First Impressions

You can’t make promises all based upon tomorrow

Happiness, security, are words we only borrowed

~ Savatage, Dead Winter Dead

August 29, 2014

I was two and three during the Persian Gulf War. I don’t remember anything about it except seeing tanks driving through the desert on TV, but even that I’m not sure about. Maybe I remember the tanks from the desert wars that followed.

The first time I remember becoming invested in a war was in 1996. I was eight. It was one of the only years of peacetime that I would have. The Bosnian War had just ended, and my parents had just divorced. My father was finally sober, and I was just learning to trust him. He’d bought an album by a band called Savatage which was entitled “Dead Winter Dead”. The album was about the Bosnian War, and it was the first rock album I’d ever heard that told a story that I not only understood, but connected with. It was about a city called Sarajevo, which I learned was the capital of the newly created Bosnia. In that town, raged a war, at the center of which were two religions and overlooking it all was a gargoyle atop an ancient church. The story told of a Bosniak Muslim girl living in Sarajevo who fought against a Bosnian Serb boy (Eastern Orthodox). While the two factions fired rockets at one another, the Bosnian Serbs from outside the town, the Bosniak Muslims from inside, an old man went to the center of Sarajevo on Christmas Eve to play Christmas carols.

Trans Siberian Orchestra tells the story to this day, immortalized through their orchestral version of Carol of the Bells called “Christmas Eve in Sarajevo.” As rockets fall amidst the cello music, the old man is killed. The girl and the boy, who had stopped their war to listen, break their lines and flee together in an odd twist of fate.

The album appealed to my fantasy – the gargoyle sheds a single tear for the old man, and my romance – mortal enemies meet, fall in love, elope.

It also fed my curiosity. It was the only album I would allow my father to play in the car on the drive back to my mom’s house from his house. Every Wednesday, when we went to the library at school, I would pick out any book I could about Bosnia and the war. I would check them out and bring them home and sit at my kitchen table, legs dangling from the chair, feet just above the floor, reading the big letters that tried to put a positive spin on what I would later learn was a hideous thing. In the books I checked out were pictures of children, who looked just like me, with dirt on their faces and ragged, torn clothing. They were looking up into the camera like scared animals. It became an obsession. I would talk to my dad about Bosnia for the entire forty-five minute drive home, while Dead Winter Dead played lightly in the background. I spoke in a quick, excited frenzy, like if I didn’t tell him I would forget all that I’d absorbed.

I don’t know if my parents worried, or if they even noticed. They wouldn’t have talked to one another if they did. The divorce was a nasty affair, but I was happy to have it all the same. The marriage was worse. But because the divorce was less than pleasant, I was court-mandated to attend counseling. For what, I wasn’t sure.

The counselor was a man, and that’s all I know about him. I would be carted to his office by one parent or another at which point I would be ushered into a room. In the center of the room were toys, blocks and rudimentary abacuses, trains and cars, a Barbie or two, with her hair all in knots. There was also a big chair by the window. Every time I went, I would crawl up into the big, beige chair, fold my arms over one another and stare out the window. The counselor, therapist, psychologist, I’m not sure which, would ask me questions, and I would stubbornly refuse to answer. I would bite the inside of my cheeks and stare out the window. I’d think of Bosnia.

I’d think of the pictures in the books that I’d seen, of the children with hollow faces, children just like me, who were simply hoping for a meal, and I knew somewhere, that this was hopelessly ridiculous. I wanted to scream at the man that I was fine, that I was happy that my parents split up, that I didn’t have to see the beatings anymore, that I didn’t have to deal with all the yelling, that I didn’t need to hide under a table and cower or worry about whether or not the cops would show up. Everything in my life, in comparison with those children in those books, was perfect.

At the end of the sessions, the man would cart me out with his hand pressed lightly against my shoulder and shake his head sadly as if I couldn’t feel the motion from above me. My mother always picked me up, and she would take on a worried expression and wring her hands and follow him into the room with the toys, while I went and sat in yet another, less comfortable chair outside. The receptionist would smile and offer me some kind of candy which I would always refuse, and I’d pout and slam my legs against the chair and wait. I’d pout and wonder what could possibly take anyone so long to talk about nothing.

Sometimes, my mom would remember to pack my books, and I’d read about Bosnia while I waited.

Eventually, the court mandate was satisfied, and I didn’t have to see the counselor/therapist/psychologist anymore, and eventually, I stopped obsessing over the Bosnian War. There was a new war by then, we were in Haiti, and then Kosovo. At that point, I had grown accustom to war. It was the state of life, and I had other things to occupy my mind with – school, growing up, boys, my mother’s sudden alcoholism.

I look back at that eight year old girl reading books about the Bosnian War and smile at her. She had no idea what fate would bring her and how important those early lessons about that war would become.

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