Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Post #2: What Really Matters

Warning: this post got very long, and is only tangentially related to hockey. It's mostly about all the stuff that keeps me up at night.

I love 24/7. And the ending to the Flyers/Rangers series was about as strong a conclusion to a documentary that I can possibly imagine. In fact, seeing Jagr smile almost always makes me tear up, and I'm not even a Flyers fan.

Never get caught telling a hockey player it's just a game. Never get caught trying to explain to him all the things in the world that matter so much more. His mind might well acknowledge the truth to your point, but his soul would be powerless to accept it, considering the immensity of what he gives to the sport, and the immeasurability of all it offers in return.

I really, genuinely love this statement. It acknowledges that yes, all of this fuss and fighting and bleeding and crying is over a sport where men strap blades to their feet and push each other around while chasing a tiny oddly shaped object. And yet, it means so much to so many. And I really respect that.

But tonight, I am going to get caught telling the Kings- and the Canucks, and every team in the league, and all of their fans, that it is just a game.

And I think we all need to remember that, myself included.

I didn't actually cry last year at Staples during the playoffs- not even during the home games, which were genuinely upsetting. But I cried tonight.

During every home game, the Kings feature a Hero of the Game. He or she serves (or formerly served) in some branch of the United States military. They come out onto center ice, sometimes with their family, and stand near the person who sings the National Anthem. The crowd gets on their feet and claps, usually vigorously, in recognition of the person's service. I always find it tremendously moving.

Tonight's Hero of the Game was initially a little confusing. There were three people at center ice- two men and a woman. But it seemed like the Hero was not there. The announcer briefly read through his service record, but through the noise it was very difficult to hear the whole thing, and I could tell the audience- myself included- was a little confused. I could make out that the person was injured, but I couldn't tell what exactly happened. People stood and clapped, but something seemed very wrong. And it bothered me for the entire first half of the game.

Later in the game, per usual, the Kings announcer returned to the Hero of the Game. Usually at this point, he or she is sitting in the 100s, with family, enjoying the game and cheering for the Kings. Usually, everyone stands up again, and the people around the Hero high five him or her, and it is a feel-good moment that unites everyone at Staples, even fans of the visiting team.

But through the din tonight, the announcer's voice was much clearer that usual. He explained that the Hero of the Game had been critically wounded by a bomb, and that he succumbed to his injuries at the beginning of April. He explained that the three people there were his father, brother, and wife. And he asked everyone at Staples to thank them for the sacrifice made by their loved one.

As the announcer spoke, the wife began to cry. The father and brother blinked back tears. The people around them- clearly strangers- held out their hands, offered hugs, and mouthed the words "thank you" and "I'm sorry." And 18,000 people stood to applaud, many of them- from what I could see from those around me- with wet eyes themselves.

From that moment on, I couldn't give a shit about who won the game. I wasn't upset when the goal was waved off.

It's just a game.

It's just a game.

I have really, really strong opinions about the military. Specifically, I think that every person in the armed forces should be cherished, and treasured, and protected, and used only when absolutely necessary.

Why does this matter to me so much?

I grew up obsessed with history. In this country, history is taught by covering wars, with a few other notable periods sprinkled in. So from even a young age, I spent a lot of time trying to understand war as a basic human concept- what is so important that people will kill- and die- for it?

For a long time, I considered war to be contrary to human nature (which I believe is inherently good). If two children disagree about something, they may yell, or scuffle, or even injure each other, but they don't kill each other. So at what point, as we age, does killing become acceptable? If killing is not generally permitted on an individual level then why is it ever appropriate on a larger scale, which is exactly what happens during wars? Is there a cognitive distance that grows as orders to kill are given by people not on the battlefield, and is that what makes waging warfare so easy for some leaders? Is it a good thing or bad thing that killing can be automated now, with robots and bombs and remote controls? I've spent a lot of time thinking about these questions. I've spent a lot of time visiting battlefields and grave yards and monuments. As the WWII memorial says, Here We Mark the Price of Freedom. As the Korean War Veterans memorial says, Freedom Is Not Free. As the Vietnam Veterans Memorial reminds us, every casualty has a name. And for every name, I've always wondered, "why?"

And then, one day I started to get some answers in the unlikeliest place... best friend's beautiful identical twin baby girls. Even though they are not my own children, and I don't get to see them all that often, I distinctly recall a moment when they were 6 months old and I was watching them play, and I knew, suddenly, as surely as I've ever known anything, that if anyone ever harmed one of her twins, I would absolutely f*cking kill them. And for the first time in my life, war on an individual scale began to make sense. I had an answer to what I'd kill for, and what I'd die for.

So now I understand, in just the smallest way, why wars might happen. And each war is different, and each soldier fights for a different reason.

That brings me back to the Hero of the Game.

Why did he fight? And why did he die?

Did this have to happen? How can this be avoided in the future? These are questions that we should all ask ourselves every time that an American solider (or any soldier) is sent anywhere, for any reason.

If you have any interest in thinking more about these things, I encourage you to read this old article from the Rocky Mountain News about how families of Marines are notified of deaths. It is an incredible piece of journalism. It is also very upsetting.

Hockey is just a game. Tomorrow (or maybe even the next day), I can go back to caring about who wins.

But tonight, I am going to sit on my couch, in my dark house, and think about tonight's Hero and his family. Because that is what really matters.