The Department of Peace
It’s New Years Eve, 1957. Our North Hollywood home is filled with Callahans. We are ringing it in with silly favors, noise makers, alcohol and laughter.
Do you feel it coming?
When the clock strikes 11, my father’s sister Maryjane shows up late to the party and drops a bomb. As sober as an air raid siren, Maryjane proclaims that she’s leaving her husband Bert and her 7-year old daughter Johnell to move to Kansas City with an organ teacher named Hank. Before anyone can stop her, Maryjane sprints out the door. Good Bye. Happy new year. Kansas City here she comes.
The Callahans are dumfounded. Questions roll out.
What will the neighbor’s think?
Who will raise Johnell?
On New Year’s Day, Bert, the left-at-home ex bails on that one. Johnell will add ballast to his 20-something now-single balloon. So, Bert splits, too — which makes Johnell double disserted. That’s when my grandparents (Johnell’s grandparents) John and Faye, grab the controls. Johnell will live with them. Eventually, over time (as it heals all wounds) Maryjane will come to her senses, Bert will forgive, and there will be reunification and peace.
Grandpa John and Grandma Faye live at the end of the main runway at Burbank Airport — home of Lockheed Aircraft, supplier to the Department of War. Standing in John and Faye’s front yard, runway strobes lighting the street, I can literally wave to pilots roaring by in their DC-4s. And they wave back. That’s where Johnell and I play pretend, dodge aircraft fire, take ladybug prisoners, and throw rockets at the midday moon. We are surrounded by the machines of war in our ears, eyes and memory. We are DefCon cousins in a family who serve the Army, the Navy, Lockheed and Douglas.
Spring comes. Jonell and I create a foil to The Department of War. We call it The Department of Peace. It is somewhere in the backyard garden. A bird is singing. It is make-believe quiet here. The Southern California sky is infinitely blue. Johnell is blond, pigtailed, and as far as my 8-year old mind can fathom, beautiful.
It’s Easter, 1958. The tulips bloom at North Hollywood Park. My parents have a proposal for John and Faye. “We’d like to adopt Johnell,” they say. That makes me, an only child, about to have an instant sister that I already know and love. But it is not to be. Complications beget complications.
Bert the ex shows up in a funk with the intent to take custody of Johnell. He is backing out of John and Faye’s driveway on the sly with Johnell crying in his car when a DC-4 barrels overhead. Grandpa John is out the door, grabs Bert by the collar, pulls him out of the Chevy, and decks him right there in the flight path. Whoosh. Flat out, flags waving, it’s time for action.
Enter Maryjane, back for the kid. Negotiations take place. On the day that Bert’s swollen eye is darkest, Johnell is on a Super Chief to Kansas City with Maryjane. If she had to walk, she would get there just the same.
Play is over. My would-be sister is gone — gone to live with Maryjane, who turns out to be a well-connected, self-centered, self-loather; and Hank, who turns out to be an abusive step-dad.
Do you feel it coming?
It’s the Fourth of July, 1968. Johnell is 18. Dazed and confused after years of things seen and unseen, she takes hold and pinwheels her life around, joining the US Army to practice as a nurse in Vietnam. My would-be sister is gone, again.
While I subvert the war at home, spreading The Department of Peace’s love and flowers, my would-be sister is getting her hands bloody and saving lives near the South China Sea. There are times when the presence of death overwhelms her. That’s when she stands near the runway at Da Nang waving to pilots roaring by waving back in their C-123s. Their payload is Agent Orange.
Johnell is at Da Nang long enough for twenty million gallons of rainbow herbicide to fog the air of South Vietnam. It is chemical warfare. A tenth of the country smothers in defoliant. Crops gone, neighbors starve, infants deform, and relatives die. The Department of War tells my would-be sister that Agent Orange is harmless. It only kills plants, not animals.
It’s Memorial Day, 2013. Agent Orange lives in Southern California. Thanks to rainbow herbicide, Johnell has Parkinson’s, Dystonia and complications too vast to contemplate. In short, my would-be sister hurts, contorts uncontrollably and has trouble speaking.
“I have thought about you guys so many times today,” she emails. “I thought I had better jot a note and check if everyone is OK. My speech is terrible. I can't find the words I want to say until, well, maybe 10 minutes after I need them. Just going to go with the flow this Memorial Day.”
We weren’t looking for courageous oratory, a show of flags or well-oiled guns. At the Department of Peace, when we remember our wars (when we bring back our dark heroic past) we remember all the things that were and would be. We remember that complications beget complications; that the world’s weaponry is outrunning any ability to control it; that we make mistakes. We believe that that when young people go into a recruitment office they should see dead bodies, not stars and stripes and medals being pinned to chests. They should see scorched earth, deformed babies, dead relatives and damaged lives.
When we remember our wars we crawl in the mud, grunt like pigs, hold guns to our heads, swallow poison, shit out our guts, kiss our leader’s ass, and celebrate our inherent gullibility, so we can feel it coming.
It is tomorrow at The Department of Peace. It is make-believe quiet here. The Southern California sky is infinitely blue and the Callahan’s are ringing it in.
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