Radio Days

The car radio crackled to life as the wipers beat against the frosted windshield. I ground the truck into gear, backed out of the driveway and piloted the mass of metal toward Durango city limits. Still waiting for the almighty coffee bean to work its magic, I half listened as familiar headlines started to repeat themselves.

“Roadside bombs ... eight Iraqis dead,” the report called, splashing in and out of my attention span. “Shiite Muslim pilgrims ... arduous trek home ... .”

Like so many other mornings, the words started to blur together, I shifted my focus to the scenery and wandered off toward space-out city. My passenger – her blonde head barely able to see over the dashboard and hair up in pigtails – was much more attentive. She quickly stopped reading and set down her traveling copy of Walter the Farting Dog, her 6-year-old brow furrowing more and more deeply. Walter was soon nestled comfortably back inside her book bag, and my daughter Skyler asked, “Dad, did you just hear that? That was some serious stuff.”

Busted. I’d actually been spying slickrock on Animas Mountain and hadn’t really heard. And that was by no means an isolated incident. Lately, the news, numbers and counts have all started to blur together for me. You see, my bad newsometer peaked a few years ago. Given the choice, my head will wander elsewhere.

Feed me stories about miracle cures, innovations in carbon tubing technology and Nobel prize winning authors. I’ll even take a dose of economic recovery in my news feed – anything – just a little hope in the broadcast, something to soothe this bumpy road we’re all traveling. I’ve had my fill of roadside bombings, military surges and faltering economies of scale.

Life’s too short, right? Wrong. Luckily, someone who stands just over 4 feet tall brought me back. “Eight people, Dad,” my first-grader said. “And pilgrims, Dad. They were pilgrims.”

I was about to reach for my “Father Knows Best,” downplay the news and turn the attention back to Walter. I was about to advise her to keep our eyes on the Durango prize and think about the shape of local things when she dosed me up with some more perspective. “Gone,” she said. “Forever.”

Never mind that Skyler doesn’t know Kerbala from Kayenta. Never mind that her image of a pilgrim is an early American decked out in black and white and sporting a gravy dispenser. Never mind that she thinks Sunni is a mispronunciation of “sunny” and Christian is a boy she knew in preschool.

For her, that number spoke loudly enough. Eight was a figure that represented her entire, immediate family, half her class and the number of kids at the last 7-year-old birthday she attended. For Skyler, eight filled the biggest table at the restaurant, crowded the check-out line at the market and nose-plugged the Animas River Trail. And I rapidly realized that it should for me as well.

“Dad, how does this kind of thing happen?” she asked on that chilly morning.

But when this “patriarch” opened his mouth, he had no good answers. I could not explain why differences often mean a slip into violence. I couldn’t tell her why we are hemorrhaging dollars and lives in the heart of the Middle East. Noble mission of democratization or war for oil? I’ve always had suspicions, but couldn’t honestly say.

I do know that my child has never known a day without war. She was born nearly nine months to the day after Sept. 11, along with nearly a dozen other brand new Durangoans. The War in Iraq began just as she celebrated her first case of the Durango crud and eight months of life. And she took her first steps, cut her first teeth and mastered her first words with headlines like that one always sounding in the background.

And on that morning, she taught her dad a valuable lesson in humanity – a 6-year-old’s point of view might just be what it takes to end the turmoil. It doesn’t differentiate between black and white, knows few distinctions between rich and poor and favors neither blue nor red. Hers is a world where every life still matters, where humor is the best medicine and a new kite is more precious than a Cadillac. And hers is a world where the loss of eight strangers – innocent bystanders on the far side of the planet – still sends shock waves. As we bumped on down that ribbon of asphalt, I thanked her for the reminder.

Still, I look forward to sharing a happier broadcast with my one and only someday – may it be soon. That message already seems to be crackling to life, as the American withdrawal begins in Iraq. With an end to U.S. combat missions by the fall of 2010 and a complete removal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011, I’m sure our big headline is not far off.

When the last American comes home, my child will have lived through nine years of war in Iraq, and I sincerely hope Walter the Farting Dog is still joining us on road trips. I also hope, for her sake and mine, she’s still gazing out the window through those 6-year-old eyes.

– Will Sands