My 1st grade teacher, Mrs. Maxwell, sent my classmates and me home with a sheet of paper that had a cartoon looking brick drawn on it. On the brick were spaces to fill in. She instructed us to take the piece of paper home and have our mommies and daddies fill it out with the names of our family members fighting in the war. In the morning, we would each get to tape up our brick or bricks on a wall in the hallway with the rest of the school.
I remember very vividly that day. I can't remember if it was 1990 or 1991, but that day I remember. I walked out of the classroom with the rest of the Bus Riders. The hallway was filled with children all holding white pieces of paper with bricks drawn on them. I remember lots of fluttering and waving paper, all catching the bright sunlight pouring in from the open doorways of the school.
I remember being confused. How come they want to put my Uncle's name on our school wall? Then I was scared. I had heard about memorial walls with names of fallen soldiers written on them. Did my teacher think my Uncle was going to die? Was he dead? Why were we putting his name on a wall?
For all I knew, my Uncle was safely at home with my Aunt and Cousins. I knew he was in the military and I thought that was really cool, but that's all I knew. I couldn't wait to get home so I could ask my mom what was happening.
The bus ride and the walk home from the bus stop was torture for me. That day probably also marked the first time I'd had an anxiety attack. My chest hurt and I held back confused tears so my fellow bus riders wouldn't see. Once at home I showed the paper to my mom and let myself get a little more emotional, although I don't remember crying. We looked at the paper together and my mom explained that the school wanted to recognize our family members in the military because of the war.
"Is Uncle going to die?"
My mom's response, in my memory some 20 years later, now sounds like the warbled responses adults give in the Peanuts cartoons. After she said, "No," I didn't care about the rest but I remember her explaining what his job was and where the war was...warble warble warble.
My only knowledge of war up until 1990 was G.I. Joe related. My brother and our neighborhood friends had many a battle in the yard or in our basement, with dirt fortresses, bunk bed compounds and fantastic sound effects for the guns and tanks. We would battle, someone would win and then we'd start a new battle and later have a snack. Our wars changed in 1990. For a long while all of our pretend wars were in the desert. And we even ended up with a named enemy....there was no action figure for this enemy, he was a phantom enemy we fought and could never capture, which prolonged our games into the months and years ahead. His name was Saddam Hussein.
I remember that day at school so vividly because it was one of the first times I remember being fearful. It sparked my love for research and trying to know everything about everything. As soon as my parents described the landscape of the war--desert, and named our enemy--Saddam Hussein, and told me that people have jobs in the military, I wanted to know about each aspect. I would sneak out of my room at night to listen to the news about the war. I learned a lot about Saddam Hussein; I didn't understand most of it but I knew I was supposed to be afraid of him and he needed to be captured or killed.
Life goes on, doesn't it? My focus shifted as the years went by, he was always a phantom enemy to me. He was somewhere out there but I didn't keep close track. I would hear a news report here and there about the goings on in Iraq but my Uncle was home and it seemed like Saddam would be out there forever causing me quiet anxiety.
Fast forward to 2003. I was 19 years old, had been living on my own for about 2 years and was caught up in the responsibilities of adulthood. On December 13th of that year, Saddam Hussein was captured. For the first time in years I went back to that day in 1st grade when I first learned his name. And the obsession began.
Each new report made me anxious. I thought that at any moment he would escape. If he did, where would he go? Could we capture him again? In 2004 Saddam was released into Iraqi custody and put on trial. Trial?! Everyday that he was on television I was anxious. He had sparked my first feeling of anxiety. He had put my Uncle in harms way. He defined War for me. I almost wished they hadn't announced his capture or his trial because the proceedings were lasting years.
Between 2003 and November 2006 (when he was found guilty), I had held two jobs, gotten engaged and broken up, and moved three times. Suddam Hussein didn't control every day of my life but he was still this phantom enemy, just like when we played G.I. Joes as kids. I started having nightmares, recurring ones from the early 90's, pretty often between the time I learned he was captured until he was found guilty three years later. I would dream that Saddam was in the U.S. and no one recognized him except me. I didn't want to yell so I would quietly beg and plead with the people around me, "Please. That's Saddam Hussein. We can capture him if we do it together." Other nights I dreamed that he was in the U.S. and snipers lined the buildings around him and not one person's bullet could hit him. I felt helpless and panicked in the dreams, thinking "It has got to be easier than this!"
December 30, 2006 Saddam Hussein was executed. I didn't watch the video they released. I didn't care to hear the play the play of the hanging. I thought, very sadly, watching the news report, "How could one man cause so much destruction? How could one man hurt so many people and get away with it for so long? Saddam Hussein had in one form or another effected my whole life, pretty well as far back as I can really remember. When I learned of his execution I didn't cheer. I didn't burn an Iraqi flag. I didn't high-five anyone or shout that I wanted him to rot!!
However; I slept soundly. As crazy as that may sound, for the first time in three years (maybe even 20), Saddam Hussein didn't control any part of my dreams. I curled up in my bed, peacefully, although fully aware that he wasn't the last evil human being in the world, but that he was one less. My phantom enemy was gone. I smiled a little at the peace I felt right before I fell into a sound sleep.
Tonight, after hearing the news about the death of Osama bin Laden, my mind goes back to the paper brick, displaying my Uncle's name, that I hung up in the hallway of my elementary school. For so long, I thought that the paper brick marked the day a little reality seeped into my young life, the day that I felt fear, but now when I look back I realize the paper brick marked the day, or represented the day, that I felt proud to be an American. When the fear of losing my Uncle was gone, I knew that putting up a paper brick with his name on it was a good thing. It meant we cared about what he was doing. It meant that we were proud of him. All those paper bricks, fluttering through the hallways in sticky kid hands, represented a person who risked his or her life to fight Saddam for me. For that, and for those who have been battling Al-Qaeda for me since and before September 11, 2001, I am so grateful.