When Jack Jumps
A sophomore stops breathlessly at my classroom.
“Jack Larson’s on his way to see you. He said to tell you.”
I last heard about Jack in the Police Blotter. Fleeing officers, he was caught up
a tree- literally- and arrested for possession of marijuana. Friends claimed it was just one crummy joint, but why was Jack up a tree? A senior readily answers, “He thought they wouldn’t see him. Like, it had branches.”
Jack stands in my doorway.
“They warn you I was coming?
Although he hunches with the same sheepish grin, he’s not so scrawny now, not after two tours with the Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq from Baghdad to Basra. On either side of his neck, his army uniform bulges, his shoulders smooth tucked-in-mini boulders in a build wiry but poised – for what?
I last saw him home on leave one midnight downtown near the theatre. As usual, he was alone. Jack seemed stoned, blurry, nothing new. I taught him eight months before I discovered he rarely did homework because he fry-cooked at Papa Gino’s then washed dishes at Friendly’s, totaling sixty hours a week, outlasting most students who quit either place within a month.
That night he grinned, embarrassed, knowing I knew he knew I knew he was stoned.
Now he stands, dark green, with medal bars over his heart. What’s that red-orange one? His black beret tilts with jaunty perfection as he smiles, half at attention, half at ease.
“Oh yeah? Where to?” A permanent ska- reggae tour?”
“COOL!” he laughs, delighted.
I wait. He was never a kid to rush. I remember that he enjoyed suspense. He took an acting class in his senior year and shocked everyone, especially with his impeccable comic timing.
“I’m transferring to paratroopers.’
He still stands at perfect attention, cool as the proverbial cucumber. Is he waiting for me to flip out, or tell one of my Vietnam War protest stories? Is he recalling me: “And standing there in my underwear in that damn building with no heat, I told my draft board, ‘Before you get me to go to Vietnam, I’ll go to jail, or to hell, or both!’”
Do I know this kid? I don’t flip out. Jack always wanted structure. His dad wasn’t in the picture; he’d left the frame long ago. His mom worked endless hours to support Jack and his two sisters.
Guidance dubbed Jack one of the lost many in the low middle. Average student. “Not high academic caliber.” 2.2, could do better with more effort. No motivation.
College? Maybe, maybe not. Try Greenfield, or Holyoke Community College. Had Jack been connected to the local old boys’ network, he’d work the roads making more money than me after teaching ten years. But Jack didn’t have that uncle, and his mother hadn’t married in. In small towns, that ends it.
Jack adored poetry. When we read aloud, Jack bloomed, and blossoming, embraced Keats, Blake, Shelley, Basho, Frost, Whitman, Hughes, Dickinson. I fed him “new” poets, if you can call Pablo Neruda, E.E. Cummings, and Sylvia Plath newer. In public schools, new is mid-twentieth century, hence the chasms between teachers and kids. We talk FDR and To Kill A Mockingbird. They talk Tupac, DVDS, and gigabytes. I can’t keep up with their music. By the time I catch up, RUN DMC might as well be Greek Civilization and Nine Inch Nails, Nathaniel Hawthorne “back in the day.”
Is that American Amnesia and Instant Gratification? The music changes every two years. And history? World War II is Saving Private Ryan. Tom Hanks is World War II. History? Vietnam War? Platoon, if that. Maybe because we lost. Americans, you see, never lose. We run the world. We always win. Korea was a tie. Vietnam was kind of a tie where we would have won if those hippies and peaceniks let us go go
go, like the Gulf. We won that hands down. We ruled the Gulf.
I see Jack waiting.
“Jack. You look great.”
I’m not lying. He looks spic and span, happy. If I could pinch myself, I would, but I can barely move. I knew this might be coming. Some kids like risk. We all want exciting “freedom”, within structure, but who can handle it?
I have structure, an 8-4 job. Once I was a freelance filmmaker. But I like to eat too much. My two kids need to eat. Starving’s problematic.
“I just came by to tell you about the transfer, also to tell you that you’re the reason I graduated high school.”
Someone told me he told them to tell me this last year when he was pondering switching to the Coast Guard or Air Force. Jack always wanted to fly. He tried to fly with Ska music, and with herbal assistance.
“It was more than trying with me.”
Six months into teaching his class, I discovered this shy goof clouded in grass, Ska, and overwork, could mimic any accent in the world: cockney My Fair Lady, Jamaican Bob Marley, classical Irish laments, Scottish ballads. He lent me tapes and CDS of Austin Barrett, new Ska music, African rap; he could sing with them all.
The other kids loved it. We thrived. We did Shakespeare’s Tempest Caribbean style: Caliban as Calypso dude digging pina coladas; Ariel and Prospero as Rastafarian spirits. We had a blast.
Jack never sought a college recommendation. He knew I’d be glad to write one. He felt college wasn’t for him. He didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do. Work, maybe check out the Air Force. Flying sounded good, you know?
“I’m leaving tomorrow so I thought I’d drop by.”
“Where you going?
“I’m gone for two weeks training at Fort Benning, Georgia.”
“Paratrooper,“ he grins.
“Two weeks there, then I go to Kuwait.”
I don’t answer. Our eyes lock. We talk. His eyes ask, “Is this ok? Is what I’m doing ok? There’s nothing out there for me; I’m doing this. You hate me for it? Is this ok?
He’s burrowing. Do I hate him for joining an army I refused with all my soul to touch?
I always tell my students: be yourself. Choose your path. YOU DECIDE WHAT WORKS FOR YOU, not what works to please your parents or friends or town.
Am I full of malarkey? Can he see in my eyes I prefer him alive? I doubt that can happen, especially as a paratrooper going standby for the next round or the next war.
“Really,” I finally murmur.
I murmur, “Really” to catch my mental breath. Did “our” government start this war a long time ago, ready already to jump our Jacks to Kuwait: paratroopers preparing to fill Arab skies. Although we are debating in Congress, protesting in parks, petitioning senators and the U.N., the destroyers, carriers, and jets poise, alert. I recall the poet Bertold Brecht: “When the leaders speak of peace, prepare for war.”
Jack waits. Does he want me to talk him out of it. If I were in my right mind, would I try? Would we meet tonight at the Haymarket or another coffee house? Would I wrestle with his soul all night to change his life, struggling not to save only soul, but his LIFE? Would I cry, “Jack, Jack, what the hell are you doing? Did my Vietnam war stories teach you nothing? Will you replay my generation who left to die clueless as to WHY?”
Then I think, what can I offer Jack? A future? A career? A job? What is there for a twenty-two year old? Sell shoes at J.C. Penny’s? Pump gas at Mobil? Go to Burger King or Taco Bell? Bust a gut , become a main manager? Find a bigger chain? Maybe go to school part-time. Study hotel management, the restaurant business? Is the sky the limit, or is the sky a stucco ceiling in a bigger Burger King In Worcester?
After a million years in seconds, I smile.
“Maybe I’ll dip into my meager savings and get you a bullet-proof vest as a going away present.”
He hangs his head, still sheepish, then brightens.
“I think my unit will take care of that, sir.”
“I guess so.”
I picture Jack jumping from the plane in smoke-chocked bright orange sky with burning oil wells in the background and machine-gun fire. What a movie! Only, it’s not a movie. It’s a war. It’s not Tom Cruise, or Tom Hanks, or Arnold Schwartzeneger; it’s Jack. How will he land? Wounded? Dead? On his feet?
Will he jump into a fine clear blue sky near scudding clouds (not missiles), and liberate Baghdad? Will he, landing, run past the body of an eight year old Iraqi girl or a Bedouin teenager who was tending his family’s sheep? Will Jack pause and wonder to see if they are still alive?
I look at him. He looks at me.
I want to respect his decision that unnerves me.
Will he come back? Will Iraqi bodies haunt him? Will HE come back? When I
worked the midnight shift in the early seventies at the airport in Oakland, California, certain planes landed only after midnight, unloading body bags of American soldiers. In the dark, the zipped bags looked black-green, like pine trees in subzero winter.
Jack, come back to my classroom for years. Stand right here, sheepish, uniform immaculate, shoes gleaming, hair short, clean. Will I call him a murderer, or is it too complicated? What has America offered Jack? Where else could he go if his father is not a Smith College professor or even an electrician who could wangle an apprenticeship in an area shop, or if not here, down the highway in Springfield or Hartford or east to the Boston area.
As he smiles, I shudder. He resembles Joe Mortola from my high school. Joe went to Vietnam. He was killed his second week. The alumni news reported his funeral. In ninth grade I made out with his sister.
How will you come back, Jack? Will you have more bars on your chest, and stand sheepishly in my doorway?
Will you return zippered up, briefly mentioned in the newspaper with the wake’s calling time? At the airport they flew the bodies in after midnight so no one could count the exact amount. But families knew. Friends and relatives knew.
I am not a praying person, yet as Jack leaves l I close my eyes and make my leap of faith. Whoever is out there, up there, or down here, keep on eye on Jack. Land him safely in fields of flowers. This image bashes against others. I try to focus and fixate.
Jack floats down a clear blue sky with sparse clouds. Bedouins with flocks greet him. He speaks with them. They invite him to their home of tents for lamb shish kababs and goat milk. Jack is lost and safe.
Skies darken. Missiles scream. As Jack billows down, a fireball explodes near his chute. From his plane, a desperate voice repeats, “Jumping Jack, come in, come in. Jumping Jack, come in. COME ON, KID. COPY!”
I blink. I refocus.
Jack lands in the desert. A thick charcoal-grey sky smells of burned flesh and flaming oil. He spies his unit members running and follows, dashing past a groaning torn-open face so covered in blood and smoke he can’t tell if it’s American or Iraqi.
I blink again. Down the hall, Jack waves, trying not to bump into anybody. Although I can’t even hear his echo down the corridor, as I open the door back to the classroom, I whisper, “Take care.”