by Dan Gorman
Helen Viola Jackson died last month. She was 101 and her death could have ended up as a footnote on the evening news, an evergreen story about a beloved centenarian’s passing. But it wasn’t. What came to be almost certain about her is that she was the last widow of a man who’d fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. Volunteered by her father to take care of their neighbor James Bolin, his 93 years to her 17, they quietly married in 1936 and she took care of him until his death, three years later. Helen lived on, swearing a personal oath to keep the secret of the potentially scandalous marriage with her for decades. It was, in her eyes, to save the reputation of her late husband. She never applied for James’ pension that was rightfully due her. She never asked anything from her government or the Army that had sent her late husband to war so many years before she’d been born. Had James told her about his experience at war in those three short years? Had he told her about the horrors of brother fighting against brother, mothers being forced to pit their sons against another? Perhaps mercifully, she never saw the violent repeat of civil discord that happened three weeks to the day after her passing. She would never see the ineffable continuation of that civil war with her own eyes.
My eyes were transfixed for most of the day on January 6, 2021, bouncing between Twitter and Facebook and every other news outlet as insurrectionists violently stormed our Capitol building, the symbol of our country’s imperfect union. Cellphone video flooded my emotional bandwidth. Shaky clips of breaking glass, oaken doors torn from their hinges, shouting matches between cops and rioters, wide shots of the Capitol Rotunda vandalized as though no one had bothered to care for it in the last one hundred and fifty-five years. The enemy carried Confederate flags, spouted white supremacist propaganda, assaulted journalists, and hid pipe bombs. Some wore the accoutrements of official military uniforms and openly carried firearms. Clad in camouflage and body armor, they shouted slogans supporting a dictatorial demagogue who’d legitimately lost an election, his last grasp at power inciting them to violence. Under the warped guise of patriotism, they beat a police officer to death and were intent on kidnapping our elected representatives. They stormed a house, our house, and were mercilessly intent on ridding it of her current occupants however they saw fit.
I had seen this before, in Iraq. For years, Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army kidnapped, tortured, and murdered those working to form a government in Baghdad, mainly Sunni Iraqis. They terrorized a population of their own people, seemingly taking pleasure in however deep they could sow sectarian violence. Once, when on patrol through what had previously been a thriving date farm, my platoon came upon an ornate marble and wood home. Large by the local standard, a man and his small family lived there. They looked more like squatters. He wore tattered and dirty pieces of an Iraqi Army uniform, sneakers instead of boots. In his eyes, we could see our deaths. We said polite hellos, briefly searched the home, and left. Most of us couldn’t help but notice the freshly bleached floors and broken furniture stacked in corners. Suspicious holes in doors and walls stuck with us on the ride back. Later, our interpreter told us the house had once belonged to a government loyalist and that its current occupants were almost certainly involved in the violence we’d been seeing. No one such as this man could live in a mansion so close to Baghdad, he said. He had simply taken over the home the same way the Mahdi felt the whole of society was theirs to take. The man had no interest in building a country, only destroying one. A zealous cult of personality had cut his strings and set him loose.
That man and his family stood before me again last week. I saw him in every enraged face gorged with blood that flashed across my cellphone’s screen. He stared back at me as men and women in masks tore through the halls that house this nation’s ideals. Once again, those who failed to think for themselves raided, pillaged, and killed, attempting to forcibly overthrow a manufactured enemy clad in conspiracy theories. They relied on the media they’ve so fervently railed against, as numerous terror groups have done before them. They shouted slogans supporting a president who’d legitimately lost an election, a president who incited them to violence. They called his name with reverence while refusing to give their own. He’d finally cut their strings; they were loose.
I watched as long as I could, until police and the National Guard began to quell the violence and now, we are left with the aftermath. We don’t need to wait until later to be told those people did not belong in that house. The words I spoke as a 19-year-old with my hand in the air and no real understanding of the world rang out to me once again. This time, they sounded different.
I, ________, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution
of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
If Helen and James are looking down on America, I am afraid to know what they think. I hope James sees that our Union continues. As for Helen, maybe she’s glad that none of us can keep all of this a secret. We won’t even try. Our reputation depends on it.
Dan Gorman is the Non-fiction Editor for CausewayLit. Born in the Bronx and raised in the Hudson Valley, Dan is a lifelong New Yorker. Out of sheer boredom, he joined the US Navy at 19 and then the Army National Guard, serving far longer than intended or was good for his knees. He holds a BA and MSW from Fordham University. He currently lives in Stamford, CT with his architect girlfriend and their blind dog, and once climbed a volcano in Guatemala on a dare.