As much as I told everyone that I did not want to write about military stuff, I kept coming back to it. It is not that I hate it, I actually love it in as many ways as I hate it, but there are just so many exemplified areas of theme and lasting memories attached that I have endless things to talk about in relation to it. So, this is where I end up again and again. Writing about the marginalized many who are uniquely loved and hated by outsiders who have no idea the struggles their developed culture attends to on the daily.
This is not regarding the wartime, shots-fired, Michael Bay-type explosions with Will Smith or Sylvester Stallone walking away from the destruction all cool.
I am talking about peacetime.
About warfighters trained to unleash their emotions on the battle being cooped up on base locked in endless red tape. I am talking about the rampant adultery problem on both ends of the marriage and its general acceptance. I am talking about a collectively assembled culture struggling to integrate while being forced to take double doses of motivation from a government assigned one. These people I lived with, drank with, and grappled with for years. I have come to understand their very particular differences from the norms of society in both them and I, so I think it is best I try to write about them to show who they really are.
It is what I know, so I should write about it. Or at least that is what I have been told. Something I am sure most everyone has heard way too many times. But when I look at the quality of work that comes out when I do write about it, I can see it is next level. There are layers of themes and history that just do not shine through if the writer did not experience it. Bar fights and back door deals. Shop get-togethers at tropical island nightclubs and bonding over the blood shed servicing aircraft.
I lived and loved it and wanted to die often because of it.
But does that mean that my writing work best destined for success lies in it? Am I condemned to relive the hate and chaos infused in the culture of that place?
Much of my military work stems from that experience. Just a natural tendency. The culture is too ingrained; deep set by how immersive the world was, by what was so hidden away when I was not part of it. We are Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children. We prided ourselves on it, pressured each other to get better at it constantly. We made it through the tour-de-force lifestyle of ceaseless stress only to be cast off as forgotten toys when we were used up. It force-fed us motivation until some of us could not even walk right anymore.
And yet, we still cheered it on.
That mentality is hard to explain, just as the melting pot of American culture that comprises it. But that is not the point of this blog post. I am pretty certain that explanation of this marginalization, this society of self-immolation, is what I’m destined to write about successfully. Whether I love it, or especially when it pains me to tell the reality of it.
I know I can write other stuff fairly well, but I always felt a bit of imposter syndrome when I did. I don’t feel that when I write about the realities of peacetime military.
Do any of you readers have similar experience in subjects when writing? Does only experience really speak to you when you write and make its way to the page coherently? I love what I write about military things, but I also feel condemned to master it. Maybe that is the way it should be for me.
I’ve been reading an excessive amount of literature surrounding the cyclical nature of time in some narrative forms and it’s had me reflecting on my own nature. You see, I’m pretty sure I’ve had ADHD for my entire life, but I’ve found ways around it or to use to my advantage some of the time. That took a long time to develop though, and I don’t know if I created a solution or fostered a problem. I run my life in a tornado of cycles.
Tasks are almost never completed in a single walkthrough, and yet my convoluted way of thinking seems to get there in its own way. My thought process is like a maelstrom. I don’t work on a single task, I work on a mass, while allowing minor distractions leeway in between. It’s like this:
1). Decide to amend my outline of my undergraduate thesis.
2). Sit down at the computer and open tabs for school home page, school email, course assignment, WF (obvious addict), and present outline (at a minimum).
3). Unlock my phone and open basically the same tabs and then Facebook until I find something interesting enough to satisfy the distraction.
4). Clear spam on WF or other mod-ish things / review someone else’s work.
5). Clear a loose hair on the desk that’s been bothering me.
5). Finally, open one of my books for the dissertation and type out some quotes.
6). Open a writing project and add a few lines or begin a new poem that must get out. Stop after a few lines.
7). Find and clean up another piece of dust nearby on the desk.
8). Contemplate the outline for a Graduate thesis project while staring at bookshelf (Looking at animal perspectives and getting excited about it).
9). Crack knuckles and open my phone to the same tabs on the computer, then close it and go back to them on the computer.
10). Organize book lines and construct more outline items.
11). Open yet another word document, but probably never type anything on it.
12). Clear another loose hair on the desk…
13). Repeat and add tasks until others atrophy.
You get the picture, I’m sure. It’s focus. I don’t have any focus, unless I have a sudden strike of hyper focus for hours, but I assure you it’s not on what it should be. Usually something that didn’t need to be done for months, like organizing the garage. Honestly, it’s maddening, but it can also be hyper productive. It is assured to be one thing above all though: exhausting. Endlessly exhausting.
I wouldn’t mind it if it wasn’t every day, but the cycles never end. It’s a prison of thought always moving towards a task but finishing much fewer than I would like. A flurry of work done just to get as far as possible before the next wave hits and I find myself clearing weeds or pulling apart an electrical component to see how it’s constructed. Even this damn blog post was left on the desktop four times before I re-read it. It doesn’t help that the stories I’m reading are first person and about the mentally ill caught in their own repetition of life. I find no solace in them, instead warning through association. Their natures led them down dark roads to lives they felt were devoid of meaning. They are all imprisoned in their own thoughts secretly swarming out of the pages and finding a home in the realm of relation.
Can’t help but think the destination was always set for me, but the time was out of place. The order of operations in thought ended near the beginnings of tasks which converted to beginnings of new tasks that would find no end. Which leaves me questioning if I created my own prison in repetition, or was I always destined to arrive to this same end.
Does it matter? I’m sure I’ll cycle back around to it after I clear this other hair I found on my desk…
One of my last friends moved with his family to Virginia, and I want to be happy for him, but there’s the lingering knowledge that they are gone like all the others, and they will never come back.
To be honest, trying to make it in any of the California city areas is a colossal struggle. The prices for homes are double national averages for anything decent, and the rents are worse. Add on top that every just above living wage job opening has five hundred applicants, all locked in their equal struggle to survive. So I understand leaving. But I’m getting wore out of being left behind.
You see, I came from the land of fast friends. In the military, it’s a natural thing. You get assigned to a unit, and you immediately hit it off with a bunch of other boots in the smoke pit, or an on-base bar, or whatever. But then one of then gets punted off to another unit to balance numbers, another gets demoted from a drunk driving charge and is no longer in your circle, and someone else gets promoted, once again out of your circle. It’s semi-illegal to be friends with other ranks, since it breaks the respect system, but it leaves your range narrow, and it gets narrower the higher you get. So you make friends with whatever shows up. Could be a dip-spitting cow-girl from Austin with a chip on her shoulder, or humble ex-con from upstate New York. That’s your drinking buddy bar hopping on the beach in Guam. Your last call shot sharer on the long stumble across Yuma back to base.
And then they’re gone. Orders to Japan or Norfolk. Orders anywhere but here. And you wait for the next fast friend.
I know, you would think they would be easy to find and keep in touch with from Facebook or Twitter, but that’s not how it works. Operational security doesn’t let you post where you’re at, or information on any movements, so people just end up forgetting to update it at all. You cook in the sun wherever you’re working at for twelve hours a day, possibly through the weekends, and you simply don’t have the time to care. I have maybe a hundred or so of these fast friends on my friends list, but the number has been dwindling. I see more of them popping up in my suggested box every day, and I remember the times with them. The trouble we would all get ourselves into. I miss them, even the obnoxious ones, but I can see a lot of them don’t miss me. To them, I had a limited number of servings before time ran out. The Marine Corps told us when the supply ran out.
And now this one, one of the last vestiges of my career before it suddenly was cut short, is off to better venues.
If it weren’t for the rarity of my job, I would as well. But I sit here, burning money into the inflated machine that is California losing my friends one at a time. Motorcycle accidents, cross-county job offers, not being able to cut it here; it’s all the same. They’re gone and I’m not.
Maybe I brought this on myself.
I was a runner for a long time; someone who couldn’t face the punishments for their actions. I drank my way out of college the first time, and out of a number of semi-healthy relationships. I made a huge a mount of friends, but they all either watched me waste away, or actively encouraged my self-destruction. So I left them. I went to the recruiter and was gone in days. I threw a banger, drank my way into a few beds (none of which were my own), and then let everyone know that I had to leave them all behind. That party was the last I saw of over a hundred old friends. Almost seven years ago, and never a text or a word from the majority. There were just a couple I still heard from, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
Maybe it was good I left them. Maybe they weren’t really there for me in the first place. Or maybe the world I was entering was just revving up to send me my just reward. As many friends coming and then leaving me behind, as I did to the others. In any case, I’m more alone every day.
Around six months ago, I was invited to a wedding. My oldest friend’s wedding, one of the ones I lived with when I threw my own secret going away party. One of the few that I ever kept in touch with. I would consider him my absolute best friend, and would have him be my best man at my wedding. But as I sat on that Northern Minnesota pebble beach, overlooking the vastness of Lake Superior, with the couple under an arch in the center, I saw the best man. He was one of the first friends I can remember, but I left him behind because of some political nonsense. I saw the groomsman as well, all former friends of mine, laughing and joking together as we did in the past. They came up to me as a foreigner, an ambassador from distant lands. There was an air of apprehension that hadn’t existed in a decade and I realized that I never really left the memory of them behind when I ran away. I had never established relationships on as deep a level as I had grown with them. But they had moved on, and I was the outsider now. I lived with these guys for four years, spending every waking minute with them. And like the fast friends of the military, sharing our lives entirely for a couple of loose moments, the light in the friendship was put out.
So now this second to last person who I could share a friendly laugh with has moved on too, and I’m left with only one real question about all of my friends passed.
Who left who behind?
I think I’m most afraid when I can’t figure out what I’m supposed to do. Maybe you know the feeling. When you’re completely ready to go and kick another task to the curb, but there isn’t one. I’m talking about the times when you finish a large bit of work and you have that immediate high that you can accomplish anything. You know, a little smile of pride on your face? Like when you finish a stellar novel and you just want to dive right into a next one? But then I glance over at the shelf, and it’s empty. It was packed away, and stored long ago.
I’ve been realizing this for quite some time, but I just don’t stop much. I see others crack open an import as they fire up the grill and throw on a game, or slide on over to a local pub to drink the night away with their co-workers and friends. But I’m always working on stuff. I bounce from fighting my gopher plaque (cute and cuddly little guys who need to relocate pronto, or just off themselves for that matter) to starting a book club to solving an intermittent vacuum leak in the column of an electron microscope, all in the span of a morning. But that just continues until I sleep. Sometimes into my sleep
Forgetting to eat is a hallmark too.
I miss so damn many meals from the thought process of just one more splice, or I’ll just get this next paragraph done. But then it’s three excitable pages written, or a garden trough entirely dug in front of the house before I know what happened. Look at the clock: 9pm. Great, I guess I’ll skip food. And then off to do laundry, or reorganize a bookshelf that well fall into disarray within the week. I’m not even mad about the work I have put on myself to do. It’s almost therapeutic. I’m just confused why I can’t really stop.
I decided to apply for an MFA program at Harvard earlier this week because, you know, I can’t apply for something easier. I need to keep throwing endless work my way. Seeking out struggle based off its difficulty. Probably one of the reasons there was no other choice of military branch for me than the Marine Corps. The hardest you say? Naturally, if it sucks the life out of you, I’ll probably sign up, if anything, just to say I did. I wish I was proud of being able to apply there and probably get accepted, but essentially, it’s just turned into another task. Another highway mile marker, but I don’t know where the highway is supposed to end. It’s dark, and roads are indistinguishable. Just a steady stream of jack pines flashing in the headlights, and the yellow dotted line on swaying blacktop, looking for an exit that doesn’t come. Couldn’t tell you its cardinal directions either. Phone signal died some time ago.
But there are these times, when it’s too late or too early, that I just run out. And then I’m afraid.
The worry of self-worth floods in. It digs a hole for the for the night, scraping fractured nails along my spine. I’m sure someone else knows that feeling. When you look into the mirror and nothing of value stares back at you. I think my greatest fear is disappointment. I know that I’m not disappointing to anyone, but my body doesn’t catch up with that. It remembers getting picked up in the dead of winter by police as it sat at two in the morning waiting for the non-existent bus to put its drunk self to bed. It remembers me failing out of the same Calculus course for the third time because I simply didn’t show up. It remembers letting overdraft fees stack up in fear of calling the bank and facing the mistakes.
And it doesn’t forget.
So, when the time comes to pack it in, and call it a good day, I can’t. I frantically look around for something I missed. I know in my heart that there was something, even a minor thing, but I’ll never find it. Like the perfect level of drunk that you falsely remember having at a party when you just started out binging like good college kids do. You spend three more years chasing that high only to be labeled an angry drunk, and never find it again.
Maybe you know that fear. The one telling you that you should be doing something, anything, to progress progress progress. That fear of the stagnancy and lockdown of character and mind. That creeping consideration that you could put in thirty thousand hours of work and still be gum in the sand.
Or maybe not.
E. E. Cummings tells us “Progress is a comfortable disease.”
Have I become comfortable in my ceaseless pursuit to prove my worth?
They don’t talk about the listlessness.
It’s been around two years since I “got out” of the Marine Corps, and the itch to go back lingers day in and out. But that ship sailed with the breaking of my legs.
I’m a bit of a cripple of sorts (not wheel chair crippled, bless those poor bastards’ souls), though I probably will never run again. I’ll always have a limp in my right leg. No one escapes a broken patella, which the doctor describes when reading your CT scan as “kibbles and bits,” without a daily reminder of the fun. Best thing about that was, I broke my hip on the other leg at the same time, dislocating the femur from the socket, and I never even knew the knee broke. The brain can only focus on one extreme pain at a time. After five hours of dilapidated hospital adventures, they ask is anything else wrong, and when I tell them that my knee doesn’t been anymore for whatever reason, I ring around the circus once again. But the point of that is that I’m done.
I couldn’t go back if I wanted to.
When a Marine gets out normally, they tell you you’ll never find anything better, or that you’ll be living on the streets, or that some other God forsaken nightmare will bear itself down on your war-fighter's soul. But truthfully, none of that really happens to anybody anymore. What does happen, is boredom, and a lot of friends who moved on and left you behind.
You see, I never wanted to leave. As almost all who complete their enlistment, I was at the top of my game. A sergeant who ran an aircraft electronic shop. A known name, not just another boot or shower shoe or whatever other commonality of a designation others received. I had worked hard to get there. I was proud of where I was and what I did. I loved the twelve-hour days, and the heat of the airfield. Some of you can see that in my poem and story writing here. The draining suck of intakes in the desert/island/coastal sun. It burned in me. Still does.
When my time was coming, my five years running out, I wanted to stay. I was a lifer, as they call it; one of the few who actually believed in the work and the Corps. Most don’t. Serve their time and bounce. So, when it came down that I couldn’t reenlist, I was at a loss. I was leading the way and teaching all those under my charge, but my running ability from a freak accident was the end of the road. And what came wasn’t just the Corps abandoning me, but everyone else.
They tell you when you’re in your exit seminars that transition out is difficult, especially for Marines. The screaming, fighting, and generally dark humor just doesn’t cut it in the real world. The Marine Corps is a microcosm of anger bottled up to be released in the direction of the enemy. You’re literally always on your toes, waiting for some rampaging Gunny to come mess up your day. They try to pacify you, teach you how to be a person again, not the animal. But it doesn’t leave you. Especially if you believed in it.
And then they forget to mention the listlessness.
Sure, my life is pretty good. I have most everything I could want, and the job I have is stellar. But it feels like nothing. I bled over those aircraft daily. Fought off other likewise ranks to hold the billet I did, literally and figuratively. I won my place. But then the clock said time was up, and the Corps crossed the number off its list. And one by one, every billet I had was replaced by the next hungry candidate who couldn’t best me. And I sat there in the avionics shop, hunting for even the most minor maintenance actions just to feel needed.
But now I’m here, trying to fill the void with difficult work, a degree, home maintenance, and every possible other task I can find. But it isn’t what I want to do. It doesn’t amount to the struggle that I adored living by.
When you get out, everyone tells you how they wish they were in your position, how they can’t wait to throw the uniform away. It still hangs in my closet. Size medium-long MARPAT camouflage, sergeant chevrons still affixed in position, half-inch from each side of the collar. They talk about how much weed you’ll smoke and be free to get high all the time. Haven’t touched that since my first failed go-around in college. Have little intention to, as it never agreed with me to begin with. They talk about never having to listen to the thunderous roar of the F-18 engines again. Those jets still rocket over my house, on their way to Yuma or El Centro. I want to drive that five hours to catch them. I want to bring them in and solve all their gripes. Get grimy again in the sweat and JP5 that still wafts out of my garage cabin when I take out my old military coveralls.
They tell you about the new and better life you’ll lead as a leader in a community. How you’ll always be a Marine.
But they don’t tell you about the listlessness.
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