The Hubby, Janus Gate, and I were at my nephew’s fourth birthday party this past Saturday evening. Besides heckling (sotto voce) the rather creepy, make-up less, balloon-making clown, we ate the usual fare of Filipino party food (lumpia, pancit, grilled beef and pork ribs, kare kare, adobo pork, and dinuguan, for examples). At the breakfast nook table where we sat, we also met Craig, a 21-year old, red-haired, freckle-faced guy whose dad (strawberry blonde with a mullet) or stepmom (Filipina in capris) somehow know my parents, and that was why he and his teenage brother were at the party.
What’s unique, I guess, about parties at my folks’ house is that my family was and still is a military family. My father put in 25 years in active duty service in the Navy and is currently on year 17 as a GS-ranked federal employee with the Navy Recruiting District in Dallas; my brother put in 10 years as a Navy corpsman. Thus, the majority of friends and acquaintances attending these parties are involved, either directly or tangentially, with the military and are therefore pro-military, in that “We Support the Troops” sort of way.
Thus, nobody batted an eye when, as we ate together, Craig mentioned that he was on leave, that he was Navy, attached to a Marine unit, and that he was an extractor, whose job was to drop behind enemy lines and secretly “extract” folks without the enemy knowing, often without obvious cover. Three years in, he had his first kill on his recent deployment in Iraq, and again, nobody batted an eye. We listened, ate, and nodded knowingly.
He talked about the boredom between these missions, playing practical jokes on ship and on FOB; about gambling in scorpion and camel-spider death matches. When I said, “Scorpions?” He laughed, shrugged, and replied, “Hey, it can get REALLY boring.” And the time he accidentally bought chocolate-covered cockroaches (because he couldn’t read the foreign label), only to realize what it was, four bugs already eaten. I asked, “What do they taste like?” And he pointed at the chocolate-covered walnuts we were noshing on, wryly smiled, and said, “Kind of like that.”
Goofy stories, and serious ones, all mixed up together. And one of them particularly stuck to me, about how one of the men in his unit accidentally shot and killed an unarmed Iraqi child, who was holding a realistic-looking toy gun. We all knew about the reality of child soldiers, outside the Western world, of children as young as *2* being picked out as potential soldiers, of conscripted guerilla units being led by 11-year olds. And so we didn’t see the stricken young Marine who killed this child as a monster, for there were two victims in that incident.
Beer was drunk, and so were particularly nasty shots of Wild Turkey with Honey. (I didn’t, for obvious reasons.) By that time, we had relocated to the garage, where the kids were beating at a Sponge Bob SquarePants piñata. After Sponge Bob was thrashed, dumping out all of his candy goodies, one of the kids — a three-year old — discovered my nephew’s toy Nerf guns. Plastic, day-glo colors, but they also had realistic returns, in order to chamber the barrels before shooting. Craig showed the little boy how to pull back on the return, and they proceeded to mutually shoot at each other.
The irony of it — the child soldiers for real, the pretend-soldier in my parents’ garage, the pretend-soldier who was mistaken for a child soldier in Iraq — swirled around in my head. This reality for children, in life and death, is something that, sure, idealists can wish didn’t exist, as something as simple as “bad” and “good.” But, as in many human things in this world, in this life, shades of ethical gray is more of what is than what isn’t. And all I can wish for is that not too many children are scarred too badly — the children holding the guns, the children on the other side of the guns — that they don’t leave their childhood behind, hating the world they live in.