, the last note coinciding with them stepping back and bowing to each other, still holding hands. Perfect. In seconds, the audience is roaring their approval. The dancers lift from their bows, still smiling but clearly flushed, and he leans close and gently kisses her cheek. Turning quickly, he walks off the stage, leaving her standing in the spotlight.

At the realization that the number is not yet complete, the applause dies sharply and returns to rapt silence. She still stands center stage, alone, smile fading, and slowly replaced with a look of profound sadness. She misses him.

Two more uniformed men walk to her in the light. They are not wearing dress blues, but service greens – less showy, more solemn, and they do not speak. Drawing up in front of her, one hands her a note and she opens it, reading silently. She begins to crumble, and the two men reach out to support her. Had they not, she would have fallen. From somewhere, and ever so faintly, Taps plays – a lone bugler playing his mournful dirge, and the two men escort her off the stage. Her partner will not be returning. There will be no other dance.

While it is often remembered, quite accurately, that well over 620,000 United States service men and women have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country since the beginning of the 20th century, it is quickly forgotten that this news has always been delivered, in person, to their surviving loved ones. Truly millions lost family members. While they may have paid the ultimate sacrifice, their loved ones pay a similar one, only slightly less painful, on a daily basis – for the remainder of their lives. This is dedicated to their perpetual sacrifice… May we remember them well.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved

Who Needs Fiction...

As I drove to church this morning in a light drizzle, I kept thinking about the ABBA song where the singer says, “Early this morning, I drove in the rain. Out to the airport to get on a plane.” What particularly caught my attention was the refrain: “Hey Honolulu, we’re going to happy Hawaii.” It rains there, too, though. A lot. Almost daily in some seasons. Perhaps the desert would be a better place to escape the rain. And in all fairness, it rains there, too (except for areas of the Sahara, which is about as bleak as hell itself).

Despite the rain and the necessity to stop for gas, I still arrived early, and found my way inside to take a seat. The sanctuary was still in use, so I leaned on the wall by the door and waited. A man in an urban camouflage shirt bored holes in me with his eyes. I looked away and pretended not to notice. As the service inside concluded and a few people started filing past me, I grabbed the door and held it open. I could wait. Another man strode up, flipped the door stop down, and smiled at me. He rendered my assistance unnecessary.

I sat where I always sit – towards the back and on the right. It’s usually fairly empty, which allows me to fidget and squirm without fear of distracting anybody. Nobody else was nearby today. Soon, though, a very petite young woman and her friend sat in front of me. A moment thereafter they were joined by a third. They were all probably in their late teens or early twenties. The petite one was extremely pregnant, her girth accentuated all the more by her tight shirt. I don’t think she was anywhere close to five feet tall. She wore no ring on her small child-like fingers. I did not judge her. Things happen.

I observed that, after four weeks of repeatedly commenting on it to church staff, the church’s US flag was still on the wrong side of the auditorium. As of 1976, flags always go in a position of prominence, always towards the front of the auditorium, and always to the speaker’s right.

The service commenced with several lovely songs – none of which I had heard and with lyrics I did not know, but they were still very melodic. During one, a woman with an enchanting voice – presumably one of the singers on stage – added a beautiful harmony to the song – sung to a different beat tempo than the melody. Throughout the entire song I searched to see which singer it was, and never found her. Maybe it was a recording, or the lady was standing in the back with the sound booth. Either way, it sounded fantastic.

As most of the congregation sang and I listened, various late arrivals poured into the pews behind me and to my right – mostly young couples, I think, but I never turned around to confirm it, and they left before I had a chance to see. I scooted my stuff out of the way and made room for those that sat next to me. Some arrived a good twenty minutes into the service.

During a brief time of greeting, I met John and Randy. Remembering their names was simplified by the fact they both wore nametags. Randy did not remember that he’d met me twice before, so I reminded him.

When everybody had slumped back into their seats and the pastor began to speak, the petite pregnant girl reached forward and pulled out the pew-mounted scratch pad and the absurd “golf pencil” that accompanied it. She began scribbling notes to her friend. She’d write, hand it to her friend, and her friend would write something herself and pass it back. I was slouching, so I could not see what they had written. Occasionally, they would exchange knowing smiles and keep writing things. Interestingly, however, they were still listening. I gathered that their notes pertained to the sermon.

Behind me, somebody loudly and sloppily kissed somebody else and a guy uttered a thank you. Must be a young couple – caught in the throes of being able to get away with what they just did. Beside me, the other young couple sat close. Any closer, and she would have been sitting in his lap. They, too, exchanged kisses, but in a far more discrete exhibition of face-sucking than those behind me. Both couples did this throughout the service.

During one bout of fidgeting that left me sitting upright, the petite, pregnant girl’s friend wrote a note and passed it to her. This one I very clearly saw.

“Do you think he does porn?”

The pregnant girl wrote a response and more smiles were exchanged. I did not see the other writing. Still smiling, they passed the notes to their friend on the left – the first time she had been included in their written dialog. She, too, smiled. I wondered to whom they were referring, until it occurred to me that it probably wasn’t terribly important to be considering such things – certainly not when I was supposed to be concentrating on the sermon.

More slurping kisses behind me. More thankyou’s. The couple to the right of me look back to express solidarity with the love birds behind me and recommence with kissing of their own.

I smell booze - still reeking from somebody's pores nearby. I cannot place its source.

Several pews in front of me, a girl completely swivels around to stare back in our general direction. I am unsure who catches her attention. The grinning note-passers in front of me, the quiet-cuddling couple beside me, the loud-kissing couple behind me, or me. I don’t think it particularly mattered.

As the service ended, there was more singing, and I still didn’t know the words. The petite pregnant girl rips out several pages of notes from the church scratch pad, meticulously folds them, and tucks them into her purse – zipping it firmly as she finishes. I’m still curious what they all said. I walked to the car, turned on the Eagles, and drove home in a light snow that loudly hit the windshield and melted. I found myself wondering, somewhat rhetorically, who needs fiction when fact presents such a myriad of curiosities?

An hour later, the sun is shining.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
All Rights Reserved