You Know When the Men are Gone
By Siobhan Fallon
Literary fiction short stories
Amy Einhorn Books
It rarely pays to go into any reading experience with my expectations already in place. Those expectations might be confirmed. There is the danger, however, that other ideas or insights might be lost or not given their due weight.
That was nearly my experience reading the short stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone. The collection about Army families centers around Fort Hood, and was written by Siobhan Fallon, who was an Army wife staying at Fort Hood while her husband was on two tours of duty in Iraq.
The focus is on the women and children at home, although there also are powerful insights about those who are actively serving. From the opening pages describing how the colors and tone of the base change when the troops ship out, Fallon puts the reader amongst those who stay behind.
I had expected that reading these stories would reinforce my belief that our troops need to come home from Afghanistan and Iraq. And without Fallon being political, my belief was reinforced. Characters go through heartache and harm because the troops are overseas.
But this collection of stories has something else to impart. From the beginning, I had the sense of remembering the few months I spent on base as a tween. I'm the rare Air Force brat who spent most of her life in her hometown while my father spent three tours of duty in Thailand during the Vietnam War era.
In town, we were sometimes looked down on; in stores, for example, we weren't regarded as reliable customers. I remember a particularly embarrassing episode at the local department store when the clerk somehow found out Dad was in the Air Force and not employed at a regular dad job in town. She looked us up and down while Mom was having us try on winter coats and wondered aloud whether Mom could afford to buy the coats.
This was Mom's hometown in addition to her children's hometown; she was visibly affected. Her shoulders slumped and she seemed to become physically smaller as she quietly told the clerk that yes, we could pay. It was the only time I saw my mother shamed.
The characters shopping at the commissary took me back to our marathon monthly shopping sessions on base, trudging up and down endlessly long aisles and looking at loads of things we never put in the cart -- whatever we bought that day, including milk and bread, had to last the month until next month's money came through. There were nights we had creamed hard-boiled eggs over toast and didn't realize that was the only food left.
The characters at the base hospital took me back to other corridors that also seemed to never end and always being sent here, there, up and down and around whenever we went -- check-in here, records there, X-ray over in that wing, the examining room in another area.
Just as my mother had to cope and make do while Dad was off on the other side of the world, the women and children in Fallon's stories, decades later, do the same. A mother, uncertain if her cancer has returned and due for a doctor's appointment, leaves the hospital when her angry teen-age daughter trots off with her kindergarten-aged brother. Calling the MPs brings an ineffective youngster whose report may reflect on Dad's record, Dad is on base but can't leave because of trouble in the Green Zone, the doctor is ready to tattle on her because she missed the appointment when the schools' secretaries called about the kids.
Many of the characters are on the edge; their lives could fall apart if they let them, if they believe something other than the best of their mates (regardless of the truth), if they fail to hold on any longer. When the worst that can happen does, the character most affected is not left alone to fall apart.
Most of the characters at home don't reach out for institutional help, and it's not primarily because of possible strikes against the active duty soldier. It's because of pride, of not wanting to be looked down on for not coping better, of not being shamed in front of the others also going through hardships, of not being pitied by the others when they talk about you.
That's when it occurred to me. These huge institutions such as the military will not and, as they exist now, cannot, serve the individual. Yet the individuals and their families are required to give and give and give.
An individual can rarely give enough and the least failing, the smallest inability to go above and beyond because of other circumstances, the least attempt to bring different thinking or acts into the mix, are deeply frowned upon. The repercussions can be out of proportion to the action taken or not taken, in order for the institution to continue to function as it has.
It's not that this is new to me; I've seen it happen during the course of three different careers. But the impact of the calm way in which Fallon describes the lives of the dependents of those in active service (imagine how impersonal it is to be called a "dependent" and not even a wife or child or, gracious, a human being in one's own right) brought it into sharp focus.
And that's especially true for someone who believes some institutions need to exist because of the possible benefit they can provide to individuals in a more perfect society -- public education, improved infrastructure, public safety and health care. How can institutions continue to function in a personally stifling way when their existence came about in order to improve people's lives?
It's not like I have an answer, but it is something I'm going to continue to consider. But I'm also going to continue to be proud of the families who wait for their service members to return home.
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