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Collateral Damage

Memorial Day Reflections on Peace and Quiet

by Tamia Nelson

Collateral damage. If you've been listening to the news in the last three months, it's a phrase you've heard a lot. One of the many euphemisms coined by public information officers to disguise, or at least prettify, the ugly face of modern war. Simply put, collateral damage is the sum of all the shattered buildings, blighted lives and broken bodies left behind when you miss what you're aiming at, and hit a marketplace, an apartment block, or a hospital, instead. A regrettable accident of war, in other words. A necessary sacrifice to bring about some higher end.

Don't worry. This column isn't about international politics. Nor am I blind to the reasons for the latest Balkan conflict. Still, the Memorial Day weekend has just ended, and it is (in theory, at least) a time for stock-taking and remembrance. A time for quiet reflection on just what it means to kill—and to die—in war. A time to weigh the costs of America's many battles, and to reflect on the good achieved as a result.

Now, as luck would have it, I've never worn a uniform. Farwell has. And that does have something to do with today's column. But, first, let me go back to the beginning of my story.

Saturday night. The moon is nearly full. The water on the 'Flow is alive with shimmering light. The towering white pines cast long shadows on the ground. The air is still. Peepers and bull-frogs chorus in the distance.

Midnight. Farwell and I are just dropping off to sleep. Suddenly, the quiet of the night is broken by a high-pitched scream. Then another, this one an octave lower. Then a torrent of shouted invective and abuse, sprinkled with suggestions which, while anatomically improbable, are unmistakably unfriendly.

We get up, dress, and walk down to the water's edge. Slowly, we sort out what's going on. Two groups of kids—teenagers by the sound of things—are engaged in a beer-fueled turf war. Though the screams sound like they're coming from right off shore, the feuding gangs are in fact on the other side of the 'Flow. We listen for a while longer. The screams go on. The shouted epithets become more elaborate, though no more probable. There's no sign of the kids' parents. Then again, we don't hear any shots. We shrug our shoulders, and trudge back toward the house.

As we're going through the door, Farwell asks, "Shall I call the cops?" Almost before he's finished speaking, we both start laughing. Oh well, we think, it can't last much longer.

We were wrong, of course. Not only did the shouting go on till four in the morning, but one gang of kids took their show on the road, motoring around the entire margin of the 'Flow in a johnboat powered by an ancient, unmuffled two-stroke.

Next morning, neither of us was very chipper. No surprise. We'd only had about two hours rest. Farwell was in a particularly bad way. Not only was he cranky from lack of sleep, but his "Green Fly" had started to buzz. I'd better explain.

One unwanted souvenir of Farwell's tour as a Marine is an annoying, intermittent buzzing in his ears. Traumatic tinnitus, in other words. Too many loud bangs, too close. With a nod in the direction of one of the Corps' unofficial names (the "Green Machine"), Farwell calls this buzzing his "Green Fly."

The Green Fly comes and goes. Fatigue, loud noises, even changes in the weather—any one of these can bring the Green Fly back. On Sunday morning, the Fly was buzzing with a vengeance.

We ate our breakfast. Before we'd even had a chance to get up from the table, a jet-skier had settled in to give us a show. No kid, this. The guy was sixty if he was a day, and he certainly wasn't the adventurous type. He drove his whining scooter around and around in a circle of about 50 yards radius. The center of that circle was 100 yards off shore, directly in front of our house. We didn't recognize the driver. Farwell, whose foul mood wasn't improved when the whine of the jet-ski was added to the buzz of the Green Fly, immediately christened him the Unknown Drone.

Two hours later, the Drone was still driving around and around in a circle. He wouldn't answer a hail. He didn't even look up. He stared at a fixed point directly in front of him, never looking left or right. He didn't smile. He didn't scowl. His face was set in a rigid, immobile mask. He looked like he was in pain. Farwell though he might be dead—a sort of fresh-water Flying Dutchman—but I noticed that the radius of his circle had tightened up a bit. It was now only about 30 yards. Perhaps to compensate, though, he'd moved closer to shore.

By this time, Farwell's Green Fly had revved up to max. "Let's get out of here!" he said. He had to raise his voice to make himself heard over the Drone.

We grabbed the pack canoes off their cradle, and headed out toward a reedy back-water at one end of the 'Flow, keeping close to shore to avoid the growing motor traffic. Soon we were in a quiet bay. Two Canada geese swam by, escorting a gaggle of fledglings. The whine of the jet-skis, runabouts and water-ski tow boats faded to a distant murmur.

I stretched my legs out, leaned back, and fumbled in my rucksack for my sketch pad. Farwell opened his book—Alice Outwater's Water: A Natural History, as it happens. I've been trying to get him to read it for months.

He looked happy. It was clear that the Green Fly was buzzing less insistently. I started to sketch the geese.

The quiet lasted about ten minutes. At first I thought that I'd picked up a Green Fly of my own. The distant murmur of powerboats had become a buzz, and the buzz had become a whine. And now the whine was getting louder. Farwell looked up, alarmed. We were in a blind bay with a single narrow entrance. Something moving very fast was headed right toward us, and we didn't have anyplace to go.

In an instant, the whine became a roar. Two jet-skis came flying through the entrance to the little bay. The driver of the lead 'ski saw us just in time. He did a flying skid turn, wetting us both down. His wing mate followed his lead. The noise in the little bay stayed at a screaming pitch.

In less than ten seconds, the jet-skis and their drivers were gone. I tried to shake the water out of my soaked sketch pad. Farwell noticed a frantic splashing across the bay. He paddled over and found a gosling with torn wing and a lacerated body. Reaching down, he scooped the crippled bird into his hands. An instant later, the fledgling was dead. I could tell by the way Farwell held his head that the Green Fly was back.

We didn't see much point in staying after that. We paddled back home, and—wonder of wonders—the Unknown Drone had decided to call it a day. We went to bed early.

First thing Monday morning, the Drone was back on station. His expression hadn't changed. He still wouldn't respond to a hail. We decided that he must already be deaf. We didn't want to hang around until we were, too, so I put the pack canoes on the roof rack while Farwell got our kit together. Then we drove south into the Adirondacks.

An hour later, we were walking down a poorly-maintained portage trail, headed for a remote beaver pond that's one of our favorite spots. Another hour, and we were paddling out across the pond. A common merganser paraded her brood in the distance. We stopped to brew tea on a granite spur overlooking the main lodge. It was blessedly quiet. We could even hear the beaver kits grumbling contentedly in their nursery.

After lunch, I took out my new sketchbook. Farwell lay back along the rock spine. In seconds, he was asleep. Half an hour later, I lay back, too.

. . .

KRRRAAAAACK! I jerk upright, conscious only of an avalanche of noise. An instant later, Farwell throws himself across me so hard that my face slams against the rock. A huge shadow with a shape like a bird of prey sweeps over us.

More than a minute passes before the echoes die down. Farwell rolls away. He looks embarrassed. My lip is bleeding where a tooth went through. My ears won't stop ringing.

"What the hell was that?" I ask, screaming to make myself heard over the noise in my own head. "It looked like some sort of giant bird."

"It was," says Farwell.

"What d'ya mean?" I ask, still shouting. I'm having a hard time hearing him, and I think I must have misunderstood what he said.

"It was a bird," Farwell answers, his voice rising in anger. He's shouting too, now, but still I can barely hear him. "A f--king Falcon. An A-16 Fighting F--king Falcon. Following the terrain. Jinking and weaving. Having a little fun on his way to a goddamn parade somewhere."

I don't say anything. Farwell almost never swears. He's furious. He's literally trembling with rage. A long pause follows. "A little fun," he says again, more quietly. And he shakes his head, like a horse trying to shake off a fly.

Farwell doesn't saying anything else for a long time. When he does, it's just "Let's go home."

. . .

Well, it's Tuesday now. The 'Flow is quiet. A soft, gentle rain is falling. I've just seen the two Canada geese and their surviving goslings. And Farwell's Green Fly is silent. For a little while, at least.

Collateral damage. A necessary sacrifice to bring about a higher end. And when is it time to say "Enough!" I wonder?

Verloren Hoop Productions 1999

Next week, Tamia takes a look at the pleasures and pitfalls of list-making—a necessary art and a surprisingly satisfying pastime. In the meantime, we'd like to hear from you. Send your comments and questions to us at sameboat@paddling.net. (No attachments, audio clips or family snaps, please!) We won't promise that we'll answer each letter, but we can promise that we'll read every one—and we will. 'Nuff said.









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