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HOPE




SMITH US Army



HOPE


A Dialogue In One Act


by William Thomas

 

 

I was tapping on my tablet when a slow heavy tread approached my apartment from out in the passageway. Each measured step sounded unnaturally percussive, as if its owner was marching in cadence. I kept writing. It was finally going good.

 

The stomping Dopplered nearer – left-right, left-right – and halted with a pair of spit-shined jump boots eclipsing the light under my doorway.

 

I stopped writing.

 

A heavy fist slammed the door, rattling its tired frame.

 

BAM! BAM! BAM!

 

“Try the handle!” I called out, inserting a bad word under my breath.

 

The knob turned. The hatch swung open and a big man dressed in crisp fatigues without rank or unit designation slipped into my room. I watched as the stranger eased the door shut behind him and assessed the tactical situation.

 

His professionalism reassured me. There was no fat on him. More an indication of skipped meals, I guessed, than daily calisthenics. The stubble on his head was steel grey. Topographical features, I learned from his eyes, that had more to do with recurring nightmares than advancing age. The nametag said SMITH. He did not look like a SMITH. He looked like a squared-away zombie haunted by the living.

 

“He'p you?” I said, sensing ‘Southren’ origins. I would have saluted. But I was seated and out of uniform and had not stood at attention for a long time.

 

“You the one putting down hope?” he said.

 

“Say again?” 

 

“You are. Don't deny it.”

 

“I are what?”

 

“The clown dumping on hope. Dissing people who express hope. Fragging hope. Crushing hope. Like a cockroach.”

 

“Whoever you are, you need to check your premise,” I said. “I have nothing against voicing hope as a social convention of encouragement and consolation: 'I hope it doesn't rain tomorrow.' 'I hope you're over your cold soon.' I say these things myself. But defaulting to full-time hoping in times of crisis is invariably fatal.”

 

“Listen to you.”


So Far So Good, Maybe

So far, so good...


“Hope is not a plan. When unwelcome realities are dealing the play, responding with wishful thinking while the situation deteriorates will be our final folly.”

 

“If you say so.”

 

“Where did you say you came up with my ID and location?”

 

“I didn't. When you launch your next assault against hope, where is your line of departure between a reasonable expression and a risky indulgence?”

 

“When circumstances require a response, using hope as a substitute becomes an impediment if the 'hopers' become more invested in miraculous intervention than in helping themselves. I’m sure you’ve noticed that when things go severely south, those who say, 'I hope we make it' – without first doing everything they can to make that happen – usually don't.”    

 

“Most people, all they have is hope. Take that away from them and what have they got?”

 

“Themselves.”

 

“Sure. Right. Fuck. Of course.” He smacked his forehead with an open palm. “Why didn't I see that? And what if they find themselves in impossible situations? Drugs and booze. Battered women trapped in nightmare marriages. The crushing weight of compounding debt with no way out. Incurable illness with escalating agony guaranteed. All those poor bastards got left is hope.”

 

“I agree with you there.”

 

“No, you don’t.”

 

“I’m not saying it’s effective. Hope doesn’t help women escape abusive relationships. Not while they keep ‘hoping’ they can persuade their tormenters to stop treating them like punching bags. Hope doesn’t pay overdue bills, cure addiction, or mercifully end a life reduced to terminal torture. Without a plan in hand, hope just prolongs the pain.”

 

War-worn eyes narrowed.

 

“Same with our current planetary FUBAR that is being allowed to get irretrievably out of hand while everyone is busy ‘hoping’ for the changes they’re not willing to make themselves.”


My intruder started to respond. I cut him off. “Who the hell are you? What do you want? Belay that. Where did you holiday in the Crotch?”

 

“III Corps.” He paused, unable to not remember. Even now, flashbacks of atrocities witnessed and perpetrated would be almost constant. Like mine. “Three tours.”

 

“I am sorry to hear that,” I said, thinking of places in the Highlands I was delighted to have never seen.

 

“Not as sorry as me.” My visitor assumed a ramrod posture. “Master Sergeant, Hank Burchett. Airborne all the way.” He did not extend his right hand. He didn't have one.

 

“What happened to Smith?”

 

“I have no idea.”

 

“So you’re retired. Mustered out with an attaboy and full disability.”

 

Hank Burchett gazed down at his stainless-steel claw and smiled ruefully. “Car wreck.”

 

“Single vehicle.”

 

He nodded. “Last year. Right after I surrendered my stripes.”

 

I nearly raised an eyebrow. Top Sergeants don’t just ‘resign’. Or burn their uniforms. “So tell me this,” I said, to steer the conversation away from what must have been a devastating crisis of faith, “as an FNG* newly arrived in-theater, every time you stepped off into the bush what did you put more trust in: hope or your weapon?”


 

Don't shoot and it won't jam

“Don’t shoot and it won’t jam!"


“Both. I hoped that fucking Mattel piece of shit wouldn't jam the minute Charles wanted to get it on.”

 

“Do any good?”

 

“Negative. Most of my dead buddies were found with their rifles stripped down next to them where they’d been trying to clear them.”

 

“There you go.”

 

“The substitute ball propellent certain corporations inflicted on us, for whatever reason, must've been left over from Gettysburg. You ever try to fire an M-16 clogged with burnt powder as the little brown brothers run right at you with murder in their slanty gook eyes?”

 

“Affirm. And stow the gook references. We were the invaders.”

 

“How did that last misfire work out for you?”

 

“Outstanding,” I said. “I got an all-expenses-paid flight back to the World. Three surgeries at Bethesda, 16 months hellish convalescence... and presto magico! Good as new.” I inspected my wheelchair. “Almost good as new.”

 

Burchett frowned. “All because your weapon failed at the worst possible moment.”

 

“I saw the grin on Murphy's face just before I got hit. Forget hope when that joker's around.”

 

“Forget about it anyway, right?”

 

“Roger that.”

 

“How the fuck do you live if you don't got hope?”

 

maybe...

“Cut the dogface dialect, okay? See that box over on that shelf? A dollar bill goes inside every time the f-word is uttered in this space.”

 

“Fuck, you're gonna clean me out.”

 

“You're doing it to yourself. You're already down four-bucks. Pay up.”

 

To my surprise, Burchett took out his wallet. Holding it open against my desk with his hook, he extracted a tenner, walked over and stuffed it into the box I’d scored in Saigon’s Bring Cash Alley. The intricately-carved and still-aromatic teak chest was half-filled with one's and fives.

 

He shut the lid with a lopsided grin. “What are you going to do with the money?”

 

“Orphanage,” I said. “Do you use silverware and plates to dine with yet? Or are you still eating right out of the can?”

 

Burchett waved me off. “I just made a down payment on an extra six fucks. Hey,” he pretended to brighten. “I like the sound of that.”

 

“Four.”

 

“Fuck, you're right. This is worse than playing acey-deucy with ancient kids who never blink, before going out on a night ambush that would more likely surprise us.”

 

“Look, Top,” I said. “It's not that I don't appreciate the conversation. But I'm on deadline here and...”

 

“Just promise to leave hope alone and I am gone like Victor Charles in the mist.”

 

“You make hope sound like a 15-year-old virgin.”

 

My guest considered this. “Yeah,” he allowed. “I guess.”

 

“So when upset Vietnamese persons shot back, instead of depending on your own wits, you were willing to stake your life and your squad on an imaginary 15-year-old?”

 

“You're right. That's a sexist metaphor.”

 

“Analogy. Not metaphor.”

 

“What's the difference?”

 

I shrugged.

 

“You're the writer.”

 

“What does that have to do with anything?”

 

Burchett smiled thinly. “Couldn't have said it better myself. So we're square? No more trashing hope?”

 

“Negatory,” I said. “No can do.”

 

“Why the fu... hell not?”

 

“It would be dishonest.”


“How is throwing a lifeline to someone drowning in despair, 'dishonest'?”

 

“Because unearned hope is a scam and a sham. Another term for denial. A weasel word used by governments and churches to keep their followers from accessing their own power. Within and without. Hope is the name of that fiddle while Rome burned.”

 

“Proceed.” It was more dare than invitation.


“Hope is the bromide for those who see themselves as victims waiting to be rescued from the predicaments we insist on arranging for ourselves. A magic incantation without the magic. The gomers who keep their eyes screwed shut fervently hoping it will ‘all be okay’ haven't figured out that they have to start paying attention to the things that matter most.”

 

“You’re a real piece of work, Lieutenant. I just don’t know which piece.”

 

“Nobody’s told them that everything we give energy to attracts more of the same,” I resumed. “This means we can pull better allies and outcomes towards us by living graciously, consciously, even courageously. And by taking care of our friends.”

 

“Let’s hear it for the Loot,” Burchett said, rapping his claw on my desk.

Hopeless (Roy Lichtenstein)

 

“While everyone’s preoccupied sending selfies and texts, biological and geophysical collapse is accelerating everywhere,” I pointed out. “What happens to all the hopers who attach extravagant expectations to improbable outcomes, when outside help never arrives?”

 

“They max out everything and OD on opioids,” Burchett said. “Other no-hopers get mad at everyone and lay down fire in public places.”

 

“Who benefits?” I said.                                                                                                      Roy Lichtesten                                                                                      


“A WORLD WITHOUT HOPE WILL END IN THE FIRES OF DESPAIR!” Burchett suddenly shouted, like an old-time radio evangelist.                            


“A world with a lot more good luck wishes than compassionate acts and a clear understanding that what happens to one happens to all is self-destructing right now,” I pointed out after the shrapnel cleared. “On every front, we’re losing so much so fast. Action, not hope, is the antidote to despair.”

 

“You are a stubborn son of a bitch, I'll give you that.” The master sergeant’s gaze slid past me and kept going. “I Corps, right? You jarheads saw some shit up there.”

 

I batted at the memories he’d awakened, the ones that grin and caper and never go away. “What were we doing over there again? I keep forgetting.”

 

“Hurting people,” the master sergeant said, looking away.

 

Including ourselves, I silently added, thinking of another GI suicide every 70 minutes since a Desert Storm wounded the world in ’91.

 

“Welcome back,” Hank Burchett said when I regained focus. “That’s what my wife used to say to me. Before she hooked up. And bailed out.”

 

“And I became a recon marine.”

 

“You sure you want to advertise qualifying for a specialty even more batshit crazy than  a normal gyrene?”

hope tat

 “If I was going into harm’s way on a too-regular basis, I wanted to be with focused professionals who covered each other’s backs in situations where the life-expectancy of a butterbar like me during his first contact was... ”

 

“… 16 minutes. And the other Fucking New Guy kept saying, 'I hope I make it home alive’!”

 

“Funny thing,” I confirmed. “He did.”

 

“See.”

 

“On his third patrol I assigned him to walk point. He tripped a bouncing Betty.”

 

“Fu… Ouch.”

 

“They sent him home without any legs. Or balls. The kid was supposedly sedated when they loaded him on the carrion bird for CONUS. But that didn’t stop him from screaming, ‘Why didn’t you let me bleed out?’ He had a point.”

 

“So... what? Be careful what you hope for?”

 

“Don't waste irreplaceable time hoping when you can be doing.”

 

Burchett sighed and walked over to the door. Intact hand on the knob, he turned to face me. “Semper fi, hard ass. If you're going to keep telling people clinging to hope to suck it up, you truly are a retard marine.”

 

“As you were, Sarn’t,” I ordered in my command voice. “'We hope' is the mantra of a passive, suicidal society. Another excuse to keep on compounding damage to ourselves, each other, and this spasming space colony surrounded by the cold, irradiated vacuum of deep space.”

 

Burchett managed a crooked smile. “‘Spasming space colony’. That’s over the top.”

 


Hope hologram by God

This default message signifies a jammed switchboard.



“It’s not. Try finishing each thought: We hope our corrupt leaders stop waging endless wars on behalf of the bankers and corporations addicted to conflict. We hope cheap oil doesn't run out while we allow the Oil Mafia to roadblock alternatives. We hope the surging ocean doesn't drown every coastal metropolis and continue salinizing their groundwater and our most productive farmlands, while we book another flight to wherever.

 

“Fire for effect,” the E3 said.

 

“We hope the Hopi were wrong. We hope all that frozen methane doesn't let go as we fire up our portable carbon-burner to shop for more junk at Wal-Mart. We hope we escape the mass extinctions burning all those dinosaur bones has already unleashed. We hope geoengineering works, thought it hasn’t since ’98. We hope the offspring of all species don't come after us when they realize what we've done. We hope the Big Guy in the sky saves us from our distracted, undeserving selves’.”

 

“That’s quite a list.”

 

“Everyone has their excuse. I just don’t think excuses are effective strategies.”

 

“Flash Bulletin, Loot: There’s very little any of us can do to change any of these things.”

 

“Flash Priority Message,” I radioed back, miming a Prick 25 headset. “There’s everything we can do to start living as if every choice matters to more lives than our own. If you have a problem with this, please have immediate intercourse with yourself and the nag you rode in on.”

 

“No need to get personal,” Burchett bridled. “I take your point.”

 

“Hallelujah.”

 


Hopeless picture, by anncio

“Hopeless” by Anncio

 

“And when you tell people, 'It’s too late, we're all doomed,' do you really think that message will inspire billions of addicts to turn off their distraction devices and coal-fired power plants and park, land or moor all carbon-burning conveyances?”

 

“There are better alternatives,” I reminded him. “Including retrieving our lives from a full-on consumer surveillance society. I find it odd the army would tell you to keep your lip zipped if you spot danger close.”

 

“What I learned,” Burchett shot back, “is not to run around in a firefight telling everyone it’s hopeless. Especially when it is.”

 

“Good call,” I agreed. “Hopelessness is the flipside of hope. And hope in reverse is still a pretext to give up and do nothing. Which is cool. As long as we’re willing to betray every life that comes after us. And kiss calamity with a big slurpy on the lips.”



Massive Fish Die Off in Florida Raises Questions

Another massive Florida fish die-off “raises questions…"


“That’s gross!”


“Exactly."


“So how ‘exactly' do we stop Washington’s daily terror bombings?” Burchett demanded. "Mass exinctions. Melting glaciers. Dying coral reefs. You got a few hours to hear the rest of the list?” 

 

“We do what we can do,” I replied. “Starting with the next purchase we make, or ignition key we turn. Or don’t make. Or don’t turn.”

 

Burchett stared at me.

 

“Then we get together. And I don’t mean just online. It’s never too late to change course when enough good people are willing to block a pipeline, join or initiate a boycott, enjoy an electric bike, or give the less fortunate a hand. Instead of sitting around moping and hoping.”

 

I caught the combative veteran catch himself nodding.

 

“Not that there's any choice,” I rested my case. “When we’re aware of outrageous injustice – when we know something heavy is coming down – we must act. If life is truly sacred as so many profess, taking action becomes a moral imperative when so much karma and so many future lives among all species are at stake. Regardless of the outcome.

 

“I hate to break this to you,” said the NCO. “But nobody gives a shit.”



Morning commuters brave Chicago's Wacker Drive Jan. 28, 2019. -Rich Hein:Chicago Sun-Times

 Commuters brave Chicago's Wacker Drive Jan. 28, 2019. -Rich Hein/Chicago Sun-Times


 Koala takes a drink as Adelaide swelters ,Jan. 24, 2019. -Michele Whall:Reuters

 Koala takes a drink as Adelaide swelters on Jan. 24, 2019. -Michele Whall/Reuters

 

“Don’t say that to an Aussie or a Midwesterner,” I advised. “Or someone displaced by our propensity to blow up their cities and hometowns. Or by rising waters. Or no water at all.”

 

“I like how you speak in italics when you climb up on your rocking-horse.”

 

“All I am saying is that when the decks are awash, it's time to stop hoping and start pumping.” I paused for effect. “Especially when there are no lifeboats.”

 

“Put it on a poster,” the former and forever master sergeant said, stepping away from the door. “You know what? After humping through the Suck and endless follow-on shitholes, I've come to distrust excessive enthusiasms. On all sides. Regarding all issues. I don't care what flags you're flying, your objective, or the direction of your line-of-march. You get enough idiots in lockstep and the ovens and the cliff edge can't be far ahead.”

 

“Copy that,” I acknowledged. “But as the insects, birds, amphibians, trees and plankton underpinning all our lies vanish before our averted eyes, don’t fret that everyone will suddenly act together to create a culture where respecting all creation is the new bottom line. Take your pick, Burchett: Voluntary Simplicity now. Or Involuntary Simplicity real quick.”

 

“Don’t you mean, ‘lives’?”

 

“I thought I did. But my muse is smarter than me.”

truth and lies


“Writers,” Burchett bitched. “Too much quiet. Too much time to dream and reflect. Or whatever writers do. And look what happens. Reality breaks through. Haven’t you got the word? Most people prefer make-believe.”

 

“Thing is,” I tried again, “when General Quarters sounds and you hear, 'All-hands-on-deck!' every able-bodied crew member must lend a hand wherever and however they can. I’m suggesting we take responsibility for our actions and be the change we take the time to envision in our every thought, word and act.”

 

“Try telling that to the big shots who need to hear it most,” said the MSG. He shook his head. “Where do you get this stuff? Off army recruiting ads?”

 

“I'm not aware of any army that promotes personal choice,” I said. “Next time you're online, search ‘right action’ and 'skillful means'.”

 

“Don’t fall out of the bodhi tree,” commented my unsolicited adviser, surprising me yet again.

 

“You have to admit, wrong action doesn’t seem to be working out too well,” I observed. “Except for the profiteers.”

 

Burchett dipped a pair of referee’s fingers signalling a two-point swish.

 

“You’ve still got a dollar’s credit,” I told him. “Unless you want to use it telling me off.”

 

“Already did,” said the paratrooper. “Just not out loud.”

 

“Then we’re even,” I said. “As for the rest, preventative or remedial action beats fantasizing every time. In desperate circumstances, the biggest sin is doing nothing at all.”



So far, so good

Sure hope this isn’t happening! 




WRITER’S REMARKS:

This story is allegorical fiction drawn from personal experience and intended to provoke non-violent discussion.

 

My apologies to the late Ursula K. LeGuin, who urged “advanced” writers to boycott the f-word as weak and gratuitous writing. With respect, try telling that to someone in uniform. Or anyone attempting to write accurately about the grunt’s experience.

 

I wasn’t one. But during Vietnam, as an ensign undergoing officer training in the navy reserves, I did attend a marine orientation at Camp Pendleton in California. Firing a WWII-vintage BAR taught me the frightening power of a single .50 calibre machine gun.

 

What haunts me a half-century after resigning my long-sought commission is the sight of all those closely-shorn, dressed-alike teens lining up to board the buses taking them to their fate – and the repercussions still ricocheting throughout four Southeast Asian countries. The newly combat-qualified marines my eyes were drawn to looked no older than 17.

 

They’re all children, I realized with a shock. None, I guessed, were the offspring of the chickenhawks in Congress and the White House. Or cynical CEOs battening on yet another senseless slaughter. 


Intoxicated by firepower and youthful invulnerability, each shipped out hoping they would prevail without personal cost. Just like their successors today, goaded by financial or legal distress and nonstop propaganda on multiple frequencies to take on an ever-lengthening list of provoked and manufactured “threats” among the 96% of Earth’s human population who are not among God’s exceptionally dysfunctional. 


The troopers are seen off by the next wave of ever-hopeful stressed-out parents and partners, who cannot imagine, yet somehow sense, that their loved ones will come home from their nation’s perpetual “wars" with major wounds. Visible or not. 

 

Just ask the spouses. 

 

 



Another homecoming -Chip Somodevilla © Getty Images

Another homecoming -Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

 





GLOSSARY *

VC - Viet Cong “insurgents” who happened to live in South Vietnam

E3 – top army enlisted rank (NCO)

NCO – non-commissioned officer

MSG – Master Sergeant (US Army) (“Top”)

BAR – Browning Automatic Rifle

FNG – Fucking New Guy (see ‘butterbar’)

FUBAR – Fucked Up Beyond All Repair

CONUS – Continental United States

PRICK 25 – Vietnam-era PRC-25 backpack radio

Butterbar – inexperienced 2nd Lt. prone to screwing up

Victor Charles – VC


[Pictures chosen under Fair Use to illustrate the finished story.]


GUY McPHERSON ON HOPE

“Physicians, especially oncologists, used to lie regularly to their patients,” writes Guy McPherson. “Lying was considered perfectly appropriate. After all, hope was viewed as unimpeachably good, and removing hope by presenting the facts was therefore undesirable.

"More recently, and with much discussion among medical doctors and ethicists, it has become acceptable to tell the full truth to patients. Hope is no longer viewed as a motivator.”




Earthtrust in Kuwait -photo by William Thomas

My Earthtrust buddies taking samples in the Great Bergan oilfield

(from “Eco War” documentary by William Thomas)



ABOUT “HOPE":

In Kuwait City during the eco war, when petroleum from a thousand blazing and belching wellheads fell as “black rain" from a perpetual oilcast, I learned that denial is the strongest human propensity. 


These days, we often express denial as ‘hope’. 


Hope cannot shield against violence. During my service with a three-man environmental emergency response team (funded by Earthtrust out of Hawaii), I witnessed the silent aftermath of industrialized slaughter along a 30-kilometer stretch of burned-out traffic-jam on the Highway to Hell. 


You can be sure that among the 10,000 fleeing guest workers and terrified barefoot teenage Iraqi conscripts crisped and shredded on this main road to Basra (in grievous contravention of every treaty and convention bearing on the conduct of war) – every one of them hoped they would live. As if conscription gave them any choice. Or chance against their aerial butchers. Shame on Canada.


I came home to the clearcut logging wars. The dioxin (Agent Orange) pulp mill wars. The ongoing microwave resistance. And a growing avalanche of reliable data showing this (not “our”) terrestrial space colony shedding critical components in rapidly converging breakdowns. 


For those curious about the process, I’ve been thinking about these things for more than three decades. “Hope” has taken a solid month to write and a full day to find illlustrations in my files and online and complete the layout. (So if you feel it’s worth hitting a nearby Donate button, this befuddled pensioner appreciates your appreciation in advance.)


Discovery is the best reason to write. More and more, I’ve come to prefer setting up a “dialectic” (an argumentative conversation) between an imaginary pair of feisty and articulate antagonists. It’s a good way to test my own bias, while enjoying unexpectedly compelling counter-arguments. Also, it’s “real fun” breaking rules I’ve spent a lifetime learning. 


I like how Burchett lays some good shots right through my wheelhouse. And how he goes from being an “intruder” to a “guest”. Only after many drafts did I discover that his right hand had been confiscated by PTSD. 


I subsequently learned that undisclosed injuries have left “me confined to a non-electric wheelchair. 


That was a surprise!


Of course, when I imagined two disillusioned veterans and let them go at each other in impromptu exposition and verbal and-to-hand, I didn't know what was going to happen... 


By the time I came to post this story, the reason why the master sergeant was wearing someone else’s fatigues instead of his own was still unknown. I knew I “should” either explain this anomaly or take it out. But I liked this additional mystery around a crusty top sergeant who never said, y’all and recognized a pair of Buddhist concepts. 


Meanwhile, my muse continued to root around in my subconscious, cutting and pasting seemingly related fragments and passing the results along for transcription and shaping. Wouldn’t you know it. Just as I was about to hit Publish, I was informed why Burchett was wearing an army-issue SMITH nametag. He’d burned his uniform. Of course! I’d done the same thing the day I graduated from a Tennessee military academy. -William Thomas  







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