While We Can Garryowen Hail

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It’s a strange, strained, overly scripted day in lower Manhattan — how could it not be? Complaining that this culture we’re stuck with is given to hype and hucksterism is about as useful as complaining that the ocean is wet, so instead I’ll mention that the sky is a high-alert hornet’s nest of gunships and newschoppers, but otherwise the precise shade of azure that we’ve come to think of as “September 11 blue.” In the past 5 years the financial district has morphed into a dual-usage, newly residential neighborhood, swarming with young couples towing or being towed by their toddlers and pets — and that’s certainly one in the ‘nads for Thanatos and his cave-dwelling, video-releasing lieutenants.

My co-workers and I have long since finished swapping memories of that morning, so this blog will come in handy. Can’t forget the suddenly de-officed paperwork, more than any previous human civilization could have produced, snowstorming down on us after being converted to confetti by some apocalyptic document shredder. And as long-suffering REHupans can attest, I tend to think in literary allusions and resonances, so that when I try to recall the wordless but oh-so-vocal reaction of the thousands of evacuees and rubber-neckers on Greenwich Street as the second tower despaired of further verticality, it’s the famous first sentence of Thomas Pynchon’s masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow that flashes through my mind: “A screaming comes across the sky.” I associate the tongue-coating taste of the destruction that drove us northward, block after block after block, with Gollum’s rejection of the proffered lembas bread in The Two Towers: “Dust and ashes, we can’t eat that.” Robert E. Howard comes into it, too, what with his prescience about cult-like conspiracies based in Afghan hill-forts, dreaming of globalized murder, or my thoughts of a high school friend who died that morning and the fact that he’s still unavenged. Like so many here, I’d do the avenging myself if granted the chance; some situations just cry out for the Old Testament rather than the New (It occurs to me that part of the genius of “The Dark Man” is that de facto representatives of both — Turlogh and the priest — are allowed to make forceful cases, and neither discredits the other).

I caught a little of a weekend memorial service for the firefighters who died — still an ungraspable number — and I noticed bagpipers playing the old Irish quick-step “Garryowen,” which Theodore Roosevelt thought “the finest military march in the world.” “Garryowen” is a tune that stays with anyone who was exposed to They Died With Their Boots On at a young age. That 1941 Raoul Walsh/Errol Flynn Custer hagiography is what S. T. Joshi might call a farrago of nonsense, (it bears much the same relationship to Evan Connell’s nigh-definitive Son of the Morning Star as antimatter to matter) but it’s stirring nonsense, not least because of “Garryowen,” the jauntiness of which acquires the dignity of defiance in extreme circumstances. The song had rung out on many a Napoleonic and Civil War battlefield before one or more of Custer’s Irish officers and troopers introduced him to it, and I’d like to quote one of the best passages in one of the best Flashman novels, Flashman at the Charge (Having unwillingly been the first rider into the Russian batteries during the Charge of the Light Brigade, Flashy is being treated as a sort of guest of honor by his Czarist officer captors, who take him to visit a military hospital full of wounded-and-lower-ranking survivors of the Tennyson-immortalized blunder):

“Three cheers for the Colonel!” and they all cheered, feebly, and shouted “Good old Flash Harry!” and the man with the patched eye began to sing, and they all took it up, and as I drove off with Lanskey I heard the words of the old Light Brigade canter fading behind me:

In the place of water we’ll drink ale,
An’ pay no reck’ning on the nail,
No man for debt shall go to jail,
While he can Garryowen hail.

I’ve heard it from Afghanistan to Whitehall, from the African veldt to drunken hunting parties in Rutland; heard it sounded on penny whistles by children and roared out by Custer’s 7th on the day of Greasy Grass — and there were survivors of the Light Brigade singing on that day, too — but it always sounds bitter on my ears, because I think of those brave, deluded, pathetic bloody fools in that Russian shed, with their mangled bodies and lost limbs, all for a shilling a day and a pauper’s grave — and yet they thought Cardigan, who’d have flogged ’em for a rusty spur and would see them murdered under the Russian guns because he hadn’t wit and manhood enough to tell Lucan to take his order to hell — they thought he was “a good old commander,” and they even cheered me, who’d have turned tail on ’em at the click of a bolt.

I’m not sure that Howard ever mentioned “Garryowen.” He was no U.S. Cavalry buff, what with their Yank-blue uniforms and his having been raised on the rival lore of the Texas Rangers, which disdained the horse-Feds and what was thought to be their slipshod, close-enough-for-government-work approach to Comanche-clearance. But we know from his letters that he was interested in the travels, the transmission of songs, and it’s easy enough to imagine Breck Elkins bellowing another of the verses:

We’ll beat the bailiffs out of fun.
We’ll make the mayor and sheriffs run,
We are the boys no man dares dun,
If he regards a whole skin.

The cavalry perennial has now been carried (again) to the mountains of eastern Afghanistan and the deserts of western Iraq, and hearing it emanating from that FDNY service was a reminder of the Irishry, honorary and genetic, that permeates so many September 11 memories here (in the fall of 2001 U2’s Bono became sort of an alternative mayor for those who still couldn’t warm up to Guiliani). The Fire Department that rushed up all those stairs and took all those casualties 5 years ago was as Gael-green as the warriors who flanked Brian Boru at Clontarf — in all honesty, a clannishness-reducing change in recruitment was overdue before the attacks. That change is now underway, but it is also somehow gratifying that tribal keepsakes like “Garryowen” and bagpipes aren’t going anywhere.