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Don Iler’s Farewell: Out of your Element

Don Iler
The Broadside

“I mean, why do feel like you need that gun?”

“It’s an extension of my body. It’s a tool. It’s loud. It makes me feel safe. It relieves stress.”

“I just can’t believe it. When I got discharged in ’46, I couldn’t wait to leave it all behind. Let me tell you why you don’t need a gun.”

An old man sat across me. He wore a golf cap and a blue fluorescent polo shirt. Tufts of cottonwood pollen drifted through the air. I sniffled a bit and grabbed my cup of coffee. The little white bits made the patio look like Disneyland, giving the air a metaphor, the sort that literary types who attended Summer Fishtrap would jump at.

Fishtrap was founded over twenty years ago “to inspire good writing and thinking about the west.” It started as a conference of writers, thinkers and people who gather yearly near Wallowa Lake in eastern Oregon. It continues to this day and has expanded, funding education in northeastern Oregon, as well as writers in residence in many rural Eastern Oregon Communities.

I too was a beneficiary of this expansion. I won a scholarship to attend Summer Fishtrap, funded by a generous family from Wallowa County but I found myself surrounded mostly by middle aged women from Portland who were finally able to get back to all that poetry they had wanted to write since 1968. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but I dined next to many veteran educators of Portland charter schools and got many, “you should go to Reed and study English. I went there and dropped acid back in ’67, a bird shit on me, and it changed my life.”

The town of Joseph, up the road from Wallowa Lake reminded me of how Bend used to be: a workingman’s town that is on the cusp of being enlarged and gentrified. I looked at the ancient moraines and the old mountains and thought about birdshit and how it’s hard to escape it in even a remote place like this.

I eventually confronted myself with the beauty of the Wallowa Mountains and spent hours hiking along the Wallowa River and Hurricane Creek, knowing that I was in a sacred land that Chief Joseph had fought to keep. The rocks are different there, ancient and worn. The trees are of that in-between land, where the dry floor meets the wet upper land.

I worked up the courage to read a piece about hunting Sasquatch with AK-47’s in front of everyone during an evening reading, and the next day I sat across from the nice old man telling me guns were wrong. He had a great reason to hate guns. He came back from war principled, and with a divinely inspired reason to hate the instruments. I came back wanting to make fun of the whole thing, even if it did result in me walking through the woods brandishing a weapon to kill a mythical northwest forest beast.

He had a story strung tautly in truth and nightmare. I had a joke that only I laughed at.

“I hadn’t showered in weeks. We couldn’t wash on the convoy you know, coming across the Atlantic. And we came across the Rhine, the first unit to come over the last bridge standing.

“I woke up early that morning. It was a little cold but I swore I heard water. I needed a shower. And I was 18. I was invincible, you know.

“I walked over to the sound of the water, through these beautiful woods. Firs and pines, and this densely covered land.

“And there they were. This beautiful boy. Nice blond hair, crisp black uniform, a bright red armband. Shiny brand new German boots. He was so beautiful. And his friend, just as handsome with brown hair. I was only 18, and they looked younger than me, you know.

“They were there, dead. They sat there, in their beautiful Hitler Jugend uniforms with their gorgeous faces. And they were dead, straining their blanks faces towards the heavens of the black forest. And I got naked and washed up in the stream next to them.

“The thing is, I can’t get their tranquil faces out of my head, 65 years later. I hate war and I’ve tried my best to stop it. Mostly so young men just don’t have to see those beautiful faces.”

I finished my coffee and walked off into the woods. I tried to cross a waterfall and almost plunged to my death. Good people write nice poetry and good teachers tell you about Chekov. But then you hear water and get reminded about those faces, and language fails. And you understand and you don’t. You sit on a moss covered rock and watch ants crawl up your leg and into your boot. You think about moving. But why?

You may contact Don Iler at diler@cocc.edu

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