Volume 74, Number 25 | Octuber 20 - 26 , 2004


Coping with the war, from big picture to small moment

By Wickham Boyle

This is a story about the war in Iraq from giant panoramic philosophy to tiny personal moment. It is told from the perspective of my Southern California autumn.

First some back-story. My son Henry, just 16, moved to Burbank, Cal., for his last two years of high school. This past summer he played tennis in this sleepy, conservative suburb of Los Angeles, and much to his surprise, was invited by his coach to move in and take his game to the big time. The coach pleaded his case saying he believed Henry could be one of the country’s top junior players in two years and perhaps have a full college scholarship. Becoming a professional tennis player is Henry’s dream and you can’t achieve it living in urban East Coast America with the vicissitudes of weather and the cost of court time. So he moved and I spent the first month on the West Coast with him.

I have been observing my country from a different perspective because his school and the town of Burbank are pretty conservative places. For instance, there is a 10 p.m. curfew in Burbank — all kids under 18 must be off the street. I kid you not. There are drug-sniffing dogs that regularly patrol the halls and random searches of kids’ pockets and backpacks. This is not the story, it is the background. In this environment I have been searching to find some equilibrium, so I am not screaming at everyone about the plight of the world.

I have found places to ride a bike, hike and write. My best bike ride occurred on my birthday and it was along the Santa Monica beach. As I glided past the Pacific Ocean, just past the famous pier, there was a huddle of people and a hushed energy. On the beach a makeshift graveyard had sprung up with crosses, crescents and Jewish stars representing the war dead. The beach was covered with white icons and there was a bulletin board with tiny yearbook-like photos of the dead soldiers; 1,041 of them at that time. There was also a list of estimated Iraqi dead and nearly 8,000 Americans wounded. It was a solemn, sad memorial but I was heartened to see the wide range of people stopping to pay tribute. It saddened me that we were hoodwinked into this war, but there was nowhere to vent these feelings. It was a private place for individuals to pay tribute in whatever way they deemed most fitting. I sat and offered a fervent prayer for wisdom on the part of world leaders. I was at a loss for any other action.

Two days later I was at Back to School Night at John Burroughs High School, a sprawling school, occupying six buildings that just received a multi-million-dollar facelift thanks to funds donated by Jay Leno. You know the “Tonight Show” host’s introduction, “Coming to you live from lovely downtown Burbank.” I suppose he felt he had to do something for the students of this hamlet. This is the evening for parents to meet the teachers and get a glimpse of just how fast and furious the class changes are for our darlings. It is also a good public relations event for the school. I went reluctantly as I am finding a big conservative high school with searches and limited civil liberties is neither my idea of education nor in my son’s best interests. But I push myself to recall that he moved for the tennis and he play s three times a day.

After geometry class I spoke to one of the rare African-American parents. I meekly inquired what they thought of the school and they intoned the virtues; safety, values and a sense of community. I further inquired if they had other children. The mother’s eyes filled with tears as she told me they had an older daughter in the service who had been called up for a second tour in Iraq.

My edgy, lefty sentiments wanted to rail against the unjust war, to disdain Bush and his henchmen. But this was not THE WAR; it was one family’s personal struggle. This was not about politics, this was about compassion. And so I drew in my breath and wished out loud that her beloved would be watched over and return home safely. I prayed that God would hold her and everyone over there in the palm of his hand. But I knew that even God’s hands are not so capacious. I knew that although I could find a way to be kind and send safe thoughts to these people’s girl soldier, I couldn’t support this war.

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