A while back I mentioned an opportunity to write for the New York Times TimesSelect website. Over the next week I will share with you the pieces written for them from March to May.
This article appeared in The New York Times on March 8, 2006 and is copyrighted by Michael Fay and The New York Times.
I’m a warrant officer-1 in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. Warrant officers are hybrids, not fully commissioned officers, and although drawn exclusively from the non-commissioned officer ranks, no longer enlisted Marines. We are by and large the duty experts in a particular field; think of us as consultants. I am a combat artist for the Marines; a Winslow Homer in camouflage. I work directly for the Historical Division of the Marine Corps University and my orders from them are simple. Go to war. Do art. My output goes into The Marine Corps Combat Art Collection, which houses over 8,000 works of art. I think I’ve got the best job in the military.
I now live in Fredericksburg, Va., but was born and raised in Allentown, Pa. The lyrics in Billy Joel’s song “Allentown” tell it all: “Our fathers fought the Second World War, spent their weekends at the Jersey Shore.” Myself and two younger brothers grew up when there were only three television channels, milk and bread were delivered to your doorstep and all adults were addressed as Mr. or Mrs. Delivering the afternoon paper, belonging to the Boy Scouts, wanting to have long hair and pout like Jim Morrison, lusting after Patti Merkle and watching the anxiety grow on my Dad’s face with each year the Vietnam War continued as I approached 18 — these things define those years. My high school class, 1971, was last to get draft cards and have our numbers drawn, mine was 123. The only constant from then until now is art. Most of the cells in my body have probably been replaced since then, relationships and jobs have come and gone with regularity, but the doing of art remains. Oh, and Patti Merkle is still around … she says she’ll be in from California late this spring and wants to visit.
I’m now taking a couple weeks leave after returning home from Iraq on Feb. 15. There are plenty of reasons to take time off. This particular trip has been hard on my family. Not only was I over there, but a nephew, a Marine lieutenant, was with me in the Sunni Triangle. They — meaning my daughter, mom and extended family of brothers and their broods — have endured months of intense anxiety. I think separations during war are hardest on those back home.
We, those out in the war, are intensely focused on something we’re very proficient at. We’re in our element. There is truth in the phrase “time flies when you’re having fun.” Not that war can be described as “fun”, but it is at very least a competitor to elaborate meditation techniques. The mundane dross and noise of life drops away and the only place that matters is the proverbial now. I find that the deployments — this was my fourth in the war on terrorism — fly by. My days are filled with doing what I love. But for those at home there are daily scenes of death and destruction flashing urgently across TV screens and newspaper front pages followed by imagining the worse while waiting for reassuring word. I have the luxury of knowing I’m O.K. and intimately aware, despite the violence, that there are so many positive and engaging things going on all around me.
At this moment, I miss it. I wonder if this is what it’s like for a tightrope walker who’s come down off the wire.