The other day, I helped my friends Yvonne and Kristen bury their dog.
On the nineteenth of April 1989, one of the huge gun turrets on the battleship Iowa blew up, killing the sailors who were manning it. Debate about responsibility for the explosion continued long afterward, but lost in the emotion of the tragedy was a curious aspect of the story. According to the commander of the ship, interviewed after the event, it was expected to be difficult, if not impossible, to fix the damaged gun turret. The Iowa is of World War II vintage, and he feared that the materials and technological know-how to repair its gigantic guns might not exist anymore.
A key theme in the political rhetoric and media punditry of the seventies and eighties was the Cold War confrontation between what were called the “First World” and the “Second World.” These two worlds were said to be competing for the political allegiance and economic alliance of so-called “Third World” countries, which were seen as needing “development” in order to bring them to the levels of prosperity assumed (falsely) to be prevalent in the industrialized First and Second Worlds.
We’re standing in the drizzle — me and Uncle Oscar and Daddy and the chaplain and two soldiers who look like they’ve marched right out of the toy box. I half expect their feet to be welded to plastic platforms wedged into piles of sand, the way Bradley used to set up his army men in the back yard. The chaplain, his granny glasses fogged by the rain, has finished his prayers. The soldiers fold the flag that was on top of Bradley’s coffin into a neat triangle and present it to Daddy, who tucks it inside his coat. Then, all by itself, Bradley’s coffin starts sinking into the hole — like Kreskin or Uri Geller is doing a trick — except you can hear the electric motor whirring from the other side of the coffin.
Perry was just another scrubby desert town tucked behind a minor highway — to us it was a highway; to the state it was a tired dirt road that had been paved in an election year and forgotten. The mountains ringed the town, framing a shiftless blue sky that after too many summer days dug deep and hard into your bones until you were crazy with its steadiness. At night the mountains corralled the stars into a herd and marched them off the horizon. Maybe an outsider would find Perry beautiful, but living there made us careless. We let the town fill up with prefab houses, junk cars, litter, dried-up cactuses, gangly power lines, and any other spiteful ugliness we could imagine. You thought nothing of tossing an empty beer bottle, of deliberately smashing it on the pavement and watching the broken pieces glitter at your feet.
First, there was the customer ahead of Simon in line disputing the price of a jumbo jar of sliced jalapeños. Then the senior who was low on cash and tried to pay on a credit card, invalidated three times. And then the lady with a payroll check and no identification. On the interstate, rush-hour traffic was backed up for miles, bottlenecked by giant earthmovers where they’re building the new theme park. Simon made an illegal U-turn across the median, exited onto the old airport feeder, and got lost.
“Listen carefully, comrade,” Academician Pudenkin told Berman, the tailor, when they were seated in the Zil limousine. “There is no excuse for being unprepared, and no time to waste once we are inside. Here is what you need to know.”