Hindsight really is a beautiful thing, isn’t it?
For instance, at night, we might review the day in our mind. Why is it so much easier to see where you went wrong, or even when you did something amazing, after the fact? You may realize what’s going on in the moment, but admit it, later, when you’re alone and just processing things in your mind, it’s almost always clearer.
Now, take this thought a step further … why does this reverse perspective get even sharper with time?
For me, a year spent in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq was a major turning point. Aldous Huxley said, “A man’s memory is his own private literature.” If that’s true, then this particular year won the Pulitzer prize in my library. I’ve been home for 7 summers now, and I can’t believe how many lessons that experience is still teaching me about myself and life even today.
Back then, just like now, I was writing as a way to process my emotions and just share them. During my tour, the military blog I used to run gained some attention online, and the New York Times asked me to write for them on a few different occasions. Seven years ago this month, I wrote the following essay.
It is so much fun for me to read it now, remember how I was feeling back then, and compare it to the miracle I call life these days. It was also a lot of fun to write, so I hope you enjoy …
JUST DROP ME OFF WHEN THIS IS OVER
When this is over, take my weapon. I won’t need it for a while. Take this body armor. I would look silly wearing it at the beach. Witness as I grow a goatee. And watch me indulge, at least for a while, in fast food, massive amounts of sleep, alcohol, channel-surfing and many other things that I have lived without for long enough now that I remember liking them more than I actually do.
I have two wonderfully resilient children to whom I’ve dedicated my life, and who will one day soon forget that their Dad was gone for so long. They are incredible, intelligent and well-adjusted.
They won’t notice if I’m gone another day or two.
So just drop me off when this is over.
I truly appreciate all the support, but I don’t need parades or awards or speeches from the governor. I don’t even need a ride. Just leave me on any interstate that has a friendly shoulder with nice loose gravel to kick at, or in a subway car full of morning New York commuters, or in a hotel room looking out at the arch in downtown St. Louis. Leave me in Atlanta, or Portland, Ore., Gig Harbor, Wash., or in a lighthouse on the coast of Maine. I’ll gladly be dropped off anywhere in North Dakota, Maryland, Alabama, or Florida. How about a rest area in Flagstaff, Ariz., or a four-way stop in Twin Falls, Idaho? I’ll be fine on my own, whether you leave me in a quiet forest, at a state fair, or in the middle of a mosh pit.
I have a lot of friends and family, but rather than going from a combat environment, straight back to my block in suburban America, I’d prefer a small period of complete privacy, surrounded only by the elements.
Leave me on a ridge in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina or a canyon in the Colorado Rockies. I’ll find a nice walking stick that is well-balanced and has the perfect spot, worn of bark, for my right hand. I’ll hike the rest of the trip.
In the wide open spaces of America you’ll find me, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge lost in thought, skipping rocks at the Pacific Coast, having breakfast in a small cafe in Vermont, or lying on a South Carolina beach.
You may see me huddled against a 1,000-foot rock precipice near Dead Horse Point outside of Moab, Utah, a lone figure silhouetted by my campfire, feeding sticks into the flames, captivated with observations of the universe.
Or I’ll be the man fishing near you on Lake Hermitage, Louisiana.
“Catch anything?” you’ll ask.
“You bet. Some big trout on the west end of the lake, and some nice redfish if you go for the bottom around that inlet right there.” I’ll say this as I point over my shoulder. Then I’ll wave, throttle the engine and move away for a better spot. The spray will fan out behind me, catching the sun as my prop churns the warm dark water.
As you stand looking down into the Grand Canyon, a sun visor on your head, a Gatorade bottle in one hand and a tourist pamphlet in the other, which also has three fingers wrapped around the railing because the depth perception is giving you vertigo, someone will ask “Amazing, isn’t it?” then smile and walk away. That will be me.
I’m the guy sitting on the H of the Hollywood sign, smoking a cigarette. I’m a face you can only see half of through the Medieval art display in your local museum. I’m an illegible name scribbled in the guest book of the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. I am the happy drunk man talking to his slot machine in Vegas. I am the dad playing Frisbee with two children at a neighborhood park in Minneapolis. And I am the guy sitting next to you in English Lit class at the University of Montana, or the owner of a hand sticking out of a car that waves you to go first at a stop sign on your way home from work.
I am still focused on this mission and proud to be serving in Iraq with such incredible people. But in quiet moments of introspection I am becoming fixated on my life beyond this war, beyond this uniform. The thought of being with my children is a kinetic force, and the pure unadulterated momentum of inspiration grows each time the sun spans from East to West in syncopation with these oft monotonous minutes. The beauty of my America compels me with a newly discovered pentameter, like a favorite poem you haven’t read in years. And the perceived difficulty of picking up the pieces of my life there is a welcome challenge.
I’m a man on the cusp of the rest of his life, standing between war and family life, citizen and soldier, officer and parent, participant and observer. I’m about to step across a line, and I simply want to be deliberate about the process, that’s all.
Don’t mind me as I walk past you on the Appalachian Trail at dusk some summer evening soon, when the light is fading behind the hills in the distance. Everyone will be hiking back to their cars, and I’ll be hiking in. We both will smile casually and keep going in opposite directions. Tomorrow I may be in Texas. The next day I may see you in California
So when this thing is over, just drop me off on American soil and bid me farewell. Maybe I’ll honk the horn as I pass by you on a highway in Utah where the Rocky Mountains frame the path to futurity and the landscape haunts you like classical music in the dark. I’ll be just another American on the road, wearing aerodynamic sunglasses and listening to the radio. Soon I’ll park in front of my children’s school and check them out early.
Oh yes, this is where it all begins.
CLICK HERE to read the original post and wonderful reader comments on the New York Times.
Until next time, strive to live a life you love –