Sag Harbor, New York, Saturday, April 26. It is spring where I live on Eastern Long Island. The magnitude of the change of seasons is shockingly palpable. The colors are vivid, finally alive again after the dull leaden gray and pewter of winter. Forsythia, that vibrant manic-yellow member of the olive family rises up against newly blue, newly warm skies -- a reminder of what renewal looks like. Magnolias are blossoming, as are Russian olives with their silver-fish green leaves catching the sun and gleaming, incandescently. Today, however, my little town is draped in a palpable air of wrenching sorrow, juxtaposed against the ebullience of spring. There are American flags everywhere today, and a procession just came through town. Traffic stopped. Everything stopped. Life seemed to stop, and the air was suddenly much colder, literally.
A 19 year old boy from our village, a Marine, deployed for less than a month, died at 7:30 a.m. Iraqi time on Tuesday, blown up by a suicide bomber in Ramadi. He is the first Sag Harbor resident killed in action since World War II. Jordan Haerter was just a boy -- one who loved history, his truck, and his family. He wanted to come back home to Sag after his tour was over to be a cop, a village cop. He had never been overseas before his deployment. According to the local paper, just a month ago, the boy's father had driven down to Camp LeJune to pick up his truck for safe-keeping.
At noon today, the gathered residents of the village looked dumbstruck, standing on Main Street in agonized and silent grief. You could feel the all-encompassing sorrow descend like an army of ghosts, and I thought of Albert Camus's plague-ridden seaport as I watched the procession pass. The assembled survivors and friends, school-mates, teachers, all silently marking the procession of police cars that were bringing the body to the local funeral home. The flags hanging from the buildings looked lifeless in the spring sunlight, as though they were in mourning too. The whole village is suddenly ashen, usually blessed in so many ways, but not always, and certainly not today. Today, we are inescapably part of a nation at war.
At first I didn't know what was going on, and stuck at a stop light for fifteen minutes, honked gently/impatiently at a police-officer directing traffic, and made a gesture of "what's going on?". Someone explained it. The cop came over to me, and through clenched and furious teeth said, "I bet the boy in that coffin wishes he were stuck in goddamn traffic, mister." I agreed, apologized, sick to my stomach, and drove on. I thought of Henry Reed's great and terrible war poem, "The Naming of Parts", which contrasts Spring in a garden with the assembly of a rifle, playing on the juxtaposition of image and word, with a ferocity of precision that manages to perfectly contain the magnitude of tragic loss at the center of war. One section in particular came into my head as I drove away from the procession:
And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers:
They call it easing the Spring.
They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt,
And the breech, and the cocking-piece, and the point of balance,
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond-blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards,
For to-day we have naming of parts.
I will refrain from a discussion of this war here, of how it came to pass, and of the unthinkable series of ideological and strategic mis-steps, and the tragic deceptions and blind zealotry of an entire class of leaders who will, one prays, have to eventually face the dictates of either their own, or at very least, the nation's consciences. Instead I will report that I saw an entire village holding small American flags. Children and women, local merchants, artists and writers, plumbers, contractors, public servants, mothers and fathers, collectively gathered, to mourn a life that meant so much to those who loved him and those who knew him, and even those, like me, who did not. I will report that on this bright day, the light of spring was occluded by a procession that showed us what will never be for one family. The sense of what was cut short in Ramadi -- the promise of future laughter, of future springs -- is palpable on Main Street. I saw in those faces watching the procession move slowly by, the certain knowledge that, as in Henry Reed's poem, our point of balance is gone, and for one of our own, all that is left is past, just a bank of memories of one happy childhood -- nineteen years in a small village on the edge of Long Island.