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Driving to the spillway, Todd and his father passed all the usual places – buildings filled with old carpet and taxidermy, trails winding down from parking lots to the lake’s shoreline, and the National Guard base – dawn’s twilight shifting the mundane, everyday details. As the countryside blurred by, he didn’t regret missing Saturday-morning cartoons. His father’s excitement made the summer fresh and new, like an adventure.
“The spillway hasn’t been opened up all the way since last year,” his father said. “Can you imagine what’ll be stirred up from the bottom of the river?”
The river wasn’t like Todd had dreamed before being woken by the familiar sound of his father’s shouts of, “Reveille, reveille, reveille!” Water from Saylorville Lake trickled down the spillway and rolled in waves against the white rocks lining the Des Moines River, a watercourse at its lowest since the springtime drought. Above the outlet and lining the shore, fishermen with long poles shifted their weight with the same rhythm of their workweek. Arriving after sunrise, they were in good spirits; father and son picked their way downstream with halting gates through the rime-scum striped rocks studding the banks. When his father pointed to a suitable location, Todd made his way down to the water’s edge.
“This it?” Todd asked his father, who stopped to carefully choose his footsteps down to the filthy, crusted rocks lapped by spume.
Todd’s father nodded, “Until the water rises.”
Todd, tongue perched on his teeth while he tied a treble hook on his line with a fisherman’s knot, gagged when he smelled rot at the base of a small tree.
“Must’ve been one of the Chinamen who left the carp there,” Todd’s father said. “Why would they care about the land?”
As the river gurgled and slapped against the rocks they heard another babble, this other the syllables of broken inflection shouted over the river. An Asian father and son conversed in their native tongue as they staggered down next to Todd and his father, who’d stiffened as the rapid, elongated vowels inflected off the rocks and water. The pair’s relation was obvious, just as with Todd and his father; like breathing, the dynamic was natural and ever present. When the others finally settled in, Todd’s father signaled they’d be moving up the stony slope to just above the highest scum-line. After hitting a snag while reeling his bait in, Todd was several minutes behind his father. Flies stirred the air around the carp as Todd listened to broken English speckle the nearby conversation. The other son looked up at Todd’s father, positioning his fishing tackle around a place to sit among the stones; the other father laughed and shook his head, but with a small frown. Suddenly, the son turned to Todd.
“The water will rise?”
Todd nodded, keeping his eyes on the gear resting against the quarry-stone. Just as suddenly, the son turned and relayed the message to the much older man with the same face. At first, Todd felt angry when the other father laughed at his father but, trudging up the steep incline, he wondered how the other son would feel when his father was wrong.
Water surged, making an open artery of the spillway. The river rose. The others squawked and gathered their things. The water crept quickly, first moving up and over the carp, then swallowing the tree. The Asian father and son kept ahead of the tide. Water lifted debris long held by crags and crevices, sending driftwood and styrofoam spinning and swirling in eddies down the river. Halfway up the steep slope, the son stopped for a moment and watched the river’s detritus rush past, then looked at his father as if seeing frailness for the first time.
“How did you know the water would rise?”
“It was on the front page of the paper,” Todd’s father replied.
“This is why you need to read the paper! What if the water rose and you couldn’t grab your things in time?” the Asian son asked. “You could’ve drowned!”
The son looked up at Todd’s father for backup.
“I don’t think he would’ve been hurt,” Todd’s father said. “But it’s a good way to lose your fishing tackle.”
Todd’s father finished with a chuckle, trying to diffuse the situation. The other father first looked fearful at the laughter, then grateful.
Todd and his father had cut bait for 45 minutes, a couple hundred yards from the spillway, when Todd felt pressure building – the bathroom was all the way back at the Visitors’ Center. He’d remembered to bring quarters for the vending machine, and the thought of a cool soda filled his mind.
“Look for bobbers on the ground!” Todd heard his father shout as he left.
Todd didn’t feel alone during his long walk back to the Visitors’ Center and adjacent public bathrooms because the other son walked back with him the whole way, 15 paces ahead of him on the other side of the access road. Although they didn’t speak, the presence of one like him, but so different, was like a lighthouse. When Todd returned to the river, the small tree he’d stood by was only identifiable by its top. Searching for footing in the jutting rocks covering the steep decline of his return trek, he heard slapping sounds, irregular and soft. Taking a minute to search the rocks, Todd found two carp flopping on a flat rock under the summer sun.
“Dad!” Todd shouted over the not-too-distant roar of the spillway. “Two fish! Someone must have dropped them!”
When his father remained silent as the fish gasped at his feet, Todd scampered down to him.
“Did you see who could’ve dropped them?”
“Did you see where they went?”
Todd squinted as he peered downstream, hoping to see whoever would so callously leave living things to such a grim end.
“I left them there,” his father said quietly.
“What!?” Todd exclaimed.
“Carp are an invasive species. They compete with native fish,” his father said. “But I didn’t want to watch them flop around.”
The river rushed by, turbid water full of silt and debris, making a noise as soft as it was big.
“Go grab them,” his father said.
Todd moved with the agility of youth, scrambling there and back in seconds with a fish in each hand. As Todd’s father set his pole down, Todd noticed a fisherman using three poles spread 20 feet apart fish upstream, two with small bells hanging on the tip. Iowa game laws didn’t allow for the use of more than two poles without an additional tax stamp on a fishing license, and had zero-tolerance for unattended poles, bells or not.
“See if he wants them,” Todd’s father said.
The Asian man felt their stares, turned, grinned, and waved. Most white people didn’t eat carp.
“Why didn’t you?” Todd asked, hating the idea of meeting a stranger.
The river moved through the silence with enough murmuring to fill a graveyard.
“I didn’t want to bother him,” his father said. “Don’t take all day.”
Todd carefully maneuvered through the maze of jutting white stone, the kind all uniform, broken up, and harvested from the same quarry. It took longer than Todd hoped to reach the man. When he arrived, his arms were burning from the effort.
“Here,” Todd said, his arms aching.
The man, sitting among a good deal of fishing equipment, gestured for Todd to come closer. He took the two fish and threw them in a large bucket, where they writhed and splashed in a knot with other fish. The man rummaged around the bits of garbage at his feet, letting out a small yelp of triumph as he plucked the empty soda can off the ground. Todd watched as the man tied it to his fishing line and cast it out as a bobber for his bait.
“He say anything?” his father asked upon his return.
Todd shrugged and shook his head at the same time.
The Asian man’s impromptu bobber had crossed half the distance separating them. Seeing the can bob in the water as if water-tight, Todd’s father peered into the rock’s crags around him.
“Aw-ha! I knew there would be a bobber!”
Picking the can off the ground, Todd’s father turned it over in his hands.
“This one won’t work,” he said. “It needs to be in decent shape. No cracks or holes.”
“A fresh can is what he must have been digging around for,” Todd said, looking back over his shoulder. The Asian man sat eating something in a plastic tupperware container on his lap.
“Dad, what was the real reason you didn’t want to speak to the man yourself?”
“He reminded me of a guy I used to know,” he said. “During the war.”
“What was his name?”
“First name: Victor,” his father said. “Last name: Charlie.”
“What if this war is different?”
Todd stood before his father on the lawn behind their home. Born in a rural town and raised on a small acreage in the country, Todd wanted to seize the first opportunity to escape, but his sleepy Midwestern town was slow to present one – too slow. Todd’s father stopped his inspection of the grass.
“Whatever the recruiter told you. He can’t promise a new kind of war. War runs him. He doesn’t run war. What did you come out here for, anyway?” His father asked with a wry smile he hid by ducking his head. “To listen to the National Guard shoot at Camp Dodge?”
“I . . .” Todd started to reply. “Yeah.”
His father shook his head, running splayed fingers through carefully manicured turf.
“You were in the military,” Todd said. “Why do you hate it so much?”
“Because I know war,” his father said, standing to smooth the blades with his foot. “You’ll learn to hate it, too, after it teaches you to hate. And fear. If you make it through.”
“Make it through what?”
A volley of fire crackled from a few miles away.
“Whatever it is they put you through–”
The next volley cut him off.
“Or through you,” he finished.
Todd’s father returned to running his fingers through grass like the teeth of a comb. He’d been battling crabgrass all summer, and the fight was won.
There was an irregular thumping sound in the distance, alternated with much closer smaller explosions. The first few moments following sleep were the best part of Todd’s waking life. War’s give and take was entirely asymmetrical – all take. Todd sat up to find his world just as dark as his dreams. Usually, the macabre details of his current situation had returned to him by now. The past weeks had been filled with exhaustion and hunger, ranging from gnawing to piercing, sort of like the rat bites on his arm.
The whole war made him feel sick – the slow degeneration of the entire species.
It was like waking up in hell.
His father had weathered his war much more gracefully than Todd, or at least that’s what Todd liked to think. His father had come home from Vietnam, an unpopular war, with his head held high. What Todd didn’t consider was how he’d faced many of the same obstacles his father had. Cropped hair once worn cascading down his shoulders had streaked salty. Pills for sleep and pills to wake. Pills had stolen what had been the best part of his life for so long, the few moments between awake and asleep. Now there was only nothing, then reality’s harshness, but no dreams from which to transition.
At the end of second shift at the factory, the sky was dark. Todd had moved to Nevada, 50 miles northwest of Des Moines. His father had gone to college at Iowa State University in Ames, after returning from “the Nam.” Ames had been a small, sleepy college town then, without any of the swimming pools with slides, bowling alleys, music venues, or hip college bars.
Nevada was more Todd’s speed. When second shift ended at 2200 hours, he’d head to a fishing hole ten minutes away to cast and drink until he was drunk and tired. When weather didn’t allow fishing, Todd would belly-up to the bar in Tip-Top Lounge. It was a haunt of the local biker gangs and factory workers; the kind of people who didn’t have a problem leaving him alone when he didn’t feel like talking with anyone. Ames was a college town, and more often than not the college kids’ presence ranged from nuisance to criminality. Tip-Top was the roughest place in town, but the lack of warm fuzzy feelings was a small price to pay for a reprieve from trust funders.
Soon enough, the summer would end, and Todd would join the ranks of non-traditional attendees of college. Todd wasn’t sure what to expect, if there would actually be Marxist professors waiting in the wings to brainwash him, turning him against God and country. Whenever Todd thought about the ongoing culture war, he couldn’t help but smirk. There was a lot more to life than politics, and college kids had some of it figured out – party and bullshit.
The National Guard base brought back memories. He remembered going through a divorce while he was overseas, told to come here when he returned, but he’d been turned away. Getting out of the military had been a lot different than joining up. Todd had adjusted well to life as a grunt, and his early career as a non-rate, then junior NCO. Later, after missing the birth of his first child on the first deployment and losing any love he’d had for the Marine Corps, there wasn’t much he hated more than the mindless, ameba-like thought process of a slow military unconcerned with ideals.
Todd was twenty minutes deep into a WWII veteran telling a tale as big in size as he was diminutive. Just as he was describing shooting down the first of two Japanese zeros from the turret of his battleship, something felt very wrong. Neck muscles bulged and eyes flickered like deer crossing a meadow. Just as Todd turned to find the threat, the old vet went silent. An Arab man wearing an Islamic head covering and sporting a beard. The clothes he wore were what Todd expected – reserved, professional, and traditional.
The Muslim turned heads as he passed, but not during his approach. It was strange for Todd; feelings from Iraq came boiling up from his unconscious to the surface. Before she had retired, his therapist had been telling him to try and keep an eye out for triggers – situations that agitated his PTSD. The way veterans shifted into a state of heightened alertness around the Muslim made Todd’s stomach free-fall forever in the embrace of his hips. Taking long breaths to slow his pulse, Todd noticed a veteran with a severe high and tight pushing a baby stroller and being trailed by another child. Unlike how the rest of the crowd had caged their glances, holding them until after the Muslim’s gaze turned, he kept his eyes locked onto the Muslim from the start. Todd thought about what it must have been like to go through the United States military as a practicing Muslim, how many times his loyalty and courage had been put on trial. He wondered if his own mettle had such fortitude.
The stalky manwith the military haircut walked by the Muslim, giving him a once-over – “eye fucking” once popular during his time in the Marine Corp. After moving past the man and gazing at the Muslim, who was reading a book, the clean-shaven man made a slow loop and came back around.
“This is my little girl, Brianna. You’ve met her.”
“She’s grown so much in six years!”
“And this little bean in the stroller is Ezra,” he said.
“How many more?”
“We’ve always wanted three.”
“You’re able to roll the dice for a son one more time,” he said.
“It’s the most I’ve gambled since I got married,” there was a long pause. “Since we got back.”
“Sure seems like things have changed for us, for the better,” Todd just made out what the Muslim veteran said. “But we’re the lucky ones.”
“You hear what happened to Zeb?”
The Muslim flinched, then dropped his chin to his chest.
“Zeb was a good man,” the man said.
Things had changed since he’d been a child fishing with his old man. The whole world had moved on from the war in Vietnam, except for the people who’d survived it. As the son of a veteran, Todd realized he was a witness by proxy – his father fucking things up over and over with the law and his mother, until she’d had enough. Todd had been given a choice: stay with his father or move to Denver with his mother and start a new life. For better or worse, Todd had chosen to stay.
His mother had told him it wasn’t his fault – it was the war. The war had changed his father, made his temper short and his moods black. Todd had never believed it was his own fault, but he’d also never thought it mattered. His father hadn’t chosen psychological trauma, and sometimes Todd wondered if he had a choice in how he acted out his trauma. Despite the fact that Todd shared so much with his father as a fellow veteran, it felt as if they were on different parts of the same ride.
The clouds were gunmetal gray and hung low when Todd stepped out of the government building into the parking lot. He was going to be late to go fishing with his father at the nearby Des Moines River. The way orange and yellow oak leaves, curled into shaky fists, would cross the road in front of him in a flurry so sudden and smooth it almost appeared to be a group of birds. Todd smiled as he drove, and children hauled waste bins to the end of their long driveways, one stopping to pluck a small bit of the verdant blades of grass. A young man in uniform waved him down by the dam’s entrance.
“We’re just getting a fire under control at the campgrounds on the other side of the river,” said the park custodian, who let out a series of retching coughs.
“You don’t sound so good,” Todd said. “Did you see an old man in a Vietnam Veteran hat come through?”
The man nodded and tried to answer, but instead was overcome by another coughing fit. Todd gave a small wave of parting and drove past the man slowly, cautious because of the air’s haze – whatever the fire had burned hadn’t been merely grass, judging by the air’s dark tinge.
Something felt off, the way it all seemed so surreal. There were a few ambulances, two police cruisers, and a firetruck. About half of the vehicles still had their lights on, throwing colored beams of light in tight circles. The air had mostly cleared by the time Todd had finished chatting in the parking lot with a family who had seen the whole thing: gasoline thrown on a fire, and a backblast of rushing flame.
Todd found the sidewalk his father had instructed him to follow to the steep descent down the studded embankment to a place just above the waterline. It was amazing to Todd that it was the same rocks from all those years before, just ground down by the world. Although his father had continued fishing the river, Todd had been too busy with life to fish during high school or the service. Only now, with nothing but college classes to worry about, did it feel like he had the time.
As Todd walked up to the edge of the riverbank covered in rocks, he thought about how his father would want to talk about all the excitement. This sort of thing didn’t happen every day. Usually, the most drama was couples fighting at a campsite, or back in the day when Todd and his pot-smoking buddies rode mopeds around the gate and down to the river when the area was closed due to flooding and were chased out by DNR (Department of Natural Resources) trucks.
Like a fever slow to come on, Todd felt a tingle somewhere behind his brow. Instinctively, shifted his weight to the balls of his feet. But there was nowhere to run, stateside. Back in the shit, there had been times he and his squad could feel danger. Usually, they thought it was someone staring down a scope at them, but whatever it was, it meant RUN. There were times mortars rocked the ground they’d just occupied, and other instances when nothing happened, leaving them to wonder.
Something about the spillway drew Todd’s gaze. A lanky kid leaning over the railing trying to grab his sunglasses teetered on the handrail. The boy’s father called out to him in a language that seemed pure inflection, a tongue Todd couldn’t begin to understand. The spillway was half open, generating enough current to sweep away even the strongest swimmer. When the boy teetered too far forward, Todd started his run toward the river. Moving over the grass and into the rock field on the riverbank took what felt like eternity in its entirety. The boy went in ass over teakettle, having totally lost any semblance of wherewithal soon after beginning a descent that now seemed far too short to Todd. When his attention turned forward, he realized his father was up and moving.
Across the river, some of the first responders reacted. One ran back to his cruiser while two made their way to the rocks, pointing and shouting for the boy to swim toward them as they tossed their jackets to the side, kicked off boots and tried to hop down the rocky embankment. The shouting was confusing the sucking, sputtering, and coughing boy who had panic all over his face.
Todd couldn’t move fast enough without tumbling down the rocks. His father called to the boy several times in a language Todd didn’t recognize. At first, Todd couldn’t believe his ears. He’d never heard his father speak anything but English. Whether or not his father had any depth of fluency or only knew a few simple phrases, Todd didn’t know. The young man’s long arms started to paddle in the direction of Todd’s side of the river, the look of recognition on his face unmistakable. The lanky figure’s arms and legs were frantically kicking and stroking, but he was pulled under by the current. Todd’s father yelled something else in the strange language, then dove in and under the water. Todd followed his father in, pulse thudding loudly in his ears.
The water was turbid, and Todd found it was impossible to see more than a few feet in the murky water. The current dragged him below the surface and propelled him downstream. His testicles crawled up into his stomach as his body reacted viscerally to the danger. The blackness surrounding Todd was terrifying, and the cold sapped his strength. For a moment, Todd was tangled up in the river bottom’s vegetation, until the current pulled him away. Lungs burning, Todd kicked off the bottom and put all his might into swimming to the surface. When he reached air, Todd gasped and started to sidestroke to shore.
Looking upriver, Todd could see the young man sitting on a rock with his head between his legs, puking. Todd felt nauseous as well, having swallowed river water filled with silt and other small debris. The current had taken him 50 yards downstream. Sweeping the riverbanks with his eyes, Todd realized his father hadn’t made it out. The first responders were running downstream on the other side of the river from Todd; by the way they were looking the water and riverbank over, it was obvious they were looking for his father.
Later, when all hope had been exhausted and people were gathered at the emergency vehicles, the lanky young man told Tom he’d felt someone pushing him toward the surface. Whether it was imagined or really his dad saving the day, he’d never know. Watching the river, he knew his father would be proud of what they’d done that day. It was a good death, one with which he’d been intimately involved. It occurred to Todd that in death he was much closer to his father than he had been in life. Turning his face to the sky, he inhaled deeply. The day was beautiful. Perhaps it was a good day to die for the right reasons. Maybe in saving the young man his father had saved himself.
Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He's earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Rumpus, ESPN, the 2017 Best American Essays, and The New York Times, among other publications. His memoir about the war in Iraq, Musalaheen, stands in stark contrast to other narratives about Iraq in both content and quality. Jason lives and works in Denver. Much of his writing can be found at jasonarment.com