Jimmy Webb’s Soldiers Writing Home


Grandfather Youseef. No one knows him by any other name. He pulls his hands out of the hot soapy dishwater in the back of the Pakistani restaurant on Devon Avenue in Chicago on a hot and tired August night. He looks down from the map of Pakistan flashed by CNN on the crackling television bolted high on the wall of the kitchen. On that map runs the path of the flood. He hears, “a land mass the size of Italy now under water.” He envisions the towering noble shade tree that stood at the path leading into his village. It’s top branches now peeking out helplessly from the swirling raging waters. As he pictures the tree drowning, he dreams up the smell of bread baking in her kitchen. And he knows that she’s gone too.

So he dries his hands on his pants. Looks over at the swinging door to the dining room as the younger man, the owner he sometimes calls Nephew, plods through carrying a gray plastic bin of dirty dishes, and motions with his chin up to the television set, now flashing images of Chinese airplanes unloading food crates and American helicopters threading their way into tiny landing patches filled with people who now have nothing, surrounded by the rushing waters.

The owner stops for a moment, shrugs his shoulders. Grandfather Youseef stares hard at him and the owner answers back by shaking his head yes.

As the owner places the grey dish bin between the sink and the dishwashing machine and plunges his own hands into the soapy water, Grandfather Youseef shuffles head down, to the grocery cart that holds his life and pulls it out behind him through the back door of the restaurant into the wet, warm alley and then out to Western Avenue where he turns north and shuffles towards the nearest spot of open land.

At the Honda Dealership he crosses at the light, walking into Warren Park against the throngs of sweaty, shouting children and weary warm streams of adults crawling through the heat back home. As Warren Park empties and drains its human sea, Grandfather Youseef walks to the middle of an open field of grass. Then, as streetlights become the only lights he stops and pulls a scrunched up lightweight tarp from his grocery cart. He grabs a handful of what looks to be sticks, and with a sudden burst of swift and sure movement, he fashions up a tent.

His first smile of the evening at how quick he made that tent appear. If she were here right now. If they were 21 again. If she would have watched him strong and sure make that tent rise fast as if they were in their prime right now, oh how she would have laughed the music of rainbows, then told him. “That was nice, but next time watch me make the tent rise faster. Stand aside and watch a woman work!”

All three walls of the blue tent standing, he crawls inside to a deeper darkness. Like he is crawling into time. Holding close the three battered books from the bottom of the cart. His Koran, Tao Te Ching and Christian Bible. He hugs them all to his chest in the darkness of the tent.

The thought that comes then is a Christian verse from the book of Isaiah; there is no need to open the book as knows the verse by heart.

“I, the Lord, am the vineyard’s keeper; every moment I water it.
I guard it night and day so that no one can harm it.”

He speaks out loud to the empty tent walls, “ Isaiah 27. Verse 3.”

As he speaks to the walls he pictures her again. Not at 21, but at 16. Hiding behind a tree watching while he and his friend tossed a red rubber ball back and forth, scuffling up the dust of the village road. Peeking out with a quiet smile every time it was his turn to throw. Picturing the red ball against the blue sky of home. All of it now under water.

Then from the death of the water, his mind moves north from Pakistan.

A thousand miles north. Into the winds of blazing fire sweeping across Russia. Miles and miles and miles of fire making forests burn and blanketing Moscow with smoke.

Once, at 21, they had plans to leave their village and perhaps try Moscow. But now their village was under water and the forests around Moscow were burning. Moscow now just another place that they would never see.

From those massive raging fires just about to hit the remnants of Chernobyl and trigger the release of all those buried gases, he pictured another fire, this one tiny.

On a beach, way back then just after the long journey to America. She was here. Just a quick visit to America. A quick visit he hoped would last forever. For awhile she was here. And there was this one night with another fire.

This fire of gentle, glowing embers on the sand, looking out into the gulf stream waves from the summer beaches just outside of Gulfport Mississippi. Way back then there were fires that could simply warm. Joyful rain that could simply soothe. Once she was here. In America. With him.

When she was here, no one was alone.

On that beach the Gulf winds rocked a wave whispering a rhythm that just they knew.

Now those very same waves and winds brought in swirling plumes of oil. Slithering under the waves and not going anywhere, ready to kill.

In fear this time, he said the verse from Isaiah out loud.

“I, the Lord, am the vineyard’s keeper; every moment I water it.
I guard it night and day so that no one can harm it.”

A rumble of a Chicago police car in the distance. The spotlight on the tent. The rookie on the passenger side opens the door, but the old cop driving shakes his head no and says, “That’s the Grandfather. Let him be. We got to find the kid.”

Grandfather Youseef thinks through the verse a third time,

I, the Lord, am the vineyard’s keeper; every moment I water it. I guard
it night and day so that no one can harm it.”

And then he smiles in understanding. Because he finally sees the War. He finally makes the connection.

The oil, the fires and the floods. All of them connected. It is all one war. This rage against the planet. The larger home we all share. He shakes his head in disbelief at the phrase “Act of God” Because the oil and the floods and the fires, these are NOT acts of God.

From the settled evening stillness of Warren Park, his muffled old man shout from the inside of his tent, “It is all one war. We are choking the life from the planet. That is the war!”

As he shouts he doesn’t even know the half of it. He does not know that a thousand miles north at the top of the world, a chunk of ice the size of Rhode Island has just that moment broken loose completely and began to float south.

For a moment he is sorry for those who really don’t know how to tell the difference between themselves and God. He wonders what it will take for them to see their personal connection to the war against the land.

And immediately he knows. It will take a story. Because the story is what lasts. A story is the only thing more powerful then the forces that join to rage against the planet.

He looks around at the closed in walls of his tent and the walls tell him which story.

The walls answer. The walls speak the only story that’s about all of us sons and daughters of Abraham and all the other prophets of the East.

So just like Father Abraham, in the very same story told in the Koran, the Bible and of course the Torah, Grandfather Youseef raises the walls of his tent. He leaves the walls open on this tiny little patch of deserted city. He stands beneath his tent, now open to all the summer winds. He does the hardest thing there is to do, he does what’s been lost to all the sons and daughters of Abraham.

He opens his tent to the stranger. He simply opens his doors.

Without one shred of a clue who will arrive. He gets ready to welcome a stranger.

He gets ready to welcome “the Other,” the one who is different from him.

He says to himself:

Because in this war, if I could just do what Father Abraham did. The most powerful story I know. Maybe she would hear. And if she would hear, then maybe a stranger could hear too. Showing her will help me show the world.

In opening my door to a stranger, I am connecting to all.

If she heard me write this. Like I too was a soldier writing home. Then maybe I too would have left something behind.

If I could just do that, maybe it would be like any soldier writing home from the wars, home to where she stood hiding behind that big tree on the path that led into the village. Just a soldier, being every soldier, writing home from the one giant and most wicked war, the war against the planet.

Writing home to say to her.

“It wasn’t God that did this to the earth. It wasn’t God, it was us.

.

If the story is what lasts, then the soldier writing home will make the story stronger.

If every soldier writes home then everyone will hear. It’s all one big war against the planet.

Grandfather Youseef looked out into the darkness, searching for the stranger, but all he saw was a tiny little black-eyed boy of seven drinking a bubble tea.

“Why are you here?” he asked the boy. “Is it not too late for you?”

The boy shrugged his shoulders, “I don’t know. I can’t find my Daddy.”

“Where do you live?”

“Granville and Western. Do you know where that is Grandfather?”

“Yes my son. Come, I will walk you home.” Grandfather Youseef then took down his tent. He had been in America for most of a life time now. But he had also never left that dusty village road and that tree she was hiding right behind.

Thinking back, he had always been a soldier writing home. And he wondered how many of his letters she had heard. How many dispatches from the front lines of the war.

He wondered if she’d hear this story. The one where he raised the walls of his tent and welcomed the little black-eyed boy.

Perhaps some day he would put his soldiers letters home from the war to music.

Just like Jimmy Webb did here. A song that must be listened to with brand new ears to know it was a letter from a soldier home. A letter just like his.

You could listen to a song a million times and never hear it. Then you hear the composer sing it. Punctuated by a story of what the song is really about. And it’s a whole new song.

And this song by Jimmy Webb?

Best letter home Grandfather Youseef had ever heard.

He remembered the line, “She was 21, when I left Galveston.” And as he remembered that line he knew that none of the geography mattered. A letter home from the war could be from anywhere.

It was all the same war.

And she is always standing, looking out to sea.

So as the war went on, the old man told himself that he would just keep writing letters home. Trying to be like Jimmy Webb. Because that’s all he knew how to do. The old man whistled a few bars of the Jimmy Webb song.

Then he looked down at the lost boy who had appeared at the door of his tent and offered him bubble tea, reached for his hand, and said,

“Let’s go young one, I’ll help you find your father.”

4 Responses to “Jimmy Webb’s Soldiers Writing Home”

  1. Paul Haider Says:

    This is another fine post, Roger. The only song by Jimmy Webb that is on my iPod is “What Does a Woman See in a Man.” However, I will be adding “Galveston” right now. I will also add a few duets from Jimmy’s new album, which emphasizes his appreciation of Glen Campbell’s songwriting. There were so many U.S. soldiers in Iraq who wrote letters home that contained the sentence “for some reason, we can’t seem to find those ‘weapons of mass destruction’ or the connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. Hmmm…”
    Paul Haider, Chicago

  2. Carol Steinbrecher Says:

    Wow! I love this piece! You create such vivid and moving portraits. I fall in love with your characters and they completely draw me in. You take a big subject and make it so personal and immediate and real. I really liked the image of “crawling into time”…I kept thinking that you really can’t go home again and we all write letters to a place in our past that no longer exists as anything more than a longing for someone or something or some time that is gone.

    And then the song!!! I have never heard this arrangement – so beautiful and mournful – a perfect compliment! You do such an amazing job at finding just the right music to accompany your writing. Thanks for this!!

  3. Ted Schneider Says:

    Roger,

    Your stories pull the reader in emotionally and they act like the transporters from Star Trek – they instantly transport you to the particular setting and instead of simply reading the story, you feel you are actually there. Great stuff!

  4. Helen Gagel Says:

    Golly!

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