Ghosts: Part I

This has not been professionally edited so I welcome feedback, criticism and suggestions. This is the first part of three stories, all connected. I started to write this one several years ago while watching Platoon for maybe 50th time. The scene when Elias is running in an underground tunnel struck me as odd since everything I had read described them as much smaller. I had toyed around with a few parts of the story, deleted a lot, scrapped it all, wrote more, and then just sort of let it poor out. It dawned on me that this could be practically a book on its own but it fits the theme of a bigger picture I kind of envision. Anyway, enjoy. And again, I welcome any and all feedback.

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The watch said 9:48am. Bill immediately realized he had neglected the normal tear of black electrical tape that covered his illuminated watch, a small detail that seemed minuscule but could lead to the loss of his head. He began frantically looking for it, while simultaneously and unconsciously covering the watch with his right hand. On his knees and elbows, he quietly felt blindly with his left hand, inching in a confined space permitting only forward or backward movement, until he fell head first into an unknown abyss. A pungee trap. Bill held his breath, waiting for the sharpened bamboo poles to penetrate his skin. This was it, the final moments, the end of it all. Life being foreclosed on by something as stupid as forgetting to cover his damn watch face. Any time now.

After the waiting seemed endless Bill concentrated on his breathing, and let the air attempt to calm his body as it permeated his lungs, and slowly spread outward through his nostrils.

Focus. Breathe. Focus. Breathe.

He flew from the jungle and landed on his bedroom floor, waking up for maybe a third time, finally realizing he was home. Bill let out a sigh, rested his face in his palms, and nodded his head as sense was made. “I’m home. This is my room. I’m on the floor.”

He found his cigarettes on the night stand and shook one out, slowly placed it between his lips, and snagged the zippo loyally resting next to the rumpled pack. His thumb instinctively caressed the letters engraved on the lighter spelling the name Paul S Maschino.

A Sau Valley, April of 1966. Bill felt the memory through his bones. The notorious mile-wide NVA sanctuary haunted many men before, during, and after battles, confirming all fears and killing any perceived warmth. Bill’s platoon had been tasked with assessing the damage of a Special Forces camp that had been overrun, all knowing damn well that any remnants of American life were long gone.

They had stumbled upon a peculiar looking tree, her enormous trunk and legs overtaking a hill as home, and her back blending into the mist covered mountain range. The massive old lady lurched over her twelve, three, and nine with her hands and hair shielding ghosts from any possibility of sunlight, and taunting the living with deceiving comfort from the evil jungle. She had secrets, no doubt about it.

Their platoon setup camp 100 yards outside of the witching lady’s home. Sarge had been setting up a claymore mine when he’d nearly tumbled into a hole, excitedly calling attention with an adrenaline laced reaction. After some investigating it was confirmed to be a tunnel entrance about five yards deep, with two paths opposite of one another at the bottom. After conferencing with the LT in hushed tones and suspenseful stares, Sarge rejoined the amassed crowd around the hole. Bill’s stomach twisted and bottomed out, his face flushing and head getting dizzy. He knew what would be coming next and the anticipation nearly left him incapacitated.

At 5’6” with a wiry and scrawny frame, Bill had become the designated Tunnel Rat of his platoon. The brass would tell anyone that asked that he had bravely volunteered, but any ground humping soldier would call that a boldfaced lie. It didn’t matter, though. What bothered Bill the most was his physiological reaction every damned time this happened. There was an internal conflict between his mind and body, a battle his mind seemed to always win, but not before being shot, tortured, and narrowly fleeing the enemy grasp. It was a war within a war being fought in a war. There was no escape.

The first exploration of the tunnel was always an attempt to assess the unknown, a ridiculous and futile ritual that never provided any fruitful intelligence. This time was no different. Bill crawled about 15 yards into the south entrance that dug to the evil Mother Tree, equipped with only his flashlight, wit, and wars. The dark, black emptiness took over everything in and around it, a sensory deprivation chamber testing his psychological wherewithal and challenging all emotions. Bill turned off the flashlight to let his other senses try to take over. Any hint of irregularity was absolutely crucial to his survival and required 100% dedicated focus, something not easily attained by someone way too familiar with the ghosts that lived in the darkness. They begged for his attention, poking and whispering to him, aching for him to heal their loneliness and desperation. But Bill was now indifferent to the ghosts, a final transition from fear and sadness. Sometimes he even welcomed and talked to them, a reprieve from the tortuous reality. The ghosts sometimes helped him fight the wars.

As the black enveloped him and the ghosts let his senses takeover, Bill smelled smoke. The stagnating, tart and bitter smell was undeniable and certainly not stale. He felt his heart pound under his chest and the pressure of the ground above him, the fear leaking out of his pores and hands and feet. His pulsating blood felt like it was echoing throughout the tunnel, ready to scream any second. He wasn’t alone.

When Bill climbed out of the tunnel his face required no explanation of the anxiety. “I smelled smoke,” he said, his hands resting on his knees and eyes looking at nothing towards the ground as they became reacquainted to the light. “Tobacco smoke. Not old, not new, but someone’s either down there or went through that thing pretty recently.” His hands and arms began to shake and buckle, and he noticed a few rocks by his right foot. Bill instinctively picked them up and placed them in the right pocket of his OG 107 shirt.

“Which tunnel,” Sarge asked, his mouth remaining open and eyes trying to look stoic. “The north or south one?”

“South. The one heading towards that spooky fucking tree.”

Sarge looked at him and finally closed his mouth, knowing that Bill knew what was coming next, but he said it anyway. “I need you to check the north one before I send you down further, man.” He shook his head and put his hands on his hips, the telltale sign that more bullshit was about to spew from his thinned lipped, mustached mouth, the peach fuzz standing out amongst the maturing whiskers. He looked twelve years old in the faint light. “If I send you further south your six may not be secure.”

Yep, bullshit. Secure? What’s secure about any of this shit, man? It wasn’t that Bill didn’t want to investigate the north entrance; there was no realistic way of telling where the smoke had come from and the unknown just fueled one of the internal wars. There was also the fact that the north entrance lead away from that gnarly tree siren, so it felt the safer option of the two. No, what really bothered Bill was the justifying bullshit. Just more of the “same-same”, usually followed with “It ain’t nothing” by the receiving party, a go-to grunt phrase for “fuck it”. Trying to find the known in the unknown, cracks within shattered glass, shadows in permanent darkness. “That’s what all of this war is, man,” Bill thought. “You can’t make sense of any of it.”

“I’m taking the Colt this time,” Bill said, referring to the M1911 handgun, his only saving grace in any of the justifying crap governing his honorable position of Tunnel Rat. Sarge nodded. The others just stared at him as if foretelling his death, silently saying goodbye and wishing him good luck with the ghosts. The wave of silence wreaked of projected fear.

Bill crawled on his elbows towards the big, black empty, then paused once the light escaped. He turned on the flashlight and accidentally blinded himself, shaking his head rapidly and audibly cursing. He stood up pressing his arms outward. They grasped at the air, aimlessly moving around in their new found freedom. He had drifted off again. He turned on a light this time. The ghosts scattered and faded with the black. Bill had to get out of their, too.

It must have been Saturday. He smelled bacon and knew that dad was cooking breakfast, something he only did during the weekend. Bill started to trek out of the basement, kicking over empty beer bottles and stepping on crumpled letters he had written but could never finish. They were now fragments of history left in clues of broken thoughts, childish promises, and tainted dreams.

The door at the top of the stares looked ominous and unattainable. The leaking light etched out of the bottom and sides, and the sounds of life going on without him made his stomach twirl and head feel faintish. The stairs and it’s path were dark, cold, and dreary, like the tunnel he now lived in. The wars would never cease. There was no leaving them and Bill had accepted that fact. The ghosts welcomed his wars.

There was an ending of the north tunnel but Bill couldn’t tell if it was dead or not. The light from his flashlight blunted and faintly splashed when directed straight forward. It had to be about 30 yards ahead.

If he crawled backward and left the tunnel, he knew they would just ask more stupid questions that they all knew had no answers, and then send him right back down to find the unknown answers to the pointless questions. If he continued he could die, the only answer any of them knew was real, but acknowledging reality was long lost in this war. Hope for the improbable was always the answer in all the flawed logic. Bill realized that continuing required less effort and anguish, and he was just too damned tired, too damned cold, and too damned immune to the ghosts to care. It ain’t nothing.

As he inched his way forward Bill tried to simultaneously focus on what he could smell. The air was saturated with earthy and musky scents, a sourness and bitter sweetness as they blended with his own body odor. He knew the smells would soon be forgotten as his senses became habituated so he paused, turned off the flashlight, and focused.

Breath. Focus. Breath. Focus.

Mom, dad, and Timmy were sitting at the table, their eyes focused on eggs, the paper, and the back of a cereal box respectively. They glanced at Bill briefly but quickly returned to their aimless duties. Timmy looked so young, so naive, and so clean. He had wanted so badly for Bill to go fishing with him and run through the woods, to go relive moments of their childhood. At three years apart Timmy looked like a younger version of Bill, his coal colored hair and green eyes a mirror of his own. The age differences were barely recognizable before the war but now stood out like red in a sea of blue.

Bill still loved him. Timmy had written many times, the letters full of home happenings and future plans. Bill had at first responded excitedly and timely, but then the war happened and the war spawned other wars, and those wars birthed more wars, and eventually all the wars saturated him until there was nothing but wars. A buddy of Bill’s at Fort Campbell had told him that he knew three people that weren’t sent to The Shit because they were “only son’s”, no male siblings younger or older. Bill had forgotten about it until the wars started to take over. A faint resentment slowly became prominent no matter how hard he fought it, becoming another one of the many battles he now lived in. He just couldn’t tell Timmy he still loved him, but he did.

“I’m going to head out soon,” Bill suddenly blurted out, his eyes fixated on a ceramic cup and right hand nervously fidgeting with Paul S Maschino’s zippo in his pocket. They just stared at him, the silence thick, just like the soldiers before he went tunnel diving. The tension was saturated with sadness, like a grey cloud taking over what was at first a sunny and happy morning. This cloud seemed to follow Bill everywhere now. The ghosts couldn’t go with him without it, and Bill had become a ghost in this life. The cold, dark, and empty basement called his name.

As Bill peered down the stairs and shut the door behind him, a battle roared within. He had to leave the house, he knew it, but his body just couldn’t gain the strength to move into the light. He crept down the steps, the ghosts now coming out to play with other friends, cheering each other on as they pulled Bill deeper into the tunnel. How could he deny them attention? He owed them his life, a bargaining chip they never let him forget.

Bill could now see light escape downward to another part of the tunnel when the flashlight was directed forward. He was maybe five yards from the hole that probably fed into a larger section. There was a sudden feeling of admiration for the ingenuity and dedication of the tunnel laborers. Bill pictured them as little ants, painstakingly digging and fortifying and digging and fortifying, tirelessly and devotedly working until their underground fortress was secured and approved. The floor felt solid, cool, and smooth.

When Bill was about two yards away from the hole he stopped to contemplate his options. He could hover over and shine the flashlight down to get a full glimpse but that could be very deadly. Bob Schneider, one of the ghosts that Bill lived with, had his head blown into smashed puzzle pieces when he poked it down a similar hole. They were exploring a man-made cave a few patrols back and Schneider was a loyal soldier that did what good soldiers were told to do. An NVA soldier was awaiting with an AK-47. Bill was pretty sure Schneider was happy that he kept his head after he died, forever 19 years old and devoid of physical scars as a ghost. Bill sure as hell was happy about it.

He blinked his eyes a few times and then remembered the rocks. Elated, he mentally patted himself on the back and a smile invaded one of the wars. He placed the Colt in front of him to free his right hand, and pulled out one of the rocks from his shirt pocket. Pausing again, Bill outlined the potential outcomes of throwing the rock down the hole. The rendered sounds of the rock after being thrown could tell him several things he desperately needed know. Was their a splash? Did it bounce? Was there an echo? Was the landing a dull thud or a metallic clang? Were there multiple landings? With his elbow on the tunnel floor and his arm extended upward, he measured the permissible range he had. There was maybe a foot of available space above his clamped fist, so he inched forward a bit more, turned the flashlight off and placed it near the Colt, and tried to devote all his energy to the rock. When it left his opened hand he pictured it penetrating the dead air and eerie space, trying to will it towards an unknown destination to give him some sort of reassurance there was an answer. He heard a dull thud, then a subtle scraping sound, and then another dull thud. Then nothing. He replayed the sounds in his head over and over again, then felt his eyes widen. His mouth was agape, dry and desperate, and trying not to allow his body to breathe. His tongue clamped to its roof, forcing air to retreat out the nose. His heart thumped so hard he could feel it vibrating his teeth. The fight was intense and his mind was losing.

Bill felt a cold, intense pressure on his left shoulder and his body instinctively shuttered, forcing him to shift completely to his right side. His right elbow, right hip, and right leg the only parts of him that now burrowed into the tunnel floor.

The color of the bullets being fired to his left illuminated everything around him, and the sounds deafened him instantly. The disheveled black hair, bright teeth, and the whites of the angry eyes firing the AK-47 flashed on and off like a strobe light. The soldiers face contorted in an evil yet scared battle cry, confident he was about to murder him but afraid of the unknown. It was an ironic fate they both shared, an improbable situation in any other life but this one.

Bill slammed the rifle down with his left arm, lunged his body down and forward, and wrapped his right arm around the back of the soldiers head. It was pitch black again, and the ringing in his ears stabbed his brain and blocked any other sound. They pushed, pressed, grabbed, and scratched, their bodies dancing together with death. Two flies struggling in the web of a nightmare come true, both wanting to wake up but knowing the spider wouldn’t let both escape.

Bill felt a bite on his right thumb and an arm frantically trying to get out from under him. He pushed the soldiers head downward into the edge of the hole and shifted as much pressure as he could on top of it, feeling his own body start to familiarize itself with the entrance of the hole the brave fighter emerged from. The adrenaline of his foe must have given his body a shot of strength as it pushed upward and back, forcing Bill’s shoulders to hit the tunnel ceiling and inch slightly forward. Bill kept his right arm tightly around his enemy’s neck and let his left arm join it, pushing all of his strength to counter the opposing force. He started to feel uneven vibrations on his forearm that were persistent but progressively getting weaker. The soldier was regurgitating, fighting for breath and desperately trying to untangle from the pretzel their bodies had morphed into. Then there was a collapse, a few inches of pressure relieved, and a slow and faint bubble felt drifting from one end to the other of Bill’s arm. He visualized the life leaving the body of his enemy, scared and trembling and weary. The ghosts would let him join Bill’s other wars.

Bill dragged the body back towards the tunnel entrance. It was an awkward, challenging effort. When the light of the tunnel entrance provided some reprieve of the darkness he stopped to catch his breath, then yelled out, “I’m clear. I got the smoker.” He heard the cheers and yells and chaos in jumbled muffles, his ears still clogged with ringing. Bill looked down and saw that his dead acquaintance was grasping the Colt, something he must have found when struggling under his body. Bill cursed himself, shaking his head, marveling at how lucky he was to escape the web. He decided to go through the soldiers belongings before it all disappeared. There was a journal, some rice balled up in seaweed wrappers, and a zippo with some engravings on it. He held the zippo up towards the light and read the name: Paul S Maschino.

The cling and clang of the zippo opening and shutting brought Bill back home again. He was sitting on a step in the middle of the stairs, peering into nothing while unconsciously fidgeting with the lighter. Maybe the ghosts would help him find Paul’s family. It was a purpose, a mission, something they could all relate to. He looked at his watch again. It was 10:05am.

The Jungle

(This has not been professionally edited).

Private First Class Collins sat in a bomb crater staring into nothingness. It was pitch black. It was so dark that there’s not even a comparison to accurately describe the experience; like a sensory deprivation chamber, a living wall of emptiness. He could close his eyes and not notice an even slight difference other than feeling his eyelids.

They were somewhere near Khe Sanh, he thinks. He did know that the year was 1969. The jungle was all the same, though. It somehow managed so swallow everything, including light. Even the living were consumed by it, insects, snakes, and humans alike, becoming chameleons. Relenting to the forces of this great power.

Out of habit, Collins would bring his hand up to what he perceived was his face, trying to use feeling to guide him, but he’d never be able to see it. The jungle wouldn’t allow it. He’d feel his emaciated cheeks with the invisible hand, touching trenches filled with jungle, the painful sandbags under his eyes. Collins looked like a hardened, middle aged man despite barely being 19 years old. He had a birthday recently but can’t remember when; every single day was the same when they were on the jungles time.

The jungle even literally consumed her surroundings. During one patrol, many moons ago, they came upon an old and abandoned village overrun with the jungle and all her green, vengeful glory. He started to picture how it was once a thriving little economy, the busy inhabitants running about to keep it alive, each person isolated to roles collectively essential for survival. Fighting off the jungles relentless limbs with homemade tools and controlled fires, sometimes twice a day.

There were remnants of a battle, bomb craters and shattered trees. The villagers must have finally given up. The jungle didn’t want them living in her home, and the North Vietnamese Army probably wanted the territory and the men. Hopefully some of them left alive.

The village then slowly became a part of the jungle. It was no longer living. A blanket was pulled over it, the jungles fingers interlocking throughout the mud and thatched houses. Consumed.

The jungle would even swallow people. They would just vanish, scooped up by a monstrous green arm and eaten alive. Sometimes entire helicopters would even disappear. Sure, they’d look for them, but to no avail. The official write-ups would list them as “Missing in Action”. They were assumed dead, another breakfast for the jungle. Now she let them be ghosts confined to her shadows.

Collins wasn’t a full thousand yarder but he had at least three-fourths of the stare, something attained quite some time ago. Part of him tried to remain cognizant of the darkness taking over, painstakingly hanging on to an out of reach light. He knew the turmoil, loss, happiness, and death of war, the essential degrees required to graduate from a “fuckin’ new guy”, or FNG, to a soldier. He rode through this part of life on a magic eight ball not knowing what was coming next, until finally there was the metaphorical snap. The gate keeper clapped their hands, nodded it’s head, and revealed the tunnel. “You must now enter,” he said. There was no retreat. The jungle opened her mouth and he cautiously stepped in, keeping only one foot out.

When he broke that threshold he found his senses tuned to a different life, a new world, the other side of now. Mostly in but partly out, cold and hot at the same time, but never just right. Like feeling the tingling of hair perked by something invisible and horrifying for only a brief moment, then bam – it was front and center. Not quite a sixth sense, but maybe a five and a half.

Collins dreamed. It was his only solace. The living world bore too many fears and pain, so the dreaming world was where he chose to reside. That is whenever the jungle let him, of course. Yes, the breathing world, the painful world, the actual world that someone would maybe pass him in with no memorable thought, was horrible. Reality was, and is, just too unbearable. No reality like his could actually exist, he thought, at least to normal humans. No one could actually sit in a black hole, become one with a metaphorical hell, and lose their self somewhere out in a vast and never-ending nothing. “What the fuck do I even call that?” He’d think. “Space? Am I an astronaut lost from his ship? Doomed to just exist and eat from hope, orbiting alone and pretending I have some sort of control in this…world?”

Collins couldn’t dream when it rained, though. The monsoon season in Vietnam woke up a different type of jungle monster. She was the jungles darker and more morbid twin, sinister and hungry for pain and evilness and death. There was at least some form of occasional grace in the jungle alone; she’d let him escape reality within her darkness, albeit briefly and randomly. But when the rain monster was awake, forget about it. His misery simply wasn’t enough. She wanted him to feel every bit of her wrath, smacking him in the face, a reminder that he’s an unwanted intruder. And since Collins wasn’t leaving anytime soon, she was going to make him smell, touch, eat, and live every evil thing about her until he was permanently a part of her. She’d take a brief nap and awaken hungrier, growing stronger and stronger and stronger each and every time. And the stronger she grew, the weaker Collins became. The rain monster loved seeing someone break.

It had rained so much for so long that Collins couldn’t even walk. His feet had ballooned they were so saturated with water, and his boots now sat somewhere out there floating in the jungles ocean. And to make reality even worse they were trapped, both by the jungle and by the enemy. The bomb crater they now lived in at least provided cover from enemy fire, and the claymores surrounding them were enough to apparently deter the enemy from swimming over and saying hello. Or maybe the jungle did. He didn’t know anymore. All he knew was that the last time he could see something other than black it was a horror movie.

“Paul”, whose real name was too damn complicated for their young, ignorant brains to pronounce, was face down in a concoction of blood and water and mud. He was a former NVA soldier that fled to one of the US base camps, eventually becoming a scout after they squeezed all the intelligence they could out of him.

Paul’s right arm was pulled behind him and resting on his back, the palm clutching his skin, and his shoulder mostly severed, clinging to his body with shreds of skin and cloth. Collins couldn’t see his face but he bet it held a smile. He had finally joined his wife and three children. They were no longer in the jungles belly.

Sergeant Banks was staring at him. He had his right hand open on the ground with the radio handle effortlessly resting inside of it. His left hand was still grasping the butt of an enemy AK-47, a prized possession he was very proud of, stripped from a dead foe that had killed the point man leading team Alpha a few weeks prior. Or was it yesterday? Who fucking knew anymore, man.

Banks was shot through the neck and somewhere else in his torso but Collins couldn’t tell where. He had definitely been yelling in the radio before dying, begging for air support and an extraction. “No can do,” they had said. The rain monster wouldn’t let them, her foggy hair too thick. She smothered them with her spider web; this was her home and they were her meal. “Stay the fuck away unless you want to be my snack.”

The remaining four soldiers were all wounded with half of them begging for life to please, please, please not go away. Collins had taken shrapnel in the back of his right thigh and near his right shoulder blade. “Just some scratches,” he thought. They were easily ignored in this horror movie.

He felt his eyes close again. Banks was still staring at him. Collins couldn’t look away. Sarge was a good dude, very fair and protective. The last conversation they had was about hunting, and both agreed they’d never step foot in the woods again after going home. The scars of the jungle had already been left in the future, tainting all known peace they had found as avid hunters. Happy memories now long gone, replaced by vivid scenes of the jungle confining them in her jail.

Banks must have been trying to tell Collins something. His lips were parted, the red and white teeth vibrantly standing out in the dirt and blood-crusted face. There was no giving up for Sarge, that’s for goddamned sure. He never relented to the jungle, only succumbing after exhausting every ounce of his life. An unknown he pushed against as hard as he could, until it unveiled the face of Banks end. It was the jungle, man. The goddamned jungle. Her wretched, gloomy face, opened arms and parted hair.

Collins tried to imagine what Banks had been dreaming about prior to that moment. Maybe he could join him since he couldn’t have his own dreams. Eventually, in some unknown time on the jungles watch, with the rain still drowning him, Collins faded into Banks. There was a reprieve of sunshine that could be tasted, smelled, and felt on his face. Paul was there, too. They were now back in the village they had stumbled on some time back. The jungle hadn’t eaten it yet, and the inhabitants were busy staying alive. A few disheveled kids were playing with an emaciated dog, an elderly woman was boiling a massive pot of rice, and an old man was observing from afar. He smiled at them, revealing Betal Nut stained teeth.

Banks and Collins were sharing a tree stand, carefully watching for NVA and supper. They observed Paul kneeled over four graves silently praying, slightly weeping, wishing he could take time back. Paul had found them in there home. After fleeing the NVA he’d hidden in the vast and dark spaces of the jungle for two weeks, carefully deceiving his pursuers with tracks leading far away from the village, and letting his primal instincts keep him alive. It didn’t work.

The old man told Paul they came, killed, took, and were coming back to maybe kill more and maybe take more. Maybe they would spare the life of the remaining villagers, useless old women and men, a few children, but only if Paul returned to his battalion. Paul knew better, so the decision had been made to leave. The American’s had promised something better, something different, a new home away from the jungle and all her death. The price offered was a better opportunity than the alternative. The jungles toes and hands had already started to grow into their home. This time, they wouldn’t fight her.

Collins awakened on the floor of a Huey, the pulsating beats of the rotors reverberating throughout his body. A medic had carefully made a make-shift IV and greeted him with a smile. There was sunlight. Maybe he was still dreaming.

After several repeated screams from the medic Collins learned he was alive. There was still a sleepy fog permeating his body, the jungle lingering, still thirsty for the blood it milked from his body. He was halfway out of her mouth though, finally escaping her prison. He was going to make it.

Collins leaked a triumphant smile while closing his eyes, then flipped the jungle a middle finger, and said hi to Banks. He was still staring at him.

September 22, 2019

(This was originally written and posted to an online group on 9/22/2019. The focus of the group is Stoicism and recovery)

A couple weeks ago I was in bed reading ~11p and an email popped up. It caught my eye since the sender isn’t someone I communicate with much, so I opened it. Turned out to be an email I wasn’t supposed to be sent, which detailed financials that had been hidden from me. To save you the boring details, the company is quickly spiraling in the red and if something doesn’t change, we will have to dissolve it in early 2020. As a partner, I should’ve have known this.

I was livid, and rightfully so. I got up and paced, typed up several responses and deleted them all, chain smoked, and just got more and more angry. And then the urge to drink came on very strong and persisted to the point it was all I was obsessing about – the excuses to do so, how I could get away with it, how I would hide it, the typical justifications.

I kind of went on autopilot; it was a really strange feeling. I ended up at the liquor store where I decided to buy a fifth of rum since it was too late for me to get drunk quick enough on beer. The liquor store employees all remembered me. It was rather funny – it used to be embarrassing seeing them all the time, but this occasion felt like a warm embrace of long-lost friends.

When I got home I sat the bottle in front of me and just starred at it. I tried very hard to understand what it was about this drug that has so much power over my rational thoughts. Why is it so easy to rely on it for coping? Why can’t I just “be normal”?

I decided that I’d drink it after trying some writing first. I began a gratitude list, which wasn’t easy given my mindset at the time, and it grew into a list of everything I’m thankful for since getting sober. The beautiful things about life that I wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for sobriety. I then read through some of my favorite Stoicism quotes, and began meditating in the most purest form I’ve been able to do. Then I poured the fucker out, had a good cry, and went to bed.

Reflecting now, as I have been daily on this event, the empowerment that Stoicism has given me is such a gift. This was definitely a defcon 5, “oh fuck me”, type of moment where I almost broke, but I didn’t break, like the thousand times before finding Stoicism. Digging into the present, sorting out the elements of control not in my power and what is in my power, then intensifying my focus on what I can do at this very moment. Realizing the beauty of life, the indifference of nature, and how my role in it is up to me. Having these amazing words from ancient philosophers that echo profoundly in real life situations today that inspire and boost my clarity of life is just amazing.

My cup truly truly runneth over.

Some quotes that helped me:

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” – Marcus Aurelius

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” – Frankl

“That which could be done, can be done, if only we purify our souls and follow Nature; for when one strays away from Nature one is compelled to crave, and fear, and be a slave to the things of chance.” – Seneca, On the Fickleness of Fortune

“We should strive, not to live long, but to live rightly; for to achieve long life you have need of Fate only, but for right living you need the soul.” – Seneca, Letter 93

“You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you were capable of, not even yourself.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

“Now all the things which cause us to groan or recoil, are part of the tax of life—things, my dear Lucilius, which you should never hope and never seek to escape… A long life includes all these troubles, just as a long journey includes dust and mud and rain.” – Seneca, Letter 96, On Facing Hardships

“What good do I get then?’ What greater good do you look for than this? You were shameless and shall be self-respecting, you were undisciplined and shall be disciplined, untrustworthy and you shall be trusted, dissolute and you shall be self-controlled. If you look for greater things than these, go on doing as you do now: not even a god can save you.” – Epictetus

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” – Marcus Aurelius

“It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.” – Marcus Aurelius

“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?” – Epictetus

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” – Epictetus

“Only time can heal what reason cannot.”
Seneca

“Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.”
Seneca

Walking Point

The following post is a section of a book I’ve been collectively working on for around 12 years. It hasn’t been edited, and 90% of the entire book (about 60% complete) has been hand written then typed, or typed by my thumbs and transferred later to the Word document. I say this to note that it is truly a draft, not a manuscript, and hasn’t been properly vetted to be an actual book…yet. In other words, it may very well be shit as written, so I welcome criticism.

In our wonderful, free, and litigious world, it is a risk to publish historical works. Libel is a particular concern, both directly and indirectly. I’ve done my best as a pure amateur to change names and omit certain details to avoid any potential problems.

I was inspired to write it after hearing some experiences of my Uncle Terry, husband of my beautiful Aunt Susan Engledow, in the Vietnam War. I then grew enough balls to ask him if he would sit down and personally talk to me about his time as a soldier in “The Shit”.

My interest in this particular war began in a creative writing class at IU. We were assigned an analytical project involving Tim O’Brian’s “The Things They Carried”. I’ve lost track of how many books I’ve read about the war since then. I’ve also had the privilege and honor to speak with a ton of the authors and other Vietnam War veterans during the process.

I can’t pinpoint one exact reason why this particular war triggered such passion within me, but one reason is due to how they were generally treated when returning home. I couldn’t understand how a person could be shamed for defending their country. It didn’t matter if they had volunteered or been drafted – the label was the same. Here I was, a 22 year old momma’s boy partying his way through college with no idea what to do with his life, and these boys, mostly younger than me at that time, were fighting in a very odd, intense war. I was a walking definition of immaturity, your classic spoiled rotten “bro”, and these guys had lived twice my life in the span of a year (sometimes more or less). My respect and awe for that isolated fact alone was, and is, incredible.

The trauma endured by the soldiers in battle was immense and unfathomable to an every day person, and to be scolded by the nation you returned home to seems atrocious to me, and a crime in and of itself. I had an intense craving to understand the why’s and how’s, and to vicariously live through these hero’s lives to fulfill it.

Over the years the book has changed several times, once attempting to be a memoir, and then a fictional story based on my Uncle Terry’s experiences. I think the overall theme now is the journey, with the intent being to let the everyday person “feel” what soldiers like my dear uncle experienced (and still experience). I also wanted to originally publish it without sharing some of it first, but my mind changed after reading a recent article about the alarming rate of veteran suicide. In the times we’re living in now, I firmly believe we need every bit of our love and attention directed to what we can do to help in whatever capacity we can offer. There’s also now an extreme void between the American collective reminiscent of the Vietnam War era. I see a bifurcation previously perceived as political rivalry magnified and aggravated to raw hate. I don’t feel content riding the independent line with the “can’t we all get along” motto any longer. If I can help in my small role within this strange and beautiful cycle of the universe, I better at least try to do so.

After 9/11, I never thought I’d bare witness to someones patriotism being questioned due to a race, religion or political affiliation, but man or man, I am. I see it everyday. So I’m going to take a few steps back to try to paint a picture of life, lived and lost, of some hero’s, in dedication to and in honor of my awesome Uncle Terry, aka the fanny pack hero, aka the grouch, aka husband, father, grandfather, and treasured human being.

Walking Point:

There’s something to be said about being brave. The first definition that comes up describes it as “ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.”

It takes an incredible human being to volunteer their life to a country, a fact most people don’t acknowledge. It is a selfless act that all soldiers deserve recognition for. A soldier throws half their body into the dance with death by going to war; a point man extends the tango with practically their entire body, trumped only by a voluntary plunge to save another human’s life – the ultimate human sacrifice.

As defined, a point man is “the soldier who takes point; the soldier who assumes the first and most exposed position in a combat military formation; the lead soldier/unit advancing through hostile or unsecured territory.” As you can imagine, the point man was the most vulnerable soldier in an advancing platoon, blindly walking into potential death with every step. They were often times used as “bait” to lure enemies out of ambush positions.

The point man had to learn how to live only in the present, and tune out the world not directly impacting the next moment. It required him to push the boundaries of his senses, in tune with the minutia of every smell, sight, and sound. A hint of cigarette smoke, an out of place vine in a maze of the treacherous jungle, a faint rustle of leaves. Some of the most experienced point men learned to even distinguish the smells of piss and shit from enemies and friendlies. They could apply arithmetic to pressure induced sounds, keenly aware of if it was an animal that broke a twig or a human foot, and how far away the sound was.

The point man had to be the senses for his brothers, too, and his brothers had to trust the point man’s senses. He was their flashlight in a dark gauntlet of unknowns where death was constantly present. It is cliche to say that their lives were in the point man’s hands, but that is the best way to understand the situation. The men were told that their mission required them to go explore a complete strangers house, and the point man was in charge of knocking on the door. This was not a request of the men with a debatable response – it was a demand, and any deviation from the one and only response could lead to many repercussions, including imprisonment. This was their job, often described as a soldier’s duty.

Walking point is also used to describe an entire squad leading the mission of a platoon. During one mission, (insert date and location?) my Uncle Terry’s squad had been assigned to walk point for the third day in a row, a questionable and reckless order that had to be a mistake. There were two other squads in his particular platoon, and rotation was the standard rule of thumb, both for the platoon (point squad) and squads (point man). Uncle Terry was also up to lead the point squad as point man.

As a squad leader, the responsibility of talking to the lieutenant (LT) about the point assignment rested on Uncle Terry’s shoulders. Doing so was no easy task; it was a roll of dice with no accurate way to predict the outcome, a finite mathematic problem with shaky logic. An entirely different dance with fate. The LT could angrily chastise the Squad Leader, threatening a demotion and throwing him personally into the role of leading as point man. He could also humbly recognize the error and react accordingly. One had to weigh several factors, quickly, to justify the questioning of an order. This particular time the probability of a favorable response was greater, and the LT assigned the correct squad to walk point.

The assigned point man was described as a good ol’ boy, young and relatively fresh to the war, a “cherry” in Vietnam War era parlance. He was killed while walking point. The lieutenant was shot three times and survived.

Death. Such a profound, succinct word, encompassing so much yet defining something so simple and concrete. You would think that a word such as this would have multiple syllables and compounds. It’s a word feared and scolded, laughed at and played with, and often used out of context. It dabbles in hindsight, a distant glow of a bigger picture where the focus is on something completely opposite. A lurking shadow we often forget about.

For soldiers like Uncle Terry, death was the complete opposite in this war. It faced them front and center, blunted other thoughts, and pulled them back from any attempt to escape. Their world was a living view through a telescope where death was the ground and air, magnified and permeating every breath. There was a delicate balance of respect and fear for death, but fear gradually declined and words like “imminent” and “inevitable” became prominent adjectives. They realized that death couldn’t be cheated, escaped from, or lied to. It was their world.

For those fortunate to leave the war alive, they quickly realized that death still lingered. It persisted in nightmares, memories, faces, sounds, and smells. The revered senses that helped keep them alive had been so entrenched in survivalist mentality that the new normal was living halfway in deaths clenches.

Yes, there’s something to be said about being brave. “Am I brave for living through the war? Am I brave for touching this dead soldiers name on a wall? Am I brave for for my decisions that helped keep me and my men alive?” These are questions pondered by brave men still walking point. They walk it now in a life where cause and effect are very prominent. Living carries a new meaning, and death is just another outcome. They’ve become desensitized to death.

For some, death becomes the more desired effect. They walk point in a new world where the past lives in their mind, only the new world doesn’t understand them. They are an odd number, an outcast, a pariah. The world doesn’t see the bravery in waking up each day from a night full of real horror. Death was once feared but they relent to an end. Walking point for so long with an anchor strapped tightly to their feet, dragging and pulling each and every moment of death becomes too burdensome. The memory of Big Jeff, the mild-mannered boy from Minneapolis that was a friend for 161 days, and then taken by death when he triggered a booby trap, the grenade rendering him a closed casket funeral in less than three seconds. He tried several times to remember his green eyes, the radiating smile, his laugh when he talked about ice fishing adventures back home. “That boy loved him some fishing. Hell, he’d fish in a firefight if we’d let him.”

Those thoughts never last, though. Death just won’t let them. They get intruded by the memories of blood, body parts, screams, cries, and confusion. The memory of trying to find Big Jeff’s left arm so he could at least go home with what he died with. How he had volunteered to walk point that day since Allen was killed the night before during an ambush.

When walking point in The Shit, there was at least support with the anchor. Your brothers would help you carry that damn thing, subtly but noticeably. There was a nod of understanding, a simple pat on the shoulder, an offering of a cigarette followed by a shared silence. “I know, brother. I know.”

Walking point now, even with the threat of death not directly permeating every step, seems more tiresome. It is lonely. The jungle and shadows are still there, just replaced by stares of disdain, hubris and shame. Empathy is gone. Maybe being brave is now an escape to leave this world that forgot him. He’s been grounded by the anchor now, it’s weight buried too deeply in a once brightly illuminated path. It had happiness once. He just can’t do it any longer, this walking point in a dark and cold world. Maybe he’ll just go back to The Shit. Big Jeff might be there. He’ll probably take him fishing.

Yes, there’s indeed something to be said about being brave.

What I’ve Found

Laughter

In corners dark

In distant voices

Sweetness in subtleties surrounding me with joy

Moments

Precious seconds prominent

Time no longer a burden

Gratitude and grace

Peace

Treacherous storms calmed by sunlight

Fresh air soothing tainted breaths

Natures rhythm pulsing, pounding, pouring

Pain no longer permeating my abode

Smiles

In frowns perceived

In hands shunned

In memories ignored

In a future once bleak

Gratitude

For the wind dancing in my hair

The sun kissing my face

Sunlight breaching the sky,

stretching her fingers into darkness

Love

In a world once full of sadness, hate, misery

In a pedal of a tiger lily,

The breath of new life

Boundaries breached by beauty

Becoming one with earth

Her song singing within me

Love in all of life.