Standing on the edge of the ditch

In a sense, my father, who once cried about the murders of our family but always denied its relevance to our lives, was right.   I never stood, nor did anyone I ever knew, on the edge of a ditch waiting for a murderer’s bullet.  Not when I was an eight year-old with a terrifying imagination and first learned of it did I actually stand on the edge of a ditch with the rest of the family waiting for the order to lie down and be shot.   Much less fifty years later when I am that much closer to my own natural end, after standing beside the open graves of loved ones many times now.  

To be truthful, these things happened thirteen years before I was even born.  I’ve never been machine gunned, or shot with even a small caliber gun, never been tied up with ropes or even been hungry for more than a few hours.  For crying out loud, I’ve never even been whipped in the face or beaten bloody.  My father took the manly stance that his dramatic young son was just sniveling, looking for pity in the echoes of the murder of our family back in some far away Ukrainian hellhole more than twenty years earlier.   Some of us never get over anything, it would seem.    

If I’d been a Black kid it would have been the fucking slave ships I’d have been whining about, the millions crowded below decks in airless holds, chained, driven insane, thrown to sharks if they grew too indignant.   Then I’d have been worked up about the hundreds of years when I could have been sold, whipped, sodomized like any flesh robot you could own.  It wouldn’t have soothed me to hear that life here for the former slaves was better after the Civil War, or that not millions, only thousands, of former slaves were ever beaten, raped or killed for being indignant.  And probably less than ten thousand, total, who were ever burned to death or hung from trees while crowds laughed and whooped and had picnics, sold body parts and photos as souvenirs.

My father would have said “for Christ’s sake, son, they put those Klansmen on trial in Mississippi for what they done to those boys down in Meriden.  The country is changing, for the better, it has changed a lot in your lifetime.”  It would have been peevish to tell him only one of the murderers of those Civil Rights workers would ever see the inside of a jail cell.  Or that sixty years after the Supreme Court ordered an end to segregation, schools would be as segregated as at the height of Jim Crow.  Hindsight, you know what they say about it.

“Is this really what you are thinking about at 4:36 a.m.?” asks a concerned voice.

“No, not at all.  I was thinking about this hours ago, but couldn’t shut off that great documentary about how they did the animated life of Graham Chapman I’d seen earlier…”

“Drawing again, I heard the scratching of your pens….”

“Yes, Sekhnet wandered in like a zombie, saw the animation on TV, looked at the drawings on the couch and said ‘Oh, God, he’s generating more papers…'”

“You can see her point.”

“Yes, I can certainly see her point.  These twenty thousand fucking drawings are a plague.  I do myself no favor drawing them.  But listen, do you mind if I get back to what I was thinking about?”

“Who are you asking?”

“Good point,” I say.

It was an accident of birth, and dumb good timing, to be born in a place and era when I was not forced to lie face down on top of dead bodies and wait for a bullet to end my life, as all of my grandparents’ families were.   Pure luck not to be living in a 2014 slum without sewers or any kind of toilets, where babies die by the truckloads from ragingly contagious excrement borne diseases that basic sanitation prevents.  Good fortune not be born in a place where children are dragged from their homes and forced to kill, or are ‘collateral damage’ statistics in drone attacks, or fated to live in neighborhoods where human predators attack, or if the criminals don’t get you the cops will.  A blessed accident of birth to be born wearing this face instead of one that invites real kicks and blows.   The kicks and blows I receive are gentle indeed compared to real ones.

“No hour is ever eternity, but it has its right to weep.” [1]  The pains we are given to deal with are painful enough for each of us, unbearable sometimes, though they’re not as painful as many more terrible things countless people are enduring at this very moment.  It doesn’t give us perspective, sadly, not to be standing on the edge of a ditch waiting for the order to fall in and be executed.  In a sense we are all standing on the edge of a ditch in a world where ditches for mass graves are dug all the time.

“Take this shovel, dig a hole deep as you want to be buried and stop crying and farting about it,” is about the worst thing any of us can hear.  In that childhood nightmare where Nazis in storm trooper uniforms were slicing through the screen of the back porch of our house to get at us I remember thinking “a lot of good those screens did” a second before I woke up with my heart pounding in terror.

That no idea, no matter how good or well-presented, can be sold in the marketplace of ideas without properly calculated marketing?  A female mosquito landing on your shoulder for a drink.  That unscripted candor has no place in a salesman’s pitch?  Please.  That’s as self-evident as the fact that all men are created equal and endowed by our creator with inalienable rights that may vary, according to circumstance, history and financial situation.    The world is just the world, although it is not always easy to keep perspective when the world is chanting something loudly and continuously enough to drown out all other thought.  

They were apparently banging drums and making a racket on the hill by the ravine to the north of Vishnevets those days in August 1943, to mask the cries and other sounds of the massacre.  The noise of the drums and lusty screaming, as you can imagine, was a fearful sound to the remaining ragged, starving citizens of Vishnevets, waiting their turn at the lip of the ravine.  

The world of competitive commerce and war constantly and insistently beats the drums, to drown out the silence that might lead to forgetting about the drumbeat of commerce and war and allowing people to recall matters of a deeper nature, to gain a more humane perspective.  

It’s possible, I suppose, that these two lusty drummings are only comparable in the mind of a madman.   Then again, many things in our world are the work of madmen.



[1] Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God


2 comments on “Standing on the edge of the ditch

  1. Truly a remarkable piece of writing. I felt incredibly moved by it. Images – painted to vividly with words- will haunt me for a long time coming.

    It made me count my blessings.
    love and light to you 🙂

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