collateral damage of war

A young Syrian migrant girl is held by her mother next to railroad tracks where migrants wait to cross into Macedonia

“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.
“’Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.”

These words of Stephen Foster written in 1854 apply today just as they did in the years leading up to the Civil War. My wife Jody and I heard local Blues guitarist and singer Bob Driver put heart into them last night in Harrisonburg’s Court Square Theater.

The lyrics are just as poignant today as we watch the daily tragedy of people trying so desperately to flee war-torn Syria and other areas in the Middle East. The picture that refuses to be erased from our minds is that of the Turkish paramilitary police officer carrying the corpse of the drowned Syrian child whose body had washed up on the shore near Bodrum, one of Turkey’s prime tourist resorts. It is like the bell that cannot be unrung.

To mess with my mind even more, this morning when I opened my e-mail there was a preview of this week’s Style Section of The New Yorker. In another resort city, we learn that Italy’s Portofino is playing host to what is billed as “the world’s most extravagant slumber party.” The preview continues: “Dozens of clients of Alta Moda, the couture arm of the luxury brand Dolce & Gabbana, converged from all over the world for a long weekend of fashion shows, parties, and shopping—eagerly dropping forty or fifty thousand euros on one of the line’s dresses, ‘virtuoso demonstrations of what can be achieved when the imagination of a designer and the spending power of his patron are given unconstrained expression.’”

Kind of warms your heart that there are so many people who have the means and the enthusiasm to be a part of such a self-indulgent extravaganza.

Some other highlights of the various stories in this issue of The New Yorker went even further to draw out your sympathy for such wealthy and clueless enthusiasts. With tongue not entirely in cheek, the summary also said that covering such events is “not all Prosecco and truffles. In her profile of the designer Donatella Versace, Lauren Collins faced perhaps the ultimate reporting challenge in chronicling a wild and winding ride through the Italian hills with her subject, who chain-smoked in her sealed-up Mercedes all the way to Lake Como.” Another story detailed a survival tip that we all might benefit from. This feature is about “how Federico Marchetti, a young egghead from Ravenna, figured out a way for you to shop in Italy without lugging your bags through customs.”

“While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh! Hard times come again no more.”

Whenever we lose our power during a storm, Jody and I are guilty of nearly panicking and thinking that Armageddon is next. This past Friday, our 23-year old well pump pushed its last drop of water through the line. Our rural neighbor and considerate plumber Neil came over early on Saturday morning in the rain to dope out the problems. As we were standing over the well-head after determining that we had electrical power from the basement to this point, the deluge fell. Since we have the luxury of a guest cabin just up the road, we told Neil and his assistant Michael that we could survive the “inconvenience” until Monday when the rains would be over and they could return to haul out the old pump and install a new one in relative comfort. I kept hearing Dylan’s line “the pump don’t work cause the vandals stole the handle.”

Thinking of any real “hard times” and the grief it brings not just to the less fortunate, but to their children and their children’s children, we took an extra deep breath to be thankful for our comfortable way of life. And we also almost sang out “there but for fortune go you and go I.” But thousands will continue not to be favored by fortune, to be on the wrong leaky boat, victims of someone else’s decision to go to war. These are the poor souls who are doomed to misery if they stay home in refugee camps or are caught up in the withering crossfire of fanatic combatants. They are in search of wells that pump life-flowing sustenance. Their plumbers are far and few between.

In a week of news that featured the wrangling in Europe about what should be done to save these symbols of “collateral damage” forced from ancestral homes made wastelands by no deeds of their own, we are slapped in the face by other kinds of vandals, the narcissists in Portofino.

Complex as the confluence of such contrasting themes is, the week came to an intriguing point in the form of the news of a cave full of prehistoric bones in South Africa, possibly from a previously unknown form of early humanoid. Exciting as it is to look into the eyes of the National Geographic artist’s conception of what these human links in the evolutionary chain might have looked like, it was hard not to also imagine the searching eyes of the little Syrian boy drowned along with his mother and siblings seeking a future he would never know.

As we try to make sense of the world we live in today, not just millions of years ago, and the future we will live in, we are confronted with the question of what this future holds and what does it take to be considered human and to act the way human beings should.

“’Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
’Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
’Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh! Hard times come again no more.”

Image: A young Syrian migrant girl is held by her mother next to railroad tracks where migrants wait to cross into Macedonia Sept. 2, in Idomeni, Greece - by Freedom House via flickr and used a Creative Commons license.
David Evans

David Evans

I'm retired from another life and live in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with my muse Jody along with one little and two big dogs and a diminishing pride of two cats and other critters who come along the path from time to time. I retired one morning years ago when I woke up and said, "This is the day." It was simply time to do something new with my life. I had done whatever I did long enough, and now it was time to do something else. Being independent and no longer in the reins of someone else's driver, I believe I have found something to cherish that I never had before. Retirement may be dull and boring, but that's true only if you are dull and boring. But if you’re like I was, and am, I saw a lot of things as I went along the trail that I would have liked to linger over a lot longer if I had had the time to spare. Above all, I wanted to think about what they meant and have the chance to go back over them and figure them out. I'm not abashed to say that today I lead a life of real luxury. I also recognize that I'm a lucky boy. In the words of Katherine Anne Porter: "My life has been incredible, I don't believe a word of it." I am the author of the recently published collection of essays entitled Meeting Memory In The Dark. Earlier I self-published Words To Woo Her By And Other Distractions Along The Way; Tunes of Glory: The Slow Ticking of the Heart; Cradle My Soul: Glimpses Into Other Lives; and Unscheduled Stops: Essays on Love, Loss and Other Roadside Attractions. All are available on either Amazon or Create Space, a subsidiary of Amazon. Proceeds go to the Almost Heaven Golden Retriever Rescue and Sanctuary in Capon Bridge, West Virginia.