12 January 2011

Polly's Dad Got Shooted

"Polly's Dad was in the Army, and he got shooted," Lena says casually from the backseat. I've just picked the kids up from school. Household-6 is going out with a friend tonight, and I'm in charge of pick-up and dinner. It is a bitterly cold and windy day, the roads are still slick from a day-and-a-half of snowfall, and the last of the day's light hangs in the air like icicles.

Lena's words are sometimes like that, too--just solid enough to grab and hold. Touch them wrong, however, and they'll shatter. I move the car forward, cautiously.

First rule of working in the Tactical Operations Center ("TOC"): "The first report is always wrong. Except when it isn't."

My family lives in a small suburb of what the local TV anchors like to call the Des Moines "metro." (By the way, it's locally pronounced "duh-MOY-en." The "s" is silent. So is the other one.) More than 550,000 people live in the 5-county area.

There are more than 3,000 National Guard soldiers--most from the Midwest, and most from Iowa--currently deployed to Afghanistan with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division. If they were all put together in the same place, they'd rival the size of some towns that still dot the agri-industrialized landscape of 21st century Iowa, enclaves of good people and simpler times.

There is no active-duty Army post in the state of Iowa, however, and there is no single geographic concentration of units, families, and training areas that the Red Bull calls home. There is no commissary, or daycare, or post exchange (P.X.) to which everyone goes. There are no dry cleaners, tattoo parlors, package liquor and pay-day loan shops located just outside the main gate.

The largest single military activity in the state is Camp Dodge, in the Des Moines suburb of Johnston.

The state of Iowa is itself like a small town, however. If you don't know somebody, you might know somebody who does. Even if we don't all wear the same uniform, or live and work in the same places.

So when my kindergartner starts casually talking about soldiers and shooting, I go into a parental form of tactical questioning: "Really, when did this happen? ... Why did she tell you that? ... Was she laughing or crying when she said that? ... What is Polly's last name?"

Driving home, trying to figure out what my 6-year-old is thinking or saying, other potential connections are also simultaneously popping up on my mental dashboard. Some of it is signal, most of it is noise:
  • Lena has recently been invited to a "military" themed birthday party at a local museum. The birthday boy chose the theme in honor of his Navy veteran dad, who last year committed suicide with a gun. I don't know whether his actions were service-related, and it really doesn't matter. I do know that, while picking up my kids in warmer times, I experienced this boy's little sister announcing to me, to her playground friends, to anyone she encountered: "My daddy shot himself. He's with Jesus now." Is there a connection?
I'm not just spinning my mental wheels for kicks-and-giggles, of course. I'm attempting to figure out if my daughter is upset, or making unwanted or unnecessary associations. After all, I know she still thinks of Daddy as "being in the Army," we obviously have family friends currently in harm's way, and she seems to me overly attentive to TV pictures of tanks and soldiers on those rare occasions they infiltrate our family room. "Daddy, is that show about death?"

Naturally, I also want to know if Polly and her family is somehow in distress.

Of course, it could all be fairy tales and pixie dust. I remember the story-telling games of my own youth, with each kid one-upping each other until we were each descended from astronauts, famous inventors, and Presidents of the United States. And I remember the illogical results of any game of "telephone," in which a given narrative melts and mutates over the course of many re-tellings. It's fun at parties, but maddening to unravel as a parent.

All this is on my mind as I drive down the road, maintaining speed and distance. If there is something to the story, I don't want to react or overreact. I don't want to telegraph my background concerns about the health and welfare of 3,000 of my fellow Midwesterners into spooking the kids. I don't want to drive into a ditch, and I don't want to break the icicle.

Because the first report is always wrong. Except when it isn't.


  1. I've actually been in this situation before... trying to act, but not overreact.

    The one upping story-telling doesn't just happen with children either... it happens to full grown soldiers who all want to be war heroes.

  2. Kids have such a different perspective about these things. I sure hope you're able to figure this out. Must be maddening. Drive safely, my friend.

  3. well written piece here... well done


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