Counting down the days

There were some Navy corpsmen who had canes that they would whittle down each day. Near the end of their tours in Vietnam, they would carry maybe foot-long sticks in their hands. They would carry them with some swagger.

They were “short.”

Most of the people I remember just tacked their short-timer calendar to the wall of a hooch and filled in the days. Some of the calendars were in the shape of a woman. Some were just a grid of numbers — 365 days or 395 days and counting until that flight back to the world.

Now, the short-timer calendar returns. Starting this week, we can say we are in the final year and begin scratching off the days, like prisoners in the last year of a long and draining sentence.

Some people insist on counting down in terms of days, hours, minutes. Jan. 20, 2009, has become the date of a new morning, the end of the eight-year winter, the day the sun shines and the birds sing.

Yes, there really will be a moment when we can all come out of our bunkers and barrooms and look up. Some of us will surely get drunk and hug strangers and maybe get arrested.

He will leave that day after embarrassing us and bringing us low. He will leave with a list of positive accomplishments as blank as the expression on his face. He will leave and we will wonder how we ever let it get this bad — how we gave a second chance to someone who had used his first one to deceive and divide.

So we scratch off the days and hope we have seen the worst, that no greater damage can be done before a new hand is placed on the Bible and a new voice takes the oath of office.

We will go from triple figures to double figures in October. The days will pass like weights lifted from our beat-up, sagging expectations.

Those short-timer calendars that we fashion to mark the final days can be a source of hope in dark times. The economy tanks, the war goes on, but as we fill in, say, Oct. 13, we can break into a rousing chorus of “99 Days of Bush On The Wall.” It will help.

He has brought us so much, and yet so little. He has brought us invasion and occupation without provocation. He has brought us the question, “Is torture part of the American way?” He has brought us the nagging suspicion that someone is watching and listening as we fill out the normal parts of our lives.

But there is that other side, the void. There seems to be no there there. There is no shape, no defining edges, no sense of someone curious, someone moved by more than numbers, someone who can speak to the dark consequences of his own actions. He tells us, proudly, how many books he has read when he knows that people who really read don’t keep count.

We cross out the days and think of how sadly small and restricted the supposed center of our national life has become. We hear of no great gatherings of musicians, writers, philosophers, actors at the White House as we used to. There seems to be no one home. The first lady seems to be claiming a lot of personal time.

For that last day, Jan. 20, we put something symbolic on the short-timer calendar. It might be a popping champagne bottle, a big yellow sun — anything that conveys a feeling of something very old giving way to something new.

Then, when we know the plane is in the air on the way to Texas, we burn the calendar among friends. And we say “Never Again” again. But this time we really, really mean it.

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