I never thought I’d be writing a book about searching for my homeless son.
As I hoisted Andrew up on his pony, as I buckled his ski bindings, as I zipped up his chaps, ran alongside him on his new bike. As I held his youthful, gangly, long-legged body in my lap, my hands over his compact boy-hands gripping the steering wheel of our old pickup truck. As we prepared for his first sparring session, practicing his karate moves over and over, until they were crisp, clean and fast. As I sprinted beside him up steep hills—“pump those arms, Andrew”—on his cross-country meets. As his entire family swelled with pride and happiness at his graduation from Marine boot camp at Parris Island, as we received his thoughtful, upbeat letters from battle-torn Iraq.
Not for a moment did I imagine that one day I’d be pulling blankets off the faces of homeless men in Seattle, San Diego, Santa Fe, New York, Baltimore, Orlando, or tapping on their shoulders, and asking, “Is that you, Andrew?”
I’ve worked as a steeplechase jockey, exercise rider at racetracks, Chesapeake Bay waterman, bartender, high school English teacher, adjunct college professor, public relations director, newspaper reporter, magazine writer, and as handyman, groundskeeper, stall mucker, weed-eater and field mower of this farm. I’ve written a series of books related to family that were focused on our legacy in the steeplechase racing world. All along I never thought I’d be funneling my energies into writing about some of the most pressing, controversial, and relevant issues of our day: homeless vets, PTSD, drugs, the VA, HIPPA and the police. The result is, War’s Over, Come Home my memoir focused on searching for Andrew
Working on War’s Over was quite different from galloping a horse around Pimlico racetrack, shoveling fifty bushels of oysters off a skipjack, teaching a class on Hamlet, giving a reading on my Racing Hall of Fame father, banging out a newspaper story under deadline on a manual typewriter with the editor-in-chief pulling the sheets out as they rise to the top. None of the above activities encompass the reactions and emotions that my wife, son and daughter now experience, with no warning, on a daily basis:
Outbursts of sudden tears and having to excuse myself from a social gathering.
A reminder—a soldier in uniform at the airport, a man begging on the sidewalk, a tent pitched in a city park, men and women lined up at a soup kitchen—causing me to be engulfed in a claustrophobic, shrinking cinderblock cubicle of worry about the future.
Embarrassment, discomfort after someone makes a casually condescending or even demeaning remark about the homeless. Fight or flight? Wanting to wade in and strike on one hand, wanting to leave the scene on the other. Feeling like you’re walking around in an invisible cloak of loneliness, and for a split second, you are there with him, striding with him in his visible cloak of loneliness: you, the father, have become him, the son. Son/father are one.
Seeing the pain, the worry in your wife’s eyes, feeling it in your guts, as you drive past a tall homeless man with a beard pushing a bicycle loaded down with gear. You slow, check him out without telling her; she checks him out without telling you. No, it is not Andrew.
The ongoing, relentless daily worry: what does the future hold?
The ambiguity of the loss: We have lost him. Yet, we have not lost him. We know he is alive, pushing his bicycle and camping somewhere in the Southwest.
Uncertainty. A void. Emptiness. Why did this happen? Couldn’t I have done this, done that, to prevent it? Am I doing enough right now to find him, help him?
What to do?
Keep searching. Keep living. Keep loving. Keep writing.
Here he [Smithwick] focuses on a family tragedy, the effect of two tours of duty in the Iraq War on his son Andrew, who returned with severe symptoms of PTSD and has lived as a wandering homeless man for most of the years since. The narrative of the family’s searches for Andrew has the intensity and suspense of a thriller. As Andrew’s troubles, distant as they are, gnaw at the family fabric, Smithwick handles the agreements and disagreements, the quarrels, his own and others’ occasional pettiness, with just the right level of clear-eyed depth. He is equally fair with the laws of privacy that sometimes prevent the family from finding out what they want to know, and the balance between their rights and Andrew’s is a central problem. No one who cares about the plight of today’s veterans should miss this splendid book.
– Henry Taylor, Author, Educator and Pulitzer Prize winning poet
Photos courtesy author.