Monday, October 15, 2012

Smorgasbord – Tobias Wolff

Before I even reached this story, I had a reader that provided me with a bit of education in my comments section on the introductory post of this volume of BASS.  The comment linked here provided me with a little “head’s up” and I absolutely love the engagement of a reader.  I love that these little words that I am shooting out into space make their way onto someone’s screen and are then digested and are such that they prompt a response…and even a bit of information that I may not have been aware of make’s its way back into the post!  Truly a wonderful feature of the internet (how I love to love and hate you!).

I think I have shown my appreciation for Wolff in the past –

I really dig the guy and I needn't restate my appreciation again.
In the contributor’s notes of this volume, Wolff writes “This story wanted to be written for years before I gave in and wrote it.  Part memory, part invention, I can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins.  The very act of writing has transformed the original experience into another experience, more “real” to me than what I started with.”

I appreciate this little tidbit.  When by buddies from Norwich and I get together –  the stories start to flow and the old line “The older I get the further from reality our stories become” is stated as we remember our days on “The Hill”.

So where did this story take me?

Back to college naturally!  Having attended military college I have a special relationship to some of the short stories Wolff writes – specifically stories birthed from incidents at “The Hill School” (no relation to Norwich).
It was my freshman year at Norwich and my father decided to drop by for a visit.  I think he was in the New England region so a quick trip to Vermont was easy.  He wanted to take me out to dinner and asked if there was anyone that I’d like to bring along (when I read Smorgasbord this is where my mind drifted back to the story I am now relating).

I decided that I’d like my friend Todd to dinner.   It was a bit of an odd choice because Todd was a year my senior and was also my assistant squad leader and my Cadre during my freshman year.  We were into similar music and had the same outlook on the world so we became friends once my class was accepted into the corps.  Todd wasn't the muscle-head mil-dog type and he (and I suppose I) never really fit into the military mold.

So the three of us headed out for dinner at an inn in Vermont on a cool spring evening in 1991 and dad allowed us to order what we wanted from the menu.  My dad ratcheted me a few notches in the small social world of our company by pulling out several very old bottles of single malt scotch to share with Todd and me.  I wasn't of age, and I’m pretty sure Todd was by this time old enough to drink, and conveniently the wait staff looked the other way as my dad poured us drinks. 

Part of my father’s ceremony with scotch is introducing and educating people as to the finer points of single malt.  This was lost on me but it made quite an impression on Todd.  We all enjoyed our drinks and after dinner my dad safely deposited us back at school.

There were a couple mentions of that dinner with my father over the months that followed, and Todd asked several times about my father as his time at Norwich came closer to ending in the years following. 
Todd and I were good friends.

The late spring of 1993 found Todd and I celebrating the last week of school for him. We sat in his room and shared a small bottle of tequila and rolled our own cigarettes.  It was of course against university regulations , but our reputation as being untouchable had been set (more on that some other day).

I remember the hazy conversation we had.  Girls, hazing, drinking…stories of mutual friends, plans for our futures.  

I remember his suitcases and boxes of books ready to be loaded into his car.  U2, his favorite group was on the stereo.

I called Todd once or twice after college.  I don’t remember the conversations.  I called him once after I returned to the states.  I vaguely remember that conversation.   And then on May 14, 2002, this arrived in my email inbox (being a quasi-librarian, I seem to keep everything).

hey jakon -

hope all is going well for you.  just wanted to touch
base and find out where you are and what you're up to
these days.

i'm living in new mexico right now.  but only for
about another month and a half.  on my way to england.
we'll be living about an hour north of london.

i won't bore you with too much info right now.  hell,
i'm not even sure if this will reach you.  let me know
if it does.


I remember reading this and was so happy to hear from him . 

I wrote back immediately.

A little information about Todd and where he found himself in life after school. 

As you can see by the date, we were well into the post 9/11 world.  Todd mentioned that he was moving to England.  He said that he didn’t want to bore me with the details because he couldn't bore me with the details.  Todd is a Special Forces Pilot. 

didn't hear from Todd after that quick little email exchange.  He was pretty busy with…you know… flying missions.

I drifted back to our conversation over the tequila – I never imagined these years later that Todd would be landing in some of the hottest zones where our troops needed to be. I was pretty tripped out.

And then, on April 1, 2005, his name appeared in the subject line of an email from a person that shared his last name.
It was from his wife.
Here is that email:

I am sending out this email to let you all know that we don't have any "official" word on Todd as of yet.  However, as I am sure all of you have seen the news, they are saying otherwise.  Todd took off for a scheduled training flight in Albania and then never returned.  The Air Force is doing all they can to help me and make sure that the closest of family members are flown out here to England to be with me and the two girls.  Todd's body will more than likely be sent via Air Force plane to Dover, from there I'm not sure what we will do with him.  Please continue to pray for each of us.  You all were important to Todd and I in so many ways.  Please feel free to email me or even call if you need to talk.  I can be reached at 011-XXXXXXXXX.  I do have people here with me at all times so don't worry about that.  Right now we are waiting for the "official" word and awaiting family to fly in to help me and the girls.  I am sorry to notify you all via such a cold medium, but as you can imagine, I do not have the strength to call each of you like I would like.  If you look at my list and feel that I may have missed someone (this list is mine, I don't have acess to Todd's) PLEASE forward it on to them.  Todd would want EVERYONE to know. Please pray for us.

Todd crashed into a mountainside in Albania. 

Three days later this email arrived.

I wanted to give you a little more information about Todd and what is going on here.  It seems that the plane crashed into a pretty precarious spot, so there is some delay with getting the bodies out of the plane.  There were live ammunition on board as well, so these must be removed before they can safely remove the bodies.  The plan is to take all the remains of all the bodies to Dover (in the States) and do the DNA testing there to confirm their identities.  After this is accomplished, then we will be having a funeral at Arlington National Cemetery.  Since there is no way of knowing when his remains will be identified there is as yet no date for the funeral.  I will update you as soon as we have more news.  You are ALL invited to attend this service.  I feel we would be honoring Todd's life if you could attend.  Thank you all for your prayers and support of us during this incredibly difficult time.

I have no idea how his wife wrote this.  Her strength is incredible.

M and I went to Arlington for Todd’s funeral.  It was tough.

That’s all I’m going to say about that.

This short story, about two boys, joining a classmate and his step-mother for dinner took me back 20 years to an inn in Vermont. 

And it took me back 19 years to a shared bottle of tequila.
And finally, it took me back 7 years to the death of a good friend.

The story let me honor him by remembering him and placing this little bit of him out there into the universe.

Todd and I are good friends.

That's Todd on the left leading our platoon.  I'm behind him carrying the guidon.
I'm right behind you brother.  -Never forget-

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