Discover more from The PoetOwl
Memory artifacts (Part 1): The magic of bowls, bracelets, a curious cat, and meaning-making
From the Journal | November 1-7, 2023
For those new to this e-community, I periodically offer my readers & clients snippets from my daily writing (tidied up a bit ;-), intermixed with topical and Q & A articles.
Raining, loud, hard, a pebbly persistence.
Mornings like this I believe we are the rain, which falls and feels its falling, so much falling. Through what? Everything and nothing at the same time.
The falling seems endless, yet there is this truth: the rain always finds its way, being welcomed then held when finally dropping into the pond, the river, the muddy earth that eventually drains to sea.
Water needs other water. Shall we be each other’s water?
I never know what will come up in my writing. It’s like stepping down a steep, spiral staircase in the dark, hands reaching into the cool depths, not knowing what they might touch. This is the journey of the mind, the emotions, the spirit, the animal body, which is itself mostly a body of water.
This morning the outer rain falling and the inner feeling of falling through a world and a life that seems so uncertain right now, came together in those odd lines above.
Writing, like being, is a constant excavation. What will I discover? Forget about the skeleton in the closet. What’s going on in the marrow of our bones?
Do you ever look inside and surprise yourself?
Having a tortoiseshell cat helps. Mine is a mystic, dropping signs and symbols on my desk. There’s a torn, bitten fragment from a magazine, the image of a blue-glazed clay bowl holding a single drop of water.
Where did she find this and why leave it for me?
Beside it is the silver arc that is my old POW-MIA bracelet that she must have pulled from one of the cubbies of my rolltop desk.
She seems to say, Here, what will you make of these?
The blue-glazed bowl looks like one my sister made for me. When go and I find it in the sink, surprise, there’s a single drop of water in it. No kidding.
I close my eyes and think of the brief time I got to spend with her in August. I can hear her sleeping breath, heavy after hours of insomnia. Her lungs, partial following the removal of a tumor last year, still know how to turn oxygen into the continuing presence of a person who matters, to me and to many others.
It was a gift to be so close that I could lie awake on her couch just listening to her life carrying her, carrying us both, toward the next day.
Holding her bowl in my hands now, thick and weighty, with its the solitary, glistening drop, I can see her, ankle deep in straw in an earthy-humid birthing stall. She’s holding a newborn goat that wasn’t nursing, alternating between loving it in her arms and urging it to suckle at the mother’s belly.
She’s become a kind of hospice caregiver for goats. She sensed this little one wouldn’t make it, but after the death of her husband last year, she’s learning to lean again into hope and possibility.
When the baby didn’t make it, I thought, Yes, but that little one knew love and now lives within her.
In this huge universe, who notices one struggling goat, celebrates and grieves one tiny, ephemeral being?
Hard to admit out loud, but against the vastness of time and space, the only thing that keeps any of us from being anonymous then oblivious is how we live as stories in others.
I reach for the POW-MIA bracelet, and slip it on my wrist. Each time I read the engraving—CDR James Dennison 1-1-68—I wonder: Who were you? What was it like for you to be a part of a terrible war? Who carries the story of you now?
When it comes to peace, so little has changed in 55 years. With wars deepening in Gaza, Ukraine, and the 30 other conflicts the Western world pays less attention to in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, and more, my mind tries to calculate the toll.
How many POW-MIA bracelets would we need to prevent all the lost ones from being truly lost among the living?
For years, I’ve turned to the web to find something about James, but haven’t. Now, as I type his name and that date he went missing in Vietnam into the magic Google bar, for the first time a photo and snippets about him appear, like bubbles of air suddenly rising through black water, breaking open, announcing, I’m here.
James was a pilot, joined by co-pilot LTJG Terrence H. Hanley and Chief Petty Officer Henry H. Herrin, a photographer's mate, on a night reconnaissance mission over North Vietnam. He was piloting a type of aircraft known as a ‘Skywarrior,’ his plane nicknamed, ‘Quiz Show 910.’
They launched from the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany, flying under radio silence though tracked by ‘friendly’ radar. Hmmm, any ‘unfriendly’ radar also following them?
After completing their mission in the wee hours of New Year’s Day 1968, James, Terrence, and Henry were heading back toward Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam when radar lost them over the Gulf of Tonkin. A 3-day search of the area turned up nothing.
There’s a picture of a Skywarrior on a tarmac with three men and an array of camera equipment. It isn’t clear if the men are who I’ve quickly come to think of as ‘my men’ or another crew. Regardless, relative to the men and the cameras, the camouflaged plane seems awfully small to be flying in deep night, tossed in the turbulence of war and coastal air currents. No doubt it was just a drop in the 48,750-square mile Gulf of Tonkin when the nose tipped into the water.
What were those last moments like for James, Terrence, and Henry? Who were they thinking of that they would never see again? Did anyone, perhaps awake on a fishing junket drinking in the new year, hear Quiz Show 910 drop into that gulf fed by the South China Sea?
James was from Rochester, New York, born on February 28, 1934. There’s no indication if he was married or had children or what he liked to do when he wasn’t flying a Skywarrior in the darkness of a war. He was promoted to Commander posthumously.
On the Wall of Faces, part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund website, there are three pictures of him. The first is full-color, described as a painting, of him in his Navy uniform while another is a poor black-and-white headshot.
It’s the third one that I hover over of a young, smiling guy, looking out from what may have been a high-school photo. He looks happy-go-lucky, ready to fall in love with a cute someone, and eager to start a life that was still only a dream. Growing old wasn’t a thought for him, though likely an assumption.
There are three pages of posts, where people have left ‘remembrances,’ some going back to 2001. Why has this page eluded me in my past searches?
I read a bunch of the remembrances. Like me, these seem to be people who didn’t know James, but want to honor him and recognize his service. Some are clearly from other Vietnam Veterans who survived, though carry, I imagine, their own personal remembrances that are awful, traumatic, and perhaps, relentless.
After all of these years of wondering about CDR James Dennison, I still know little about the person, only how he died and that his middle name was Richard.
In the dawning light of this morning, I add to the virtual remembrances:
“You and your service remain with me: As a little girl, my mother sent away for us to receive POW/MIA bracelets. I received yours and wore it every day, even though then, I didn't understand war and political conflicts. I just understood that you risked your life to protect the most human and fundamental way of life, freedom. Now, all these years later, having kept your memorial bracelet in the cubby of my rolltop desk through life and time and many moves, I hold it in my hands. I Googled, and for the first time, this morning, up came your photo and information about your mission and how you and your crew went missing. How odd to be connected to someone I'll never know, through this arc of silver metal bearing your name. It's so simple, and yet deeply meaningful to me. I hold your too-short life with love and gratitude for you and for the people who did know you, who held out hope that you would be found, who had to learn to live in the mystery of losing you. Thank you, Cdr James and the many, many others who served and didn't come home. Namaste.”
Sometimes I think what keeps us from flying loose from this spinning earth is not gravity, or a really good seat belt, but memory.
The question is always how to remember in a way that holds more love than pain.
Things help. Things to which we amazing, human, meaning-makers attach meaning.
I call them memory artifacts.
This morning my sister’s blue-glazed bowl held not only held a drop of water, and later three Brazil nuts and some almonds, it held her. It’s shimmer and heft brought her into my mind, and I got to be with her even though she’s the better part of 3,000 miles away.
The simple silver crescent with the name of a Vietnam pilot forever missing in action, led me down a path of discovery, connecting me to an old dark time in the midst of this new, seemingly dark time.
But the path took me so much farther, as memory artifacts often do, to a place of gratitude and a peaceful sense of responsibility to remember this lost man and his crew.
Hello, I remember you, now part seawater, part spirit, both enduring currents that hold me in return.
I’ll celebrate his 90th birthday come next February 28th. Who will know? Doesn’t matter. I will, and that matters.
What are your memory artifacts that help you hold on to the ones you love and have lost, or who are simply far away? Why not tell us, using the Comment button, so we can support each other with shared ideas?
Shall I talk more about memory artifacts in my next journal share? We’ll see what the curious cellar of my poet-mind and the clever offerings of my torti-girl offer up.