23 December 2011

Peace on Earth? Listen Through the Static

"What? They are still having WARS?!" asks my backseat conscience. Seven-year-old Lena sounds exasperated.

Mentally, I quickly tune in to the car radio. A Medal of Honor recipient is describing his actions in World War II: "My commanding officer asked me, as the last flamethrower operator that he had in his company, because the others had either been killed or wounded, if I thought I could do something about some of the pillboxes ..."

War can be a heck of a way to start the day. Especially if you're only in elementary school.

So far, it is a snowless winter in Iowa. Starting in darkness, my pre-writing routine involves troop transport: First daycare, then first-grade. During a short suburban commute to school, our days unwrap themselves in purple-gray light, then quickly warm to cornflower blue. Trees and houses on the horizon silhouette themselves like paper cutouts, back-lit in pink and apricot.

I have never been a morning person, but this is my favorite time of day. It is calm and peaceful, even with the radio on.

I remember dashing to weekend drills in the National Guard, waking up at oh-dark-thirty to speed along zippers of interstate highway, the sun rising to reveal the snow-dusted corn stubble rolling and rippling alongside my car. I'd have a stainless-steel bullet of scalding coffee in one hand, steering wheel in the other. Life was good.

Happiness is a 0700 first formation and a couple of hours to get there. Better still, an AM radio spouting sad tales and news of the world, country music stations bleeding into BBC World Service.

Bonus Sherpa tip: Bursts of static mean there's a thunderstorm on the way.

Army communications training taught me to mentally push past the white noise, and to sort and separate snippets of simultaneous conversation. Stations are always talking over and on top of each other, like it's a cocktail party. Or a Twitter feed. Get into the zone, and you can regulate the radio mentally into the background, until you hear something of interest. Like your callsign. Or your daughter.

As part of a family budget-cutting move, I recently cancelled the subscription for my car's satellite radio. That means no more commercial-free, kid-friendly tunes at the punch of a pre-set. Usually, I remember to turn off the radio while shuttling the kids around. That way, I can avoid topical potholes such as roadside bombs and robot planes, and people getting killed.

When I forget to turn the radio off, morning drive-time can become an exercise in addressing Lena's hard questions.

I try to answer honestly and simply. Lena knows that I used to be a soldier. And her classmates have friends and family who are still in uniform. Even though most every Red Bull soldier we know personally is back from Afghanistan (but not from Iraq), she's still quick to pick up on war-related news.

Like my Mama Sherpa would say, back when Sherpa was still in short pants: "Little cornstalks have big ears."

She wasn't kidding.

Recently, for example, Lena zeroed in on a report about burn-out rates of U.S. Air Force drone pilots. While such pilots are sitting safe in cockpits here in the states, they're also omnipresent witnesses to events downrange: Watch a guy for days or weeks. Establish his habits and routines. Then, if and when necessary, pull the trigger.

Imagine how jarring it would be to then be able to drive home as if nothing happened.

Physical distance can create emotional dissonance. Ask any radio operator who's been located the safe end of the conversation, while his buddies are in contact with the enemy. It can feel pretty impotent to be armed only with words.
"Why are they hurting?" Lena asks about the drone pilots.

"Because pilots are like soldiers. They don't like to hurt people. But, sometimes, they have to shoot their weapons."

"Why do they have to shoot people?"

"Sometimes, they have to shoot people--bad guys--in order to keep other people safe."

"How does shooting someone make us safer?"
Good question, kid. One that more of us probably need to ask, given the state of the world, and the sentiments of the Christmas season.

I'm conflicted. While I'd like Daddy's little warrior-princess to keep believing in Santa Claus and pixie dust, I'd also like her to keep asking the tough and critical questions. If Lena has to grow up--and Household-6 says that she will, regardless of my efforts--I'd like it to be in a world in which war is considered the exception, and not the rule.

Peace on Earth? Put your ears on. Listen through the static. Watch for the dawn. And consider the tough questions.

Especially if they come from your kids.


  1. Copy all. Children units can ask some good questions.

  2. Sounds familiar to every commuting parent, I'm sure. I had to give up sports talk radio during the Penn State scandal to avoid some discussions I really didn't want to have with my 10-year-old.


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