Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Call Me Al.
No matter where my writing career takes me, it’s hard to imagine there will ever be a night to surpass last night.
I was in Washington D.C. to mark the release of Operation Homecoming, a compilation of letters, poems, and stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, and the home front, in which I am privileged to have two small stories.
The location was the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress, which is just east of the Capital Building. The Jefferson Building is the kind of structure architects used to design, back when their education included a background in Western Civilization, and the canon of the Great Books, the works that enabled this republic to raise, before the advent of public education, its finest generation of writers and orators.
It’s the kind of structure where vaulted ceilings, gilded archways, and stunning mosaics, instead of drawing attention to themselves, put their viewer in mind of the towering glory that God sometimes vouchsafes to men. They put me in mind too, (somewhat incongruously, I know) of that song Paul Simon sings called Call Me Al because of the line that goes,
He looks above him and he sees angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity, “hallelujah,” he says…
When we climbed the marble staircase into the entryway (I was accompanied by my great friend, Keith Miller, Major, USAF, who can confirm I’m not making this stuff up.) the last of the day’s light was spilling over the dome of the Capital and pouring down the vaults of the ornately appointed arches, bathing everything inside the great hall in a warm golden glow.
When we weren’t craning our necks upward to gape at the ceiling, Keith and I shook hands with the luminaries from Boeing, the Library of Congress, and the National Endowment for the Arts, who put this book together. Among them was the Deputy Librarian of Congress, Don Scott, who greeted us warmly, and explained that he’d once been in the Army and served in Vietnam. Later in the evening we discovered that, not only had he served, he’d been a brigadier general.
I chided him in the reception line later for omitting that fact when we first spoke. “It was unimportant,” he said, which leads me to expect he was probably an exceptional general.
And that kind of humility and subjugation of self to the moment marked the evening. Dana Gioia, poet, and chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts began the official proceedings with a moving tribute to the men, women, parents and spouses out of whose sacrifices the books three hundred-some pages are distilled. In a place that has become known for bitter partisanship, that night, in that place, was a clear exception to the rule. Personal agendas were in no way evident, as speakers, regardless of their personal feelings for the war, focused on the people fighting it, and those left behind to miss them and pray for them while they are gone.
After some brief speeches we saw a short film about the book. The film, in addition to explaining the significance of the book as a contemporary record of the war, featured some of the contributors reading their work. It was funny and sad and profound. Throughout its duration, I kept thinking how extraordinary it was that providence had seen fit to place me in such company.
And it just got better and better. After the speeches and the film, we moved to the second floor gallery, where everyone in attendance was given a book, and where, for the next two and a half hours, those of us whose words appear on its pages had the honor of signing them for people.
Keith was good enough to carry my copy around for my fellow authors to sign. One of them, Parker Gyokeres, summed up my feelings exactly when he penned, “I’m so overwhelmed I can hardly write.” Between Keith’s making the rounds for signatures and my book signing, neither of us got close to the food they put out. I can’t speak for Keith, but I can tell you that last night I learned that apparently, given a choice between eating and meeting people who want to read my work, I’ll gladly choose the latter.
I signed a lot of books and spoke to a lot of people. My favorites were the mothers. Some were authors’ moms, and one was herself an author, who’d written about losing her son. The pride of these women in their sons and daughters surrounded them and glowed from them every bit as brightly as had the evening sunlight, which by now had faded to a deep purple band behind the Lincoln Memorial, and through which rose that enormous obelisk, erected to remind us of the sacrifices and humility of our nation’s father and first president.
Another book I had the privilege to sign was the copy that would be presented to the First Lady, Laura Bush. As I mentioned before, Paul Simon’s song was on my mind, so it seemed completely appropriate, when I signed a book for a gentleman, that when I asked him to whom I should dedicate it, that, when I asked him his name, he said, “sign it to Al.” I inscribed the book and thought nothing more of it until later on, when Keith pointed out that, while he may have referred to himself as Al, he is better known to the rest of the nation as Alberto Gonzales, Attorney General of the United States.