Army of One
In Memory of Maury Gibbel: Husband, Father,
Grandfather and Corporal, U.S. Army.
First you'll think this is a story told by a man who abuses his medication. No. Next, you'll think it's about the passing of a beloved parent. Not really. It's a simple tale about pyramids and mummies, and perhaps should be carved in hieroglyphics on the side of a crumbling school building in The Bronx rather than scribbled onto a pad of yellowed graph paper.
If this story had GPS it would be constantly recalculating not knowing where it was even when it finally arrived. Perhaps that's how a story should be, or perhaps I should cut down on the medication because it tends to make my mind wander.
The medicine does not prevent me from the task at hand: cleaning out my dad's tool shed. Sorting out the nails, screws, wrenches, washers, paint cans, and tools collected over a lifetime of fixing crap that breaks.
What the hell do I need with a hand-powered drill? When the power grid fails again, and it will, I can drill half-inch holes while the entire population of New York City stares at the blackness of their flat screens, worshipping a god who will never bring comfort or salvation.
I don't need to make holes, but I love the concept of having to provide my own power. I run my finger over the smooth wooden grips. How many hands have touched this tool? How many holes has it drilled? Perhaps it would look good hanging over my desk, a metaphor for something.
This is strong medicine. It has been used for more than 5,000 years by ancient civilizations in China, India, and Egypt to alleviate pain, cure insomnia, and reduce nausea. It's legal in the Golden State. A video conference with a Doctor and you get a license to purchase medical marijuana for a variety of aliments both real and imagined. Every time I come back to town I visit a dispensary and stock up.
I open a box and discover a cache of PVC connectors. ½ and ¾ inch. Elbows. Splitters. Enough for every lawn in the sub division.
Every other dispensary has the word compassion in their name and sells products called: green crack, herojuana, and poison something or other. They also can't seem to make up their mind whether it's medicine or a drug.
What would my students say if they knew I was smoking weed? I don't think they would believe it. Mister-always-wearing-a-tie-and-never-takes-a-day-off is getting high. Mister-doesn't-play-videos-games-or-own-a-TV uses a pipe with a picture of the Sphinx.
I throw the box of pipe connectors in the donate pile. Let someone else figure out how to use them. Or not.
I inhale a puff of Pharaoh's Dream and continue sorting junk from maybe-not-junk. A drawer of sandpaper, unopened packs, scraps of paper torn apart and left for someone else to feel guilty about throwing away. I run my hand over the 200 grit and wonder what piece of molding needed smoothing? What wall did I kick a hole in?
When I'm high there are no wars. No IEDs. No neatly folded flags handed to mothers in black. No medals to place on the mantle next to photographs of smiling soldiers in full dress. No talk of ultimate sacrifice by men who never bothered to serve when they had the opportunity to risk their own hides.
The upper shelves are loaded with cans and bottles of toxic substances which, if mixed together in the right combination could produce a chemical weapon or two. I'm sure that wasn't what Dad was planning, but who saves a can of glue that can't be opened? I toss the cans of thinner and dried up paint into a box for toxic waste disposal.
One more hit from the Pharaoh.
My student's name was Roberto, and I can't say whether his death served any purpose, but I do know that he made me an expert on ancient Egypt. I can name the dynasties, the kingdoms, or discuss ancient methods of irrigation. Just ask and I can tell you how to mummify a body.
"Why were the pyramids built?" I asked the class where I had just been assigned as a sub. I could regurgitate the info that I had read 15 minutes prior, but that would defeat the purpose. Knowledge without effort is rarely retained and never assimilated. I repeated the question. Twelve sets of eyes watched me like snipers. One hand or one voice is all I needed to get a discussion started, but they were all afraid of making a mistake in front of their learning-disabled peers. In a world of feral dogs, my students were the lost kittens.
They knew the answer, but no one wants to be the first to raise a hand. I was the police interrogator, waiting for the perp to confess out of boredom—I got paid by the period—I could afford to wait.
It strikes me that there is so much extra in this shed—so many spare parts purchased just in case, left for someone to figure out what to do with when your body parts no longer function and can't be replaced. I wonder if every house in the suburbs has a mini-hardware store in their backyard. Instead of watching the stock market and investing, money was poured into washers and wood screws, investments for the long, long term that would never pay off.
"Because they wanted to be the biggest Motherfuckers." The class laughed. I had been challenged.
Finally an answer. Technically correct, although I might have phrased it differently. I glanced at the attendance sheet. "Mr. Garcia, would you like to elaborate?"
For the last two years Roberto's parents have sent me a Christmas card, thanking me for all of the help I gave their son as he struggled to finish high school. Can't say how much I did or didn't do, but once he finished school he enlisted. I helped him to eternity in a military cemetery. Buried with full honors.
Dust floats around the light bulb; I am entombed in a shed that will no longer be used for its intended purpose. If I was pharaoh, I could be buried here along with offerings to the gods of fix-it-yourself and always-use-the-right-tool.
The pharaohs and the pyramids were just the beginning. A week after that initial class stated, I was assigned to finish the semester with the same Special Ed class. The first question the class asked was not what happened to their original teacher or why I was assigned to the class. They only wanted to know if we could "do the pyramids again." Roberto. Trayvon. Sylvester. The girls from Guatemala, whose dark eyes can't hide all their sorrow, whose body language seeks to avoid all attention, even they were interested and nodded in agreement.
And so it began the rare instance in teaching where the students wanted more instruction, more information. More knowledge. Ancient Egypt captivated us, more than any other topic, and I'm still not sure why. I just accepted the fact that they needed to understand an ancient civilization and we learned together.
For extra credit we compared Hollywood movies with history and wrote our life stories in hieroglyphics. What my students could not say in words, they printed in pictures. Lost brothers and sisters. Public Housing. Gun violence. Not one student failed to show the twin towers crumbling to the ground.
Roberto advanced, and I stayed for another year at the same grade. He came back to me with essays that needed editing, and math problems he didn't comprehend. I did my best because Roberto had a goal: "The recruiter says that if I improve my grades a little and graduate, I can enlist right out of high school.
How could I resist? How many other institutions were looking to give a poor kid with limited skills a job? A career even? Roberto wanted to be all he could be…
Here are the major differences between us. I grew up in the suburbs, played war as a kid, would have dodged the draft if I had to, and eventually volunteered to teach in the ghetto. Roberto grew up in the city, dodged real bullets and enlisted as soon as he could. I was born in a better world than he was raised in. Fairness is not part of the equation; life can't be explained in a simple hieroglyphic.
The budtenders at the dispensary always suggest some new strain, but I stick with the Pharaoh. Budtender? Why don't they just legalize the shit? If Marijuana is a gateway drug then the gate fell off its hinges a long time ago. In the war on drugs, like the war on terror, it's always the young that pay the price. Peace will only be declared when war is no longer profitable.
A few of my colleagues believe that I'm the lucky one. Their body counts are higher. Gangs, drugs, parents who need to work two jobs just to pay the rent and put food in their teenagers' bellies. There's always a crack to fall through, a city to disappear into. I've only lost one too many. The one who travelled the farthest, that I'd helped the most. The one with an ugly past, and now, no future—just memories and could-have-beens.
I take an awl from the tool rack and make a starter hole in the wood bench. I take my last hit from the Pharaoh and hold the smoke in my lungs. I carefully place the drill into the hole and slowly start turning, just like my father taught me, and his father taught him.
Using my own power, I drill. I can't stop war anymore than I can prevent the darkness, but I can hold my breath and drill.
The pyramids were built by hand.