Ode to a veteran

I have never viewed myself as a woman who would feel at home in a room full of ageing veterans, but it might be one of the places I most like to be.

I say this because it is Remembrance Day here in Australia and other Commonwealth countries. It is the date that memorializes November 11, 1918, when at 11am, there was an official end to the First World War. Eleventh day of the eleventh month at eleven.

Today, I was moving through the gathered at the Inverell war memorial and cenotaph, taking photos, nodding to people I have come to know in the town, ceasing my pictures at the moment of silence.

Then the final trumpet sound had died, the national anthem was sung and farewells were exchanged. I followed those who stayed for the morning tea across the road to take a few more social shots and talk to some folks.

I enjoy days like this because in my time working as a journalist in Inverell, I have come to know quite a few veterans from different conflicts. They have been kind enough to share their stories, and sometimes, their grievances.

It has been educational.

I have to state, I am not an advocate for war. I have been close to a few vets before I started writing about them, and none of them were positive about war. But meeting the men in Inverell has broadened my understanding of what it means for a veteran to be against conflict.

All of them believe that it is the right thing to support enlisted personnel, but none advocate violence or approve of the killing. All speak with understanding about the lasting effects that have afflicted returned servicemen and servicewomen and for some of them, themselves.

I think being an American with that exhausting rally ’round the military mentality, I feel highly resistant to anything to do with the army, air force or navy. But these men, with their blazer breasts heavy with medals, either their own or a family member’s, have given me an appreciation of the sacrifice.

My friend George Preuss was a Vietnam vet. He was born on Long Island on January 28, 1936. At school-age, he attended a very strict French military academy.

Already set on the path, George went over to the south Asian country the early 1960s, serving in the security forces. His unit tested the areas other armed forces would soon enter to detect the enemy and secure the area.

Picture the valley scene in Apocalypse Now.

That happened to George. I asked him once, “What happened if the guy next to you was shot and killed?”

He said, “You got behind him and kept shooting.”

Sobering stuff. And that was the least of it.

George went back for two more tours, telling me once he got restless when he returned and despite the pleas from his wife at the time, returned to Vietnam. He served as an advisor and travelled through the jungles with a one-armed translator, and came out again with plenty of harrowing stories.

Back in the US, George trained other soldiers, pushed frightened new recruits out of planes. He was a career military man until about the mid-1970s and had transformed into an exceptionally angry man.

He came back firmly set against war, but like these Australian counterparts, in favour of supporting the vets.

I met him years later after most of the wildness had leaked out of him. Nevertheless, I was warned about that crazy guy who was a sculptor, an extrovert, heavy drinker.

“Don’t get involved with him-he’s obnoxious,” people said.

All of that was true, but what came with the package was an exceptionally intelligent, intuitive, independent man with a huge heart.

He had shattered his relationships with his children, ex-wives, had a litany of relationships and a wolf-dog as a pet.

And he became one of my dearest friends. He lived across the road from me in Wabaunsee, Kansas for five years and we spent a lot of time talking, going back and forth. I knew that if something went wrong, I could call George for help with anything and he would be there.

I grew up with an auto writer as a father, and George’s passion for old Jaguars and his tinkerings with classic cars connected us.

On a Sunday morning, he’d be ambling around outside, bathrobe on, looking under the hood of an Austin Healey, mug of coffee in hand with his stereo ringing out from the old limestone theater he called home.

The music was opera, and in the afternoons, Lucinda Williams.

One of my favorite memories of the man would be encountering him when I was out on a walk. I would be marching up or down some road, far out into the Kansas prairie at sunset and there would come George, driving in his white pick-up with his wolf-dog running along behind, getting her exercise.

After my move to Australia, I was able to visit him on two occasions when I went back to the US for visits.

One summer day in 2009, I got an email from a friend who told me that George had died.

I knew he had some plumbing issues, since I drove him to the doctor’s once for a procedure, and though I was devastated, it was nothing to what happened when I learned the details.

George didn’t die from the cancer. Outspoken against firearms and hunting, he got hold of a gun, left the dog tied up outside, taped a note on the door to call the police, sat inside on the steps, wrapped his head in a bedsheet, and shot himself.

Like I said, his death was hard enough to cope with, but knowing the man, I can still imagine those last moments. He was facing terminal cancer and all that would come with it. I imagine him sitting, that damn sheet around his head, maybe terrified and also his determined not to die, wrecked from the disease, and thinking of his dog outside, of his friends Roger and Frank, one of whom would come for a cup of coffee in the morning as they did every day.

It’s been five years and it still feels like yesterday. Or that he’s not gone at all, but still living in the Wabaunsee Opera House.

George's grave at the Kansas Veterans' Cemetery at Fort Riley.
George’s grave at the Kansas Veterans’ Cemetery at Fort Riley.

What drew me, more of an introvert, shy, a non-drinker, to this outgoing, expansive man? I don’t know. Perhaps it was because I saw myself in George and maybe he saw a little of himself in me. Both of us were independent to a fault, we both saw the value in animals and respected their spirit.

I don’t know why we got on, but he was an important person in my life. He taught me a lot about living.

Tonight, as I write this, I wish I had had a wreath today to lay for George. He used to grab the back of my neck affectionately, to lead me around his studio, showing me the things he had been working on. Offering me an overstewed cup of coffee from the carafe, showing me the photos of his granddaughter and great-granddaughter, proud as proud can be.

I miss him terribly.

The photo is of George and me, from 2007 in Manhattan,  Kansas.