“It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms…” – Mark Twain
As I write this on March fourth, I am reminded that long before this day, many have marched forth before. A lot has happened since the first of the year to keep me preoccupied, so there has not been a dawg letter now for three months. But let’s not blame it on the dawgs, or at least on the ones in my backyard.
The other day, I noticed clouds moving in quickly, but that’s to be expected since we live at the bottom of a hill. I’m sure the wind would travel slower if it were to turn around and go back uphill, but it didn’t. The dawgs were being fairly still moving only slightly to grab small pieces of the passing breeze with their noses. A nose is quite a remarkable tool for a dawg. It’s how they read their newspaper. It lets them know what has happened around here recently, and what is presently happening that might be of any interest to a dawg.
It also is used to predict the future. A storm was brewing, and they both knew it. I could see signs of clouds gathering to block the sunlight; the movement of branches in the trees, a noticeable drop in temperature, and feel the wind against my face. But they could smell it. My coming out onto the patio seemed not to disturb them, as they were able to ignore me as if I were just a speed limit. Usually, they’d rush right over presuming my appearance might be connected with a treat or permission to engage in some kind of fun, but not today, or at least not at that moment.
The March wind was stripping pink blossoms from dancing plum trees ruining the chances of them becoming fruit. It was just as well, as my small family wouldn’t be able to eat that many plums, anyway.
I lit my pipe, putting on quite a show considering how the wind was kicking up. But the dawgs paid no mind of it even though I went through half a box of matches and a vocabulary list that would normally cause a sensible dawg to want to hide under a bed. The matches were having trouble staying lit long enough to ignite the tobacco, but several of them flipped out of my hand quickly enough to burn my face. One landed with pin-point accuracy in the corner of my eye, causing a sermon to erupt.
Ashley Cooper and Cosmo Topper continued their vigilance with not so much as a nod or a tail-wag in my direction. So with little else to entertain me, I just stood there looking out across the yard. The clutter included bits and pieces of a fallen tree, some of last year’s leaves, sticks, the skeleton of a lawnmower that had been savagely stripped of dignity and any hope of revival by a couple of curious boys, what may have once been part of a magazine, and an old sock that would never again comfort a foot.
At the first clap of thunder, the dawgs shifted gears. With no small sense of urgency, they both began to move towards the house. As a finger of lightning switched on some unseen shower head, it began to sprinkle. Topper and Ashley followed me into the den, and laid down without bothering to thank me for holding the door. I’m sure they both thought my doing it would’ve been the only reason I’d come out there in the first place.
Once upstairs, I went back to my television. Some things in the news had taken over a part of me, and I couldn’t let it go, no matter what time of the day or night it happened to be. Saddam Hussein of Iraq had ordered the invasion of Kuwait late last summer. It didn’t make sense. Watching the television didn’t help it make sense.
At the beginning during a news conference, General Colin Powell was asked about his strategy. He said:
“First we’re going to cut it off, then we’re going to kill it.”
The strategic would position itself for what would become tactical. The coalition forces moved quickly to do just that. But as they moved closer to Bagdad, a good bit of the Iraqi army laid down their guns and disappeared. I watched little else on television for a while, then it was over. And for some folks, I’m sure it was. But for others, it might go on a spell. Some children live and die never knowing much else, but there is nothing new about that to the human race.
A good bit of the news had been about how the coalition against Iraq would fall apart if Israel was brought into the conflict. The Americans and British had to convince Israel to stay neutral, and that they guaranteed their defense. The agreement seemed made with the contingency that all bets were off if Israel was attacked. Such prospects as that appeared to be requisition for a real mess.
On the evening of January seventeenth, I was backstage preparing to address an audience as Mark Twain. I had intended to close with the prose/poem piece Samuel Langhorne Clemens had written in protest of American military intervention in the Philippines. It had been turned down for publication, and never made it into print in his own lifetime. But with some effort, I’d decided to keep it alive during mine.
Right before I walked on, the stage manager, who’d been listening to a radio with headphones, told me Iraq had just launched missiles against Israel. She knew how my speech was to end, and wanted me to consider how an anti-war piece might be received at this time. It was hard news. With great misgivings, I decided not to delete it, even if they would lynch me afterwards. Somewhere in the back of my mind, with the precedent of all the brilliant decisions I’ve witnessed by people wrapped in their emotions, it did seem like a possibility.
I stepped in front of the audience with a heavy heart, not so much about how I would be received, but with thoughts about three young sons in a world rolling out of control towards chaos. I had a memory of another war not so long ago, and remembered how all that I thought it would be could not match up to the ugly face it wore when I saw it up close. If I had a prayer left in me, it was for my children to never have to see it.
But that night I had to move my mind quickly back to over a century ago, and wrap myself in the persona of a man of letters. In his image and person, I had to be witty, to be thought provoking, and be entertaining. Somehow it wasn’t about me at all, but about the people out front and what they’d paid to come to see. When it came time for the last story, there was a lump in my throat so big I thought it would choke me to death. Later on, I was pleased to find out the audience didn’t see it, so some credit was due to the large tie I wore, or perhaps to my former acting teachers. It was a huge lump, so it had to be something other than my own doing to cause it to go unnoticed.
The audience was kind to me that night. The next day, the kindest thing was a phone call from a teacher who’d been in the auditorium the night before, and wanted to know if I knew about the missile attack before going on stage. I said I did, expecting to be chastised for my undiplomatic decision. Instead, the teacher said:
“Good. I think that took courage, and I’m glad you went ahead with your program.”
A day or so later, I received a note from another teacher who’d attended the performance. It read:
“If every student I teach could spend time with your Mark Twain, I believe that they would understand the beauty and depth of Twain’s words. How lucky you are to be Mark Twain for an hour or so; I envy you. Thank you for a wonderful evening.”
That note was the best thing that could have happened to me, and the flavor of it took away the bitter taste of self doubt that was dissolving my soul. Is it normal for folks who say they pray for peace to feel guilty when they speak against war? Less than a month before that program, people far and wide were singing songs of “Peace on Earth, good will towards men” all over the place. But right then I feared a desire for such as that in the face of “the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air” was about to be seen as an awful thing, and it worried me. So being fearful of condemnation, this is not the confessions of a brave man.
Until getting that nice note, I thought perhaps it would’ve been more courageous to consider the feelings of the people in that town, and conjure up other material to end the program. Though I had lots of other stories and material in the pigeon holes of my mind, maybe going on as rehearsed was just the easy way out. Because of the news received just moments before walking on stage, it wasn’t my decision to go ahead and deliver “The War Prayer” that was so hard, but just staying in character. It became one of the more difficult things I’ve done in a long time.
When arriving home that night, my dawgs were glad to see me. They of course had no idea where I’d been, or of the concerns I may have had, and they had no idea about war. They could hold their noses into the air to tell if a rain storm was coming, but other storms far away caused by a different kind of cloud wouldn’t make any sense to a dawg. And I suppose it is no grand compliment to the human race that it should claim to make sense of it, either.