Like almost all the young men in my squadron, I was new to the sight of a youthful body mangled by explosion debris. I knew him. I remembered photos under the plexiglass on his desk. A laughing girl on a footbridge.
Although I didn’t know the young guerrilla, gunned down and bleeding into the tarmac, he had a life, a history, a reason for his sacrifice, just as Lewis had. Nevertheless, this is not their story. While I honor the memory of those they represent, they are merely characters in a muddle of memory and metaphor that seeks release onto the printed page.
Which is annoying. Writing is hard. It’s as slow and painful as the animation I’ve done for most of my adult life. Compelled nonetheless, here I am typing away at yet another take on this story knowing that the images will not stop until this Brautiganesque tale finally unfolds a Figment Of Reality that satisfactorily informs the author of his truth.
My inner critic, in addition to snickering, “Good luck with that,” has also posed the question: “Would Richard B. approve of the possibly too casual use of hyphenated and capitalized phrases to represent ontological fragments?”
I read Brautigan and took him to be an honest philosopher. As such, I could believe he would approve of using the right tools for the job. I could also believe that he would do so with at least a slight suspicion that he was being ripped off.
Call it an homage, if you will. I must complete my mission.
* * *
I’m telling you right up front: Figment Of Reality is made-up-words for love. In turn, love is made-up-words for alfalfa. At least, that’s how this Barely Perceiver Of The Present understands it, which is a start.
You should also know this: while skiing the steep slopes of the barely perceived present, Barely Perceivers Of The Present think a lot about love and war, and since I brought it up, alfalfa. Used to be that Barely Perceivers Of The Present thought a lot about Alfalfa, but he hasn’t been in a movie since 1948. Some still remember him, but the time of Alfalfa as a capitalized Figment Of Reality has passed.
Alfalfa, lower case, continues to be regarded as good stuff. Thoughtful stuff. It produces the highest protein food value of all the common hay crops even without available nitrogen in the soil. It adapts to a wide range of temperatures and is famously drought resistant. Therefore it is cultivated and baled in much of the world to feed almost all domesticated grazing animals, primarily those associated with dairy production.
It was grown in and harvested from the broad, Blackland prairie of my preschool youth, in fields soon engulfed by the suburban tide of which my family had been in the vanguard. My peers and I roamed these croplands and their wet-weather, wooded creeks. In them, we found our imaginations and the growing power of our bodies and senses.
So the sight, the smell and the feel of alfalfa and black dirt remind me of those vital years of moving from raw recruit to apprentice human. In some way, they even seem to organize my recollection.
Maybe that’s why I was not so surprised to find in my notes that grain elevator heiress Diane Collingwood was once romantically involved with alfalfa, or Alfalfa. I can’t be sure of such a liaison, my handwritten notes sometimes merely suggest the idea of legibility, but I was not exactly shocked by the news. Like Barely Perceivers Of The Present, alfalfa and heiresses cannot live alone and without love. Loneliness-without-love drains the Figment Of Reality right out of Barely Perceivers Of The Present.
Well, usually. Sometimes Barely Perceivers Of The Present learn to love even in loneliness. That’s something different: enlightenment.
Alfalfa, by the way, is made-up-words for enlightenment, and blessed enlightenment is made-up-words for black. As in the black dirt of home fecund with the seed of alfalfa, the star-spangled black of a glorious spring night, and the gritty black smoke of war.
As a caveat, made-up-words reminds us that one should not take the confusion inherent in metaphor lightly. These references to color, winter sports, alfalfa and a barely perceived present could easily be as baffling as the essence of experience they attempt to illuminate. Even braided by word and image into some eternal golden Figment Of Reality, there is a risk in supposing similar meaning in the minds of Barely Perceivers Of The Present.
Figment Of Reality came to me out of the shattered skull of a communications specialist late one April evening in a cantonment along the northwest edge of the runways at Da Nang Air Base in the Republic of Vietnam. At that particular moment I thought I had been all too perceptive of the present; the crunching blasts of incoming rockets, the face-searing heat of the burning communications shack and the blinding sourness of soot and smoke.
Add up that much perception of the present, and you get a sense-churning, ass-over-elbow tumble down a ski run of sand and blood. To steady myself I reached into the darkness for a wall that wasn’t there. Caught by surprise, I fell into a loneliness-without-love.
Looking up from that existential open grave changed how I was barely able to perceive. The olive drab boy-men sweating and swearing in the fire and night ceased to be the self-actuating, well-meaning children of God I grew up believing us to be. We were things to be confused and killed. We were also killers and confusers, somehow conflating hormones, religion, and civics into such a rage of indignant justification that denying decency, understanding, and kindness in oneself seemed honorable.
Figment Of Reality followed me into the shadows and helped me throw up my understanding of humans dressed in olive drab and black. It splattered into the dark grass and sand.
In place of my understanding, a Marine like a field of alfalfa waving green above the flat black earth touched my shoulder. He looked into my eyes so that I could see he was not loneliness-without-love. He told me I was OK.
Flickering orange firelight revealed his face like frames in a very slow movie.
I agreed with him. “I’m OK,” I said.
He nodded, and Figment Of Reality let him go about his duties. Then it led me back to mine: pulling human shards from burning wreckage and peering into the faces of the confused, telling them that they are OK. Telling them that it is OK to be Barely Perceivers Of The Present. That we are all Barely Perceivers Of The Present. That we are all tumbling down slopes of blood and sand. That we are fields of alfalfa.
Made-up-words understands this but is part of the confusion that goes on and on. Maybe from too much skiing; flirting with danger. Maybe from too much believing in what we barely perceive. Maybe from not enough love and green, green alfalfa swaying in the gentle breezes above black dirt farmland.
But that’s OK. It has to be. It has to be OK because made-up-words tells of life and death again and again. Of armed teenagers afraid and unable to understand. Of more nights of rockets and terror. Of running to warn my comrades who work on warplanes in the black night. Of a flare popping above and shadows under the wings dancing in fits of death. And how one of the shadows is another scared teenager wearing the black uniform of my enemy, wielding a black weapon in the flickering darkness. And I, unarmed and illuminated, prepare to die alone and afraid tumbling down slopes of blood and sand. And I see the blood of this teenager, the blood of alfalfa. And I see this teenager dying at the hands of a teenage Marine, just like a young Marine who looks into your eyes and tells you that you are OK. And I see how we tumble down slopes of blood and sand, three teenagers tumbling down in olive drab and black, a braid of living and dying confused.
Thus the truth of Barely Perceivers Of The Present becomes a deep olive drab and an abyss of black. Sometimes reminding us of that fact decades later on spring nights that come at the end of crisp, sunny days filled with a little too much coffee and much too little to do. It keeps us from our sleep and has us stand alone in fields of alfalfa, the womb of Barely Perceivers Of The Present. It shows us that as alfalfa grows green from the hard, black land, we must learn to accept that which we barely perceive.
Figment Of Reality springs from the blood of fallen comrades and foes ready to give meaning to made-up-words. It speaks from the moguls of an airman’s brain, from armed teenagers in spasms of death, and from fields of alfalfa rooted in musty black dirt.
In seemingly all ways it tries to tell us that it’s OK. It’s OK that millennia of armed conflict and persistent reflection lie behind us and may lie before us. It’s OK. With each death too soon, with each life lived long and well, Barely Perceivers Of The Present forget a little more and learn a little more.
We could just call this learning, which is made-up-words for life, which is made-up-words for Figment Of Reality.
We could try to believe this is enough.