Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, held for 5 years by the Taliban, was released in Afghanistan as I was accompanying my wife
on her annual trip around Memorial Day to care for her family graves in S.W. Pa. where we both attended the same
small state college. The story which I originally celebrated as a sign that the Afghanistan war/occupation then in its
13th year might finally really be coming to an end just got bigger and bigger as radio, TV, and newspaper sectors
of the wing nut attack machine attacked. All the way down the coast to Washington D.C. and then up the Potomac
to Harper’s Ferry and then Cumberland and over the mountains to the Youghiogheny the media hub bub grew.
By the next morning when I woke up to drive my brother-in-law to jury duty so we could use his little work car
to do my wife’s annual cleaning and planting at the cemeteries, the cable news channels were full of it and it was
on the radio as I negotiated the rolling hills along the old National Road, Rt. 40, originally Nemacolin’s Trail which
became George Washington’s route as he tried to steal a march on the French who were setting up a Ft. Duquesne
at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers that becomes the Ohio. Washington was successful
in surprising the French and not far from the Uniontown Courthouse where I dropped my brother-in law, he won
a battle and captured them all except one of his scouts, a chief, took out the French officer, Jumonville in a single
stroke that became the flashpoint in one of the first truly global colonial wars, the 7 Year/ “French and Indian” War.
After Washington surrounded at Ft. Necessity surrendered to a superior force on the high ground around him,
he went home with his fledgling military career seeming over because an atrocity under his command started a war
no one was really ready for. One year later, though, he would again be in command at Braddock’s defeat where the
French and their Indians would surprise and rout British Gen. Braddock who ended up buried along the National Rd.
I was driving back to Brownsville from Uniontown. I couldn’t help remembering that my Dutch grandparents and
his two brothers and their wives would all end up landing in Braddock Pa. in 1905-07 as they came from Holland
to work at Westinghouse just up the river from what became Pittsburg when Lord Pitt finally executed an expedition
that took the place of the 3 rivers. My mother’s Virginia born father was working to learn the enameling trade just
over the mountains in W. Virginia at the same time. The two families would only come together at a Presbyterian
church in E. Detroit decades later in the form of Mom and Dad who dated as they chaperoned the youth group.
As I shifted up and down those rolling hills I had an epiphany on why all these conservatives are so upset that this
guy who wandered off and as it turned out was captured and tortured for about 5 long years of escape attempts and
recapture and beatings and being chained to a bed frame and threatened repeatedly with summary execution. The
rest of the visit in between cemetery trips I caught glimpses of Bowe Bergdahl’s actual real release wrapped in a
rough blanket with strange flitting eyes that look up and away from spasmodic quirks of his shaking body as if
he were constantly pulling away from a death his poor tortured body could not yet escape. He was a pathetic bundle
of twitches and spasms which somehow provoked all this conservative hate. And really he was one of them from a
small Western town that, also, was ostracized for wanting to welcome him home, indeed, so ostracized that their
celebration had to be cancelled because of threats and imprecations from the “conservatives”. Captives have to be
brought home at the end of wars but seemingly the self-described “patriots” didn’t want this POW to come home.
It was like that right wing icon John Wayne in the movie “The Searcher” who searches for his niece (who turns into
Natalie Wood) taken by the Comanches when a child but who he would rather see her dead than admit the bond she
had with her captors which, of course, was a condition of her survival in an alien culture for years. As a country
that had a frontier for 300 years there are many stories of captives who have lived among the “enemy” in American
history. There’s a whole genre of captivity accounts but still exactly those who sorry glory in patriotism are the ones
who can’t tolerate those who have been longest and most helpless traumatized hostages. Somehow they have
become the enemy by surviving among them. Those who have been so far to the other side can never come home.
On the other side they become the other. Then after the last trip to the top of what I’ve come to see as the industrial
version of the Neolithic stone circles like some Britain or maybe Breton geometry made to be seen from far above
we descend the hill one last time to find this ancestor of my wife, a Colonel Isaac Lynn, who served under George
Washington in the Revolutionary War for Independence that came from the global colonial conflict the 7 Year War
(and the financial problems and taxes that came with it). We’d been trying to find his home for years but so far had
only walked through the devastation left by a strip mining operation that took out their cemetery. It’s already
thunderheads and lightning over the crest of the hill as we flow down the slope with wind blasting behind us.
We zoom through the little village and over the bridge over Redstone Creek and notice the trestle they must have
used to get the coal out of the valley that still leaks the minerals exposed by the rape of the land. As we whiz past
this stone and brick wall we’ve passed so many times before my wife, Jan, sees something she’s never noticed
before that she saw in a picture on the internets. I swing into the drive across the way, let her out, then do a u-turn
and pull up. She yells at me “you shouldn’t stop here, I’ve had run ins with these people down here”. And sure
enough before I can turn off the engine here come this guy in cowboy hat on a land crawler with a huge dog with
great ears flying in the wind ensconced on the handlebars of the thing. At once my wife is explaining she’s found
the place and I am explaining “I’m just looking for my wife’s ancestor’s place” and he’s saying “oh, you must mean
Isaac Lynn”. Somehow we at least are home. It’s the home of someone who had every reason to act like a settler.
But Bowe Bergdahl, Bowe they will charge a year later with desertion and “misbehaving in the face of the enemy”
which carries a possible life sentence.
James Van Looy has been a fixture in Boston’s poetry venues since the 1970s. He is a member of Cosmic Spelunker Theater and has run poetry workshops for Boston area homeless people at Pine Street Inn and St. Francis House since 1992. His work appears weekly in Oddball Magazine.