It has been a long and confusing fight to get my father James Wesley Selby his Purple Heart. It continues, if not sometimes passive-aggressively. I helped my mother go through both U.S. Senator Joni Ernst’s and U.S. Representative Dave Loebsack’s office with no final word back yet on the delay process. Just before my father died, I mistook a shipment of medals—as an anonymous alert from the government in my email inbox—as confirmation my father had been awarded a Purple Heart while he was still alive, and therefore I told State Senator Amy Sinclair the good news. I also informed my mother. It was a bit of a letdown when we discovered I was mistaken, because you can only get kicked in the lungs so many times.
We were already planning how to have the award presented to him, worrying he was too close to death to appreciate it anyway. Even if my father had been well, he was not the kind of man to pin a medal on his chest or hang it on the wall. He was the person who did not want to remember. Killing other men wasn’t his thing. He was good at it, but it was not what he was meant to do. It was not his caste.
When a caseworker emailed me a while later about his military awards, I wrote back, “Don’t worry about it, my dad’s dead.”
I was not particularly pleased with some of the men at that time who grabbed the medal in their hands when they had not earned it, knowing the basic goodness—despite his many faults—of my father. For all the precision of bureaucracy, mistakes are made. Idols are worshiped. Perhaps the Purple Heart was just another idol.
But my mother wanted us to continue to pursue the Purple Heart posthumously for my father. War is all gore and paperwork. I do not understand what we are, or how we came to be, or why it’s worth so much wasted blood and ink—surely there are more creatures across the universe pondering the same thing, as the Native Americans knew—purpose cannot be condensed into plaques and medals. When we devolve into slogans, chants and bumper stickers, we are neither individual nor connected to the herd. It is a rare instance where denying self disconnects us from a higher power.
I recently explained to my wife Jennifer the synopsis of the Perennial Philosophy as expounded by Aldous Huxley and others as a cure for the modern disease: “Dead to self, alive to God.” Since she was on the other end of a technological device, I could not gauge her reaction. I think she was worried I might sell all of our possessions.
When I drove my family to the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines for my youngest stepdaughter Natalie’s birthday, the first place we hit was the gift shop. They sell green bags with the greatest beards in science history. One of those beards was of Thomas Henry Huxley, a famous agnostic—a term for believing God’s existence can neither be proven nor disproven—as well as a zoologist and Aldous’ grandfather. In contrast, Aldous was born a gnostic, it seems, appropriately enough in a town named Godalming in England. He died in Los Angeles the same year my father graduated from high school. They shipped Huxley’s body back to Great Britain. He believed there were steps—windows to be wiped clean—that allowed mortal man to glimpse the eternal. As the all-knowing Wikipedia states, “Huxley’s book [‘The Perennial Philosophy’] affirmed a sensibility that insists there are realities beyond the generally accepted ‘five senses’ and that there is genuine meaning for humans beyond both sensual satisfactions and sentimentalities.”
I keep thinking the paperwork is finished, that I have sent the final memo, form, and record from the doctor’s X-ray confirming my father had shrapnel in his body. Meanwhile, my two-year-old daughter Jasmine crouches at the bottom of an exhibit as I film her with my camera. I release a lever. Three tennis balls follow the invisible but observable grooves of gravity toward her, and she laughs as they bounce away or end up embeded in her dress. I show her I can juggle. She is not impressed.
Aldous Huxley debated the Indian caste system, which became a form of profiling unfitting an inclusive religion. It devolved to dogma. But in its best light, the highest caste was not the ruler, businessman or warrior, but the mystic. Alms were provided these men who spent a lifetime in the jungle or upon a mountaintop in exchange for insight. Their effort was worth more than money. Huxley saw the modern era of consciption as a corruption that mixed prophets with warriors, and allowed businessmen to usurp the role formerly assigned the priest. We have become the father from ‘A Christmas Story’ who clownishly thinks a lamp shaped like a woman’s leg is a major award.