Karma, Dharma, Freedom, Fate
Tonight Brigadier General Thomas Kilpatrick is retiring. The old warrior is stepping down. This will cap a singular military career unprecedented in recent history, if you judge by the number of enemy deaths he orchestrated and oversaw—all with calm dignity, a starched uniform and clean shave, thus his nom de guerre.
Death has accompanied Kilpatrick throughout his career, and she always appeared happy to remain, like a dog eager to please him, just beyond the business end of his guns. Marines requested to serve under him; he was charmed, fated to success in battle, like the great Achilles.
Gentleman Death gets ready, runs the Headblade Helen has forced on him around the sides of his bald head, and watches his motions in the mirror: the liver patch above his left eye that has spread yearly like a water stain on a ceiling tile; his chicken neck with twin wattles which will no longer disappear no matter how proudly he holds his head; the goddamn Headblade—it’s like he’s running a plastic toy over his head, a round little yellow car, something a grandchild would sling across the kitchen floor. Age and illness will not end you in a flash like battle does; they have to slowly strip you of your dignity first, make you suffer inane daytime TV programming while you wait for someone to clean your dying body. Kilpatrick has already decided. He will take Hemingway’s solution before it comes to that. Suicide is cowardly? Hardly. Suicide is grabbing fate by the short hairs. He will not wither and waste away like that hapless sidekick Enkidu.
Helen brought in his dress blues from the dry cleaners while he showered; they lay still in the plastic bag on the bed, across her new spread that is brown and yellow and has dandelions big as a Samoan’s fist all over it. One brass eagle globe and anchor on his blue jacket presses against the plastic where it is pulled tight and crooked at the hanger. The air conditioner is blasting and his old ass is cold. Brigadier General Kilpatrick shivers as he rips the plastic away from his blues, and then he high steps it to his drawer for a fresh pair of boxer shorts.
The tables are set up on the parade deck, so many of them it looks like the marriage supper of the lamb out here. It is not raining like they had feared it might, and a briny wind gusts up from the sound. They’ve all had drinks and eaten, and are now having more drinks. Women hold back their hair and hold their bare arms across themselves; someone’s drink napkin blows past in four wind bursts and tumbles on toward the water. No one makes chase.
Colonel Griever stands and makes opening remarks and then clears his throat and says, “I have had the pleasure of serving with Brigadier General Tommy Kilpatrick over the years—twice directly under his command—and when I was thinking of what I was going to say tonight, what kept coming to my mind when I thought of Brigadier General Kilpatrick is the acronym J.J. DID TIE BUCKLE.”
Kilpatrick takes a sip of his third neat twelve-year-old Macallan Scotch, which they keep stocked in the officer’s club just for him. His MEB officers are here, with their wives, and husbands, as he looks out at them his vision blurs and they become a sea of undulating uniform blue and cover white pocked with the various colors of wives’ dresses: reds and pinks and sky blue, even one blotch of orange. Laughter and talk come across the breeze from the closest tables, as if from a far distance. As per normal, Griever’s barber has given him a sharp tight cut, but failed to properly trim the hairs from his ears—like the yard boy leaving neat mown rows of lawn and a shaggy sidewalk.
At the front table sits Helen, their four children, spouses and grandkids. The kids didn’t want to come—they are adults now, have their own busy lives—but here they are just the same. Jennifer, his baby girl, sun of his orbit, came all the way from Portland, brought her piercings and tattoos with her. She makes pottery out there, sells it from a table at some street fair every Saturday; she’s thirty-four and he helps pay her bills, though Helen doesn’t know.
The PA is spotty, and Colonel Griever’s voice makes a sharp whistle with every S. He says, “The first J stands for Justice.” He says, “Justice is defined as the practice of fairness and consistency…”
JJ DID TIE BUCKLE: Justice, Judgement, Dependability, et cetera. Kilpatrick has preached these traits to his troops, but he’s called it dharma since he read the Bhagavad Gita back when Hakuseki was his aide. The warrior Arjuna tells Krishna, who is really the god Vishnu disguised in human form, that he is afraid he will get bad karma if he goes to battle and kills the men arrayed against him—some are cousins of his, some men he admired long ago—and Krishna explains to him that he is a warrior, and as a warrior his dharma—a duty that is part of the very warp and woof of the universe—is to be the best warrior he can be, otherwise he surely will have bad karma for turning from his sacred calling. He knew they thought he was odd because of it.
So this is it. He is retiring beside still waters, plenty of money, depression meds regulated, comfortable and healthy for his age, in a town so pleasant and safe he might as well already be inside the pearly gates. Kilpatrick can tell from the burning itch that a razor rash is surfacing along the right side of his head. He’s going back to his ivory-handled straight razor. Fuck what Helen has to say about it.
Brigadier General Kilpatrick came back stateside as Operation Iraq Freedom became Operation New Dawn. The President pulled his MEB out, left the Al Anbar Province in the inept hands of the army. His marines had done neither float nor field exercise for nine months. They languished in their barracks at Lejeune itching for combat action, like embark marines lying around playing dominoes and ripping hot Navy-chow farts in the belly of an LHA. He tried to rotate them into Afghanistan, but couldn’t swing it. Just as well. Things were dry ass fucked over there.
The previous seven years, up to the end, were a miasma of grueling frustration in Iraq. He lost marines not in glorious battle, but piecemeal, an arm here a leg there. Like Osiris’ dismembered corps, his boys’ body parts were scattered to the winds. He spent those years in the field with his marines as much as possible. He suffered two concussions from roadside IEDs. It gave him headaches and depression, but it also filled him with a deep and sober pride.
He was still using his Dovo razor to keep his bald head smooth at that time, with the handle crafted from ivory he’d smuggled in country from Pakistan years earlier. The finest blade he’d ever put to his head.
The invasion of Iraq was the second most glorious time of Kilpatrick’s career. The board selected him for a star, and the President approved, and Brigadier General Kilpatrick gained command of an entire Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
Kilpatrick’s MEB roared across Iraq like the whole country was a big sandy superhighway. The enemy fell before him like cornstalks before a reaper, and then lay in smoldering ruins in his wake. Fallujah, Ramadi, Al-Qa’im. He rode high in his hummer, kept pace with his marines, and added roughly eight thousand kills to his credit—never mind what the official count was; fuck the official count, he was there. He thought in his mind, Attack our soil? Come and knock down our towers and kill our innocent citizens? Well, have a taste of good old-fashioned retribution, and he called in the strikes without mercy, and the enemy died, and died, and kept dying before his guns.
This one operation alone doubled his career kills, added a whole fistful of medals to the fruit salad already on his chest. Hell, Kilpatrick was more decorated than the Commandant of the Marine Corps.
It was when he was leaving for Operation Iraq Freedom that he commissioned the Dovo company to create his ivory-handled razor. He’d held on to the ivory from Pakistan for years, not sure what he wanted to do with it. Then one day he looked at it there on the mantle where he kept it, a twelve inch long section of elephant tusk, as big around and yellow as a British tooth, and he realized what the ivory was created to be.
He sent it to Dovo and explained what he wanted, offered to pay whatever they decided it was worth. They crafted him a special razor with the ivory for the smoothest handle yet, and blade tempered in both fire and ice, made by their best master craftsman. It was a beauty, cold and perfectly balanced on his fingertips. They had given it to him free, with their compliments—“An instrument this special, and made with such care,” the letter had said, “cannot have a price put on it.”
Colonel Kilpatrick and his marines were sent to Aden, Yemen after the USS Cole was hit. They floated as embark marines on the LHA USS Tarawa—was it the Tarawa, or was the Tarawa the one they caught to Desert Storm? It was the USS Eisenhower this time, not the Tarawa; the Eisenhower; one or the other; or maybe it was the Tripoli… no the Tripoli hit a moored mine, blew a 20 by 14 foot hole in her belly; it was the Eisenhower—and after they floated for a few days in the Gulf, they would dock and go walk around the city, watching for some terrorist to turkey peek from a roof or a doorway. Colonel Kilpatrick rarely disembarked. He gained twelve pounds in Yemen. Started going to the ship’s gym with his Aide, Captain Hakuseki.
Captain Hakuseki’s grandfather had fought for the Japs directly against the Marines, and had died in WWII. Not once did Kilpatrick question Hakuseki’s loyalty, his devotion to his country the United States, or to the Marine Corps. The little man was a model officer. Because of him, Kilpatrick got interested in Eastern warriors. All he found in the ship’s library was the Bhagavad Gita, and he loved the story of Krishna and Arjuna, the idea of dharma, how it was Arjuna the warrior’s duty to kill those whose time it was to die.
By all accounts Hakuseki’s grandfather was a fierce warrior himself, an officer who displayed all the leadership qualities the Marine Corps admires, served his country admirably. Can’t take that away from him. And can’t take it away from many of the Iraqis Kilpatrick was currently hunting down and killing. It wasn’t personal. Many warriors he would have been proud to know had lost their right to breathe air by the fact of their being on the wrong side of Kilpatrick’s guns.
No other way to explain it: Fate had put them where they were, and all they could do with that was face it bravely.
Upon their parting, Captain Hakuseki gave Colonel Kilpatrick the Dovo straight razor, and the moment almost got emotional. It was hand crafted, had a genuine buffalo horn handle. “It’s a beautiful instrument,” Kilpatrick said.
Hakuseki said, “May you ever wield it with a steady hand.”
Kilpatrick was on board the USS Enterprise during Operation Desert Fox, and it was here where he finally picked up full bird colonel. He was preaching a different gospel to his troops at that time.
The idea of fate in that Old English epic Beowulf, Kilpatrick liked that. Wyrd it was called. It was different than the Greek idea of fate. Beowulf is set in a culture of blood and drunkenness—fighting, getting drunk, taking women at will; sounded pretty much like the Marine Corps to Kilpatrick. And wyrd was not simply what was to come, what had been ordained for you and was unavoidable, but a very specific unavoidable thing: the fate of a bloody and brutal death at the business end of some bastard’s sword. Someday it would get you, so the best you could do was kill more of them than they killed of you.
Kilpatrick had spent eight years as a Lieutenant Colonel, four of them in the promotion zone; the Corps was at authorized strength, and no old bastards would die or retire. Kilpatrick turned his frustration to focus, had the tightest MEU in the Corps, and everyone knew it. There were things he couldn’t control, but what he could, he did.
He was shaving with his snakewood-handled Dovo at this time. Taking to the field with his unit every opportunity he got, standing with his leather dop kit folded open and hanging on the side of the hummer, the blurry mirror inside reflecting back his stern warrior’s stare as he set the example for his men. “Just because you’re in the field,” he yelled to them in morning formation, “is no excuse to look and smell like an animal.” He yelled, “Have some pride in that uniform and in your person.” He yelled, “You want Haji to see you the moment before he dies and realize that this is just another day at the office for you. Hell, you popped into Starbucks for a vanilla latte on your way over to kill him.” His men all laughed.
Every morning he stood at his hummer with his razor, flipped it deftly open and applied the danger edge to his head and face: an inherently threatening instrument a straight razor, its gleaming edge, its very shape a calm threat of intimate death. Countless times over the years Kilpatrick imagined getting the opportunity to kill with it, an enemy throat opening to the edge of his blade, slippery and intimate.
Sierra Leone, what a godforsaken place. Kilpatrick surveyed the carnage and shook his head. This was a low spot for his career and his marines, coming as they were out of their spectacular victory in the Gulf, a military rout unprecedented in the history of the world.
Kilpatrick shaved with his snakewood razor in the early heat of morning. He could see in the locals’ dark black faces, in their staring white eyes, a knowing respect for the instrument. They were hired to run for local food, to bring goods and services over to the troops. Kilpatrick’s men had informed these locals that Kilpatrick saw it as his fate to be a cold-blooded killer. They’d seen pigs’ throats cut, the blood pulse out with the dying heartbeats. These people knew the use of a sharp blade. Kilpatrick whipped it out, opened it deftly in his raised right hand, spun it in his fingers. He gazed into the dull mirror of his hanging dop kit and reached over his head, his elbow pointing straight at the sky, and pressed the blade to the skin above his left ear.
This was the most glorious time of Kilpatrick’s career, his first push into Iraq. A turkey shoot. The road was lined with burned and blown up vehicles, scattered with bodies no one yet had time to deal with. The enemy scrambled before his guns like cockroaches looking for cracks and crevasses into which they could burrow, but they had no place to hide in the desert; they waved whatever rag they could, white or not, in surrender. They went to their knees and looked down at the sand, unwashed and unshaven.
The morning before he had met his MEU and shipped out of San Diego Harbor—to Hawaii to load an air wing, and then to the PIs for training at Green Beach, and from there on to bring a shit storm down on whatever ragheads happened to be in their way—Lieutenant Colonel Kilpatrick stood and watched his children walk to the end of the driveway, and turn left out of the cul-de-sac and meander toward the bus stop out by the main road. On that dark morning, looking out the front picture window, the house warm and sweet with the brown sugar and milk oatmeal Helen had forced down their gullets, along with chewable Flintstones vitamins, he rubbed his bald head and he watched. Their small figures moved silently into the dark morning and his chest hurt with love.
Love and fear.
Fear that fate, without careful tending, would lilt and shift like a ship at sea, and suddenly her guns would be facing his children. He knew what carnage was going on in the world at that very moment—children no different than them but for their having been born in an unfortunate place, at an unfortunate time, shot, blown apart, hacked apart with machetes, staring up in their last seconds of consciousness, aware of nothing else, in the shock of bleeding out, than their own looming deaths—and in those silent moments he renewed his vow to keep the guns turned away from here, from the United States, from this neighborhood, where his children flew on their bikes up and down this street blissfully unaware of what it meant that dad was deploying once again.
At this time Kilpatrick was shaving his face and head with a pretty basic straight razor. It had a good blade, held an edge, but the handle was just stainless steel. He liked it though, the way it gleamed its threat when he pulled it out, flashed the light, almost like the thing in his hand had knowledge of what it could do, was flashing a confident smile. He wiped fingerprints off the handle and tucked it away clean and shiny after every use.
Kilpatrick picked up major, got his gold leaf, and four days later 220 Marines were killed in Beirut, Lebanon, when a bomb hits their barracks. Most of them were sleeping, with their boots off in their skivvies, or out in the commons area playing dominos.
Before that, Captain Kilpatrick had led a company of marines in Operation Urgent Fury, and they’d made short work of liberating the tiny island of Granada. His reputation as a calm killer was becoming established. His company operated like a well-oiled machine and he was awarded a commendation.
It was in Granada that a man came through offering cold Coca Cola and cheap whiskey, and ice cream sandwiches. The man was small and dark and had clever, knowing eyes. Kilpatrick said to him, “What I’d really like is a good close shave.” He said, “My face and my head both.” What hair he still had grew like a horseshoe from temple to temple. When he was clean bald he looked fearsome, thick sculpted jawline, heavy eyebrows. When the scanty hair on his head started sprouting, he quickly began to look like a convict, or an accountant or child molester, or some other such dickhead.
The small man disappeared and was back within fifteen minutes, walking in his flip-flops, carrying a straight razor and a bowl of lather. Right there in the field, this little man gave Kilpatrick the closest shave he’d ever had. No rash no itch. Kilpatrick said, “That is one fine instrument,” and the man said, “It has taken the life of two men.” That sealed the deal: Kilpatrick had to have the razor. The man was delighted with the ten American dollars Kilpatrick gave him for the shave; he was again delighted to part with the razor for another ten dollars. Never again would Kilpatrick have embarrassing stubble on his head.
Second lieutenant Kilpatrick was a platoon commander, and he insisted that he have an M-16 A1 just like his marines. They dropped into Vietnam during Operation Frequent Wind to secure a perimeter for the evacuation of Saigon. They took some small arms fire and returned fire. They saw gooks hunched and running between buildings, some with weapons, some not. Behind them civilians scrambled to get themselves on 46s and out of this godforsaken country.
A gook with a rifle stepped out and stood. Two bullet-pocked one-story buildings were between him and the position Kilpatrick’s platoon had secured. He was looking hard, but obviously couldn’t see anyone. The helicopter rotors battered the air behind Kilpatrick. The yellow man thought he was not in the line of anyone’s fire.
To Kilpatrick’s left, prone and peeking from behind a mud-spattered, white waist-high wall, his Platoon Sergeant whispered hard, “What you want to do LT?”
Kilpatrick stared down his rifle barrel, lined his front sight post up perfectly inside his rear sight aperture. He centered the little man on top of the front sight post, took a slow breath and squeezed the trigger.
The man dropped dead and lay on the ground like a sack of feed tossed off a truck.
Beside Kilpatrick, his Platoon Sergeant whispered, “Holy shit. Jesus god, LT.”
Another marine said, “LT, You dropped his ass cold.”
Kilpatrick stood and said in a casual conversational tone, “His ass needed dropping,” and he walked in a way that seemed like calm self-possession, possibly putting himself in the line of enemy fire—he never told anyone that he was in shock, had no idea what he was doing—back to the staging area, got his canteen off his web belt and took a long thirsty drink. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and returned to his position.
The only thing he had done up to that point was a deployment to the Middle East when he was fresh out of Quantico. He and his platoon cooled their heels on a ship in the Mediterranean while other marines sped weapons and supplies to Israel during the Yom Kippur War during Operation Nickel Grass.
At this time Kilpatrick was shaving his head with a standard Gillette E3 twist-to-open safety razor. If he didn’t change the blade every week, he would end up with a rash at the base of his skull, and sometimes around his ears. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it had to do. He was not going to be a young man whom people spoke of as the guy who is only twenty four and already bald as an old bastard. If baldness was to be his fate, it would be done his way.
At the height of the antiwar movement, when the military was incredibly unpopular at home, Tommy Kilpatrick joined the Woodrow Wilson High School ROTC program. He shaved his head while the trend was for boys to grow their hair long and shaggy. He pressed and starched his uniform and wore it as if it were the real thing. He served in the color guard at ballgames and parades and funerals for old soldiers. He took leadership classes and spurned the hippies and druggies in his school’s hallways. He worked out with weights, ran, did calisthenics every morning before school. He won two fist fights his senior year, one so decidedly that no one noticed, or no one mentioned noticing, that he had pissed his pants in fear while he kicked Jimmy Boggs’s ass.
The year before that two exchanges had convinced Tommy to choose ROTC. Both happened in English class. First, as they read King Lear in the second nine weeks, and the teacher went on and on about how Shakespeare saw fate differently than the Greeks did, how he saw a great character flaw as what determined a man’s end, Tommy watched Donna McCray in the desk in front of him. She had an ugly face, but her body was perfectly beautiful and curvy, and Tommy Kilpatrick knew he was not going to do better. So when she said to him, “Go into the military,” it meant more than if someone else had made the suggestion.
The reason she said this was because, in one of the long classes in which they sat and did nothing while the teacher worked on cross stitch, he had confided to her that he was horribly self-conscious about his thinning hair. Tommy had been going bald since he was fourteen—a cruel trick of fate. His dad was shiny on top with the wrap of hair and a wispy comb over. Tommy had no illusions about where it was headed for him.
“I hate it that that’s what I’m going to look like,” he told her.
That’s when she said to him, “Join the military.” She said, “Everybody wears short hair. My brother is in the Marines and he keeps his head shaved. You have to.”
So the seed was planted: here was a way to give fate the middle finger, take bold charge of his balding, embrace it even.
The second thing happened in class while the English teacher was talking about war epics. She had given them the fast version of The Iliad, making them read book one, four and twenty four, and filling the rest in herself, telling the stories in class, often reminding them that they probably started as oral stories to begin with and Homer collected and integrated them.
The teacher said something like, “It’s amazing to read these accounts of war because they are so horrifying and at the same time beautiful in a strange way.”
Roger McCray, Donna’s cousin, said, “Why read about it when you can go live it?”
Everyone laughed while the teacher was trying to respond, “You cannot live the French Revolution,” but the idea stuck in Tom Kilpatrick’s head. He decided in English class that he would shave his own head and have a career in the military.
Now, forty-three years later, Brigadier General Thomas Kilpatrick sits at the head table while Colonel Griever rambles on about the acronym of military leadership traits, J.J. DID TIE BUCKLE—“Courage is what allows you to stay calm while recognizing fear… Knowledge means that you have acquired information and that you understand people…”—and Kilpatrick’s primary concern right now, at this very minute, as he takes another warm sip of twelve-year-old single-malt Scotch, is that the itching he feels over his ear from using that damned plastic Headblade instead of his straight razor, is going to show up in the photographs of his retirement as a red rash on his bald head.
Vic Sizemore’s short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Story Quarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, PANK Magazine, and elsewhere. Excerpts from his novel The Calling are published or forthcoming in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, and elsewhere. His fiction has been long-listed for the Walker Percy Prize, short-listed for the Sherwood Anderson Award, won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. http://vicsizemore.wordpress.com/