Tall Grass

Photo: © Nadia Belalia. All Rights Reserved.

My brother Rand was the oldest, then four sisters, and then me. I was born four years after the youngest of the girls. I once heard my parents say that by the time I was born, they had grown to find child-rearing tedious. Luckily, as I was growing up, Rand treated me so that I would never think of myself as having been forgotten.

He was the only one of the six of us whom my parents called by his full name, Randolph. They had given us all traditionally last names for first names. They thought them sophisticated and dignified, fitting for some unnamed aristocracy of which they liked to think themselves members. Rand was the only one my sisters and I considered superior. His strength, his intelligence, and his willingness to share all that he knew, his protectiveness and his kindness especially, increased my love and respect for him. I was Bellforth, but luckily because of Rand’s example and insistence, I was called Bell.

If Philip Pirrip had Great Expectations, my parents had far greater ones for Rand. By meeting them Rand would embody for them their definition of status—one they never saw a need to articulate. Why should we have to? they would have asked. Surely everyone knows! But the expectations themselves were never simply implied or subtly conveyed. My parents spoke of them openly and often, announced them to family and friends in stentorian tones with confidence that they would be fulfilled. And for a time Rand did fulfill them, though not to please them. All-state in lacrosse and hockey, captain of both teams, poems in the school literary magazine, and admission to Dartmouth. At his high school graduation party, my parents acted as if they were the ones heading off to New Hampshire.

But a low lottery number took him into the Army in January of his junior year. To my parents’ shock and disappointment, he passed up an opportunity for an assignment that would have sent him to OCS and then on to Germany. Rand chose to be a medic. The thought of him going to Viet Nam set my father to cursing roundly and punching walls. Each time my mother heard that country’s name she nearly fainted—or pretended to.

Only a few days after Rand was deployed to the Far East, my father came home from work beaming and ready to fall all over himself at his own genius. “When we write Randolph,” he exclaimed to my mother, “we will ask for war stories.” He might have been worried that relatives and friends had been disappointed not in Rand but in him and his wife. He needed something to purge that attitude and at the same time to wash away his and my mother’s hidden embarrassment and shame. It was a way to make Rand the hero they wanted him to be. My father would be able to let others know in his now familiar way, even before Rand came home, that he and his wife deserved much credit for having molded him into one.

Rand responded to the first half dozen or so letters with stories of his Army buddies, of the Vietnamese people and their culture, and of the beauties of that country. That was all. Undeterred, my father continued to add his P. S. about wanting to hear some war stories. One day a package arrived with an envelope taped to the outside. Its letter was one sentence long with neither greeting nor signature. “Here are your stories.” In the box Rand had sent All Quiet on the Western Front, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Johnny Got His Gun, and the poems of Wilfred Owen. I think I was the only one at home who read them all. As I did, I remembered my father’s voice when he had opened the box. “What the hell are we supposed to do with all these?” he bellowed and then tossed it onto a shelf in the garage.

After Rand was discharged, he travelled the world and for three years rarely came home. He showed up unannounced for a few holiday parties or family reunion picnics where there were enough people to talk with while he avoided my parents. He did not spend the night, and he did not tell any war stories.

My father passed off Rand’s reticence as a sign of yet another virtue he and his wife had nurtured in him—humility. Those boasts raised more eyebrows and prompted more head shakes than I had seen before. If my father noticed them, he did not let them discourage him.

After Rand got back from the Far East, he did consulting for non-profits. He made a decent living but not enough to get rich. And that, he said, suited him just fine. The benefit of the job was travel, and he filled his time off with more travel. That addiction allowed him to indulge his others, fiction and poetry.

My sophomore year, a neighbor from the next block, Mr. Weinman, stopped me on the sidewalk and handed me a letter. His son Eddie was one of my close friends. Mr. W. hated nearly everything about my father, an opinion many others shared. Eddie once confessed that his dad referred to my father as an obnoxious, over-bearing gas bag. “It’s a shame,” Mr. W. had said, “that somewhere along the way someone didn’t knock him on his ass when he was blowing hot air.”

The letter was addressed to me c/o The Weinmans. The return address was in Brooklyn. “After you read it, you can leave it with Eddie,” Mr. W. advised, “in his room.”

Rand wrote in detail about the places in our country he had visited and listed many more he still wanted to see. “I’m going to take you with me on one of those trips. It’ll be a surprise adventure. You have to promise me you won’t say a word to anyone at home about any of this. I’ll let you know the details when I have them figured out.”

I was elated and so excited that I sometimes wondered if there was something I had misunderstood. I could think of nothing I had done that had singled me out for Rand’s attention. I kept asking myself over and over, and when no answer came, I decided to let the experience take me wherever Rand wanted it to.

He communicated the details of the trip to Eddie’s parents, and they in turn told me only what Rand wanted me to know. Mrs. Weinman explained that she was to tell my parents that they were taking me to their lake house for a long weekend. Later I shared with Rand that when Mrs. W. asked my mother if I could go along, she said, “We would be honored to have Bell as our guest.” Rand laughed and said Mrs. W. obviously had her number. My father said he didn’t approve, but that was all he said. I assumed he was not about to give Mr. W. what my father probably considered the privilege of arguing with him.

In the midnight darkness I helped the Weinmans load their car and hopped in back with Eddie. A few blocks away we pulled up behind a parked car, the driver’s silhouette in the headlights. I threw my duffle bag in the back seat and got in front next to Rand. He hugged me, and when I asked him where we were going, he smiled and said in an uncanny imitation of our father’s voice, “All in good time, Bell. All in good time.” I laughed happily and buckled in.

I had a question I wanted to ask him right away, but he had started talking before he put the car into Drive. It was some time before he stopped. He began by naming the first few side streets and main roads we were going to take to get to the highways we would travel.

“We‘re heading west. That’s the best way to go for getting out and away from here and toward where you’ll want to go. I’m not one for the interstates. They’re faster but too fast. What you want is fast enough but enjoyable. You can look at what you want and learn something and stop along the way when the mood suits you.”

I settled back, taking in all he pointed out and listening fascinated to all he said. He described the geography and history and peoples and cultures of places we passed and briefly stopped at along the two lanes. I stayed alert for a chance to ask my question. Rand kept talking, speaking so quickly that I thought for a second he might be on something. A vague feeling of discomfort crept in on me, but I was so happy that the last thing I wanted to do was come off as impolite and sour the mood. I let my question wait.

It was getting close to four, and the morning light was still more something promised than perceived. Suddenly bursts of red set the horizon ablaze. Rand slowed as we passed emergency vehicles gathered around a grotesque two-car wreck. A group of paramedics were hustling a stretcher toward an open ambulance door. A couple of them looked at Rand, and he looked back at them as if they recognized each other.

In a hundred yards, the traffic was stopped. Rand kept trying to see what was going on ahead. But at the same time his gaze appeared to be on something somewhere in a past that was not—and would never be—distant enough. He stopped talking, and his silence made me more uneasy than his rapid-fire talking had. He’d always made me feel safe, and though I had no sense of being endangered, I forgot all about my question.

We eventually got onto 35. I saw a sign that read Strong City. Once we were back up to speed, Rand started talking again. He covered most of the same topics, talking just as loud but faster than before. He sounded more enthusiastic, more intent on sharing, as if he might not have enough time to say everything he wanted to. I caught myself wiping my hands on my pant legs.

“Just a few more miles now,” he finally said.

Those few words proved enough, and my question burst out right in the middle of his comment on the vagueness of the horizon.

“So, Rand, I don’t mean to be nosey, but what made you decide to become a medic?”

As soon as I spoke, I was sure I had screwed up the whole trip. He had rarely shown his anger to any of us younger kids, but I was afraid I might have triggered it. Luckily, as was his habit, he paused to gather his thoughts, and then smiled with all the patience and understanding he had always shown.

“Well, let me say this. It was more than just an opportunity to piss them off. Though I felt like it after that going away party. I was disgusted with them. And more depressed than usual. Him thumping me on the back as if I’d won a Silver Star for him. And her saying time and again, ‘He’s going to be a hee-ro, our hee-ro!’

“It was more stupidity and impulse on my part. A guy on the bus to boot camp told me not to sign up for sniper or medic. He said those were the guys the enemy wanted to kill the most. Fewer deaths for their side, more for ours. I’ve never wanted to shoot anybody, so I picked medics.”

“That quick? Just like that?”

“Just like that.”

“Holy crap,” I muttered. I was not sure I wanted to hear any more.

He gave me a little time to absorb it all. Then he added, “There’s more to it, Bell but…. . Oh, hey, look. We’re here.”

We were at Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve and out of the car in no time. Rand was explaining the history of the preserve in detail and I tried to take it all in, but couldn’t keep up. My mind was aswirl in what Rand had said about his decision and with what it might have implied about his stability. I felt my stomach churning to the sound of gravel crunching beneath my feet.

The autumn sun floated bright in the early morning sky. We stopped a few feet off the designated trail in front of a wall of grass, the tallest that I had ever seen. It reached above Rand by at least a few inches in autumn yellows and washed out browns with remnants of faded greens in spare, random streaks. It swayed slowly and hypnotically, bowed slightly and gracefully righted itself. It hinted teasingly at patterns and rhythms, but as soon as one began to emerge, it was gone, to be replaced and then replaced again. It sounded like soft, stiff brushing—like breathing with the slightest rasp, like the hush of surf coursing across the sand.

“Hard to say for sure if the wind’s playing the grass,” Rand remarked, “or if the grass is playing the wind. Wouldn’t you love to know who writes the music it moves to?”

I listened once more and looked closer.

“It’s not just one kind of grass,” I heard Rand say. He spoke with a passion for something ancient and mysterious that he would continue to find new. “There’s Indian grass, something called Switch grass, and Big bluestem. And that’s just a few of over—what?—probably a couple of dozen different kinds.

“They been here well over 5,000 years, Bell.” He paused and let the weight of that number settle in for me. He said again, “5,000.” He sounded as if he would never get over it. He lowered his head slowly. “From Canada down to Texas, Mississippi to the Rockies. At one time there were something like a 170 million acres of it, Bell.” Again he let me absorb that. “I think I read less than 4% of it’s left now.”

The sadness and the tiredness in his voice were unmistakable. His eyes again held the look they had when we had passed the accident. He shook his head and appeared to get himself out of it quickly.

“So, what was I saying? Oh, so interestingly enough, I read that 80% of this prairie’s biomass is underground. Hard to imagine what that must look like, isn’t it?”

He pointed to the cleft of a narrow path cut into the grass in front of us. No one else was around.

“Come on,” he said quietly, steering me by the shoulder. “It doesn’t run in far, and we’ll be careful to stay on it. We’re not going to damage anything.”

I walked behind him about a dozen yards in. The grass surrounded us, touching us on every side. Rand turned around.

“A couple of days into training they showed us films of soldiers wounded and injured on the battle field. Much worse than anything I’d read about or seen at the show.” He exhaled deliberately a couple of times. “A few of the guys around me were puking. At least one passed out. I had to fight to keep it down. Scared shitless they’d send me to infantry. That’s when I realized my mistake, Bell. How fucked up in the head I’d gotten. In large part thanks to them.”

I followed him in as he gently eased the grass out of his way. It closed itself behind me. In a minute or so Rand raised his hand for me to stop. He wanted us to take it all in. But my mind was awash with questions about his frame of mind. I was worried about him, if only just a bit. While I dealt with that, another question gained even more urgency than my original one. I wanted to know what exactly it was we were doing here.

Rand had moved ahead unnoticed and now was walking back to me. I couldn’t make out most of him, especially his face. He lifted my hand and placed something cold and metal into it. It was an old magnetic compass, Army issue, from his time in the war. As I stared down at it, he turned me around, 360 one way and then the other. I paused and studied it a little longer.

He didn’t say anything, but this time he reached for both of my hands and bent his knees slightly. He used to do this in the lake with my sisters and me, so I knew to step up. In a few seconds I was standing on his shoulders. He asked me if I had the compass, and then with his hands gripping my ankles, began to move us ever so slowly around. The prairie spread out around me into the quiet beauty of the morning light. The sun played with it colors and shades like a kaleidoscope. The wind changed the textures like a hand across its surface, where clouds floated effortlessly. I had never seen anything like it. Ever.

“Oh, my God,” I heard myself say.

“Let me know when we’re pointing due west. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“Like I said before, that’s the way you’ll probably want to go when you’re ready. Your heart and mind will tell you. They’ll be sort of compasses, too. But west will be the way. Natty Bumpo knew that. And Huck Finn. So did Sal Paradise when he started out. It took me a while longer.

“I’m doing this for when you decide to go, Bell. I hope—I pray—you do. Before the two of them start demanding of you something like what they demanded of me. They won’t ask it of the girls because they want them to be like our mother. I don’t think they will. So you’re definitely next, Bell, and you’ll be on deck before you know it.”

I felt him bend his knees and I stepped to the ground. I turned to face him. He gave me a look that held so much that years of remembering have not helped me to decipher it completely.

“If it starts to get bad for you before you’re able to get away from them, go to somebody for help. I was lucky enough to get assigned to a military hospital in Viet Nam. A doctor there helped me out. I’ve seen a couple here since I got back. Read your Thoreau, Leopold, Wendell Berry. Maybe start with ‘Big Two-Hearted River.’ In between, search out places like this. There’s hundreds of them. They work their own medicine.”

He smiled his old smile and pointed to the compass.

“Take us back to the path, Bell. I want to catch at least one of the lectures before we have to head back.”

Tom O’Keefe was born and raised in Chicago. He has taught high school and college writing. He is a docent at The Art Institute of Chicago and an editor for The Prison Journalism Project.

Appears In

Issue 15

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