6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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Charging Against The Cold

Sitting at my desk this morning, I couldn’t quite tell what kind of day it was going to be. From my window facing east, it looked like the promise of a great day, a blue sky, sunny, and white puffy clouds. From the southwest window, though, the sky split in a confused dark gray that said whatever pleasant weather seen from the other window would be short lived.

I decided to head out for a walk down to the library. At 28 degrees, it didn’t seem that cold, but after I went a couple of blocks, the wind coming off from the ocean made me realize I should’ve worn my rabbit fur hat. The hat I normally wear provides ample protection for the top of my head but does little for my ears.

Most of the sidewalks and yards had a slight covering of snow and ice left from the Alberta Clipper that blew through on Thanksgiving Day. Aside from the periods of snow and rain that fell, the grand finale was the thunderstorm we had just before the rain changed back to snow, the lightening flashes illuminating a swirl of flakes falling from the sky.

After spending a good couple of hours in the library, I stumbled on John Gould’s Stitch in Time, a collection of humorous essays that reflect on his observations of the people who live and work in Friendship, Maine. I’ve read an occasional column of his before in The Christian Science Monitor, but I’ve never taken the time to actually read one of his books.

After I checked out, I headed over to the Belfast Co-Op and bought a cup of coffee, and a semi-dark chocolate bar. The table by the window looked like a good spot and so I sat down and spent the next hour reading a few of Gould’s stories. What impressed me immediately is his ease in engaging the reader to go along with him from beginning to end as he tells his stories of ordinary people whose foibles or peculiarities have caught his attention. “Except the Eggs,” “Garden Surprise,” and “Only if Funning” were just a few that had me chuckling more than once. When it’s cold and blustery, a little tongue-in-cheek sometimes can be the perfect cure to what might otherwise be a long, dreary day.

I put the book away in my coat pocket and looked out the window at the Christmas lights strung out over High Street, abandoned to my thoughts as I sipped and nibbled the last of my coffee and chocolate. A light snow began to fall, and against the backdrop of the First Congregational Church, Belfast emerged Currier & Ives perfect in its wintry repose.

It used to be that I liked the arrival of winter. I would mark the day of the first snow on my calendar, and would hurriedly get dressed to go for a walk. But it’s been sometime since I’ve done that. As picturesque as a winter scene might be, it is, nevertheless, cold, and cold is not friendly. It permeates everything, the layers of your clothes--the marrow of your bones. Once chilled, it seems to take forever to warm back up. The dismal mood I had spiraled into, however, didn’t last very long. As I stood up to throw away my coffee cup, a small boy brushed past me and hopped up on the chair I had been sitting in. “Look, Mommy,” he said with his hands outstretched toward his mother. “It’s snowing!”

Smiling, I charged against the cold, and headed for home.

By S. L. Cunningham


Until Victory Is America's and There Is No Enemy

This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. –The Rifleman’s Creed

Tonight my son calls from Fort Benning, Georgia to let me know how he is progressing with his boot camp training. He’s only allowed to make an eight-minute call, so it’s not really a conversation. He reports on what has transpired since he last talked with me, and by the time he’s finished, I have just enough time to say, “It sounds like things are going really well,” before I’m cut off.

“I have to go, Dad. Good talking with you.”

I put the phone down and go out to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee. With the sun setting at around 4 P.M. now, seven o’clock feels much later than it is. I sit down at the kitchen table and look out the window. A light rain is falling, and the wind is beginning to pick up. From what my son said, it seems he’s enjoying his experience, and making the most of it. This past week, his training focused on marksmanship and hand-to-hand combat. “I made it up to five-on-one before somebody finally got me in a headlock I couldn’t get out of. I had to tap out.”

As I reflect on what his experiences have been with boot camp these past six weeks, I become reminiscent of the very same experiences I had thirty-four years ago when I was a Marine recruit at USMCRD San Diego. I was a bug-eyed 17-year-old kid that the drill instructor thought had been let in by mistake. “Boy, this is a man’s organization. The Boy Scouts is just down the road.”

I looked straight ahead. “Yes, sir,” I would say, and no matter how hard he tried to humiliate and mock me in front of the others by referring to me as Private Baby Huey, no matter how many times I had to respond with “Quack a Doodle Doo" whenever I was called to come forward, I refused to allow myself to give in or give up. Even still, those first five weeks had me questioning more than a few times whether I made a big mistake. The drill instructor seemed to have a certain knack for choosing me to be his example—“Quack a Doodle Doo"—of how not to march, to fire a rifle, or to block against an opponent in hand-to-hand combat. In each instance, he would then demonstrate the correct way, and then I would have to demonstrate to the other recruits that I could do it correctly.

If the drill instructor still weren’t satisfied with my efforts, the rest of the platoon would have to do punishment PT until I did get it right. While I demonstrated the skill, stood for correction, and then demonstrated again, the rest of men would have to do push ups, bends and thrusts, and “extended port.” During that time the M-14 was still used as a training rifle and at nine pounds, your arms would start to burn after holding it fully extended after a few minutes. Later on during the night, my fellow recruits would thank me by honoring me with a blanket party. In spite of almost a good month of sporting multiple bruises, I didn’t give up. I just kept at it, and I think all that extra practice actually made me more proficient when it came time for the tests we had to take. After I took out some of the biggest guys in the platoon in rifle and bayonet fighting and hand-to-hand combat, the drill instructor stopped making me an example of how not to do something. Instead when I executed a move that took down my opponent, the drill instructor smiled at me and said, “Damn, Cunningham, that was good.”

Two weeks before graduation I was walking my post on Fire Watch, giddy with the thought that I’d actually made it. I felt satisfied knowing that I had succeeded with the most difficult thing I had ever tried to do in my life. No more Baby Huey. I had become Private Cunningham. The three-mile runs, the forced field marches, the obstacle and confidence courses, marksmanship training, the intimidation and humiliation, the drill movements I had been so clumsy with in the beginning, I had learned all of it, had overcome my fears, and I was not the worse for it, but the best, a rifleman, a United States Marine.

What I didn’t know then, though, was how much I would hold on to that feeling throughout the rest of my life. As a 17 year old high school drop out who earned the title of Marine, I would later go on to earn a GED, and eventually a BA and MFA in English. The Marine Corps ingrained in me a sense of stick-to-itiveness that has stayed with me throughout my life. Reflecting on my conversation with my son, I recognize in his voice that same sense of excitement and self-assuredness that comes from the realization of individual success.

“You know, Dad, during the first couple of weeks, there were a few times when I said this really sucks. I mean I felt like I made a mistake. But then I realized that thinking that way didn’t change my situation. So, I decided that I would make the most of it, and I’ve been doing just great since then. I actually like it. I can’t wait until you’re here for graduation. You’ll have to meet my drill instructor. He was in the Marines, and the guy’s just crazy, but I’ve come to really respect him.”

My son, a man, a warrior, stepping on the “great doorstone” facing a vast horizon not only of adventure and possibilities, but also of uncertainty and danger during this time of war that he may be called upon to fight. Of all the values we may strive to live by, duty perhaps may be the least understood, especially when it results in paying the ultimate price with one’s life. But as cultures continue to move relative to all others, rigid and firm in their own beliefs and purpose, the call to duty will be answered by our Marines, Soldiers, Airman, and Sailors when events fracture into chaos, leading to war.

9/11, however, was not a minor earthquake; instead, it was an 8.0 magnitude paradigm shift that has altered our daily lives in ways only Orwell could imagine.To protect our freedoms, and to bring the message of freedom and liberty to others, we have greatly curtailed some of our most precious freedoms here at home. And that scares me more than the terrorists who have committed themselves to making us subservient to their kindly, bow to Allah, maliciousness that they have perpetrated on us. “Death to America,” is not a slogan, or a hollow understatement, it is the loud rumbling of Hannibal’s elephants marching over the Alps. Just as the Romans never imagined the day they would see pachyderms in Northern Italy, never did we imagine jet planes used as missiles to bring down the World Trade Center. What this time means, and the challenges we will have to face as a consequence, in spite of the nasty political bantering that has erupted between our political leaders, has yet to be defined and understood.

That my son has decided to serve our country during this time of war does make me a little nervous. During my time when I was willing to serve, I had no fear of the ‘Nam. But now as a parent, I understand my mother’s concern then as my concern now. I can only hope and pray my son’s choices in life are good ones, and that his quest in life is one of purpose and meaning, of a life lived in confidence in the pursuit and fulfillment of his dreams. And should he be called to serve in Iraq, or elsewhere, I pray his training will have been such that he has been pushed physically and mentally so that if he is faced with a combat situation, he will be able to rely on himself and his fellow soldiers as they help each other complete the mission and get themselves safely home to their families and loved ones. Looking out the window again at the light rain that continues to fall, I begin to recite the last verse of The Rifleman’s Creed:
My rifle and myself are the defenders of my country. We are the masters of our enemy. We are the saviors of my life. So be it, until victory is America's and there is no enemy, but Peace.

By S.L. Cunningham


The Worm in the Tooth

Last Friday, I noticed a couple of my teeth on my right lower jaw were starting to bother me, but the pain was slight and didn’t seem that significant. It was also hard to figure out whether it was a tooth, or a couple of teeth that were starting to develop a problem. The pain wasn’t constant and went away after an hour or so. Saturday was pretty much the same. When I woke up on Sunday, though, I felt sharp pain in my bicuspid and first molar. The pain, however, subsided and I was able to eat breakfast like I normally do. Lunch, though, proved to be a different experience. I had made a bowl of tomato soup and set out a few Triscuit crackers to go with it. When I started chewing on the cracker, I discovered it wasn’t the teeth I had thought were involved, it was my wisdom tooth. The pain radiated from the tooth to my jaw hinge. It felt like the side of my face and ear had been turned into a heating pad. My dentist doesn’t keep hours on Sunday and Monday, and so the best I could do was leave my number with her answering service.

Monday afternoon, though, she did return my call. I described my situation to her. She prescribed penicillin for me, which I picked up at the Rite-Aid on my way home from work. Tuesday morning, her office called and had me come in for a one o’clock appointment. “You’re pretty sure it’s your wisdom tooth?” the dentist asked.

“Well, at first I wasn’t. I couldn’t tell which tooth was creating the problem,” I said.

“Do any of these hurt?” she asked as she tapped on the teeth in front of my wisdom tooth.

“No, they feel fine,” I said.

“What about this?” she asked as she tapped on my wisdom tooth.

I didn’t have to answer for her to realize she had found somebody at home. I just about lit out of the chair.

The fun part came next when she said she needed to take an X-ray. The right side of my face had been swollen for the last two days, and I could barely open my mouth wide enough to get a spoon in, and yet she wanted me to open my mouth wide so she could place the piece of plastic containing the X-ray film over my wisdom tooth. “I know this will hurt,” she said; “But you’re going to have to bite down hard, otherwise I won’t get a clear picture of the roots.”

If ever the CIA wanted to devise a new torture technique that was it. The one minute it took for her to position and take an X-ray would’ve had me admit to just about anything to stop the pain. I began reminiscing about how Dustin Hoffman’s character was worked over by the sadistic dentist in Marathon Man.

Five minutes later she came back with the results. “Well, the tooth is definitely abscessed,” she said. “Unfortunately, it can’t be saved. You have a hairline fracture that surrounds the bottom corner of your filling.” She pointed my attention to the X-ray she held under the light. “See, right here, this is how the abscess started.”

“You mean it’s not a tooth worm?” I asked.

“Tooth worm? Oh, goodness, no.” she said with a chagrined look. “That’s some kind of folklore.” However, before continuing with giving me a lecture on the history of dentistry, I let her know I was just kidding. She wasn’t amused.

“It’s going to have to be pulled. I’ll have the receptionist set an appointment for you to come back in ten days. In the meantime, keep up with salt-water rinses, anti-biotic, and take two Advil with two Tylenol every four hours.

The combination of penicillin, Advil and Tylenol seems to be working. My face isn’t as swollen today as it was yesterday. The three teeth before my wisdom tooth have stopped throbbing, which is a good thing, although my wisdom tooth is still quite sensitive. But at least the pain is more tolerable. I’m able to concentrate and focus on my thoughts once again, which I haven’t been able to do for the last five days. Actually, I wasn’t able to do much of anything during the last five days. No reading or writing. No housecleaning, although I did take care of the litter box after my cat threatened anarchy. One small hint—thankfully on the bathroom floor—was enough to make me realize I needed to take care of least one thing other than my pain.

I still can’t eat anything significant, so I’ve been keeping to soft foods such as yogurt, oatmeal, pasta, and soup. If anything, I’ll manage to lose a few pounds before I go back to the dentist to have her rid me of the worm that still seems to be thrashing about by grabbing onto it and giving it a hard yank. A much more direct approach, I think, than what might’ve been suggested as a cure a few hundred years ago. My grandmother, for example, once told me that a popular remedy of getting rid of a tooth worm was to eat a bowl of dirt that’s been gathered up next to an outhouse and mixed with honey. As far as remedies go, I’m glad that’s one I won’t have to consider.

By S. L. Cunningham


This Month of Sepia – Basted Turkey, Cinnamon, Ginger, and Nutmeg

When October changes to November, when the sky, trees, and hills change to sepia, when I reach out to old friends and gather with family at Thanksgiving, I am reminded of memories that feel like my worn out Marine Corps field jacket that I no longer wear, but still keep hung up in my closet.

Like a snapshot, always there, faded and frayed, yet the details unchanging, certain memories become indelible impressions never to be forgotten.

It is not the event, however, that becomes memorable—the jacket after all is just a jacket—it is our experience with an event, fully and completely, that makes it memorable, that burns an everlasting impression of who we were and what we were doing at that particular moment in time.

Up until the time I was five years old, for example, what few memories I had of where I lived, or how I played, or what friends I may have had are blurred—snippets at best—but nothing that evokes any specific feelings or associations. Years lived in different places blend different details together, but the focus never sharpens enough to create a complete picture.

But I do remember the Thanksgiving when I was five years old. 1959, we were living in Lanesborough, Massachusetts. It was a cold day, gray, and threatening snow. My aunt and grandmother had arrived that morning from Boston in a red and white Nash Metro that my aunt had just bought. Compared to other cars of that time that seemed more like rolling Titans, her car didn’t seem much larger than my Radio Flyer.

Later that afternoon, just after the turkey was pulled from the oven, my stepfather and I went outside for a quick toss with the football.

Even though he had been trying to teach me how to throw and catch the ball, I still couldn’t quite get the knack of it. But he remained patient, and always lobbed a soft pass toward me. During the third or fourth pass the snow began to fall, first with a few slight flakes and then at a steadier rate that began to cover the ground. I remember how I tried to pick the ball up from the snow, but because I couldn’t quite get a grip on it, I took my gloves off, and then tossed it back to him as best as I could. He caught it, and then tossed it back to me.

I remember the cold burn of my fingers stung by the slap of leather as I made an awkward catch.

After we walked into the kitchen, my stepfather had me stand on a stool in front of the sink, and then took my hand, still burning from the sting of cold, and held it under the warm tap water.

That was when I developed my first real sense of how pleasing the smell of certain foods could be. I became melded to the aroma of basted turkey wafting with the smells of cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg from the apple, pumpkin and mincemeat pies cooling on the table, the smell of fresh bread baking in the oven. After a few minutes, he turned the water off, and then handed me a towel. I went out into the living room and sat down next to my grandmother and aunt to wait for the call to come and eat.

There have been a lot of calls to come and eat since then, and even though I have shared in many memorable Thanksgivings, both throughout my youth, and later when I was married, and then as a single parent with my son, I still remain reminiscent of that one Thanksgiving when I was five years old.

Whenever I step in from the cold, whether it’s the kitchen of my mother or a friend, and find myself greeted by the smells combined of basted turkey, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and fresh bread, I am brought back again to that moment when I became aware of how pleasing simple things could be.

And so in this month of sepia, I give thanks to the memories that have colored my life with a sense of hope and fulfillment, to the dreams I’ve been able to create and live out, and to the sense of satisfaction and completion they have brought, but more than that, I give thanks to family and friends for the simple pleasure of being able to gather together to enjoy each other’s company in the sharing of a feast.

By S. L. Cunningham

Published in The Village Soup Citizen, 11/23/2005: 24