Ryan Went to Afghanistan

On my eleventh birthday, my grandfather Alexei “Papa” Romanchuck crowned me with an M1 steel helmet before an audience of my friends. “You’ll grow into it,” he said when the steel pot slid past my chin, obscuring everything but my neck. “In seven years I’m going to dump you off a boat fifty yards from Virginia Key and see if you can swim ashore with that thing on.”

My birthdays were occasion for the men of my family to shower me with presents from their branch of the military. My other grandfather, “Papa Lou” Russell, handed me a blue T-shirt with navy lettered in gold across the chest. He’d left his job teaching high school science in Sarasota, Florida, to fight in the Pacific Theater. “Old Papa, he stormed the beach when he was 18,” Papa Lou said, to which Papa dutifully responded, “Well, those dirty Japs, they should be our slaves.”

My father left the kitchen briefly and came back with two small cardboard boxes wrapped differently from the rest. He handed them to my best friend, Ryan, who was standing next to me. More so than my other friends, Ryan was in awe of these men. Papa, who’d had his marrow tapped by the cold of the Hurtgen Forest, hunched himself over the kitchen sink because there was a mild December draft and none of us assjacks would close the goddamn window. He was shivering blue crab claws with his huge, spatulate hands, the hands of a sapper who’d destroyed European bridges and built Eastern Airlines engines. Papa Lou had a wife and three kids and was excused from the draft, but he enlisted in the Navy anyway. He’d combed for mines in the beryl narrows between Japanese-held islands. “No sweep, no invasion,” was how we greeted one another. There was no history of military service in Ryan’s family, or in the families of any of my friends, save Ricardo, whose father had been discharged from the Navy and sent home from Vietnam because of a “sleepwalking problem.”

My father had taken Ryan in as his de facto son. A series of car accidents and an addiction to painkillers had left Ryan’s mother housebound; she rarely left her room except to stomp around late at night like a revenant. His father rented a high-rise condo in Coconut Grove and hardly came home. “First, Ryan opens his presents,” my dad said and laid the boxes on the table. I didn’t mind. Ryan and I did most things together. A few days before, we’d shaved each other’s heads, to cement our pact that when we grew up I’d be a Marine and he’d be a fighter pilot. People said we looked even more alike now — two little boys ripe with baby fat, grinning milkteeth ramparts, our cropped scalps pale. Ryan opened the boxes. Inside were model fighter planes, an F-14 and an F-16, metal and intricately detailed.

Then my father started the parade of gifts for me. He loved this. He’d leave the kitchen and walk back in theatrically, bringing with him old ammunition boxes and camo gear he’d bought at a surplus store he referred to as Earl’s House of Crap. My favorite, and the one I put on right away, was an olive T-shirt with a hideously grinning death’s head. It had feathered wings with tips that curled up, as though the skull was flexing, and a streamer behind it that read, airborne — death from above. My father brought out more gifts — MREs, a compass, a canteen — before the grand finale: the Marine Corps Common Skills Handbook.

My father had been a lieutenant in the Navy. He captained the swift boat that would later become John Kerry’s. His job was to stand apart and instead of a weapon wield his men like materiel. He’s a small man, about five four, thickly built. He likes to joke that they only let him into Vietnam because he’d stuck lollipops under his shoes to seem taller. He rarely wears a shirt, and the sun has cured his skin poreless. He’s horseshoe bald, my father, with one tendril of graying brown hair that lies across his head until he gets upset, whereupon it falls next to his face and flails, always a step behind, like a gymnast’s ribbon. His gray eyes are very nearsighted; when he joined the Navy ROTC on scholarship at Vanderbilt University, he had to memorize the eye chart beforehand to pass. He had never weighed the pros and cons of becoming a sailor. In his time service was expected of every young man. Especially in the Russell family. (After Papa Lou died, my father went through Lou’s cache of genealogical documents and found the records of one Aladdin Russell: Welshman, officer in the Continental Army, “The Little Iron Man” his affectionate sobriquet.)

None of the men in my family thought anything of my wanting to be a Marine. They hadn’t actively encouraged me, but they did nothing to discourage me, either. I’d simply come to understand what they had: that service was expected of me. I’d chosen the Marines because they were always the first to fight, and because they were a part of the Navy. Since I’d never been much of a boater or a fisherman, I figured the Marines might make up for my deficiencies in the eyes of my father. The gift of the handbook made me giddy. I wanted to read it all right there. The table of contents seemed to me a delineation of all the things I’d do later in my life. I flipped through it with Ryan looking on and everyone else dicking around with the rest of the gear. It had charts and diagrams explaining things like How to Identify a Weapon of Opportunity, What Is the Responsible Use of Force? and How to Apply a Splint to a Fracture. I have it to this day, and I consult it often.

After cake, the men stayed in the kitchen to drink, and we boys retreated to the dining room to have our Nerf-gun war. The dining room was perfect: at one end was a large entryway with two walls to take cover behind, and at the other was a carpeted, three-step staircase that made a serviceable trench. My mother threw a quilt over her crystal, and then it was on.

I took command of the trench and Ryan the walls. We rarely hit one another. When we did, nothing happened, nobody died. Our war had no real objective, but it made a wonderful cacophony. I stood to the side of the trench with my Nerf chain gun and belched darts that drifted past the enemy in sad arcs. I’d never notice Ryan until it was too late, when I’d see half of his face poking out from behind the wall, and thwunk, a dart right in the neck. It would stay there, stuck, because Ryan had licked the suction cup.

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