The Soldier Thing
I dreamt that I was in my late thirties, still married to Anne, with a mortgage and a young daughter. We were living in Charlevoix, the quiet, pretty harbor town where Anne and I were married. We had gone into business for ourselves, and when we weren't attending Rowan's school functions, we were spending our time managing a small used bookstore/cafe on Charlevoix's main drag.
It was a lot of work, but the place was our to mold as we pleased, and between our combined efforts, we managed to turn the place into a quiet, homey storefront that drew respectable business. It allowed me to take charge of my own career, and more importantly, to nurture in myself the kind of person I'd always wanted to be. It wasn't much, but it was a nice dream to have, and in that dream I found myself approaching middle age and happy.
I've been turning over the issue of my career a lot in my head lately, and I have to admit: as more time goes by, the less certain I am about my future. I'm finding myself saddled with a few misgivings about my current line of work, but given the many choices available to me, I find that the easy ones--or even the socially-sanctioned "right" ones--still come up lacking in terms of where I want to be in 10 years.
This fact was driven home to me most recently with the return of my platoon from a 2-month mission halfway across the country. I was sidelined in November by a shoulder injury, so since then I have been stuck on-post as part of our Rear Detachment. I've since recovered in full, but as my squad returns and we go back to the usual workcycle of the combat environment, I find myself, more and more, turning over a disturbing piece of information about myself.
I'm not a soldier.
This information only recently came to my attention, but looking at how I interact with my squadmates, I have to wonder just how obvious it's been. Sure, I carry a weapon, and sure I wear an American flag patch on my shoulder, but as far as that whole "Warrior Ethos" thing is concerned, I look within myself and I don't really know if I see all that.
I'll be honest: at heart, I'm something of a hippie, and though I hate to admit it, very much the romantic. I love my books and my writing; I miss my long walks along the Huron shoreline. I miss talking politics with my wife over cups of strong coffee at our old bagel shop in Marquette. I miss wandering with her through strange residential neighborhoods and admiring quaint, historic architecture. I miss my old brand of cigarette, washed down with a dark beer to the tune of a little Miles Davis or Norah Jones. As time goes on, I find myself missing a lot of things, and the sad fact is, the more time goes on, the more I realize that the Army, no matter how good the pay might be, will never let me fully enjoy those. It will never let me go to sleep with the knowledge that, when I wake, I can expect the other side of the bed to still be warm with my sleeping wife's body heat.
Back in the rear, once the uniform came off, I could just disappear into a crowd and never be noticed. I speak German with a fair level of proficiency, and unlike a lot of soldiers, my manner suggests neither the ramrod bearing nor half-witted bravado that identifies most servicemen in public. People in Germany tend to assume I'm English, or otherwise that I'm simply a clean-cut American student living abroad. This may sound strange to some people, but as proud as I am of my service, I'm more proud of the fact that, once I lose the boots and beret, I'm able to just Drop The Damned Soldier Thing. The person that wears these boots is not the same as the person who steps out of them.
In my room, next to my bed, I have a collection of photos formed into a collage on one wall. The photos were shot over the course of several years; from the beginning of my relationship with Anne to the last few weeks before I shipped out for Iraq. For the most part, I think they're all good shots. Most of the photos are of scenery--sunrises over Lake Superior; the tree-lined street in Port Austin where I grew up, a scene of Lake Huron whipped by gray skies and rain. In the center, however, are the few shots of people that I find really mean the most to me.
Three of them are shots of myself and Anne: at 20, lying on our backs on the commons lawn of Marquette Park on Mackinac; one of me kissing Anne's cheek, rail-thin and pale from the hardscrabble days of my post-collegiate poverty. In the center, we're shown sitting in a dive bar in Bad Axe, Michigan, sharing beers with my childhood friend Ackerman and his fiancee. In this last shot, I'm slouched back in my seat, grinning sly and throwing The Horns with one fist. A Turkish Silver dangles from my lip. My wife sits pressed against me, fingering the curves of her Smirnoff bottle and giving the camera a coy smirk. Ackerman and his girl look amused but out of place, though all the same we make a cute foursome; straight-laced bemusement contrasting with erudite bravado. It's like Penn Gillette sharing a beer with Tyler Durden. It reminds me of happier times.
The most unusual picture, however, lies below the shots of me and Anne--for what would I be without her love and friendship? It's a picture of myself, taken perhaps three weeks before I deployed, standing self-assuredly astride a boulder above the Sturgeon River Falls. I look to be in my prime; young, confident, unshaven. It's the kind of photo I'd want my grandkids to see when remembering me. It might be a little vain to have a photo of yourself, but the thing is, that photo reminds me of a part of myself that the Army can never take away. I look at that photo to remember that there is a world beyond this micromanaged, artificial life that is the military.
I look at that photo, and for a second I can remember something beyond the 0630 wake-up for PT; remember a world where there's more to life that your last test-fire score, or how clean your rifle looks. I look at that one shot, and I remember a world that exists beyond this miserable shithole; beyond the lies and high-powered egos that put us here. I remember myself, and as I consider the possibility of reenlistment with the Army, I have to remember for a moment, that there are just some things that the Army will never be able to give me.
And one of those things is me.
Big things are coming down the line. I have to disappear for a couple of days.