In an effort to plug myself back into the ‘write something other than the driest of scientific blah blah’ arena, I’ve decided to throw my hat into the ring with the talented folks at Indie Ink. The ring in which my hat now sits consists of a group of writers issuing challenges to one another in the form of writing prompts. You challenge someone; they write. You get issued a challenge; you write. The concept is earth-shatteringly complicated. If you’re challenged and you don’t write by the deadline, you are shamed publicly. Something about being shaved and beaten by people dressed like sad clowns. And, hey. That’s cool. Whatever it takes.
Challenge: ‘In that moment, I knew that there were things that were much bigger than me.’
Sitting on the tarmac in Stuttgart, I recall thinking it ironic that the aircraft transporting me on the next leg of the journey to a war zone was from my home state’s national guard. Leaving that state had been the focus of my life from a relatively young age. Growing up, I’d needed a shift the blame for a profoundly disappointing childhood and Ohio seemed like as good a target as any. The military had saved me from the state twelve years prior to that Spring evening in Germany and after all I’d accomplished, there was something curious about finding myself laden with equipment, reclining under the wing of an aircraft whose giant ‘OH’ on the tail seemed to have my undivided attention. That was the beginning, the little spark of realization that Ohio wasn’t the prison I used to think it was. The last leg of the trip was in the back of the darkened cargo hold of an aircraft designed to fly very low in order to elude electronic eyes. I would shortly be in a very remote place, joining people that I had sent there earlier. My mind welcomed the distraction.
Months later, I was among the last to return to our unit. Home was in England then and I recall how cold the British summer evening seemed as I stood, neither happy nor sad, on yet another tarmac drinking a beer with my commander. There was no real emotion to speak of and I suppose had I been a little more self-aware, such a thing would’ve registered. ‘This is what I’ve been looking forward to’, I thought to myself, but I hadn’t a clue as to whether the thought ended with a period or a question mark. In the coming months, I would work myself to distraction, skirt the edges of various addictions, and focus on what was next in the only career I’d ever had or wanted. I had exceeded every definition of ‘success’ that I had ever allowed myself to consider and all that mattered was whatever was next.
The awards came next. Exactly one year removed from the tarmac in Germany, I was unprepared for the accolades and assurances of a long and prosperous career to accompany the newly-acquired status as ‘golden boy’. Through gritted teeth: ‘This is what I’ve been looking forward to.’ That first week of June, 2004, found me in Normandy for the 60th anniversary of D-Day, where I walked the beaches, returned a lot of salutes, and in the moments when I could break away from everyone else, would wander to a quiet corner of the American cemetery. It was in those quiet places that it became clear that there was something very wrong. I envied the people buried there. I coveted their freedom from the world, from the prison of their past, present, and futures. This is the nutshell version of the background to ‘That Moment’.
Nothing does a person more good than surviving having their ego crushed. How it happens matters less than the outcome. In my case, a lifetime of buried depression was coaxed to the surface by a series of seemingly inconsequential whatnot until I realized that what I had long assumed to be my only route to happiness was the exact thing that was keeping me from being happy. That one-sentence summary doesn’t do justice to the effort required to validate its accuracy; I don’t know how I survived 2004, honestly. Morbid curiosity, perhaps. Everything good I’d ever been or could ever hope to be was tied to who I was when I wore the uniform. It’s a dangerous thing to attach your self-worth to something so intangible.
If I had to choose one particular ‘moment’, it arrived outside of a tiny town named Cullen located on the northern coast of Scotland. A couple miles from the town along a very rocky shoreline, there is (inexplicably) a solitary wooden bench situated at the foot of a cliff facing the North Sea. I sat there completely alone on a very windy January day in 2005, watching the waves batter the rock outcroppings that comprised the ‘beach’, and decided once and for all the question regarding suicide. The decision had nothing to do with my suddenly being enamored with life. Far from it. There simply comes a time (a moment, perhaps) when even the most sensitive soul tires of its indecisive bullshit.
There are certainly ‘things’ much bigger than us in this world and the next, but we have to be bigger than our circumstances here and now, regardless of how painful or unfair. You are your prison. Save yourself. Or don’t.
Sir @ February 24, 2011