Monday, May 28, 2007

Memorial Day

Staff Sgt. Andrew R. Pokorny was being called a hero in the press. His fellow soldiers were unstinting in their praise of him as a man and comrade-at-arms.

This was no surprise to me, but it did not make me feel better. I had already known he could be heroic.

I knew him as Andy, a friend of a friend whom I saw occasionally throughout high school until we finally cut out the middle man and became close during my junior year. He was one year ahead of me, and the more I got to know him the more I admired him. He stood out as a fully realized man in our squadron of boys: confident, thoughtful, athletic. He was both kind and funny, and seemed capable of finding things of value in almost everyone he met.

He was once a brazen non-conformist who had worn an American flag to school as a skirt, and a vegetarian to boot, so I was a little surprised when I learned he intended to enter the Army after completing high school. His family had many things mine did not, such as a nice house in the affluent suburb in which we both lived, but he saw this as his duty, and a way to pay for college. He'd be in for two years.

He sometimes spoke of it reluctantly.

I pried advice from him on how I might meet girls. He seemed to have a natural grace in this area that I lacked. Frankly, he had a natural grace in nearly all areas. He reminded me a little of the golden boy in A Separate Peace.

When school let out for the summer, we saw even more of each other. I spent many nights at his house: talking and laughing, running bizarre errands that we had decided were of crucial importance (discerning how many varieties of baby food were available at a local market, for one), tossing pebbles at the windows of friends and potential flames. Andy had a girlfriend, of course, but I think he liked the adventure of it all anyway. And I certainly didn't mind that the potential flames were mostly mine.

In the days before he shipped off, I was at his house nearly constantly. He gave me some of his t-shirts he would not be needing in the service. One I loved particularly read "Teach Peace."

We talked a lot about how hard it would be being Andy in the Army. Would he have access to vegetarian fare? Would his personality—large and easygoing—be an asset or would it cause him trouble? We spent his last night as a civilian making the rounds with our pebbles, visiting all the people he wanted to say goodbye to.

This was also a year of the cicada.

We made a tearful farewell, and I cried again when I got a letter from his some weeks later. He seemed to be miserable. All of the things he had feared seemed to be manifesting. They were striving to remove aspects of his character, or so it seemed. It is to my shame that I did not write him back. I was busy with other things, and am a terrible letter writer.

I saw him a few more times in the coming months. He checked in on my new life with what seemed like proud approval. I think I had begun to view him as an older brother. After some difficulty with boot camp, he had settled in and seemed to be enjoying himself more. My friend Nagesh joined him in service in the fall, about the time that we were suddenly hearing an awful lot about Iraq invading a smaller neighbor called Kuwait.

We were terrified for Andy and Nagy, stationed in Germany where so many of the troops being sent over were posted. Here we had been lulled into thinking the Army was a reasonably safe place for the most part—armed conflict obsolete—and now there was talk of war.

Neither of them were sent to Iraq.

When I saw Andy again the following summer, he struck me as someone I did not know. He had gotten married to a woman he met in Germany, adopted a child and was building a life. I grew uncomfortable after a few minutes and finally made my leave. I was angry with him for having changed so much.

I thought of him often through the years, how much I had learned from being his friend, wondering what his life was like. I knew he had stayed in the service, made it a career. Nagesh had done much the same, with some time off to go to college and eventually pass the bar.

The years slipped by and we were at war again, once more with Iraq. I was indignant but not as active as I had been the first time, when I had organized rallies and marches, spoken with the press. This time I simply watched it all on television and shook my head.

My friend Ian called me in June, 2003 and said the radio was listing Andy as a casualty. I hadn't even known he was there. I spent the next twelve hours in denial, scouring the internet for something that would comfirm or disprove this report. I could find nothing either way. I found another casualty with the same last name, and allowed myself to believe that it had merely been an error. People I knew couldn't possibly make the casualty list for the Iraq War. When the sun finally came up, I called Ian and told him it was a mistake.

But it wasn't.

Volunteering for a patrol on his day off, the M113 armored personnel carrier Andy was in had thrown a track and overturned. From the reports, Andy saw that another soldier was in harm's way and flung the man into his own seat, leaving himself in peril.

Illinois House Resolution HR0138 officially mourns his death, on behalf of his state and his family. The resolution mentions that he was outgoing and friendly.

It was essentially an automobile accident. It could have happened anywhere. And if Andy had not acted to save the life of the other soldier, it could have happened to someone else.

In my attempts to disprove the reports of his death, I learned that only a few months earlier he had been stationed in Colorado, about 50 miles from where I was living. I had not known this, and I had made no attempts to speak with him. I learned from the newspaper that he had three children now, and was still married to the woman I had met so briefly in 1991.

I loved Andy, that man among boys. I wish that when I saw him in 1991, I had been able to detect my friend in the man I saw. I wish I had been more curious about the new man who was there instead. I wish I had been more of a man in his presence, and a part of his life. I knew and remembered Andy, but probably never really knew Staff Sgt. Andrew R. Pokorny or his family. I wish I had. From the small quotes I read from his wife and the men with whom he served, it sounds as though Andy was still in there, too.

I miss him.


Monday is Memorial Day in America, when people either honor the soldiers who have given their lives in service of their country or have barbecues. My own tradition is to drive north and sit near the lake with a friend.

And to think of Andy.


Reading the Signs said...

Moved by this. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Yeah, it's days like this which give us the opportunity to remember those who have passed through and in some way shaped our lives, to reflect on the arrogance of youth and to see who we have become today and why.

Enjoy your day by the lake.

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

That is a beautiful tribute. You learned so much from him.

It is really hard to keep friendships going over distances of time and space. I have only held onto one friend from my pre-teen years and one from my teenage years. There are several others I would have liked to stay in touch with but circumstances on both sides prevented it. I keep them in my heart, though, as you keep Andy. Nobody can take that away.

Liz Dwyer said...

This made me get teary-eyed. Wow.

We did the the BBQ and the honoring, but I think there's not much honoring going on, overall.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

A sad story, but also hopeful in that Andy was one who consciously made a difference. Not necessarily in the war, which is in the end just an event that happens so that humans can measure themselves, but in how he opened his heart to life.

Your friend believed in certain ideals, and had a generous spirit. He understood love on many levels, and then he died much too young.

I do not personally believe in Mr. Bush's war, but I absolutely believe in the men and women who have sacrificed themselves so that the rest of us can continue to believe in whatever we choose.

It sounds as if you knew Andy's heart, Moon, and I'm sure that he also knew yours. A man like him would not have missed it.

Unknown said...

It wasn't a memorial day here, but it was the anniversary of my mum's death. I sat on the cliffs and watched the sea for an hour. Good memories are very cleansing.

Caroline said...

Deeply moved.

The Moon Topples said...

Thanks, everybody, for your comments. I am glad that I was able to write this, and that it seems to have gone through and touched some of you.

Lee said...

I'm glad you commented over at my place so I could discover you and read this wonderful post. I am sorry for your loss and your regrets. We all have them. You articulated yours beautifully. Thank you.