For a suitable donation, a question could be put to the Pythia and an answer obtained from Apollo. Since the words of the Pythia were hard to understand, the priests attending her wrote up the answer in verse and delivered it to the petitioner. The answers were legendarily obscure or ambiguous -- the source of the modern of meaning of "oracular," which is precisely to be obscure or ambiguous. One example of the kinds of answers Delphi gave occurred when King Croesus of Lydiaof legendary wealth, sought advice on the attack against Persia he was contemplating.
Man is a bubble, and all the world is a storm. He kept it on a shelf in our family den, where for years when I was a kid it roared down at us -- unappeasably furious or so I always thought at being trapped up there on its high perch, with no company except some painted beer mugs and a set of purple glass swizzle sticks.
Then one day it got broken; I don't remember how. Probably my brother and I were having a skirmish and a shot went wild. I thought my father would be furious, but he didn't say a word. Carefully, almost reverently, he wrapped up the tiger and the shards of its shattered leg and put them away in a box in the basement.
A long time later, years after my father died, my mother and my wife found the box when they were clearing out some old family junk. My wife knows how much I like big cats and all other varieties of predators and raptors, and she painstakingly glued the tiger back together and gave it to me as a present.
It's roaring at me again as I write this: The tiger seems to fit right in, but I sometimes suspect it feels shanghaied.
My father hadn't got it because he was fond of tigers or because he had any interest in nature. He'd bought it in Korea, where he'd been a fighter pilot during the Korean war; his squadron had been called the Flying Tigers.
My wife hadn't known that; I barely remembered it myself. My father didn't like telling war stories. He'd accumulated fistfuls of medals over there, and he kept them stashed in an anonymous little plush case at the back of his closet, where they went unseen for decades.
That was all part of the past, and he had no use for the past.
He used to wave off any question I asked about the world before I was born, irritatedly dismissing it as if all of that were self-evidently too shabby and quaint to interest a modern kid like me. What did he think about when he saw it?
Did it remind him of the distance he'd traveled from that war, or of how incongruously bland and safe his life was now, now that he'd amassed a commercial-perfect suburban family in the depths of the American heartland?
I don't know, because he wouldn't say. Whatever patina of private associations the tiger had for him is gone for good. If my wife hadn't rescued the tiger it would have been cut loose to make its own way in the world -- to languish in rummage-sale boxes and end up with new owners who'd never suspect how far it had wandered through the world to reach them.
But I have the feeling my father wouldn't have minded that; he never liked other people knowing his business. That's the common fate of mementos. They're never quite specific enough. No matter what their occasion was, they sooner or later slip free and are lost in a generic blur: It's particularly true, I think, of the mementos of soldiers, because nobody other than a soldier remembers the details of any war once it's safely over.
What really happened in Korea? I don't have the slightest idea; war just isn't an experience I'm up on. I was barely young enough to miss the Vietnam draft, and I'm old enough now that the only way I could figure in a future war is as a victim. The tiger can't preserve the memory of the bombing missions my father flew.
Its odd rippling surface doesn't correspond to the landscape of North Korea, terrain my father knew by heart -- which had once saved his life: Nor does that frozen roar speak to the complex of murky policies that had sent my father into battle in the first place, thousands of miles from home.
To me, the tiger is just a platitude -- if it means anything, it's a symbol for all the violence in life I've been spared. People my age and younger who've grown up in the American heartland can't help but take for granted that war is unnatural. We think of the limitless peace around us as the baseline condition of life.
War, any war, is for us a contemptible death trip, a relic of lizard-brain machismo, a toxic by-product of America's capitalist military system -- one more covert and dishonorable crime we commit in the third world.Rob Newton has owned the Cape Ann Cinema and Stage in You could write an essay and win Newstead Farm.
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