Milius, McCarthy, and Me, or the Dawning Red in the West

by Russell Worth Parker

Born in the wake of the Great Daylight Fireball, the only child of a divorce finalized in 1972, well before he understood parents sometimes live together, the boy was small and lonely and precocious and living upon six hundred acres of farm and forest. There were no neighbor kids proximate; no pick-up football games. There was just the boy and the woods around Athens, Georgia and the Daisy BB gun he carried, bestocked in plastic and slick bored. A boy’s heart calls for the cold steel a man’s hands will someday find. It was then as it had ever been or ever would be.  

There would be war, and the boy would find himself within its province, of that he was certain. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was yet three years hence and the boy had barely attained a decade on earth, yet knew with the certainty of the Judge that “it makes no difference what men think of war . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

The boy found his friends in books, yellow of page and soft of cover. Pulp novels written under unlikely pen names, military histories awash in tiny print, or “there I was” biographies— they were all soldiers in the service of a destiny written before the boy or any of the authors came mewling unto this plane. Every page a blood-besotted exaltation of the kind of man the boy wanted to be, already desperate to join the dance, to take on the hyper-masculine qualities of a fictional assassin or the grim resolve of a Marine on Guadalcanal. On television, Vietnamese tanks ground into Cambodia. Soviet commandos took the centers of government in Afghanistan. A Marine raised his hand before the Congress, resplendent in green and swathed in ribbons. A Japanese rifle the boy’s Marine grandfather brought home from an island awash in blood hung on the wall as his father’s Marine uniform hung neatly bagged in a closet across town, both silently calling him to their measure. 

The boy rode his bicycle to the local tobacconist, where he could stand quietly, back against a rack, reading Soldier of Fortune magazine, whence he learned he was better dead than red. He stepped aside, solemn as a judge, to let grown men pass on their way to the glossy paper harlots sold from the back, pitying them their weakness, for he knew honor and glory awaited him. He imagined himself amongst guerillas, fighting the Bear. Even before he had a man’s carriage, he knew men either govern, are governed, or rebel. He needed but one desperate fight won, face smoke blackened and hands blood rimed, or lost in some glorious immolation burning his shadow upon the wall for decades. But in the 1980s, playground predations notwithstanding, there was but one monolith of which to avail himself. Opportunities to dance with the Bear were few and far between for a bookish middle-class boy in the Athens, Georgia suburbs. 

Then came a day dawned red. Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Soviet paratroopers drifted down to light upon Colorado’s front range. The strategic value of Calumet, Colorado was of only passing question to the boy or John Milius or presumptively, McCarthy, for the answer to the blood question lay in whether a group of teenagers, Wolverines as they fashioned themselves, would see their occupiers swallowed by a leviathan of their own design. But honest men and Milius knew they must always answer to the Judge, must determine whether Wolverines might become but McCarthy’s “legion of horribles” in the pursuit of their own deliverance, “clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners.”

Omaha, Kansas City, even Washington, DC lay as rubble irradiated, though the boy only found out after Cuban MIG-21s struck down Lieutenant Colonel Andy Tanner’s F-15, an Eagle torn asunder by fire and fragment. He found his South occupied once again, this time by Godless Communists who were stopped only when they discovered themselves to be but false dancers on the banks of the Mississippi, broken upon the face of the Rockies. Thereon, half a million scarecrows prayed for succor other than rats and sawdust and of a moment, one another. Pyres lit the sky as offerings to a God made manifest in the hopes of a billion screaming Chinamen rendered six hundred million.

The two toughest kids on the block will fight. The boy had fashioned himself thus, all indications contrary, and saw himself as he wanted to be seen in Jed and Matt Eckert, set to puzzle danger from an early age and unafraid to. A Wolverine he felt he was and would be, able to withstand those things that beset a boy, smaller and slower afoot than his peers. Their time in the hills was but time to become stronger, as was his amongst the trees and barns of the farm. Their victories over the Bear, over Colonel Bella, over the collaborators, were his yet to come against those things that vexed him. As the Eckerts sought vengeance in the name of their father, him clinging unto a wire fence shouting, “Avenge me! Avenge me!” so would the boy find a mission, a way to set right those depredations that beset him, real and imagined, making him strong in his mind if he were still only corporeally picayune. 

Came a day after the Red Dawn. The boy himself dancing among burning rain drops in Iraq and Afghanistan, finding the truth to be neither all nor none of Milius or McCarthy. Again came the Judge, a terrible enormity hairless and pale, saying, “Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.” The boy danced. It could only be that way and not some other way.