Watching Rambo for the Holidays, Thinking of Home

I confess.  I spent a day and a half watching all four Rambo movies back to back.   I’m not quite certain what compelled me to start this process, but having started, I ended up sitting through the entire saga of blazing guns, gigantic explosions, over-the-top 80s patriotism, and the ever-ubiquitous bloodsplatter as Rambo does another bad guy in.  It’s been years since I’d seen any of them — some of them in fact I’d never seen, but in watching them all together, I was struck by a number of things which had eluded me in previous viewings, or that I’d simply forgotten.  The great music and scoring.  The use of light and darkness.  And those rare moments of Rambo’s serious personal reflection which do not involve guns, grenades, or large survival knives. Most of all, I was struck by the realization that somewhere beneath all the violence and death, these movies really are about trying to go home.

Whether it’s the desire to find a home among former friends from the war (which results in failure in the first movie, when Rambo discovers that the last surviving member of his team has died of cancer after arriving home), or the effort to bring others home (the other three movies), each movie seems to argue that there is an urgent need for Rambo to find a place for himself.  Home is endlessly elusive.  Either, it lies on the other side of the barbed-wire fences and mine fields, with hundreds of angry men and deadly machines in the way.  Or, it lies in the midst of it, in the center of the firefight, at the epicenter of the destruction.   Which is it?  Movie after movie, Rambo finds himself shifting back and forth, constructing a new life only to have it destroyed.  Friends die.  Potential love interests die.  Newly found allies die.  Caves and boats get blown up.  In Rambo’s world, everything he touches is abruptly made impermanent, on the verge of annihilation.

For Rambo, sometimes home is merely the past, those memories we cannot escape, mistakes we can’t erase.  Sometimes it lies in the future, in the unknown.  Rambo is at home in the dark, in the water, in the grimy mud walls, in the caves, jungles, and forgotten places of the world.  Sometimes home is where we can’t be, but would be if there were some way to break free of the shackles that keep us here.  For all his successful combat exploits and hair-rising escapes, Rambo remains a prisoner of war — one with no clue as to how to make his own way home.

Which oddly enough is a little like me this year.  Not so much the part about being a prisoner of war, but rather the bit about being stuck without a clear way home.  Thanks to the Canadian Passport Office rejecting my passport renewal (photographer forgot to date the photograph), I too am stuck in a foreign land, with miles of barbed wire fence and guard dogs between me and home.  If it weren’t for the polar bears… I’d risk it.

Still, I’m grateful for good friends who have offered me a place at their table for Christmas festivities.  Perhaps if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Rambo, it’s that no matter how many times “home” gets taken from you,  you have to keep trying to build a new one, and you can’t forget what remains of the ones you’ve left behind.  For Rambo home seems always in the midst of conflict and destruction.  For me, home is hidden in the maelstrom of words I write or would write, and buried in the chaotic memory of stories told, poems read, voices that I struggle to recall even as they fade, year after year.

I recall one night, long ago when I was a child.  My father was driving us back on a winter’s night from visiting a farming family we knew in northern Saskatchewan.  It was Christmas Eve.  We stopped at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and looked up at the dark clear skies full of stars in their millions.  It was cold and very silent and perfect.  We were far far away from home, and yet felt so close to each other and to a world we could not see.  What is home?  Perhaps it’s wherever we long to return to, no matter how hard the road.

Here’s a poem for those like me and Rambo, who won’t be home this Christmas:

Counting Winters in Los Angeles

I no longer mark what falls in passing,
iron stones blazing through the night sky,
leaves turning dry in the autumn breeze,
or old men curled around fires
watching yesterday’s news offered up
as ashes to the dark.

Hiding in the concrete-celled city,
my head is full of another country’s snow,
a loose wind blowing through my room
at night, when I cannot sleep
and lie to myself in dreams
I’ve committed to memory.

I am a stranger to the city that burns
with too much neon. Each night
I wind my sun-burnt car
through towers of glass and steel,
listen to the radiant hum of static,
the muted signal of an invisible sun,
the slow ticking questions keeping time.

What winter will take me home
down an ice-covered road
past the grey boarded shacks,
beyond the bending river’s spine,
then plant me low
beneath the white-haired trees?

What wind will wrap itself
around my waist, and lower me down
to sleep and distant rain?

from The Lost Country of Sight (Anhinga Press 2008)

6 responses to “Watching Rambo for the Holidays, Thinking of Home”

  1. Dave says:

    Awesome, Neil. I’ve actually never seen any of the Rambo movies all the way through — just some random clips of explosions and gunfire on cable. But I love the idea of Rambo as a stand-in for displaced people everywhere. Have a merry Christmas!

  2. ScottyGee says:

    It’s refreshing to hear the story of someone who pines for his family during the holidays.

    On Rambo: I read it as fable which fed into the ’80s desire for justifying bloated defense budgets and greed. But that’s just me; your reading if far more pleasant. Let’s just state it here: Neil, your a more pleasant man than me!

  3. Nat says:

    I had 8 Los Angeles winters under my belt, before I could go home: the languorous borders are the imbroglio of the bureaucrats. When I am finally free to leave, I take my suitcases, my 7- month-old and my 3-year old, and get on the plane without any hesitation: I want to be home for Christmas. I don’t know how I do it on the plane: the milk bottles, the diapers, the baby food, the baby’s ear infection against the airplane pressure, and the judgmental looks from the old lady. When my 3 year old (who’s in potty training) has to go, she has to go. Do I leave the baby with the friendly French biker or the stewardess? Neither of them seems to know how to handle him, but I so much appreciate the effort. The five hour delay in Frankfurt – the blizzard, the smoking airport (where do I hide?) my baby is asthmatic. All three of us are deeply exhausted and asleep on the last flight home. It snows at home. In the first week, I realize that nothing is the same anymore — everyone has moved on. My philosopher friend compares my home to Orange County, searching for some provenance of realization of what is really home. He is on the other side of the spectrum – 4 winters in Moscow and childhood in Cali. To me, it’s the spirit of the place that makes everyone kiss the earth once they land. It’s the heartache of the dreary frozen darkness that envelopes the bus headlights – cold, yet so close to the heart. The snow, the slowly falling snow that covers you with a security blanket. It’s the perpetual dirge of the dusk, pierced by the millions of the un-curtained, brightly lit windows, the millions of life stories you can make up on your way to a subway station…so much warmth at the apartments. Knowing that there will be spring and the Mimosas will flood the streets on March 8th, the summer will come with the hot bathing suits by a river, but none of that can be cherished without the grim winter, none of the Orange County…It’s the gripping loneliness, yet the knowledge that you are never alone…

    Thanks you so much for such a beautiful post and the poem, Neil!

    Scotty, you and everyone on TGW is very pleasant, and I’m grateful to be a part of it.

    Merry Christmas!

  4. swells says:

    Narrow-Minded Pigeonholing Stereotype Alert: I read only the first line of this post and thought, all perplexed, “Wait, I thought Neil Aitken was the poet guy.”

  5. swells says:

    sorry, I meant the first two lines.

  6. Rogan says:

    heh, the Rambo thing caused a double take from me as well. I like the first movie. The second movie, not so much. I didn’t like the second movie so much that I swore I would never see another Rambo film… until I watched another one this year. It was really by accident. I had liked the first movie, and I remembered that the second movie was supposed to be decent, even though I hated it, so I decided to give it a second try. I added what I thought to be Rambo II to my Netflix queue, but what arrived was some other Rambo, the one where he is a riverboat pilot in some Asian country where brutal drug warlords butcher women and children and old people in a small village. That murder sequence seemed to go on for ten minutes, with one woman, child or old person after another getting slashed, shot and/or gutted. The stylized violence was obviously supposed to be titillating, and the expectation of such violence, as with a Tarantino movie (QT does it a billion times better), is one of the major draws of a Rambo movie, but the slow motion slaughter of children made me sick to my stomach. Geesh, at least QT has the decency to murder children below the floor boards of house, so their little faces won’t haunt our dreams. I mean seriously, who gets turned on by that kind of sick shit? It is like a psycho litmus test.

    Lovely poem, Neil. As long as we have lived in Los Angeles, we have never spent a single X-mas here. We fly out to the freezing wastelands of Montana on Monday.