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Beat the drums slowly

Is there ever a good day to drop the bomb?

un in a clear sky. A light breeze. The sound of surf. Birds in trees. An alligator sunning himself on the bank of a marsh.

Temperatures that day would reach the 80s, warm for the corner of Northern Florida where I now spend winters. I pumped some iron before heading to the pool, then ran 15 minutes in chest-deep water, prelude to a longer run later in the day. I waved at my wife, participating in an aquarobics class nearby.

After my workout, a member of her class came into the dressing room. I greeted him and commented on the fine weather, usually a safe subject for strangers.

"A good day to drop the bomb," he said.

I stifled any reply. Is there ever a good day to drop the bomb? Why is this stranger intruding on my space? I don't want to discuss the war. I just want to go run. I picked up my towel and left the dressing room.

As runners, we participate in a safe and often solitary sport. I run to relax, most often running on the beach alone with my thoughts. I don't need a Walkman. Music plays naturally in my mind. Some favorites: In My Solitude, as sung by Billie Holiday. I Want to be Around, as sung by Tony Bennett. They also play on the CD player in my car. Sometimes I'll punch the replay button to hear them one more time.

Lately, I can't get The Green Fields of France by The Fureys out of my mind. It keeps replaying. I can't stop it. I picked up a tape in Ireland a decade ago. I loved the melody and the ballad about a young soldier killed fighting in France. I never considered the song political, but in the last few weeks, I have been haunted by words in the final verse: …The sorrows, the suffering, the glory, the pain; the killing and dying….

No! No! I don't want to hear those words. I don't want to hear them playing in my head during my escape time while I run on the beach. I press the stop button. The music continues: And did they believe when they answered the call; Did they really believe that this war would end war?

I screamed in the night recently. It was a nightmare, not a particularly bad nightmare--not even about the war--but I screamed. I don't usually scream in my sleep. It scared my wife to death. I wonder if our neighbor heard? But mine was only one of many screams sounding that night. If you scream in the dark and nobody hears, does your pain fail to register?

Back in the gym a week later, I overheard someone say: "If the Arabs use chemical weapons on Israel, they'll go nuclear on Baghdad." I've got to stay out of that gym: Too much testosterone in the air.

I remember Vietnam. I hated that war, not only because it killed so many good American soldiers, but because it divided the country.

I hate this war for the same reason. Too many will die: our people; their people; in-between people. One poll I accessed showed 85 percent believed in our President. I think he made a mistake, but maybe I'm wrong, and the war will end quickly with minimal collateral damage, and I can run again on the beach without that song ringing in my ears. I worry about coming generations as the chorus continues:

Did they beat the drums slowly,
Did they play the fife lowly,
Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?

The replay button must be jammed. Stop the music. I want to run alone without those words in my ears. The sun shines from under the clouds. Waves roll onto the beach. Seagulls skitter along the sand. It's warm after a cold winter. Children playing. Such a good day to run, but is it ever a good day to drop the bomb? I don't believe the voices I hear in the gym. Make the drums stop beating!

This essay originally appeared as a Bell Lap column on Runner's World Daily, April 3, 2003