New Traditions With Delia Knight
Incoming / April 17, 2020
Playwright Delia Knight brings a beautiful duet of stories from the perspective of a sister, waiting for her best friend and Marine brother to come back home after multiple combat deployments.
About the Show:
Incoming showcases the true stories of America’s military veterans, told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. Produced by So Say We All, a 501c3 literary and performing arts nonprofit, in collaboration with San Diego’s NPR station KPBS.
This transcript was automatically generated. Please excuse typos.
0:00:03.0 Show Intro
So. Say. We. All.
From KPBS, and So Say We All in San Diego, welcome to Incoming. The series that brings you true stories from the lives of veterans, told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. I’m your host, Justin Hudnall. We’ll be talking today with playwright and memoirist Delia Knight. Mostly about her relationship with her Marine veteran brother, and how the war not only challenged their relationship, but effected their entire family unit. Delia has written extensively on the subject, including a full-length play, Disappearing Act, which debuted at the Diversionary Theatre in 2015, as well as several nonfiction pieces she’s going to share as part of today’s show. We were lucky enough to meet Delia several years ago when she began performing on So Say We All’s Vamp storytelling showcase. And she’s also a contributing writer in our new anthology, Sex, Drugs, and Copenhagen. We’ll be back right after this.
Welcome back to Incoming, and our guest this hour, the playwright and memoirist Delia Knight. Some of the things we love about the way Delia shows the effects of war on families is how she’s able to see it from everyone’s side at once, almost. And walk through the turmoil with fairness and compassion in all directions. She’s able to see the pain and vulnerability without sugar coating the moments when someone is acting like an ass, or a classic enabler of bad behavior. But the story of her and her brother also give hope for other military families struggling with post-traumatic stress, moral injury, and re-entry sickness. But Delia does a better job of telling it in her own words, and so without further ado please meet today’s guest, Miss Delia Knight.
Hi, I’m Delia Knight, and I’ll be reading my story New Traditions. The plane touches the tarmac and I drum the back of my nails against the window as we come roaring to slowness. Please. Keep. Him. Safe. One finger for each of the four years of active duty. I turn quite superstitious after my brother’s enlistment, in fall of 2001. Superstition included convincing myself that taking the same way to work every day, sitting in the same row at church, and saying a prayer when I am stopped at a red light. I turned certifiably nutso after his deployment to in March. Certifiably nutso included, but is not limited to, halting anything I was doing every time I think of him, which is more than I can count in a day, and counting ten hours ahead, Baghdad time. Then saying a prayer for whatever he was doing in that exact moment. Eating a meal, cleaning his weapon, going outside the wire. Convinced that if I just keep up with all these tiny rituals, it will all amount to his safe return. So far, it is worked. It’s Christmas day, 2003, and my mom, stepdad and I fly from San Francisco to Phoenix. Home to my future sister in law and her mother. We are here to celebrate the holiday. Jan is between deployments, having arrived home in September.
His first Christmas home from war, and he left a Middle Eastern desert to celebrate in a southwestern desert. He meets us at the airport and I can tell something is wrong. He looks more tired than usual, and rough. Not just lack of sleep rough, but battling demons rough. Probably a long night the night before. One of our childhood friends who is also in the Marines got a 96 hour libbo(sp?), drove over from Yuma, and is celebrating the holiday with us. I am positive that they were drinking last night, swapping stories of time in country, and idiot things they did as kids. They probably ushered in the sunrise, stumbling to bed in the soft light of morning. I hug Jan, he tenses up. Something is definitely wrong. I feel it in the thudding hand on my back, he’s compensating, trying to make us all feel at ease, when I know he’s not at ease. And he knows I know. It’s the result of years of terrorizing each other as children, and becoming best friends as adults. I know him like I know myself. Something is wrong. He smiles, don’t worry about it, everything is fucking peachy smile. I nod and accept that, even though I can smell the whiskey and beer wafting off of him. Being between deployments is a limbo time, when you’re not home long enough to talk about much, and so you carry it with you. No matter how heavy it is.
First stop, grocery store. Beer. He has the distant eyes of someone who has seen too much. After the previous night of binge drinking, and the whisper of a hangover, he had to start drinking again. Running out of beer meant sobering up, and sobering up meant answering questions. He needs to be well on the way to being drunk. He needs cigarettes and beer. Cigarettes, and beer, ever the prepared Marine, he was gathering what he needed before entering battle. Something to keep him busy, something to keep him numb. I stare at the window on the way to the house. Instead of lawns, there are rocks. In the place of trees with leaves blowing in the breeze, there is cactus. Immovable and prickly. There is both a stark beauty and a sense of desperation. Our bodies know the hazards of the desert, the lack of a water source, food, and shelter, we instinctively know that if we don’t act fast, we’re going to die.
We arrive at a one-story tract home that looks like every other house in the neighborhood. Jan cracks open a beer. The cracking open of a can sounds refreshing, an exciting start to a party, unlimited fun. It’s not. Not now. The opening of the can is a warning shot. The house is beige, white trim, rock and cactus in the front yard. The house is more formal than comfortable, there are few chips in the paint, scuff marks on the floor, and any of the hallmarks of a well-worn, and well-loved home. This is just a house. A house where people live. Dinner is polite, no one speaks of politics, or religion. We chew our food, eat slowly, and smile. The sound of more beer cans opening, forks scraping plates, and the occasional murmurings of, this is delicious, and thank you. Cleanup is all the ladies in the kitchen, searching out containers to put leftovers in, and gingerly handling the china, and hot soapy water. It is also polite. A lot of, mm, such good food, and, I appreciate the effort. Christmas in the desert is a long fuse. It is lit, and I have no idea when it's going to explode. As the dishes sat in the drying rack, we sat in the living room near the front door, watching television. Something holidays, something that has the potential to please everyone. I hear an argument, muffled. Someone trying to hide something that can no longer be hidden. Demons may live in the darkness, but they make a play for the light. They crave being heard, and it’s easier to penetrate boundaries when you’ve been drinking.
Jan storms past us, shirtless, his clothes spilling out of his duffel bag. I felt an alarm go off in my head. He loved his clothes. He took great pride in them. Picking them out, matching them. He’d lost weight in boot camp and during his first leave, he started buying clothes that fit his new body. There were many points during the day where I thought things weren’t right. Comments made, facial expressions that were supposed to be funny or entertaining, but only belied a deep pain. There were things I could second guess, or convince myself I was being worried, or an overprotective big sister, with an overactive imagination. Seeing clothes drag across the floor, trailing behind him, like a child trying to keep up with a swift moving parent, was something that made it real. The complete disregard of the things he treasured sent a chill up my spine. This wasn’t him. He no longer had the energy to keep up the facade of stoic combat veteran. His crumpled clothes were his tell.
Recipe for disaster. One part politeness, eight parts domestic beer, three parts whiskey, one part horrific events you have yet to develop the language to tell. My mom and I look at each other and go chasing after him. It is still hot, and we see my brother fumbling to get into his car. “Where are you going,” my mom screams. “Leaving this house,” he’s trying to keep it together, a barely held together rage. “You can’t drive, bud, you’ve been drinking,” my mom says, approaching the driver’s side of the car. With that my brother hurls his keys down the street. He throws them with such a force that I’m convinced he doesn’t want them to be found. Seconds later, keys hit the asphalt. The sound is empty. My mom turns toward the sound and runs towards it. My brother storms up to me in the driveway. He is screaming in my face. “I can’t stay here,” he spits out. Tears fill his eyes and he is clenching his teeth. I do the only thing I can think to do. I throw my arms around him, and I put my ear to his chest, listening to his heart thump wildly like a caged animal trying to get free. He pushes against the top of my shoulder, screaming, let go of me Del. My grip tightens.
The harder he fights, the harder I hug, not saying anything. “Fuck you, let me go, let me fucking go, I want you to leave, fuck you!” I say nothing. I just hold onto him. I feel the anger and rage and guilt, and shame, pulsing through him. It's alive, and separate, from who he is. He brought it back from this deployment. I wait, hoping I can outlast the episode. My mom comes running up the driveway and throws her arms around both of us. My brother no longer has any fight. He collapses into us sobbing. “I just want to die”, he repeats over and over again, a mantra of release as my mom holds him like she’s held both of us since birth. Her hands running up and down his back. “It’s okay, bud,” her mantra in response. We are sitting on the back patio in silence. We wait for someone to speak. Jan is the first to break the silence. The sound of a cap being twisted off a bottle and being flung onto a glass tabletop. The sound of a pack of cigarettes being tapped against the inside of a wrist, and the flint striking of a lighter producing flame. A deep inhale, and the rosy glow of a lit cigarette. “I’ve killed men, women, and children.” My breath catches, and I have to take a swig of my beer to swallow down the lump in my throat. My brother no longer has the capacity to keep the awful truth in. He’s too tired and too drunk. He forces it out on an exhale, no longer wanting to carry the burden of this himself. “I was in a convoy, and there was a guy with a gun on a roof. I took my shot. I hit him, and he tumbled off of the roof, as I watched him fall, I realized he couldn’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen.” He shook his head, and took a long drag. “I just wish he didn’t pick up a gun that morning. I wished I could have told him to just go home. You’re a kid, go home, and kick around a ball, just don’t pick up the gun.” I shifted my weight. This is what I waited to hear. What I prayed my superstitious routines would yield, this was what I knew was coming. Forced over teeth and lips in the exhausted exhale of smoke and awful honesty. I prayed every Sunday at church to bring him home safe, and if that happened, then I could handle anything.
I could handle any story, any injury, anything. Just bring him home. I waited to hear this, and when I did, when I heard it, when I realized what was being said, all I wanted was for it to be taken back. I’ve never been so grateful for darkness, drunkenness, and easy hiding places. It was a cloak I could use to describe my inability to handle everything I promised I was able to handle. I promised anything before I fully understood what anything was. “People aren’t on this planet anymore because of me.” We all sat in silence. The air sucked out of the space. While some families might be singing Christmas carols gathered around a fire and sipping hot cocoa, here we were. Telling ghost stories. Around lit cigarettes. With warm beer. It’s what people do in the desert. They tell ghost stories. They tell how people survive and how others don’t make it to see sunrise. Those stories highlight what we’re afraid to become, what we know without saying, that if pushed we will do anything to survive. That all the politeness will not put the genie back in the bottle. No amount of Christmas tradition and civility will erase what we all now know. People are no longer on this earth, at the hands of. My mom finally called it. “Let’s go to bed,” she announced. Before too many questions could be asked, before the sun rose and had to usher in the day with that truth, we went shuffling off to bed. I caught my brother’s arm as he was going through the sliding glass door. “I love you, bud.” I attempted a smile, and threw my arms around him. “I know, Del. I love you too,” he said, his chin buried in the top of my shoulder. The next afternoon, Jan decided he had to leave. I drove him from Phoenix to Northern California. When he got in the passenger seat I started the car. My mom knocked on the driver’s side window, her hand, two fingers extended, one to the ear, one to the mouth. The universal sign for call me when you get there. I nodded. She stepped back in the driveway and waved. I turned toward Jan. “Home?” I smiled. “Home,” he exhaled.
Delia Knight, thanks so much for joining us on Incoming in my living room, when we get to catch you on the weekend. I appreciate it.
Thank you for having me, I appreciate it.
So why don’t you start us off telling us what it was like growing up with your brother.
Well, we were more mortal enemies, until about, I would say I was thirteen, fourteen? And he’s three years younger. He went through a growth spurt, I don’t know, probably eleven, twelve. He grew I don’t know, six inches, and gained about fifty pounds in two weeks. And we used to have these knock down drag out fights. He eventually was just able to pummel me. At that point I decide for self-preservation reasons, we should just become friends. Our friendship started from there. And it really kind of blossomed when he, I was in college here in San Diego, and he was stationed at Pendleton for school of infantry, and he’d come over on the weekends to visit me at college. Eventually he was stationed in 29 Palms, and would come over on the weekends as well. That’s kind of the story. We just got closer and closer.
And what do you feel now were his motivations for joining the Marine Corps? As you understand them.
As I understand them, we grew up in a very liberal household. However, my Uncle was Marine, both my grandfathers served, so there was definitely a family dynamic of service. But we weren’t really, like, oo rah patriots. At a certain point in high school, he was a big stoner, and we grew up in kind of a small town, ish. I think just in order to get out of that town, he decided kind of in eighth grade, that he wanted to get out, and that schooling wasn’t gonna be the way. He brought up going into the Marine Corps, like in high school, and mom was like, okay, just graduate. He ended up, I think he was supposed to go in September 12th, 2001. So, right after September 11th. They delayed everything. I think he went in two weeks later, to basic training. It was kind of a shitstorm. But he wanted the whole summer to fuck off, essentially.
And how did your family react to his decision to enlist?
He’s always been kind of his own person when it comes to that. Like, so there was a little bit of a talk about like, we don’t want you to—kind of be in harms way. I think most families, that’s their initial thought. He was very much I need this, in order to mature. I need the discipline, essentially. We’re all kind of like, well, alright. Then we were very nervous after that. But it was probably one of the best experiences of his life. Even the two tours in Iraq, the friends that he made, just thinking of some of the stories he told. That was one of the surprising things, I guess, it wasn’t all this horrible, detrimental, tragic experience. There was a lot of humor. He told a lot of funny stories about what happened, and what transpired.
We’ll be right back, after this.
Welcome back to Incoming and our guest today, writer Delia Knight, talking about the impact of war on the military family. What was communication like between you two during his deployment?
A lot of letters. It was mostly letters from my end. He would write stuff back, saying he couldn’t respond to a lot of my questions. I’d just drone on about everyday life. He’s like, keep that coming. And we sent a lot of care packages. We were in a church community at the time. My mom would put out the call to all the church ladies, so we’d have boxes and boxes of stuff to send over. My brother was kind of at one point running his own little PX, and trading stuff. It was between the deployments that I wanted him to talk about things, and he just couldn’t do it. I just waited. I think it’s the most patience I’ve ever had for something to unfold. And I knew it would, I knew it was coming, I knew it was there. But he just, for self-preservation, couldn’t talk about it in the in between time.
What do you attribute your ability to understand the need for silence on these subject matters, from him?
From him, I don’t think he wanted to worry my mom and I. We are definitely ladies who worry. He was very open eventually, but he said “There’s some things that only the guys I served with are gonna know. I can’t repeat it over again.” When he first came back, this level of wanting to keep us safe, to keep us buffered, from those realities, it got to be very apparent, after awhile, that he wasn’t able to shoulder that himself. He started to become more open and more transparent. In the beginning it had to do with his level of drunkenness, what he was kind of spilling out.
He was self-medicating.
Oh yeah. We lived in San Francisco, right after he was discharged. And I was actually just telling a friend this, that we used to—on the weekends—go on what we called adventure walks. We walked the entire city for twelve hours, during those days. That’s when, I think this combination of movement, and we were familiar with that city, kind of opened the flood gates to be able to share things. Because I kind of likened it to telling a story straight ahead. He wasn’t having to have this conversation with me, we were just alongside of each other. It was almost like him talking to himself, sometimes. I think that kind of started the catharsis of okay, I need to get help. Okay, there’s stuff that I need to deal with that’s not just going to go away.
How do you go about taking care of somebody that’s trying to take care of you, by not letting you take care of them?
It’s an enigma, wrapped in a…um. I think it was because we knew each other so well. I think growing up with someone and being close, you have this separate language. And my brother and I certainly did. We still do, to this day. We just interlope on each other’s thoughts, almost. To be able to help, or assist, it’s like I knew when to come at him with everything I had, and when to hold back and let him figure it out himself. And when to push it, and say look, you need to handle this. And when to say alright, here’s another beer. It was this balancing act, and just, waiting. I think that’s the thing a lot of people don’t understand, that it’s an incredible amount of patience to just, wait, for a story. Wait for someone to tell you something, and not demand it. Because it just made him, like whenever I did demand it, it just made him clam up all the more.
It reminds me of something I heard Kurt Vonnegut’s son actually say in an interview, in relationship with his dad and his father’s post-traumatic stress disorder. About how there’s a time when a veteran really needs to talk, or any traumatized person really needs to talk, and there’s a time they really don’t need to talk, and they’re equally important and deserve the same respect. Do you find that to be the case?
Absolutely. A hundred percent. And it took awhile, just because of that circumstance, because of something so new. War or combat is nothing like what you hear about on any kind of news media, anything like that. You have this small (unintelligible) of knowledge, with what you think it is, and then this whole other world kind of comes rushing in. And it is, it’s completely different than anything I anticipated. I was expecting this fist shaking to God type of dark night of the soul, you know, I was prepared for that. I wasn’t prepared for, I really liked it. Or, this is a funny thing that happened. Or, we blew up this port a potty, or. Just these things, where on earth are you going to have this experience. And I think part of it for him was not a guilt, but this cognizance of no one’s going to understand those parts. People are going to understand the bloodshed and buddies dying and that kind of thing, and that kind of stuff. And have this face, that’s one thing my brother just couldn’t stand, the face that people would look at you with when it’s like, oh, you’re a veteran. Oh.
Exactly. I’m really concerned, so I’ve heard some things about PTSD. And it’s like, we all have. But yeah, I think it was an openness to just let him be exactly who he was. At any point and time. And if that was a drunk for two weeks straight, great. If that was work out like a maniac guy, awesome. It was okay exactly where he was. And that was something that my mom and I just kept reiterating over and over and over again. But, wherever you are, it’s okay. Just come at us from that place.
A lot of this process you’re talking about happened between deployments. Walk us through the story of his homecoming.
The first one, or second one?
Well, let’s go with the first one and go into the second one.
The first one, I don’t think a lot of people understood the difference. But my mom and I, since we were so close, got it. And it was his eyes. He just, there was something that wasn’t right. People perceive, like you should be so grateful to be here, so here’s a cheeseburger and let’s go to a ball game and all these things you think that person wants. In that first homecoming there was a lot of drinking. A lot a lot. Just kind of this, okay, so you’re drinking a lot now. And he just came out and told us, straight up, “I can’t talk to you about what happened because I know I have to go back. I can’t unpack all of this stuff and then go back, and be in country another seven, eight months, and survive. I can’t do it.” So we let it alone. It was the elephant in the room for those seven months, and that, saying goodbye that second time, and knowing kind of what he was going into, was awful. It was the worst thing. The worst time at an airport that I’ve ever had. Just watching somebody walk to the gate. And all of us were, well, that’s done. It was just such a—it was bad.
The second homecoming was a little bit different because he was able to breathe a little bit of a sigh of relief, but not too much. He might have been up for a third deployment, like he didn’t quite know how fast he’d be going back. But once it was clear he was not going to go back, that was when he breathed a little bit of a sigh of relief, and kind of started unpacking things, as it were. So the second tour as well, they were on the border of Iraq and Syria. It was just a different type of deployment. And that’s when he lost a lot of people.
Yeah. He felt there was more of a purpose the first go around, with the fall of Baghdad, and bringing Saddam to justice, and the second time they were just trying to stop the opiate trade over the Syrian border. He was like, we’re just getting picked off, one by one. One of his really good friends, was killed. That was when in his eyes, I think, it was just lost. It was just not worth all of this.
What did game over look like, witnessing him, his change?
It just surprised us, that when he went in. When he came back from that, it was this hardness. Just, this kindness was kind of gone. There was a definite edge and that edge was only exacerbated by liquor. You end up realizing quickly that there’s nothing you can do. And that was probably one of the worst feelings. There was a few other guys, like one of his friends was killed in action in Afghanistan, he took that so hard. He felt—his friend talked to him, about being in the Marines—and so he felt partly responsible. That this guy was over there, third or fourth time, and I think that’s who he is. He feels this responsibility. I think he had one friend, later, that committed suicide, but a lot of his friends have just struggled with how to deal with what they witnessed. The suicide, or death, that’s such a finite thing. It’s the ongoing care, it’s the ongoing figuring out what to do next, PTSD is a shape shifter. So if it’s not attacking here, something else will pop up over here. It’s like a giant game of wack a mole. And fortunately he’s married to a wonderful woman, who helps him handle that. Because otherwise, I think a lot of people are just at their wits end, with how to do anything. I think him having kids really changed the conversation for him. Because he wasn’t able to have the same kind of worldview, and he had two little girls. I think that helps as well. That brought him outside of himself. But he’s still dealing with how to move forward. That’s still a conversation we’re having seventeen years later. Sixteen years later. Yeah. And it’s gonna be, probably for life.
My brother Jan has a scar above his left eye from where I almost poked his eye out playing stick wars. I notice it while we, my brother, my mom, and myself are standing in the Motel 6 parking lot in 29 Palms. It’s January, it’s early morning, it’s hot. Jan is leaving for Iraq in a few weeks, and this is goodbye. More accurately we exchange every euphemism for goodbye. See ya soon. See ya later. Catch ya later. Nothing as final as goodbye. We take goofy photos, we crack jokes. And then it is time. The last see you soon. I wave, get in Jan’s car, and drive the 600 miles back to my parents’ house, crying. Waiting through deployment is ordinary and excruciating. It’s the ring of the telephone that goes to voicemail. The sound of a doorbell you’re afraid to answer. The ambient noise of cable news talking about troop movements and the repercussions of war. It’s Sunday Mass, every week, each hymn sung through a clenched throat, emotions that fills the muscles so you’re barely able to breathe, choking out his favorite hymn. The hymn, Dona Nobis Pacem, Latin for God, give to us peace. I pretend I’m moved to tears by the sound of the church choir, instead of being worried that this is a sign that something has happened. Something bad has happened. I bow my head to pray, hands clasped so tight my knuckles turn white, and the gentle prayer I was whispering has turned into something more urgent. The prayer that once sounded like a lullaby has turned desperate, it’s turned to bargaining, and then to begging. Promising to do anything to have him come home before you have any idea what anything means. It’s the nights I drink too much in order to quiet my mind. I stumble into bed, calculating what time it is in Baghdad, by tapping my fingers against the pillow. It’s the days when I know I’m singing the song solo because my friends don’t understand this type of waiting. The dread, the frustration, the worry, the sadness, the counting down. After the birthdays he’s missing, more care packages, more self-medication, I find myself here. In a different parking lot, waiting the final wait. In his letters home, smudged with dirt, he describes the heat, sand, and smell. He keeps it light, saying thank you for the care packages. Requesting more batteries, or fly strips, or chewing tobacco. Requesting you not send anything that melts, because even in winter, chocolate will not hold up.
Occasionally like a hidden track on a CD, he sneaks in, I have so much to tell you. I hope you’re ready. I was ready. I’d spent the last several months waiting. Waiting is a certain type of music. It’s the packing tape sealing up care packages, eager pens scratching against letter, writing a letter every day, longhand, which conveys the message better. I love you. I miss you. Stay safe. Not always in that order, but a catchy tune that I couldn’t get out of my head. All of the days add up to this moment. Standing in a too hot parking lot in the middle of the desert. I’m waiting, standing next to my mom, with a homemade welcome home sign. Tapping my fingers against the poster board. Tapping out the rhythm that is my breath, at odds with my heart, and it reminds me of the first time I sang row, row, row your boat in rounds. We’ve earned the right to stand in this parking lot. Looking forward to the wait, because this is the home stretch. This is when waiting finally feels easy. It feels like floating. It feels like the start of a road trip, the windows down, a full tank of gas, and your favorite song on the radio. Seven months have turned into moments. Yellow busses with squeaky axels round the corner and all of us, all of us who spent the last seven months waiting, push up against the chain link fence. Signs raised above our heads, calling out to the men hanging out of tiny windows. Frenzied yelling of names, tears streaming down faces, boots against blacktop. Men piling over the chain link fence, rattling like a tambourine. People falling into one another. The half the has waited, and the half that has made the long journey home. Fitting together, finally. When we return home, and there’s a giant party with more homemade signs, tables packed with food and coolers full of booze. People crowd into our house and backyard. Bone crushing handshakes from men, weepy hugs from women, and I watch him while he’s trying to keep time. Trying to readjust immediately. He looks distant and uncomfortable, even though this party is in his honor. And I wait for him to pull me aside, to tell me all the things he promised he had to tell. People use the word hero and I watch his face tighten and his jaw clench, like hearing feedback in a speaker. There are men he served with who didn’t make it home. And to him, there is no heroism in that. I stare as he sits at the table alone, drumming his fingers, staring at a far-off place I can’t see. After most of the guests leave, the balloons float to the ground, and the ice in the cooler has melted, bottles clink together.
And I wait. I wait for the things that were so important to tell. And it doesn’t happen. Not tonight, or tomorrow, or tomorrow night, weeks later, and the silence becomes deafening and I’m afraid to ask him how he’s doing, he asked me to go for a drive with him. He’s made a CD entitled Our War. When I ask him where I’d like to go, he says anywhere, anywhere said like a remedy, an anecdote to the heaviness. I’m listening to Grateful Dead, Box of Rain. Jimi Hendrix, Little Wing. Radiohead’s Karma Police. For a minute there, I lost myself. I try to decipher a meaning out of the lyrics. He spends most of the ride to the coast staring out the window, and I drive. Silent. I wait for the words, wondering what he has seen. Finally, the breaking waves are visible from the highway, and it dawns on me that this is his story. He couldn’t find the words, so he found the music. These songs explain long nights on patrol, sandstorms, breakups, bad ones, real fucked up ones. Songs about saying goodbye, songs to remember, and songs to forget. Before he was able to arrange thoughts into words he heard music. In order to understand, really get it, I had to learn the song. Combat is an experience that is carried off the battlefield. It comes home and infiltrates everything. I became an expert at waiting, and now I had to become an expert at listening.
We were the needle of the record player and the groove of the record. In order to play the music, we needed both components. Before I heard him speak of shooting people first, gathering up pieces of his friends’ bodies to ship home, the mass graves, I listened. I heard tiny symphonies of his finger resting on the trigger. The cymbal crash of a .50 caliber round, tearing flesh, shattering bone, and ending life. Now, ten years have passed, and perspective makes any song easier to sing. Now he is married with two little girls. The songs have shifted from Johnny Cash to Yo Gaba Gaba. [Audience laughs.] Less music to explain the past and more to build a future. Now instead of a gun, or a bottle of whiskey, or numerous regrets, he holds a ukulele in his hands. He invites me over one night to share a song he has just learned. Somewhere Over the Rainbow. He plays the instrument hard, and I wonder if it will put up with this beating. He sings at full voice, and when he sings “High above the chimney tops that’s where you’ll find me,” his voice cracks with emotion. I watch his scarred hands, scarred from the sizzling heat of bullet casings. I watch his fingers shake and fumble, knowing the journey. After everything, this was the song we were meant to sing. [Audience claps. Announcer: Ms. Delia Knight!]
We’ll be right back after this.
Welcome back to Incoming, where we’re speaking with our guest, playwright Delia Knight. I think that you really hit on something poignant, that it’s not the Hollywood dramatic event, it’s not necessarily the death of the friend, the hair that breaks the camel’s back, it’s the little cracks in the water glass that accumulates from frustration, and feeling abandoned, not having a tribe anymore. Being helpless.
Definitely. There are times where I’m like, I can’t be around people. There is an anxiety level to what could possibly happen. In order to make somebody feel more, normal I guess? But maybe kind of like they’re not so insane with anxiety. You just adopt that too. I would drink with him, for awhile that’s fine, to get over a hump. And there was a point where, I think after his second deployment, because we talked about living together through letters. And he said that was the one thing that got him through every day, was the thought of us living together in San Francisco, having a different life, just living the two of us, as adults. When he came back, he got real nasty with alcohol. There was a point where I told him, I had kind of an intervention, I said “If you continue to drink like this, we can’t live together. I love you, I’ll do anything for you, but I can’t live with this behavior. I can’t do it.” There was this time between being back and being discharged, and I think all these guys knowing they had to say goodbye to this crew of people, was just, I mean they were all acting out in a variety of ways. And he said “Okay, I’ll put a hamper on the drinking when I’m discharged. Please don’t ask me to do it now. I can’t do it now. But I understand where you’re coming from, and I won’t,” and he was true to his word.
That’s amazingly prescient on his part, that he knew this was the phase that’s gonna get me, so let me get through this, before we talk about change and growth.
Yeah, he is incredibly self-aware, I will say that for him. He was raised with all women, so.
Yeah. Exactly. He knew in that couple of months that he just couldn’t bear being sober and process through things, and I said, ok. So that’s been the tenor of our friendship. That kind of realization, and someone saying okay, I can meet you this part of the way. This is where it has to give, and there has to be conciliatory type of deal.
Tell us about how you came to decide to write about this, what motivated it, how did you approach the subject matter, and how did you wrestle with the idea of telling someone else’s story? It was partially your story. Not entirely.
Partially. There was no other story I could tell. I think with any type of experience like this, or any trauma that you go through, or any trauma that you witness somebody else going through, there’s a level of, almost learning a new language. Learning how to talk about it. Learning how to process through it. And this affected me so deeply, so profoundly, that it’s like I knew that I had to just, kind of pay homage, to the new language that you learn. And it was an experience that I knew my brother would never write about. For me, it was an outlet. Perhaps for him I was his sounding board, and for me, writing about it was my sounding board. Because there were so many things he grappled with, then I grappled with, there was no other way for me to grapple with them, besides writing about it.
Do you think it’s a fair statement to say that your experiences with him, watching him change and watching him come back to himself, led to a degree of secondary trauma?
A little bit, yeah. I think there’s all of these layers that you kind of go through, and then it’s this new kind of, eventually the wound is gonna scar. But you have to go through a lot of iterations of maybe you get stitches, and that scab falls off, maybe there’s another scab, and another, and, you know? Because you keep picking at it. That’s the other thing. This will never go away. And I think letting him know that, and letting the other guys that he served with, and like, some of the guys I grew up with that went in, this is always going to be there. In some form. It’s not always going to be the same. But you’re always going to have these stories, or this pain, and it might change types of pain, it might not be a sharp stabbing pain, but it’ll be a dull ache, like when a certain anniversary rolls around. Or I don’t know, getting used to a new chair. Which sounds trivial, now that I say it out loud, but. When you move forward, know that you’re not ever going to leave it behind. There’s never a point you’re like, well, that was a great experience. Wrap it up and put it on a shelf. It’s not summer camp. And one of the other things when he was discharged, I made sure to tell him two things.
One, we can build up from here. Wherever here is, we can keep going up. I don’t know where up is either, but as long as we’re moving in a direction. Also, we’re not trying to get back to an old person. I know that old Jan doesn’t exist. That was a lot of pressure, I think, for him to try to live up to something that just wasn’t there. By saying, to kind of address the ghost, to say okay, never mind, since that’s obliterated, we’ll just be whoever we are right now. We were able to release a lot out of the expectation of what this supposed to look like.
Having been through all this, what do you think is missing from the civilian consciousness that would make it easier?
I think what’s missing is a transparency to conversation, about what it takes, essentially. I think I was in a vast group of people who were wildly underprepared for what he would come back with. What demons, what ghosts, what he would need. For support. I think that if we’re willing to have an honest conversation about the totality of helping people. Yes, maybe it’s pharmaceuticals, maybe it’s talk therapy, maybe it’s walking it out. But it’s going to be, I think an individual thing, for everyone. And bureaucracies don’t lend themselves to individual things. It’s gonna take a one on one effort. People talking to people. I think as much as you can just let people be, and let them have their space, and let them come to you. And wait. Have patience. Which is true irony here, I’m talking about having patience, and I had zero.
Maybe it’s the story like the ones you tell that will raise that public consciousness, to make people aware of what to even be aware of. How to begin to begin.
Yeah, I think there was one thing, my brother would really, people would want to talk to him about his experience. And there’s this drive to really, from people, to ask if he killed anyone. And that was like, the big question. And he said, “You have the balls to ask me that question, have the guts to stick around for the answer.” And it’s one of those things, it’s such a voyeuristic question. That is a struggle for him every single day. That there’s no longer people in the world, because of him. It’s something he’s had to deal with every day, since then. And it affects you so deeply. You’re trained to do it, and you do it, and you come back here and have to deal with the repercussions of it.
Delia Knight, thank you so much for being with us, we look forward to reading and hearing all your future stories, and thanks for being on Incoming.
Thank you Justin, I appreciate it.
That is our show with our friend Delia Knight. You can read some of her works in our new Incoming anthology, Sex, Drugs, and Copenhagen, available now on amazon.com. Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall, our editor is Jennifer Pepperpot Corley, at KPBS Kurt Kohnen is radio production manager, Emily Jankowski is technical director, Kinsee Morlan is podcast coordinator, Lisa Jane Morrisette is operations manager, and John Decker is director of programming. Music used in Delia Knight’s stories were provided by the artists Silicone Transmitter, and Kambo(SP?).Incoming is made possible by the KPBS Explorer Fund, the California Arts Council’s Veterans Initiative in the Arts, the City of San Diego’s Commission for Arts and Culture, and the supporting members of So Say We All. You can find us on the web and learn more at sosayweallonline.com, we highly encourage you to do it. Also please subscribe to Incoming, drop us a rating and a review, it helps us out so much, you can do that on Apple podcasts, or wherever else you like to do your podcasting, we don’t judge. If you want to get in touch with us, we want that as well, make it happen, by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening everybody, let’s talk again soon.
Incoming is a KPBS Explore series that tells true stories from the lives of America's military — told in their own words, straight from their own mouths. Produced by So Say We All, a literary and performing arts nonprofit, Incoming features voices of people from all walks of life associated with the armed forces. This series showcases the raw, honest voices of men and women who have served in every capacity and branch of the military. If you're interested in sharing your story, email email@example.com.