T for Tom

Finding Ways to Find Our Way Back

Posted in Europe, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on May 16, 2018

It’s always the moments at the very end that stick with me. Everything before is clear as day, but the emotions that linger strongest were the emotions in climax, the emotions in simultaneously in conflict: “I’d never trade this moment for the world, but I’ll never have it to do again.”

It was the sunset that made this possible, on the last day I had before deployment. I wasn’t entirely free on that day – our vehicles had been permanently stored the week before, and we had a wakeup call at 4am to begin the long, slow, laborious task of loading our individual bags first on a bus, then on a train, then on a plane on the way to the Middle East. But in some effort of compassion, we were released that afternoon around lunch time. Those who had families went to them. Those who didn’t had each other.

As a matter of soaking up every last minute of eligible choice I had, we went as far away and as we could conjure, and stayed as active as we possibly could. The idea of sitting down and talking wasn’t enough. Taking a walk around the base would’ve been peaceful, but I always had the idea to do just a bit more – go beyond the lines of reason, because it wasn’t reason that put us here in the first place. We weren’t supposed to drink, so we bought a six pack. We weren’t supposed to be out past sundown, so we planned on taking the last train back. The biggest, most exciting thing there was available for us was to board the train for the next village over, a distance of about four miles, and play putt-putt at the community recreation center.

As a military unit, there were six of us who had all been released at the same time and, though we usually didn’t spend our free time together, were compelled to join up and do something erratic. We all had the electricity of knowing this was it. The couple Joes I didn’t mind who usually played video games came along, either out of anxiety or because their systems were already packed away for the flight. There was Micah, Marshall, James, Rueben, and myself. A few of them were even wearing their tan combat undershirts, because our personal clothes had also been stored already for the long year without us.

We all met in front of our barracks building by the back gate and started walking out toward the train station just around the corner. I had a six pack in hand, and Marshall asked if I should be worried. I didn’t have a reason to care. Just as we were about to reach the gate, I heard Corey yell from his second floor window across the way. He lived in a separate building than us because he was in a different unit, but we had remained friends throughout our time first in training, and second in Germany. We had even travelled much of the country together, but he was due now to part for the Middle East himself, though with his own unit and to a different location. But walking out I heard his “Hey! What are you doing!?” and knew to answer back: “Going to Burgbernheim, gonna play putt putt. Take the next train and bring beer.” As we were paying for our tickets at train station after the five minute walk, he came bounding up out of breath and with a bottle of schnapps in his hand.

The whole scene was a little rowdier than I’m used to, in the way I like to be when I’m doing things like this. It wasn’t always the act of the thing that got me, but the act of doing the thing in new places. It wasn’t the putt putt that I came for, but the feeling of being a German citizen, on a beautifully crisp spring’s afternoon.

Burgbernheim sat at the base of the cliff that swept wide along the entire eastern border of our village and the valley around us. In fact, the small village of Burgbernheim ran east to west, and the furthest eastern point was the chapel that sat on the hill overlooking the village below. And in that village, next to a friend’s apartment, I knew there was a small community operated putt putt course that we hadn’t played on yet. The idea of doing something so banal in such an unremarkable place seemed utterly German of me – it wasn’t the putt putt, because I think that’s American faire, but the idea of just doing something to pass time in the places were we live. And I lived in Germany. It separated me from the physical tourism of each event and brought about an experience of understanding, of communion. These things aren’t too different than us.

Marshall and James, who I hadn’t really travelled with much, were nice to come along, but played their games as we went. First to make jokes, first to throw punches, all in good nature, but without the moment to just sit down and think about what we were doing. To fester on the idea that the wildest, craziest thing we could even physically manifest in our environment, was a stroll up from the train station in the next village over to drink beer and play mini-golf. I noticed the greening of the bushes as we went, and the lush, deep grass that lined all the yards and parks. I wondered if I remember their scent, or remember the colors. I wondered if I would even have the chance to walk like this with friends of mine, aimlessly and with nothing to do.

We played putt putt there, and it got a little out of hand. Not even for the alcohol so much as the pent up anxieties of what would happen to us. No one ever mentioned that in less than twelve hours we’d be putting on a uniform, never to see a pair of jeans again for some nine months. We didn’t discuss the food we were eating at the ice cream stand and how much it’d be different in the desert, and we didn’t talk about the shadows that were growing on the ground as the sun slipped lower over the horizon and off into the distance of a rolling, unending sea of farms, up and over with the hills that seemed so much like a scene from a film. We just finished our beer, found the recycling, and made our way noisily back to the last train from this village.

It was there on the train steps that I saw it growing. I hadn’t ever been to this train stop, because I hadn’t yet had a reason to go to Burgbernheim that I couldn’t drive for. But their train station was somehow smaller than ours in Illesheim, even though our village some couple thousand less people – they at least had a grocer. But where Illesheim’s train stop was a full old station that now sat empty, Burgbernheim didn’t even have the building anymore. In fact, from we were sitting, it looked like it had been leveled and turned into a green space, with a few parking spots just next to it, ostensibly for the few persons in Burgbernheim who drove to the train regularly. The advanced ticketing computers that were used everywhere just made a full train station obsolete, even in the largest metros. And so there in Burgbernheim, it had been replaced with what is known best to us as a bus stop – a simple bench system with a covered awning, and a few front from the platform where we would board the train. This platform, being so small and open and with little surroundings, was raised just enough to get on the train at its height. But the added benefit from here, looking west, was that the valley continued to sink off westward away from the cliffs, which meant we could look out and see the full view of everything we had come to love in the past year.

Life, vital life, blue skies, and the feeling of infinite youth. It was being taken from us the next day. In sadness and in communion, mother earth gave me one last fiery sunset.

I lit a cigarette and ignored everything around me, thinking of everything around me.

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This is that sunset, from Burgbernheim. The last sunset I’ve ever known.

I remember thinking that I hadn’t spent enough time watching the sun go down in Europe. I remember thinking that I had been on the go for so long, that I didn’t know what I was running for. I remember thinking about Nurnberg, and Munich, and Rome and Estonia and Finland and Prague. I remember thinking that I had done so many things for so many people, and taken so much time to be with so many people all around the world, that I hadn’t ever taken time to slow down. I remember thinking that I would love to do it all again, every single mistake and act and false start. I remember thinking it was the best way to put it all to sleep.

What I know now is that these moments will never happen again. I can recreate them for myself, and I can find new ones just like them and new ones more spectacular. But what I cannot do as I get older, is fill these spaces with the people I know and love. As the beating of time wears us down, and the weight of obligations fills us up, we will be less likely to ever have so many of our friends together, willfully or not, in the same place. Some have children, some moved across the county, others are still in the Army. Some are doctors, some are unemployed, some will never talk to me again. But whatever it is that they’re doing, it is enough to keep them away from my life, should I ever ask them to reenter. The chances that I could ever get these six people back together again are non-existent.

We went on to the Middle East the next day, and set about finding ways to find our way back. We worked as we were told, drifted along in the way that life directs us. We got back and we went our ways, back into our habits and along the way of time, keeping some of us close and spreading some of us far apart. Time and youth and necessity brought us together, in such strange moments for all our lives to have been there and to have done that, in that way. Every now and then it all clicks into place and something wonderful can happen.

I can always see another sunset. But I will never see another one like that.

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Some Things I’ll Never Do

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on May 16, 2018

These are some things I’ll never do. They’re common enough that maybe you’ll do some, but also you too might never do most, if you really get down to it. Things I’ll never do:

-Travel in space.

-Be the president.

-Speak Greek.

-Read Chinese.

-Visit all 195 nations.

-Swim the English Channel.

-See the North Pole.

-Drive NASCAR.

-Summit Everest.

-Live in New York City.

-Master the guitar.

-Be a major professional athlete.

-Direct a film.

-Hold elected office.

-Study medicine.

-Fly a plane.

-Build a house, by my own hand or otherwise.

-Hit a home run.

-Sail a boat.

-Live debt free.

-Patent an invention.

-Practice law.

-Win a Grammy.

-Cultivate a farm.

-Harvest a crop.

-Loom a shirt.

-Conduct an orchestra.

-Compete in the Olympics.

-Discover a star or planet.

-Walk uncharted land.

Many, many people have done these things many, many times, and it feels like they’re all just there to grab. Reach out and do a few of these things. But, really, trying to get even just one requires the sacrifice of much of the rest for all of time. You won’t get to space by conducting an orchestra, and you can’t loom a shirt trying to hit a home run.

But, each one still feels possible. The fear that keeps us from doing even just one, I think, is the fear that we’ll only ever do just one. It’s terrifying to have to pick just one, because it would mean the rest are impossible. I don’t ever want to think that I might not be able to do any or all of them, but here I am at 31 and most of them are closed to me already.

What’s left that I haven’t done but I might still could? Run a marathon? Start a business? Join the peace corps? Raise a child? Grow a crop?

It’s about finding the things worth our time. The age of information has spoiled us – we want it all – and in the end we get nothing, for only ourselves to blame.

Tell No One

Posted in poem by johnsontoms on May 10, 2018

Tell no one

Keep the revolution to urself

We all have 1

Yours isn’t special

They all echo

None stand out

The war was over years ago

No more giant leaps

That was just more noise

Sent into the void

Now with all these revolutions

Just a bunch of noise

Over noise

Good as static in harmony.

 

We’re just waiting for radio silence

Nothing left 2 do

It’s all been done

We’ve heard it before

Won’t make a difference

More echoes

Pinging off the walls

Bouncing aimlessly and unseen

Like revolutions in the wheel.

 

Never had a chance

Didn’t work last time

Wasting time trying

Little revolutions everywhere

Dying with a thud

Dull damp whimper

No great change

No collective evolution

Little bodies looking out for little bodies

Not interested in the least.

 

So do us a favor

Keep the revolution to yourself

Tell no one.

 

 

Hiding From Synthetic Light

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on May 3, 2018

In all corners there, I was constantly surrounded but constantly alone. I lived inside a fence for nine months, always in the presence of others who were there just like me but that I didn’t know personally and never would see again. I lived in their world just as mine, but neither of our worlds were really in existence, as nature goes. I was never without someone nearby, but I never had anyone close. There were nothing but possibilities, but I couldn’t leave the camp if I tried.

Do you know what it’s like to be so alone that you’re fully alive? Do you know how it feels to have all the power in the world and nowhere to use it?

We took up hobbies. I couldn’t leave the desert without a product to show for my time, and I came back with most of a manuscript and a penchant for recreational running. I had taken to getting fit, and I sought to create something. There really is fear in idle hands, to say nothing of how such a combat outpost comes to exist on the borders on the Kuwaiti desert where no living creature survives without daily truckloads of water.

Tedium. It was like always being in the balance. For some sake, I was there and had been taken there to do the bidding of others, listen to the commands of superiors. There was always work to be done. Always a task to be completed. And yet, somehow and in the midst of eternal work, it always felt like I could be doing anything else in exactly that moment – laundry, eating, working out, reading, watching a movie, beating off, just taking a fucking walk for chrissakes, smoking, throwing a football. So long as it wasn’t being dictated to me by a higher up and so long as it could happen in the spaces I was allowed to walk, it was a clearer, wiser choice.

I spent about three hours of everyday walking to different places in the two-square-mile or so side of camp that we inhabited. It was a fifteen minute walk to the gym in the morning, five minutes to the DFAC, twenty minutes back to the tent, and fifteen minutes to the work tent for morning call, all at the start of the day. Fifteen minutes to the DFAC and back for lunch, fifteen minutes to the tent at the end of the day, twenty minutes to the DFAC, five to the USO if you could find a place to hide your backpack that didn’t make it look like an IED (twenty minutes back and forth to your tent to get your backpack if you couldn’t), and twenty minutes back to the tent. That’s two and a half hours of time walking if you didn’t have to walk anywhere for work, give or take your tasks. But given that we didn’t have access to vehicles and all our bicycles got desert-rot in about two month’s time, there was plenty more walking to do.

The trick became finding ways to make something you had to do to survive into something enjoyable. How to make time on the two or three roads that were paved more enjoyable than the weekly formation runs I was required to take there, or the handful of physical fitness timed runs I went on. How to find a way to sit on a concrete slab and stare out on a horizon as long as a ruler and make it more peaceful than when I was just resting my knees after a hour in full plated armor under the 130-degree sun. How to sleep in a tent with fifty people and no working air conditioner and not think about whether the shower trailer works tomorrow or not.

I tried to spend as much time alone, and craft out as much space for myself as I could. Even when I was in the USO tent, fighting for space with some hundred-odd soldier kids, I took up the only table, usually by myself, and set about typing in the manuscript while everyone else watched sports or played on the video game systems. I even quit smoking a couple weeks into the first month, which removed me from the open air spaces where someone would come and interrupt my silence. I took up the habit of smoking cigars on Sunday as motivation, something to look forward to. Our sleeping tents were about 100 feet long by thirty feet wide, and there were entire sections of the camp where these tents were lined up four wide by six long, like a giant tent subdivision. These tents were then surrounded by any entire wall on all four sides of blast wall concrete pillars, and at both of the two longer ends were a row of shower trailers that operated on gasoline. If the gasoline ran out, the water and the electricity would both shut off instantly, and it didn’t care if you were in the middle of shower or jerking off. Just past the shower trailers there was a single berm like a fish pond, a water catch where the shower runoff would exit the trailer and pool up to be evaporated during the day. But just on the corner there, by the shower trailers nearest to my corner of the subdivision, there was a berm pool that was built up but no longer used, where a trailer had been but was moved.

The sand walls for the berm were about five feet high still and there was nothing but rocks and few pieces of pipe left behind in the empty pooling area. It took me a couple days to find this place, having walked first to the centers of the big empty spaces between subdivisions looking for darkness but constantly interrupted by the passing foot traffic of someone going somewhere at all times. I dug into a large dumpster and found a discarded camping chair and dragged it into the empty berm. And if I put it just close enough into one corner, the trailer lights that lit up the subdivision were hidden behind wall of sand, which was just enough to block out directly exposure to synthetic light.

And I’d sit there and look up and stare at the darkness, puffing on a $2 cigar that I purchased weekly from the exchange and that had long, long ago dried out on its journey to the checkout lane and into my hand. But it would light and it would stay lit, and I’d sit there with my headphones on for an entire hour and do nothing. Listening to music became the only literal way to tune out the humdrum of war. In Kuwait, though, it wasn’t really war. It was the bones of a war fought by a different generation, and it was the sum total of humanity in the 21st century. I was just tuning it all out. All of it.

By then on Sundays I would have written in the manuscript for six hours because Sunday was my assigned day off. It didn’t really matter which day was the day off, because everyone had different days and there were no weekends. It just happened to be Sunday. For others it was Wednesday, for others Saturday. There were no football games to attend or parties to host. But after I completed laundry and working out and writing all day, on Sundays I had just enough extra time to do exactly nothing.

Heartache, don’t come near me.

While the others were playing video games or working or eating or trying to talk to their wives, I sat there and looked out and thought about myself and the stars around me. About twice during those nine months, the sand would clear out in the sky just enough to show me the stars. But mostly it was fully dark and I had only my thoughts and the music and the low-humming sound of generators to keep me company.

Still though, I was closer to the infinite there.

Dark days, stay away from me.

Something About Animism

Posted in poem, Prose by johnsontoms on May 1, 2018

Disintegration, like time and memories and feelings and it all goes to waste, no proof of ever having lived. The places where all told sundry will rest, the annals of nothingness, the universe in motion, should we all rapture and the new planetary beings be unable to read English or Sanskrit or what have you might survive a few millennia of earthly rot. Nothing is what will be left of you and I and everything you love and hate in equal measure. The rocks keep spinning, maybe not this one, but some rocks somewhere, a few collisions, possibly another spark, and another line of history that will just as surely return to void like all before and every after. Dissolution in motion.

Let it read then like poetry. Let the life then be the lifeline. Let the living do the thing. Let all the birds sing a rosy song, and leave nothing for the afterlife. We are here to live until we die.

We will only live and we will only die, in that order, and not more than once. If you live bright enough, a few of the living will remember you until their turn to die. Everyone takes a turn, even the memory of you. The memory of you will die, just like time and space. In continuum we exist and in continuum we cease. Perpetuity is the only faith, death the only truth. In death’s absolute life must exist, and they tango, one to the other but always one on to the other, no new partners. Life and only death. Only life and death.