When we were still in Hawaii, we learned a close Marine had committed suicide. There wasn’t much opportunity to reconcile this during predeployment training. A series of heavy fatalities awakened the need to connect with the unresolved emotions service members so often never have a chance to address. In my first year at St. Thomas, I rewrote this as a story that was published in the Summit Avenue Review. It appears here in its original form.
I suppose you’d call it meditation, contemplation, or being lost. I’ve stared into the blackness so many times now. The sheer unknown, non-attributed void heightens awareness and thought. I look for myself there. I look for other answers. It’s an act of humanity, an act of living to stare, to wonder, to attempt to know what there is amidst the blackness. After a while, it seems as if you’re staring at death.
The computer screen is staring back at me. A technological phenomenon that has latched itself to my hands and eyes, internet brings me multimedia messages from thousands of miles away. Checking my mail and keeping my family updated has become an inextinguishable habit. I log in, double click on Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Outlook, let the computer percolate, and I’m suddenly a member of my family again. But not tonight.
Not for the last three nights. When there’s been a death overseas, all communication freezes until it has been sorted out, and I can only stare at the purposeless machine the computer has become, and wonder. They call the communication blackout ‘River City.’
Death is the commander-in-chief. While family is being informed of the blunt cruelty of war, all communication outside of operations ceases. The base is a locked down vault, until the soul has been released. Marines talk less on base too, it seems. During these social quarantines, my mind naturally turns to the spiritual.
This time it was three Marines on a dismounted patrol who lost their lives to an unlucky IED strike by the enemy. A few in a row actually, whose impact was tangibly felt across work.
Goose, a coworker I’ve befriended since working nights, stands between me and the emptiness. “There’s a ramp ceremony at 2130. A bunch of us are going. You wanna come?”
I didn’t personally know the Marines who passed, but an incomplete memory craved this consolation.
I knew a young man- Dustin. The day of the Marine Corps Ball in November was the last time I hung out with him, and I’ve looked back at that moment often.
We’ve been driving down Peach Orchard Road for fifteen minutes. I’ve made two U-turns, but the guest-of-honor’s daughter must have a bouquet. You’d think a flower shop wouldn’t be too hard to find given the street name. Dustin and I volunteered to personally provide one. We talk technology, of which Dustin is an expert.
“Thanks for the terrible recommendation,” I say. “I went to that smart phone’s website- the operating system isn’t even completed yet.”
The windows are down, a stubborn Georgia sun making us itch in our dress blues. He turns from facing the window.
“Yea…I suppose it’s not for everyone. I had to write the script to be able to send texts.”
“Well write the script for GPS navigation and find us some flowers.”
“I’ll get right on that,” he chuckles. Anyone who knows him knows this chuckle. It seems to fade like the sound of a child skipping down a corridor, until disappearing in the darkness.
I’ve always admired his self-directed intelligence. While I’m somewhat computer savvy, he was my go-to man for anything computer related I couldn’t solve.
Maybe Dustin Gaylor wasn’t for everyone. Maybe that’s why it wasn’t easy for him. He’s been in my pocket ever since he killed himself late last November. Wherever there’s a small growth in the technological world, Google’s Android being released on a more powerful phone, China expanding it’s hacking schools, I imagine telling him. Caught in the vortex of this deployment, I’ve been looking for a way to properly send him off, or to kill the demons that took him. I suppose I thought I could bring him to the ramp ceremony to see if we could negotiate a respectable farewell.
In the color faded distant left, someone has parked a plane against a dark sky. It haunts the pitch black runway, locked in place. The tail is open; waiting. The lone floodlight makes out a blurry gray wing, and outlines a black river of Marines standing silently all the way to where I am, a hundred yards away from the ghost, and continues a hundred more to the road. I stand at a modified parade rest, shifting constantly from the cold.
Suddenly the Marine river starts moving towards the center of the darkness, but there’s no marching. My body yearns for some sort of audible glue to bring us together as we unnaturally shuffle forward, a ceremonial song, or the voice of someone in charge, but the only sound is boots of Marines scratching along on the dust and rocks, shuffling independently in the same direction. We snake to the right, bowing around to face the commander’s plane on the runway.
As we cross the runway, the lone floodlight reveals the truth of our river. Instead of a flowing mass, our shadows are black spires striking across the dusty pavement, clattering noiselessly against each other. I’m cold, but the feeling is ostracized by more relevant emotions. I’m lonely. So is everyone else here.
We’re all trying to get rid of this plane. It’s going to take the bodies of three Marines who were knocked permanently cold from the work of demons. All of us are here to negotiate with the plane. Actually we’re here to fight. I came to know the enemy. I came to discuss an unfair loss and to fight it belligerently until I lost.
We stand a foot apart, rows covered and aligned, facing a path that leads up the plane ramp into the darkness. The shadowed faces of Marines look back at me on the other side, but all I see is blank silhouetted faces. After a short while, the anonymous voice calls out, and with cold aggression we snap to the position of attention. Full ranks of strangers exploding with the only form of expression allowed from the masses in this ceremony: compliance. It was entirely unrehearsed, yet perfectly synchronized.
Then another voice comes. The chaplain was talking to God. The wind sweeps down among the files. The cloudless sky seemed to thunder with wind. You couldn’t hear a single thing but a voice lost in the night gusts, until suddenly all around us, among us, the rain starts up. One after another it rains. Marines no less the men they are, nor unwilling to fight, cry, giving permission to the passing of lives.
“Grant these men the honor of their service.”
Three times we raise our hands in salute, to say goodbye to each of the fallen Marines while pallbearers silently walk the boxes up the ramp. The floodlight doesn’t reach past the ramp. The pallbearers disappear into a painful unknown, and they return boxless. It’s all the work of the darkness. The war has nothing to do with what I watch go into that plane, it’s only death and demons, so among family, I watch Dustin walk up the ramp too. Playing with his damn smart phone.
The voice finally dismissed us, the same way we were dismissed graduating boot camp, with a formation-wide simultaneous about-face, and instantly I was thrown from the runway back to the dangerously spinning world.
Now, I find myself repeatedly going for walks in my head, in the dark, to put it all back together again. I put my headphones on. I lay in my bed under the liner of my sleeping bag, eyes closed, hands on my chest, laptop tucked to my right, water bottle at my feet, tirelessly wandering.
After I’ve walked for long enough my head gets tired. The blood slows, and the hormones settle, pacifying my thought. In the soft-toned dusk before dreaming, come only the simplest and most resolute truths: no one chooses to be born; it’s nothing but a demon that takes over innocent people; the darkness is only men with demons inside; death isn’t more than falling asleep.
The Talib wraps himself tighter in a wool shawl. Outside dust splashes against the compound walls, the wind whipping through. He stares out into the young night sky, and tonight, it is his. He imagines his wife’s smile as he tells her the his good news. In fact, probably the Americans will leave soon. Aside from the winter cold sweeping down the mountains, forcing a draft inside his shelter, it’ll be good sleep. There’s no denying the wind. There’s no denying the wrenching pain in his stomach.
What if they know? What if the Americans bomb tonight, or come storming in the hours before Morning Prayer? He decides to smoke a little, to celebrate, to settle that awful pain, to let him sleep. He tries to forget the simplicity his life held before this. He praises God, a cry garbled and screeching from the demon in his stomach, lost in the blackness.
Anonymous spires twenty feet tall create a forest of waiting at the base of the mountain. We know the demon, and we’re here to get rid of it.