How to Make a Slave and Other Essays

by Jerald Walker

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Wars Summary and Analysis

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Walker visited a veterans hospital to speak to a dozen men; all had experienced combat, and all suffered from various effects of those experiences. Some were addicts, some were alcoholics, and some abused their families or themselves. Each man was required to attend Walker’s reading, and the woman who greeted Walker at the door warned him that none of them would be happy about this.

As the men arrived, some sat as far from Walker as possible. Most gathered and talked quietly among themselves until the time designated for Walker to begin speaking. Walker considered how intimidating it was to speak to a group of men who had experienced brutality and death in ways that few people would ever understand. Although Walker had faced his own share of brutality and death, he was careful not to confuse his own wars with theirs. He considered that if he had submitted to his father’s pleas for him to join the military, he could be sitting among these men.

Walker’s reading softened the demeanor of all but one audience member, whom Walker stereotyped as a Vietnam veteran. He was middle-aged, wore a black leather vest, had a bandana tied across his brow, and displayed many piercings. When Walker concluded his reading, Ruth, the woman who met Walker at the door, asked the men to write about something “unforgettable” from their youth. She asked if Walker wanted to participate, and he agreed, choosing to write about Buggy, a Vietnam veteran from his home neighborhood.

Walker recalled the summer of 1973 when he became trapped on top of a car, trying to find an opportune moment to make an escape. His friend’s German shepherd, Milo—who had already bitten Walker in the face once—had gotten loose and waited menacingly for Walker to try to climb down from the car. Each time other neighbors came outside, Walker frantically yelled that the dog was loose, and they hurried back in.

Finally Buggy casually strolled down his front steps. Walker’s warnings had no effect on him as he continued to nonchalantly sip a bottle of Coke. Buggy stopped twenty yards away from Walker and Milo and loudly belched. The sound caught the dog’s attention, and when Buggy belched a second time, Milo turned toward Buggy, seemingly giving him a chance to escape. Buggy didn’t move.

Racing like a torpedo, Milo charged Buggy, who kicked the dog in the nose. Milo backed up and then charged a second time, grabbing Buggy’s leg. Buggy teetered but regained his balance and began beating Milo in the head with the glass bottle as Milo held fast to Buggy’s leg. Finally, Milo released his grip and went home with his tail tucked between his legs. 

Ruth asked the men to share the stories of their youth. One man had written about his mother’s cancer. Another shared the story of being abandoned by his father. A third spoke of a car accident that had taken the life of his baby brother. Finally, everyone had shared except the man with the bandana and piercings. Ruth acknowledged that sometimes “her memory . . . fails her too,” but Walker understood the pain in the man’s eyes.

The man’s look was the same as Buggy’s on the day he was attacked by the dog. Lifting up his pants leg and finding blood covering his shin, Buggy had turned his attention to his empty Coke bottle. Finding it empty, he had looked disoriented and confused, but not like a person “struggling to remember.” Instead, Buggy and the man with the bandana shared the eyes of men who were instead “trying to forget.”


(This entire section contains 789 words.)

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This essay is a testament to the varying battles people fight in their lives. Some of these battles are known and recognized, such as the physical battles during which these men witnessed violence and death, and others are quiet whispers in the background of life. These personal and intimate wars leave scars that rival those acquired on the battlefield. While Walker makes it clear that he is not trying to “confuse” his own personal wars with those of these veterans, his essay is a testament to the lasting influence of life’s individual battles. When Ruth asks the men to recall an “unforgettable” memory from their childhoods, the men do not conjure recollections of family vacations, birthday celebrations, or holiday gatherings. Instead, memories of pain and loss fill their minds. The man wearing the bandana and Buggy are similar in the way they process their memories of these personal battles; their wordless expressions mirror each other, reflective of the constant struggle to forget the anguish of the past.


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