A Veteran’s Day reflection on the day that brought me here, and the renewal of a promise I have no right to break.
I wrote the following story shortly after getting out of the Army because I didn’t want to forget. I publish it this Veteran’s Day for the same reason. No, that’s not true. I publish it now because I HAVE started to forget, and that simply is not permissible.
All names, and some details, have been changed.
No one should mistake this for a political piece. It’s just my story. Like most veterans, I have a whole mix of feelings about it. The strongest one of all is gratitude for having served alongside the best people I have ever met. I have no idea how I managed to get by in your company for as long as I did, but I’m grateful for, and proud of, the experience.
Happy Veteran’s Day to all you salty war dogs out there.
I knelt in the hot, dusty street scanning rooftops through my rifle scope, waiting for the call to load up and move out. Nothing stirred that I could see, but that didn’t mean that nothing stirred.
The city was still, but stillness in Mosul didn’t mean calm. Moments of peace there, no matter how long passing, always felt to me like nothing more than preludes to some shattering force. Like the seconds between the lighting of the dynamite wick, and the dynamite exploding.
It didn’t matter that we rarely made contact in our missions. Unlike most the other guys, I never lost that edge of fear. To this day I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing.
The air hummed with heat. The pavement pulsed with it. The earth itself seemed to reverberate with some throbbing presence.
Our Strykers were lined up along a road at midday in Mosul. We’d been holding the position for maybe ten minutes. I knelt where the main road intersected with a side street whereon an old woman stood facing me holding back a herd of children.
The kids peeked at me around her sides. Every now and again one would make a halfhearted escape attempt, but the old woman’s hand would whip out and grab him by the scruff and throw him back into the crowd. The children laughed every time. The old woman did not. She just stood watching.
Carl knelt beside me. “You notice how there were people all over the street when we first came by and now it’s empty?”
Carl spit Copenhagen into the dust. Both of us knew sitting in one place too long made us targets, but we weren’t running the show. Nothing for us to do but shake our heads, spit in the dust, and keep watching.
“I’ll take your position,” Carl said. “Go get some shade.”
I walked to the lead Stryker and sat down on the dropped ramp. Still plenty hot in the vehicle’s meager shade, sweat pooled in the bottoms of my boots and streamed down my face.
I sat facing a Stryker parked behind us. John was standing in the hatch watching the rooftops opposite the way I’d been facing. I didn’t see anybody watching his back, but assumed somebody was out there behind the corner of a building or something. Someone is always supposed to, out there.
It never ceased to amaze me how lackadaisical people can become in a hostile country, but the truth is that everybody does it at one time or another. To an extent, it’s just a matter of chance whether or not you pay the price for it.
The platoon leader sat inside the Stryker behind me talking with the radio operator. I listened to them banter and quip but didn’t turn back to look. Hours of running around in the heat in body armor made turning my head too much a hassle. So I sat looking straight ahead at John in the hatch, listening.
The radio operator kept telling me jokes. I don’t remember any of them. I only remember finally turning my head to the side to acknowledge him and show I was laughing, and upon turning my head hearing something explode behind us.
I snapped back around. John wasn’t standing in the hatch anymore.
Later, when I got back to base, I found one of John’s friends standing alone looking into space, tears streaming down his face, and him making no effort at all to stop them. He looked up as I approached.
“There was shit leaking out of his ears, man,” he said. Then he just stared at me with this look of perplexed horror on his face, as though all that is nameless and terrible in the universe was contained in that one detail.
What do you say to a grown man that stands there crying and looking to you for an answer that you and no one else will ever be able to provide? You don’t say anything. You just awkwardly put your hand on his shoulder, and then twice as awkwardly walk away, leaving him there in his dumbfounded dread to go and contemplate your own.
It wasn’t the first time that I encountered death in combat, but it was the first time that death really shook me. It was the suddenness of it, I think. One moment he was standing there in the hatch, and in the time it took me to turn my head to fake a laugh he was gone. I was now alive and he was not.
I hadn’t survived through superior soldiery. He was a far better man, and a far better soldier, than I could ever hope to be. It was nothing but sheer, dipshit chance that he was dead now and I wasn’t, and nothing would ever change that.
I didn’t sleep that night. I thrashed around in my bed staring into the darkness seeing my life played out before me. I saw every wrong thing that I have ever done, and felt the cruelty of the fact that those wrong things could never be undone.
But the thing that came back strongest was that I had never fulfilled my dream of being a writer. Had never even really tried. Not really.
If I died now, I realized, I would die knowing that I had never accomplished what I had sworn to accomplish as a kid. Sudden terror at that idea got me feeling like an animal trapped in a snare with the trapper’s footsteps fast approaching. I had thought that the dream was long dead. But lying there that night facing all my life and death in the darkness, it seemed like the most critical thing in the world.
Six times I’ve tried writing this story. Six times. With each attempt I’ve gotten hung up on this part.
Men in my family don’t talk about themselves, especially not in emotional situations, and I don’t like doing it. Perhaps that’s the reason that this story has fought me from the very beginning.
And yet, every time I try writing something else, this story calls back to me. It has been calling back since the day I signed up to take a class in nonfiction writing, as though it will not let me free until it has been told. As difficult as the story is to write, not writing it has been even more so.
The truth is that the answer isn’t nearly as complex as I try to make it. I have to tell this story because I am already starting to forget it, and I cannot allow myself to forget. I have been given a second chance.
So few people get second chances. Blowing the first was ignorance; blowing the second would be cowardice.
When I got out of the Army, only a little more than a year ago, I was a man possessed with a single-minded focus. Already, I have started to slip. Already the cultural hypnosis is getting to me.
The illusion that tomorrow is some infinite commodity is creeping in. It’s such an easy, comfortable slumber to fall into. But I know that if I succumb, I will one day have to wake up and take responsibility for my sleeping. I’ve seen it once, already. On a narrow bed in the darkness in Iraq, I have seen the price of the million lies that I told myself.
I’m still alive and John is not. Neither one of us deserves for things to be that way. All that can be done is to try to earn that privilege. It can never be earned, of course; but it’s mine to try for as long as I have breath to.
I laid in the dark watching my life played out before me after John was killed. I wasn’t directing it. I couldn’t control or hide from it. I was at the show’s mercy.
I could only really describe it as a religious experience, which was an exceedingly odd thing for an atheist.
Every joy, every sin, was magnified. The desperate yearning for redemption from my sins was at least comprehensible, but the force of anguish over having quit writing seemed almost absurd.
How could something I hadn’t seriously considered in years feel so powerful to me now? The answer, as before, was not nearly as complex as I tried to make it.
I was fourteen years old when my father died of a heart attack. He was found on a truck-stop bathroom floor, already dead by the time the medics got to him.
In the days following his passing, friends and family would come to our house to pay their respects. They would gather in little clusters around the living room saying, “Poor Jeffery. He’s the man of the house, now.”
My father was barely around before he died, and I didn’t know what the hell the man of a house was supposed to do in the first place.
I bore my loneliness with a confused stoicism, refusing help from anyone. I worked to help my mother pay for groceries and gas. She would take the money from me on payday with this purse-mouthed expression and slowly, quietly shake her head.
I felt guilty giving it to her; I would have felt more guilty if I didn’t. At some point I think I accepted I’d always feel guilty, whatever I did.
The world seemed like a truly hideous place. I didn’t know how we were going to eat from week to week, much less imagine a future ahead. Death lurked behind the closed eyes of every living thing I saw, and I couldn’t hope for anything without its shadow eventually falling upon me.
Why dream or hope or love when we are only going to die, anyway? Nobody could answer that question for me. The only response the adults seemed to know was to change the subject. So I lived in my secret loneliness, a fourteen year old kid carrying an old man’s burdens into a bleak and barren future.
And then I found it.
It was a soft-cover Penguin edition. Jack Kerouac stood on the cover leaning against a car with Neal Cassidy beside him, both of them smiling. They didn’t look like other writers I’d seen. They looked energetic, tough, ballsy. In a white box below them was the title: On the Road.
I finished the book in one day, reading from beginning to end without taking a break, just sitting there at the edge of the bed completely absorbed in the rhythm and the cadence and the wonder. Suddenly the world was a place of beautiful madness and tragic splendor; a place of infinite possibilities.
The book was like a gateway drug leading to Whitman, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Bukowski, Kafka, Saroyan. It wasn’t casual reading. It was not, as so many like to derisively say, ‘escapism.’
My vision of the world was made through the tumbling kaleidoscope of those stories. A world and a life infinitely worth living, full of angels, madmen, mad angels, landscapes beyond time, a place where every act was a confirmation of all that is eternal in our mortal selves.
To this day, when I hear some pompous coffeehouse critic ask the tired old question of whether or not literature matters, I just walk away. It’s an absurd question, the way I see it, and the very asking seems a kind of sacrilege. For me, literature is and has always been one thing, and one thing only: salvation.
Nick called as I wrote this. We served in the same platoon. He got out a couple of years before me and went to work for a private defense contractor. He doesn’t like the work but, as he says, “When you’re making six figures, who can complain?”
Slightly drunk, he fills me in on his swelling bankroll and asks, with the slightest note of amusement, “So, how’s the writing thing going?”
“Pretty good,” I say, and then change the subject. I’ve learned not to talk about my writing. Neither with friends nor with strangers. Doubts are like viruses that people delight in spreading, and one must struggle to stay clean of them.
But that’s not the whole truth.
No, the truth is that I don’t elaborate about my writing, at least partly, because I’m embarrassed. Nick is making six figures. I’m living off of eleven hundred dollars a month. A year ago I was a non-commissioned officer in the United States Army. Today I’m a penniless student and “aspiring” writer- which may not quite mean a failed writer, but most definitely doesn’t mean a successful one.
Nick will be back in the states for a little more than a month. He plans on going to Wisconsin, California, Florida, Puerto Rico, Washington, and “maybe Bali.”
“Ah, you know, if I’ve got the time,” he says.
All at once it occurs to me that I am speaking to a wealthy man.
We say goodbye and hang up. I stand in the center of my apartment looking at the shitty room and think about following Nick into contracting.
One tour, I think, just one tour. Simultaneously, as I think that, I know where one tour will lead, which could be many places, but most definitely not to my fulfilling my dream.
I walk to the kitchen counter, turn my laptop on, and start to write.
Keep that contracting shit out of mind. Just write…just write.
I nearly cried out in the darkness in my bed in Mosul.
A snarling, howling kind of feeling rose up inside me, and I barely restrained myself from letting it out. I lay still until it died out, then slipped on my shoes and walked outside.
The camp was quiet. No one and nothing stirred. I needed to walk and think, but there was no place to walk to. Just the compound walls and the rocks and the dirt. I paced the narrow perimeter, back and forth like some medieval sentry, churning my childhood over in my head, remembering what I had chosen to forget.
From the moment I first read On the Road, all I wanted to be was a writer. Not a doctor, lawyer, or astronaut. Just a writer.
The problem was that I had no idea how to become a professional writer, and no one else seemed to, either. Everyone I suggested the idea to acted as though it was completely absurd, like saying I wanted to be the King of Belize, or an intergalactic rocket-ninja. But I didn’t care because I wasn’t trying to impress them; the only people I needed in my corner were the ghosts of the writers I idolized.
So I struck out into the world at eighteen determined to ‘make it.’ I took a bus to Colorado and started hitchhiking west. I traveled from town to town, working jobs for a month or two and then moving on again, trying to accrue that richness of experience that all my favorite writers displayed, scribbling in my notebooks in tent-cities among the hoboes and noboes, trying to catch lightning.
I decided that true genius was like a magnet to which success was inevitably drawn, and if I just wrote, the rest would take care of itself. After one year passed and that plan met its inevitable failure, I went back home.
I did more sensible things. Money-making things. I put the professional-writer business out of mind. Laughed about it with my friends over beers. What kind of goddamn idiot wants to tell stories for a living? Ha ha ha.
But the dream never let go of me, no matter how hard I tried to let go of it, and pacing those narrow compound walls I knew what turning my back on it had meant to my soul.
And I had turned my back.
Had given up. Just like that, after a measly year without success, I’d turned tail and run. Now as I contemplated my life, I realized what that decision had really meant.
No decision is trivial. I once thought they were, but that night I knew that every choice I made would one day have to be answered for. Whether it is to God, or to some biochemical hallucination of a God in my brain, is irrelevant.
The judge matters not, only the judgment.
Every choice I made directed me either closer to, or farther away from, my destiny. Before I “grew up” (I question the popular connotation of that concept) and gave up believing in such things, I thought that having a destiny meant having a preordained purpose, a path set out before us upon which we had no choice but to follow.
Now I know that a destiny is a responsibility. It’s the thing we are put here to do by circumstances set in motion at the beginning of time, the moment the universe banged into being; whether or not we follow it is completely up to us, but the decision we make, whichever it is, bears consequences.
Writing had always been my destiny. It wasn’t just one choice of vocations among many. It was a purpose, and it wasn’t just about me. It was never just about me. That’s the thing that took John’s death to make me realize.
The men that saved me from despair when I was fourteen years were men with names like Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Joseph Conrad, Charles Bukowski, Bob Dylan, William Faulkner. They were writers for whom the soft consolations of society were never enough. Writers who looked at the ultimate indifference of life and death and refused to turn away. They stared it right in its face, and wrote beauty, anyway.
Their art was a form of defiance; their defiance a form of art. They were people who wouldn’t bend, no matter the odds. Their beauty stared straight at you from behind a black soot-mask streaked with sweat, and its eyes never wavered, never shifted, never looked away or closed.
They were men that knew that death didn’t win in our dying, but only in our living in fear of it and hiding.
They showed me that mortality doesn’t diminish our lives; it enforces, inspires, and gives them meaning. Gives them destinies. I cannot defeat the inevitable, but how I resist the inevitable in the way I live my life decides the worth of my struggle.
I went into the television-hooch and sat down. No one else was in there. I stared at a blank screen for a minute, stood up, and walked to the foldout table in back covered with great stacks of paperback books.
They were mostly works of popular fiction: lots of Stephen King, James Patterson, Dan Brown, and the like. As I sifted I came across a little copy of Cannery Row and froze with it in my hands. It was a Scribner edition. White cover with orange trim. A picture of Mack and the boys on the cover looking down a long hill onto the town. Someone had carefully laminated the front and back cover. I took the book over to the couch and started reading. Cannery Row had been there at the beginning; back there when the books were first teaching me what life really is. It was like running into an old, old friend.
I was halfway through the book when the door opened and a sleepy head popped in.
“We’ve got a mission in an hour,” the sleepy head said and popped back out.
I walked back to my room with book in hand. When I walked in my roommate was sitting at the edge of his bed pulling his pants on, “Did you get the word?”
I told him I had and started to change into uniform.
“You okay?” he grinned. “You look pissed.”
“I’m good,” I said, pulling my boots on.
I said nothing about what I’d been thinking, but I had made the decision on the couch while reading Cannery Row. I was going to start writing again, and this time I wasn’t going to quit.
It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about social prestige. It was about keeping a promise I’d made to some old friends. It was about doing my part, no matter how small, to keep the story going, just as the story once had kept me going.
It was about defying death with art.
I put the thoughts out of mind and got ready for the mission. I had a serious job to do, and no right to be distracted. But I vowed that I would write every minute after I got back, and every minute that I wasn’t working from that point on, so that if I did die I would die knowing that I’d given it my best.
John’s body was shipped home to his family. We had a small memorial in the motor pool with a framed photograph of him hanging from the front of a weather-beaten podium. The commander and the sergeant major gave their generic speeches, and then John’s friends took the stage and related their favorite stories about their fallen comrade.
Sergeant Serra, a New Yorker built like a heavily muscled cue-ball who always found a way to tag ‘fuck’ to every sentence that came out of his mouth, stumbled badly over his speech, choking back tears like he was about to vomit, before giving up and sobbing into the microphone, “John was the greatest fucking guy ever.”
John was a great guy. It’s natural in mourning to exaggerate the virtues of the recently-departed, but with John, exaggeration wasn’t necessary. He had a degree but, instead of joining the business world or becoming an officer, he joined a special operations unit as an enlisted man, fully assuring himself of seeing combat.
He wasn’t some cock-strong young war enthusiast out to prove his manhood. He just wanted to do the job that no one else wanted to do because he felt it needed to be done. I never once heard him curse, not even something small like ‘damn,’ which, in a military environment, is about the equivalent of a theoretical physicist giving a three day lecture on elementary particles without ever using the word ‘quark.’ At twenty-two years old he was still with the same girl he’d started dating in high school.
What did his life mean without the context of the story? I don’t mean this story, I mean the story, the one that encompasses it all, the story of human existence that we tell and tell and tell in all our endless ragtag yarns through all our patchwork hours.
In this age of constant, streaming media, the story sometimes seems trivialized; but the story is not trivial. Within its context we can be heroes, martyrs, artists, explorers, warriors, lovers, anything. Without it, we can never be more than blips on the screen of an indifferent evolution.
We tell the story, and in telling it we invent the world in which we live. We honor each other, and our humanity, by keeping it alive.
Without stories the human race would perish, for there would be nothing to tie our civilization together, no continuum through which to pass our knowledge.
But even before that literal death, our souls would shrink and wither, for there would be nothing to tie each other together, nor anything to tie us to ourselves. We bestow meaning to our lives only through the story, and only in the story can miracles occur, for outside of its context all things are nothing more than random coincidence without purpose.
A fourteen year old kid on the brink of giving up all hope found passion for life, and compassion for his fellow human beings, through a story written decades before by a man who died before he was even born.
Years later, that same kid, now a man, saw a twenty-two year old friend killed in a foreign country, fighting in a hazily defined war, and instead of being ruined by the random meaningless of the event, saw a meaning in its connection to the greater narrative that inspired him to live more deeply, to create something beautiful, to be a better, more giving person.
And now, over a year after that, he writes the story of all those stories, the story of the story, so that he will never forget it, and in remembering it he hopes to inspire somebody else to remember, too, that the story is not trivial, the story is never trivial.
The story is our purpose, connection, and salvation, and within its context, miracles occur.