Last week, I departed from my folks' place in the Santa Cruz area, bound for Fort Hood at last. I crossed Hecker Pass on 152 and descended through Gilroy, the smell of garlic thick in the air east of town. As a kid, the only thing I knew about Gilroy was that you could buy garlic gum during the annual garlic festival. That sounded pretty repulsive, but I always wanted to try it, then breathe on my sister.
As I approached I-5, the southern end of the Bay Area to my back, I broke out into open county. Rolling golden hills, a reservoir, vast stretches devoid of any signs of human habitation. I had the top down to enjoy the morning sun; Rob Thomas on the ITouch plugged into my beloved Pontiac's stereo.
I left my roots behind and felt surpisingly emotional. I wasn't sure why. It was tough to say goodbye to m folks and sis--especially my sis--but I wasn't reeling like I had been in Oregon from those farewells. I have little attachment to the Bay Area and Santa Cruz these days, aside from my love of the Mountain Winery and 49'er games. So that wasn't it either. Something deeper was digging at me, wanting out.
So I let my mind wander. It settled on Taylor. It was probably five minutes before I realized I'd thought of nothing else. How's that for consumate self-awareness?
I looked over to my right and could almost see him riding shotgun, his mischevious grin wide across his face. His voice resonated--was it a memory or real? I swear I could hear him. He always had an undercurrent of surprised discovery in his voice. Every time I heard him say, "That's messed up!" he seemed mildly astoished that something could be out of whack with a universe so full of wonders.
I remembered the last time I saw him. We'd gone to eat at Andy's Cafe, then back to my office. I shook his hand, he walked down the stairs and I was surprised at how much he'd grown and filled out. He'd left for the Guard a dark-haired bean pole. He returned a year later a young man, broad-shouldered and muscular. But his eyes remained the same, I saw that when he stopped at the bottom of the stairs, turned around and looked back up at me. Then I could see the same good natured, rule-testing kid I'd come to love over all those lanes we worked together with 2-162. "I'll see you in twelve months," he said. Then he slipped through the door and disappeared into his future.
I never, not once, doubted that I would see him in June of 2010. I never thought the next time we would be togther would be in two months later at Farnstrom's Mortuary when I stared into his half-empty coffin, his uniform lying atop the ivory padding. The IED had done its work, and our boy's few remains returned home unable to fill out that uniform he wore with so much pride.
I sped east for I-5, lost in such thoughts, feeling Taylor's spirit with me more deeply than I had for months. He's never far from my heart--the damn kid really got under all of our skins--I just hadn't realized I still had grieving to do.
And so, I did it. Top down, the image of him beside me, I let go of all those protective walls and felt the grief flow out. You know, there is a reason why Whitman wrote "Song of the Open Road." He was telling us there are times we have to hit the reset button, step outside of our daily lives to find ourselves unfettered by defenses or self-denial. Leave the pen and paper on the desk, get out on the road and get inside your head. Be open to what is to be encountered on such adventures, live in the moment as the miles revitalize and cleanse.
I reached the Central Valley as the morning heated up and came across a sign noting a Korean War Memorial a few miles outside a tiny town called Santa Nella. The Forgotten War. When I wrote "Crimson Sky" in the late 1990's, almost every veteran I interviewed said he had never spoken about his experiences during that conflict until I rang their phones. That made my first book that much more special, and getting it in print became a crusade.
I turned off the highway and followed a winding road up into the sun-bronzed hills. To my surprise, I came to a national military cemetery, tucked in a saddle between low-lying ridges. It is a beautiful place, tended with care by legions of workers who take obvious pride in what they do. It is also one of the smallest and most intimate military cemeteries I've visited. Sometimes, the rows and rows of crosses, like at Gettysburg and Verdun, simply overwhelm. This place had a different vibe.
I climbed out of the Solstice and wandered among the markers, noting the NCO's, the enlisted men and the officers. I found an E-7 and wondered if he was one of those gritty guys like Vinni or Easy or Shannon Compton, one of those lugnut types who held their platoons together through all manner of trials.
I walked the rows and noted the birthdays, dates of death. At Private David Williams' grave, I stopped. He had been born in the summer of 1920, a month after Gerald Johnson, the fighter pilot I wrote about in "Jungle Ace." Gerald's wife, Barbara, had been born the same year. So had my close friend Bill Runey, who ended up in New Guinea flying Warhawks during World War II. It dawned on me that I once had more friends born in 1920 than I did from my own year, 1968. Talk about generation gaps; until I wrote the Sandbox, I hardly knew anyone my own age. I'd spent my life and career writing about another generation's triumphs and traumas. Until New Orleans, I'd been oblivious to the ones unfolding around me.
Talk about being divorced from reality. I was cloistered in my little office day after day, writing from an old building in a tiny town so small it does not appear on most maps. I had sequestered myself in this little fortress, consumed with what had been. In retrospect, that was a poor way to live. And it certainly is not the way I can live now, not with the perspective I gained from New Orleans and all the men and women I've met since then.
A hot breeze blew aross the cemetery and teased the miniature flags posted like sentries on the flanks of each row. Can't forget. Those we've lost, here in this beautiful but remote location, tucked away with reverence, should serve as both a beacon and a warning. Live as they did, with courage, strength and loyalty in their best moments; forgive the pain inflicted in their worst. The warning? It could end at any time and if you hold back, you're likely going to regret it.
I flashed back to the stairwell, Taylor looking up at me. I saw a hint of fear coloring his otherwise mirthful eyes. He said his goodbye. I said mine. But we lost something in that moment, thanks to the walls we both had up. I should have bear hugged the crap out of him in best Vinni Jacques fashion. I should have told him he was such a bright spark that he'd given inspiration to everyone who knew him. I should have told him how much I appreciated how my kids loved the things he taught them. And yes, that included teaching them to melt and burn things with a magnifying glass. They especially loved that.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda. That moment in the stairwell will stand as a lost opportunity. I never thought I would not have another chance.
I looked back down at Private Williams' grave. Did he learn those hard lessons? Did he turn within himself and lock himself away from all the possibilities life offers? Or did he go the other way and grow convinced that in these dark times, the losses we endure should guide us forward ever more open, ever more ready to expose and share, emote and live? Did he give himself totally to the ups and downs and have no regrets? Or when he faced these issues, as we all must, did he sink into a protective torpor unable to risk further injury to heart and soul? The way of Miss Havisham.
I returned to the car, chased by Whitman's words.
|From this hour, freedom!|
|From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,|
|Going where I list, my own master, total and absolute,||55|
|Listening to others, and considering well what they say,|
|Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,|
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me
Back in the Solstice, Taylor was gone.