combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2003

A Cane Bridge

Because my anticipation was high, my anxieties were exaggerated. The complexion and tone of every gathering is different, even when the groups are identically defined by different compositions; so it didn't surprise me that our's was awkward.

We were individuals who once shared intense experiences, were parted by circumstance, and were once again incidentally convoked. Our sympathies originated in mutual tendencies toward innovation and expedition ... we tended to resist the bureaucratic formula of placing irregularities into uniformities, of putting round problems into square solutions, of going along to get along. We'd been mavericks without becoming saboteurs, dissenters without becoming protesters, and patriots without becoming zealots. We were savvy, integrated, and committed; but nonetheless, we were still awkward.

We met at a sidewalk cafe, near our accommodations in the designated city. The day, filled by our separate activities, had been busy for each of us, but we were determined to include some personal recreation ... one of our long ago creeds had been: work hard and play harder, and this junket was stag. In our desire to re-establish commonality, we'd reverted to remembrances; which might also defeat our acquired inhibitions and natural defenses.

The cafe's menu was posted on a nearby wall, and they read from it selectively, only commenting on what they liked; so I turned to the looming waiter with a query about what was available to drink? He was either very arrogant or entirely stupid, or both, as he informed me that I could order anything. I wasn't interested in analyzing his motivational psyche, or in playing telepathic guessing games. Neither was I in the mood for tolerant philosophical reason, nor for begging his indulgence with respect to my visual-impairment. Whenever strangers have demanded a reason for my blindness, as if I were an automated exhibit conveniently situated for entertaining their idle curiosity, I have always replied: Masturbation!, as a precaution that further forays may not be harmless ... HOOAH! In fact, when an overly curious stranger once asked why my spectacle lenses are tinted blue, I didn't waste the truth on such a gauche lout, but replied that my psychiatrist hopes that they will make me less violent! The iron-chair beside me accidentally struck our ineffectual wait-person as I stood to leave. I issued my friends an op-order that we were going out on patrol, that our mission was to locate and secure a nice watering hole, and that I would cover the drag position in our order of march. This time the jungle was mean urban streets, but the doctrine of camouflage still applied: be inconspicuous.

We are three combat veterans. Although we're not preoccupied with the past, our characters were forged there, our beliefs were tested there, and our manhood developed there. Although we were all wounded in battle, I'm alone among us for being disabled. I've noticed that their perceptions and assessments are principally visual, while mine are aural and tactile. They read my face, and I read their voices. The gray-hair, the wedding-band, the love-handles, the stylish clothes, and the powerful postures are all statements that I must infer, if I am to learn more about them without becoming boorish or inquisitorial. They do not think to offer descriptions of whatever is obvious; and I will not ask, if only because the telling would be too humiliating for all of us. Successful rehabilitation is the art of learning to adjust to one's new limitations; but rebirth is redefining the standards without compromise or modification. Even a phantom eye gives the impression of one being sharp, clear, focused, steady, and wise ... despite the fact that I'm forgetting how to see.

Their post-war rehabilitation has been the accommodation of externals to internals, and mine has been the balance of internals to externals; but no one can be rehab'd beyond their impairments. Our conversation ranges from current events and historical analyses to vocations and entertainments. They tell Yuppie and FemiNazi jokes, and I tell blind jokes. Such jocularity is intended to be disarming. We're simply trying to get comfortably reacquainted, but are still awkward.

After a spate of bawdy stories, I informed them that "PLAYBOY" magazine was produced in braille; whereupon they eagerly inquired about the punctiform technique for the details of the centerfold?! I truthfully reported that it, as well as all the advertising, was omitted; and that the next time someone claimed to read that magazine solely for its literary merit, they should insist upon converting to a braille subscription! Recalling that several men had brought skin flicks back in-country from exotic R & R sites, they asked if I'd seen any of the more recent porn-videos? ... and did I know this stuff was now in multi-media on CD-ROM? Again, my response was disappointingly truthful. I joined the Army before the alleged counter-cultural revolution and was medically-boarded during the so-called sexual revolution ... free-love, nudist communes, bra-burning, micro-mini-skirts, transparent blouses, public streaking, explicit magazines. It was entirely the WRONG time to be blind! When art-films made the transition to multiple-X-ratings, I invited my wife to attend the adult movies. Apprised by She Who Must Be Obeyed[†] that transport was feasible but, unlike our usual practice, there would be absolutely no graphic descriptions, I consequently retreated (as being the better part of valor), indicating that my imagination wasn't THAT good! This tangent degenerated into a ribald discussion of applying subfrequency caption-carrier technology to more than drama and sports broadcasts. And we laughingly speculated about sighted colleagues (whose usurpation was just another unwarranted incursion upon handicap privileges) who used hot sex phone services at work; as if Big Brother didn't monitor everything, and there was some chance of impunity or immunity! A handsome leather folio containing our bill mysteriously appeared on our table ... this joint had really subtle class! I've never before been so politely evicted!

We found ourselves back out on the trail in patrol formation ... this time with me at point for safety's sake! My friends noticed a topless bar along the way, and we recalled an exotic dancing salon near our training post, which had all the disappointing eroticism and stagnant legitimacy of the period's asexual underwear ads! Having never before been, I sallied forth into the breech. The grotesquely padded-and-tucked entry door reminded me of an unusual soft door knob that I'd encountered due to misplaced chivalry in my early marriage.

My wife and I had stopped at a furniture store, and we were linked sighted guide fashion as we approached the entrance; whereupon I aggressively stepped forward, with one arm extended back to stay linked with her elbow and the other reaching-out to open the door for us. Because the acoustics around an entrance often change, I ignored the sound of someone exiting. In my gentlemanly zeal, I also ignored the arm resistance my stunned wife was exerting in a mute attempt to signal for me to stop enroute to disaster! ...where there's a will, there's a way! ... so I drove onward until my hand encountered a very strangely soft knob. I was confused, my wife was embarrassed, the other woman was surprised, and all of us were dismayed into speechlessness!! As in combat, where internal and external realities are asynchronous, it all happened so s-l-o-w-l-y and too quickly. I dropped my hand and turned to my wife for some explanation as the other woman raced away ... and only then did I finally realize the meaning of all those mixed signals! It probably wouldn't have mattered if I'd shouted an explanation after her distant footsteps, since she wasn't simply violated, but had been groped by a blind pervert with the aid and consent of his enabling keeper! I wasn't sure that this reminiscent omen boded well for an honorable excursion into terra-incognita ... being not only a place unknown and unrecognizable, but also deceptive and concealed.

The topless bar may have been a sybarite's dream, but I was acutely reminded that different people formulate distinctly different assessments based upon idiosyncratic values and evidentiary impressions. Their conclusions accepted standard visual judgements ... the lights, the reflections, the colors, the shapes, the fluid movements ... while mine were a debate among warring sensibilities and sensations. This business was representative of establishments ... that is, of established conventions and accepted norms; where image is a triumph over substance, and commerce is a form of exploitation. Commerce has seemingly raided warfare strategies for effective marketing techniques, and deception is now their primary tactic. Light is symbolically good and dark is bad ... bright is intelligent and brilliant is wise, and their contrast is sinister. The English Forest Rules of the 1200's punished violations with blindness, castration, and finally death. Until recently, the Middle East punished lying and voyeurism with blindness. This den of iniquity shunned light's disinfectant, and operated in an artificial vacuum. The synthetic ambiance of the lounge we'd left was pretentious ... the background music matched the decor and didn't interfere with conversations; the furniture was functionally neat and tidy; the aromas were recent and related; the staff didn't obtrude into our party; and our clothes wouldn't need to be burned after the visit. By contrast, this surreal barroom for libertines was a pulsating arena of violent noise and intrusive atmosphere! Its shadowy contrivance bestowed anonymity with its antinomy.

Mythology always conceals evil within some container, and invites our misadventure through the portal. Upon opening the bar's door, I became instantly deaf, due to an inability to discriminate sounds and sources! My feet alternately stuck and slid in whatever had been spilled or ejected onto the floor at some point in time ... probably within the past decade. Tactile encounters with the furnishings and glassware summoned images of terminally-ill health inspectors taking revenge upon an unwary public with biological warfare! The malodorous aura wasn't quite nauseatingly fetid, due to a valiant masque of perfumer's artifice; but I was reminded that soap was humanity's first medicine. Then I remembered the full-body condom sci-fi story, which bemoaned the extinction of a race committing antiseptic genocide due to its aversion to melding bodily secretions; and I now thought it a very pleasant way to go! Due to the painfully penetrating noise level, I'd presumed that we'd entered during a performance, and that things would tone-down enough for us to interact; but when the floor-show started, things got much worse! A cheerful waitress, who was positively not an epicene server, delivered our drinks with the shouted admonition: "Y'all have FUN now!" ... then I noticed that my swizzle-stick was an effigy to lusty femininity! I briefly prayed that the omnipotent alcohol had poisoned any repulsive bacteria! We quaffed.

As if under an artillery barrage, we huddled beneath the frenzied hustling and raucous displays, which were designed to elicit primal responses, and we vowed not to be taken prisoner! Assimilating this alien environment broke-down our awkward interpersonal barriers. We were no longer three separate and unsanctified entities communicating across a void. The scene attacked the fortress of our essence so relentlessly that we sheltered nearer for solace and camaraderie. Were we having FUN yet? ... it compelled us to get up-close-and-personal!

As the night had evolved, propinquity encouraged us to move out of the realm of theoretical middle-aged evaluations of criteria and accomplishments into the forbidden zones (being much more private and vulnerable than erogenous zones) of reassessed ambitions and mature desires. Our sensitivities could be shared because our categorical insensitivity was indisputably proven by our military records. We were certified men with nothing left to prove, and everything left to care. We were beyond the examples of what stereotypes could be, what civil rights for victims should be, and what the System ought to be. The components of a retirement plan weren't speculative ... it was his progressive security program for a meaningful transition into dignified old age. The constituents of a good relationship weren't hypothetical ... it was my working marriage. These paradigms weren't pompous or presumptive, because our achievements weren't challenges or confrontations ... they were confidences! I heard them speak of lost opportunities and happy accidents, of enduring love and endless hatred, of causal depression and shameless faith. I naturally loosed a few private ghosts and exposed a few personal skeletons, because blind persons, like inmates condemned to solitaire, tend to live inside themselves more than other people. An interior life can become unacceptably inferior if the reflections accumulate and distort perceptions.

Our catalogue of remembrances included a drive through a moon-shadowed mountain forest in winter, a stylized free-fall parachuting competition, a civic-action engineering project for a local Montagnard village, and fishing a special backwash along a secluded brook. Our inventory of dreams included a transcontinental trek, publishing a book of collected poetry, becoming an independent entrepreneur, handcrafting a custom rifle, and performing volunteer services for refugees. Because we'd struggled with foreign languages, deciphered promulgated regulations, and absorbed computer jargon, we were confident that a litany of plausible excuses could be generated if none of our goals materialized. The important thing was, we rationalized, that these, and other, secret ideas keep us going despite our intrinsic handicaps ... no options, no latitude, no time, no energy, no money, no vision.

Among the tales were episodes of me tapping along a sidewalk with my cane and getting laid-out by an overhanging sign; or venturing into my own backyard to refill the bird-feeders during a blizzard and getting frigidly lost for hours! Some episodes described being inappropriately included or excluded, being ignored or patronized, and being humiliated by commonplace or common sense mistakes. I explained that braille wasn't used very much by those adventitiously blinded; and was too scarce or expensive anyway. I noted that blind spelling is a significant annoyance, and word definition or interpretation is a persistent bane. Despite good vocabularies, many blind persons have been plagued by contranyms (eg: cleave, mistress, sanguine, etc) and homophones (eg: complement/compliment, discreet/discrete, raise/raze, etc); until computerized references brought relief. I told them that the dependency and restrictions which blindness imposes is emasculating ... from limitations on independent travel and prohibitions on unescorted shopping to requirements for protective supervision and necessary orientation. This was waspishly illustrated when I had to invite them to show me the men's latrine. To be optimistic about ancillary abilities and supplemental accommodations is to miss the point of the whole man concept. The fact that a blind-man can wrestle, sing, lift weights, play music, sculpt, write, calculate, speak, or think as well, or as badly, as a sighted-man ought not be misconstrued as an endorsement of the condition! Seemingly, for the first time, they fully realized that blindness affected every single aspect of life ... from polite table manners and coordinated wardrobe selection to confident body-language and graceful courtship.

Amidst recounting these tribulations, I mused over being blind longer than I'd been sighted ... and I was forgetting what vision was like. It was now more marvelous to me that the naked-eye could examine details several yards away, than that a telescope could detect cosmic aberrations beyond our galaxy. They asked if I ever wished for the return of good eyesight? ... and my answer was again unexpected. I've known many disabled veterans ... scarred, amputated, paralyzed, deaf, blind ... and, being otherwise normal humans, they have occasionally pitied their less fortunate fellows, and been grateful for not bearing a larger burden of disadvantage. However, in our perpetual struggles toward dignity and respect, we have always preferred empathy to sympathy. With a demonic twinkle in my prosthetic eye, I told them that what would truly be helpful would be a couple of extra hands, like Vishnu, or extra arms, like Shiva, so I could operate at maximum capacity! When one's hands serve as both time-in-motion steering and performance functions, then hand-and-eye coordination devolves to hand-and-brain imaging.

We delved into a region of the pernicious present, populated by unsavory denizens and caricatured automata, to metaphorically bridge our inapplicable past with our inconceivable future. Not only was I maneuvering blindly, but they too operated as if majoritarian conventions were out of sight of their horizons. Positing the Donnean exception, I proposed that: all men truly are isolated islands of prejudice surrounded by an ocean of ignorance. The isolation could be transmuted and the ignorance transcended, but only with exceptional fortitude or spiritual intercession. My cane is neither a stage prop nor a magic wand. My cane is not a cosmetic appliance for nullifying inadvertent apologies; and neither is it an emotional crutch for extorting egalitarian considerations. That night, my humble and battered old cane became, if only temporarily, a bridge of compassionate understanding between sensible shores! Our touch was more than superficial reinforcement or casual bonding. It rearranged the ways we viewed each other, and compounded our shared strength. This cane bridge is a simple and fragile connection between dynamic complexities, but its fraternal conveyance is precious. A cane bridge is the link of thoughtful feeling that keeps us wholly in touch.

[†] : phrase coined by Sir Henry Rider Haggard.
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by Paul Brubaker
... who is retired from the U.S. Army, has since been a counselor, artisan, and writer, with numerous essays in chapbooks and magazines.