Drop Your Helmet and Howl (Part 6 of 6)
A night spent drinking with young veterans suffering from PTSD
Something called “the Oklahoma Standard” became known throughout the world. It means resilience in the face of adversity. It means a strength and compassion that will not be defeated.
-Former Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry, in his State of the State, 2005
Kyle and Fielding are still asleep when I walk out of Caswell’s room in the morning. Neither had gone to sleep in their own beds. Instead they are both on the couch in their living room, lying in opposite directions so that each man’s feet are by the other’s head. Fielding’s suitcase sits by the door, the only sign that the soldier will be on a plane to a foreign country in a matter of hours.
When we had arrived home the night before, the room had been moderately clean. Now, clothes are scattered everywhere, a puddle of spilled water sits on the coffee table. And beside Fielding is a vintage 30–30 rifle, lying near where his right hand drapes off the couch. I try to clean the room a bit, collecting the clothes into a pile on their armchair. Underneath my cousin’s t-shirt sits an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. I find myself laughing and shaking my head, unsure of how else to respond. I wipe up the spilled water and leave a note on the coffee table, letting Kyle know I am going to a local coffee shop to grab breakfast and will catch up with him after he has dropped Fielding off at the airport. As I am headed out the door, I am stopped by a picture of Kyle and his dad, James.
It must have been taken shortly after Kyle returned from his first tour in Afghanistan. In it he is still muscular, tan from the months overseas. He is growing a beard and allowing his hair to grow out for the first time since he had enrolled in military school at 16. James and Kyle stand by a red ’66 Ford Mustang, Kyle leaning against the car while James stands, hunched, with his hands hanging at his sides, unsure of their place. Father and son are smiling, but there is space between them. They stand four feet apart, so that, if you did not know them, it would appear as though these two men were merely acquaintances.
James and Beth aren’t Kyle’s biological parents. He was adopted at birth. Growing up I knew he was adopted but I never felt as though he were any less a part of the family than any of my other cousins. He shares similar features with his adoptive parents and even looks a lot like our grandfather so it can even be hard to remember that we aren’t related by blood. But in Kyle’s mind he never quite fit. And because of this he began to build up fictions in his mind of who he really was. His parents at some point told him that his biological mother was Irish and Kyle quickly became infatuated with Ireland. He even went so far as to get a tattoo of the Irish flag on his right arm. But because he felt this connection with his biology he seemed to pull away from our family, to distance himself. Because the family that he knew was out there, in his mind, was so much more.
When he turned eighteen, however, he didn’t try to contact or find the parents who had put him up for adoption. When I asked why, he said, “You gotta understand, I mean James is still my dad. My parents raised me, y’know? They’re my real parents. I guess I just didn’t feel like I needed to meet my biological family at the time. I do now though.”
He was halfway through his tour when he decided he needed to know who his parents were. He and his platoon had been sent on patrol and found themselves pinned down by enemy fire. What was supposed to be a mission only requiring a few hours ended up being a turn-and-burn fight through the night. When they returned, shaken and tired, but alive, the sun was just coming up over the horizon. He remembers sliding into his bed and, as he fell asleep, thinking he didn’t want to die without knowing who he was.
Kyle was put in touch with the adoption agency who gave him what information they had. They knew the name of his mother and father, but informed him that they had no way of contacting his mother and his father had not been notified that Kyle even existed. But Kyle for the first time knew the names of his biological parents. Angie Chambers and Jackson Friar.
The lady he was in contact with also included something neither Kyle nor James and Beth had known. His mother Angie was in fact Irish, but she was also half Creek Indian. It was something she had hidden from the agency, and something she hides in her everyday life as well. But this meant that Kyle never should have been placed with James and Beth, never should have been a part of my family. According to the Indian Child Welfare Act, he should have been placed with a Native American couple a raised in a family that would keep him connected to his roots. This admission makes up a significant portion of the email Kyle received, but in all of the conversations we’ve had, he’s never mentioned it once. When he first told me about Angie he said she was fully Irish. It wasn’t until I read the email myself that I found out my cousin’s roots in Tulsa are much deeper than my own.
While I’m eating breakfast at the Phoenix Café in downtown Tulsa, I call Kyle. He’s on his way to the airport, I can hear Fielding yelling at me through the phone, but he tells me he’ll send me the address of his work so I can meet up with him. He works at a plant that makes medical imaging machines and when I arrive, he’s the only one there. He gives me a tour, shows me the various stations where they build the machines, takes me through the front offices, shows me the back room where his boss lets him store his motorcycle. When we get to his locker he smiles and opens it. After a few minutes of digging through it, he pulls out a manila envelope and hands it to me.
“Just take a look at this, man,” he says. “But be careful with it.”
When I open it later, I shake out a thick packet of papers. The first two pages are worn and creased, dirt jammed into the folds. They are a printout of the first email he received from the agency, covered in his scribbles of various phone numbers and contact information. But on the back of the first page, in black sharpie, is a simple sentence in clear handwriting. Written while he was in Afghanistan, the phrase reads, “My spot in the world.”
The phone number that the adoption agency had on file for Kyle’s mother had been disconnected and there was no email address. So from his base in Afghanistan, Kyle hired a private investigator to find his mother. Two weeks went by without any new information. And then, in the Spring of 2012, Kyle received an email with a 93 page attachment detailing everyone his mother had ever known, everywhere she had lived, and most importantly, a email to contact her with. And at the age of 23, when he returned home from war, Kyle met his birth mother for the first time.
“She’s a whore,” was the first thing he ever said to me about her. “Angie? Yeah, skanky whore. She’s from Ireland. She’s nuts. I took her to a bar with me and she beat some girl up in the parking lot. Got kicked out. Still has a warrant out to this day.”
Things with his mom went south quickly. At first she texted him often, telling him how happy she was to have found him. But soon she began asking for money, began fighting with Kyle. He hasn’t seen her in person since driving her home when she called him for a sober ride after drinking too much at a bar. In the car on the way home they began arguing about how Kyle saw her treat her daughter, his new sister, Jaylin, and she yelled at him to shut up. They were both silent until they pulled into her driveway.
As she got out of Kyle’s car she turned to him and said, “You know, you’re nothing special. You’re just the abortion that got away.”
Kyle closes his locker and we walk back into the warehouse’s main office. A man is standing a the counter, hitting the side of the coffee machine. After a few solid slaps, the machine turns on and he begins scooping Folgers coffee into the top. When he finally turns around, there is a moment in which I see two of my cousin in the same room. But then the man’s features shift, grow older, a little softer. He walks forward and extends his hand. “Jackson Friar,” he says, and for the first time in my life I meet my cousin’s real dad.
Jackson Friar and Angie Chambers spent exactly eight hours together. He never knew she had a son, never knew she put him up for adoption. To him, Angie Chambers was a part of his past he wanted to forget, his “wild and crazy” years, as he calls it. He was working as a bartender at the time, trying to save money. A few years after Kyle was born, Jackson and his brother started a manufacturing business, building medical machines and selling them all over the Midwest. He married a Cherokee girl, settled down. They eventually had a son, and later a daughter. He coasted into middle age happily. His business was successful, his family was happy. He and his brother had dreams of eventually selling the business and buying a place on the beach, living out their days fishing and grilling.
When he received a Facebook message from a guy named Kyle Allen that said “Hey, you remember a girl named Angie Chambers from a few years back?” He didn’t give it a second thought. He didn’t remember the name, figured the guy was mistaken, and ignored the message.
A year later a second message came, this time much more direct. Kyle informed him that he was his son. He provided scans of documents to prove it. And when Jackson looked at the photos of Kyle there was little doubt they were related. The two could be twins if they were closer in age.
When Kyle talks about his dad, his face always lights up. He has been completely accepted by the Friar family. Jackson and his brother Dave brought Kyle into their business. Jackson’s kids think of Kyle as their older brother. In fact, his little sister thinks Kyle was always a part of their family, he was just at war when she was born.
When I watch Kyle interact with this new family I can see he has truly found a home. He is at ease around his dad and his uncle, the stress that constantly hangs over him is gone. He laughs along with their jokes, pesters them and hugs them in turn. He acts like a son in a way I’ve never seen him act around James. He acts like he’s finally come home.
Perhaps what made the transition easier is that he has always been able to create a home out of the situation he finds himself in. He joined the military and found a brother in Fielding. He and the other regulars of the Twisted Lizard have adopted each other, look out for each other, and call each other family. His place in the world wasn’t clearly set out for him so it was up to Kyle to stake his claim, to climb to the spot he wanted and declare it his own.
He has brought a fire with him wherever he goes, stopping and lighting camp fires in many spots, warming others with his own light. And finally he has found a place where the fire has taken hold, has grown and become permanent. If he were to return home today, it would not just be James and Beth waiting at the airport. There would be an entire family, and entire group of brothers and sisters, waiting to welcome him home to the warmth.