Hard Lessons

At The University Of Hard Knocks
52

Sometimes, by the time you learn the lessons, you’re as frayed and dog-eared as the lesson books.

The kid was about 7, I think. A rawboned skinny boy with a big scab on his nose and sparkling blue eyes. He gawked at my legs while I stacked groceries on the checkout counter, then finally looked up and caught my eye.

“You sure got ugly legs,” he observed, wrinkling his nose. “What happened?” I thought for a moment—a long moment, and almost got lost in my head. Oh, a lot, I thought, a lot has happened … But that’s not what I told him.

Summer had come to the high country, and despite the fact the appearance of my legs tends to upset some folks of tender sensitivities—an array of shrapnel wounds make them sorta “decorative”—I happily donned old bush shorts again. I mean, long pants are just, you know, too long. Besides, when you’re balancing precariously on a cane, shorts are much easier to pull on.

Anyway, the kid’s statement surprised me. Many people stare sidelong, like they’re trying not to be seen looking at a bad accident, but very few will ever ask what happened. It might be the kinda thing they really don’t wanta know. Little boys don’t have that reticence.

But how can you—and why would you—tell a child about things that made you scream in pain; wonder can I lose this much blood and live?; and haunt you every cold, wet morning, stinging like fire ants?

I told him, “I just moved the wrong way a few times, too slow or too fast; just did the wrong thing.” He took that in, rolled it over like a sour lemon drop on his tongue and said simply, “I done that too. See?” He pointed to the scab on his beak. “Mom says I learned a lesson. Did you?”

Yeah; I’ve learned a few lessons.

As a Marine, I learned our national “house” needs tough, vicious guard dogs on duty 24/7 out in the inky dark, even out past the far fenceline; couldn’t exist without ’em—but most of the “residents and guests” don’t want to see them lying on the lawn in the sunshine, nor pay the vet bills when they’re ripped and bleeding, nor even be aware of them.

I learned a lot of dogs fight because they’re fighting dogs, not necessarily because they’ve got a bone in the yard or ever expect to get one for themselves. Others fight because all their brothers are fighting dogs, and there is honor in the pack, and in your heart, if nowhere else. Hard lessons, but the dogs are hard too.

As a cop, I learned we don’t have a Criminal Justice System, we have a Legal Industry. It pays some people handsomely and destroys others, innocent or guilty, and not many care much about who is which. There are prosecutors who aren’t interested in evidence which might absolve a defendant, defenders who fight tooth and nail to exclude damning evidence of guilt, and the courtroom charade is all about who scores the win, not at all about “justice.” Look up the word “eristic” and you’ll know the real name of the game played in court. Testify in enough trials and you’ll learn there are only two kinds of justice left: street and poetic.

I learned every big agency needs shooters; guys who can stand and deliver, willingly and well. The brass knows who they are, quickly calls on ’em when all else fails, and even more quickly throws them to the jackals whenever it’s politically expedient.

As a contract soldier, I learned most “mercenaries” aren’t very mercenary at all, instead, driven by ideals their birth-nations espouse, but will not support without a hefty, unbalanced quid pro quo. I’ve known “mercenaries” who never lost a fight, but were conquered by every grinning hungry child; every thin, dashiki-wrapped momma with a thirsty mtoto; every bent old man whose only possessions were his cloak, cap, walking stick and his dignity—the people whose only support from their own governments are cold rations of misery and poverty.

And I learned why governments call contract soldiers “mercenaries” and hate them. Simple: because a “mercenary” can have and exercise a conscience; refuse immoral, unethical orders—and will not go quietly to a wall where a man waits smiling with a blindfold and a cigarette. If you wanta shoot him, you’d better be able to out-shoot him.

I learned sometimes when you “come home,” in many, many ways, it’s not there anymore.

Hard Knock U

As a “representative of US and Western interests,” I learned nations don’t have “friends,” they have “interests,” and for many of their individual leaders, those are “self-interests.” I learned “diplomacy” is usually the act of buying time; time for one side to marshal its forces for the aggression they have long planned and absolutely will carry out—when they’re good and ready; that peace is not a product of lavish state dinners or signatures flourished on treaties. That’s usually the conduct of business; the business of personally enriching those wielding the gold-nibbed pens, knowing that eventually, there’s gonna be a horrific fight, but they won’t have to fight it—just “somebody else’s children”—and meantime, their own pockets are richly lined.

I learned peace usually exists only when others are convinced you can hurt them a lot worse than they could hurt you—and you’re willing to do it.

I learned too often, another word for diplomacy is cowardice.

As a “travelled American,” I’ve learned free peoples can lose their rights and freedoms one tiny slice at a time, and like the death by a thousand paper cuts, they may hardly feel it happening. But once freedom is lost, it can never be regained in the same manner; not with elections, petitions and wishful thinking. It can only be regained tumultuously, and at great and grave cost, often paying again the ransoms paid by their grandfathers.

I learned some kids die fighting only because their fathers wouldn’t.

Out in the parking lot, the kid broke free of a hushed conversation with his dad and came over. He waggled a finger toward my legs and asked,

“Is that from scrap-null, mister? My dad says maybe so.” I nodded.

“Yeah; shrapnel, kid.”

“Does it hurt real bad, like—still?”

“Some things hurt worse, son,” I told him. “And they hurt a lot longer.”

Connor OUT