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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

Put My Camel in the Box

October 2021

I put my camel in the box with the other jewelry my husband brought me when he returned from Desert Storm in 1991. The other jewelry—two pairs of earrings, a bracelet, a pendant of Saudi Arabia—rest in their jewelry boxes. The present I have never put away, and do not intend to, is a prayer rug showing the Kaaba in Makkah (Mecca). It is machine woven. In Topeka, it hung on the wall at the stairway landing. Here in Alaska, it is on the wall at the dining table facing east. As I did in Topeka, I still look at it daily and often touch its soft weave.

I also have two hand woven prayer rugs from Afghanistan. I bought each at The Candle in the Night, a Persian, oriental rug and antique store in Vermont. Sadly, it is now permanently closed. Back to the Afghanistan prayer rugs. One was ridiculously inexpensive with a grease stain at one end. I treasure it because I know it was used for a prayer rug. Why would someone get rid of it? Died? Possibly, but why not gift it to a family member? Sold, because he was so poor he needed the money for food? I hope not. I paid $131 for it. I wish my money had bought him $131 worth of food, but I seriously doubt that. Perhaps he received the equivalent of $10 for it. A few years later, I bought another one about the same size. They are on the floor in the guest room on either side of the bed. I thought they faced east, but I just read my compass and they face north-northeast. I feel guilty for having them on the floor, but my Iranian rug man told me it was all right to put them there. They are rugs now and not prayer rugs. Why do I have them? Because they are works of art I find beautiful.

I like being surrounded by art whether it’s that I live in a forest, sit on the beach, look at the aurora borealis, look at my first husband’s and other people’s original works of art, listen to music, or read literature.

How I ramble! Back to my camel.

 

The Soul of My Soldier

In 2003, as we invaded Iraq and sent our troops there,* I brought out my camel and decided I’d wear it till all the troops came home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Why? As Vietnam did not, the soldiers from these two wars did not have the home support that those fighting in World War II had. As the wife of a soldier, an Army surgical technician then registered nurse, I felt it was very important to remember those in a war zone, those who were not at home for anniversaries, births and birthdays, holidays.

*The people who attacked us came from Saudi Arabia (fifteen), the United Arab Emirates (two), Lebanon (one), and Egypt (one). In September 2001, The New York Times printed their photos, names, and the countries they were from. None was from Iraq.

I found that when I wore the camel, some people began to ask me about it.

“My husband gave it to me after Desert Storm. To honor and help us remember that we have troops in war zones, I wear it and will until they come home.”

I never dreamed it would be another eighteen years. Of course, I think about those posted in South Korea, Germany, Italy and other places, but I was most concerned about those in war zones. I am married to a man who had three deployments, a retired officer who served twenty-eight years as active duty and reservist. Yes, I’m proud of him. Yes, I honor his record and always will. I see what war can do to people. He’s fine now, but those who are and those who are not remain in my thoughts.

I’ve seen the effects on those who came home, on the women who lost their husbands, children who lost a parent. It is not pretty and I wish wars would stop forever. The results of war trickle down to future generations.

I watched one of my cousins and one of my friends each lose her husband, both in planes shot down, one in World War II, one in Vietnam. They were about 20. A 20-year-old woman with a child is in no shape to be such a sudden widow. Their lives showed it. Even watching my husband talk about losing friends shows. There lives a sadness inside that never completely evaporates. Yes, the pain diminishes, but it does not disappear.

Because so few in this country now join the military, most people here do not attend to when our troops are home and when they're not. When I did a book signing at Ft. Riley, I was astonished at the number of women in their early twenties with strollers, only to learn that half, half, the troops at the fort had deployed to South Korea and a few to Poland, Germany, and other European locations. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be such a young mother suddenly on my own. I say suddenly because it doesn’t matter whether it’s a 72-hour notice or a month’s. The day he leaves is still a shock.

I remember when Robert left for Desert Storm. Of course his unit knew they were leaving, but no one knew when. I answered the phone when Top, the top sergeant, called.

I think I said, “This is the 72-hour notice isn’t it?” Top probably said, “Yes.” Robert wasn’t home, but I told Top I’d tell him. Seventy-two hours still leaves some time—72 hours. They were to report to the location at 0800. That worked out fine for me, as the Washburn Army Reserve Center was on my way to work.

He parked his 1969 Rally Sport Camaro, the red one with a white vinyl roof and white pin striping that he bought when he returned from Vietnam. I walked with him to somewhere. We hugged but did not kiss. He walked to the busses and I returned to the car. Symbols, symbols, symbols, yet I remained in control of myself. After all I was the wife of an officer and chair of the 410th Evac Hospital Family Support Group, I had to behave. Dressed appropriately—dress, heels, beige raincoat with its black collar and belt—to be the principal of a school, I drove to work. Simple, I thought, but once in the car, it was not so simple.

Blinders**

Brown leather blinders—
Drive the block ahead.

Thank God the road hasn’t changed.
Red light—
Turn left when green. Turn left when green . . .
A horn blasted.

Oh.
I’m still here
He is gone.

Let me cry against your pillow when
I get home from work.

I haven’t changed the pillowcase:
It still smells of you.

Once I got to school, I probably sat in the car to gather myself into my role as principal before I walked in the building.

When I shared this poem with the Table for Eight, a Topeka writers group, no one understood. I sent it to Onecia and her return email said only, “Got it.” One military wife to another. 

That’s what my camel means to me—a present from my husband who returned, a present that represents all men and women who go to war.

** From The Soul of My Soldier. Sanger, CA: Familius, 2015.

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