I Learn to Field Strip an M-16
Driving through the Poconos in late fall;
flash storm with actual thunder and lightning
not seen since I fled west 40 years ago,
my cheap rental a thin beer can hydroplaning
past scarlets and golds against a rinsed sky.
Bite in the air, dark edge on the sun
then down, down into the gray, fraying holler
past rusted train tracks and Confederate flags
and Jesus Saves signs chalked on old barns
to visit the sister who soon will have forgotten
my name. Her husband, a Viet Nam War vet
whose M-16 hangs above the mantle
is a good man who will stand by her.
I did not bring up his email the week before
explaining how tree huggers are to blame
for our terrible wildfires, but instead,
remembering some documentary,
asked about the machine guns that jammed.
Firing residue, he said, some tiny rod
the government had neglected to send,
or send on time, or to the right place.
When a gun got slugged, the fix was chuck it
into a rice paddy, and, taking his own gun
down from the wall, I’ll tell you what, this
is what stood between me and death.
When he showed me how to field-strip the M-16,
the first thing he did was yank a lever back
and eject what looked like a live round
onto the sofa. I’d never touched a gun before
though I’d seen many, in glass safes next to the bed,
in racks on cars, on straps over shoulders,
or held like a child by men sitting around the table
after dinner, men who sometimes also held
a sleeping child.
At first, I wouldn’t touch it but only watched,
keeping myself pure and above it all
like when my dad, in the last year
of his truly deplorable illness—the lung disease
that killed my and most of my friends’ parents—
visited my law firm on the 33rd floor.
After he left, everyone joked they could see him
a mile down Market Street on account of his blazer:
an eye-shattering rust-and-green-neon plaid.
We stayed awhile, floating above the world
in that steel-and-glass box with its deep carpets
and dark exotic wood walls. It was his best jacket,
purchased at great expense to him, and he wore it
to look good so he would not embarrass me.
The joking was gentle but still stemmed from contempt
and the self I most despise is the one
who thinks she’s above it all—more pure, or better,
or smarter than everyone and everywhere she came from
—who, when those lawyers laughed, laughed too.
Many of us have had to grapple with what to do about friends & family
whose political views don’t match our own. Hilary Clinton taught us
that just calling other viewpoints “deplorable” is not constructive.
Here’s my stab at it.