T for Tom

Thinking of Things

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on June 6, 2018

Waking up in the frigid cold unexpectedly, or with the rising sun warming your tent. Outside are mountains or valleys or maybe cliffs and blue skies, and from the drunken stupor you remind yourself, the natural world is just outside. You can feel that you’re apart of it, and though your bones creak and the head might spin, everything orients at some point together: whatever I’ve done and am going to do next, I’m doing it out here. You’re probably alone, and you probably spent the evening watching the sun go down over the rising earth in the great distance, nothing between you both but those hills and the green forests that line them, or even better, the sandy bottom of a Chihuahuan desert that makes existence seem impossible. The only sounds from the wind gently brushing your temporary home, and you step out into the light. The memories of the night before, spectacular: you were just here because it was a holiday, but it always seemed to find ways to marvel you: the surprise fireworks show you watched from above at 7000’ atop the tallest mountain in Virginia, or the full moon that set for the only person sleeping at Wind Rock on the Appalachian Trail, or the sunset that turned the sky orange from a thousand miles away and across the full length of Arizona, so it seems, seen from a sky island while standing in a cathedral of rock, prayers sent to the heavens. Even the ones that hurt, like a surprise freeze in July at Bluff Springs Waterfall where you only brought a hammock because surely it was summer, and starting the fire in the morning meant coming back to life.

Breakfast needs to be made, the gear packed, the head leveled, water. But the air is crisp, cool when you need it after a warm night, warm when you need it after the cold. It always knows how to greet you. It remembers, just like you, everything that happened, and that’s perhaps the driving force – you’re never certain why you like to do something, something that can be so much work, seem so much hassle. But you do know that you enjoy most, above many things, looking back and knowing that you did it. You climbed the tallest mountain three times, or hiked 100 miles in the Dutch plains. You slept on the Persian Gulf and saw the sun settle in the dust, or you ran five miles at zero degrees Fahrenheit. You went down into the Grand Canyon and washed the cold cold waters of the Colorado River across your face just as the canyon walls went dark, having made it to your destination with only a daylight to celebrate having made it. Or maybe you just walked through a farm, on the other side of the planet, repeatedly. You spent your days in only the night, feeling the cold air slide off the grey stone of the buildings in the city center, lit like gothic dreams. The only light from the lampposts that guide the way through the alleys, nothing more, just the fog of breath floating in your face from the cigarette burning at your lip.

You think of these things. You think of them and you think of being younger. You’re not old now but you remember what it was like to be young, to be sad, to be free. And you stand there now, alone, out of the tent for the first time that morning, the sparkle of the dew glittering off the bead of the pins of the cacti, or rolling with the steady stream from the spring that starts out of the rock just over the grassy hill where are the daisies grow. These things are real, and they remind you of the life that flickers now before your eyes. It’s the looking back that’s so great. It’s the visions and endless streams of faces and markers and waters and mountains and fields and formations of people that have come and gone, and its romantic attachment to the idea that it’s still out there. That’s why you keep going back. You surround yourself with the wild wild world to remember that it’s still out there.

But mostly it’s the memories. Sometimes they come back one by one, and sometimes not at all. Sometimes you have look back through your notes to remember a name, or to see a place in your mind, or sometimes it only takes a song and you’re right back in that exact moment when it all came together, life music feeling spirit freedom earth joy the infinite. And at other times its all the memories all at once and it’s too much to handle. It’s the bars and the plane rides and the ice on the path and the feet in the snow and the Salzach and the flooding desert rains and the college graduations and the long slow burning glow of the sun that hangs its head every night in the shadows of the West Texas plains and just the feeling of being on the move to somewhere new, and the feeling of having it all at your fingertips. You remember it all, in clear and vivid detail, every bit as much a blessing as a curse. To always remember such joys, but to never forget the rapid pages of time and the people it leaves behind.

And in the cold morning air you reach out to grab them. You’d like to say hello, wish them well. But the only blessing they’ll have is that they live on in your memories, worthy of being not forgotten. And they’ll never know. So you must remember. Remember to remember.

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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.

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.

Negotiations in the Desert

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on February 21, 2018

The sound came in as if from outer space, bumbling easily along on waves of activity like gentle beams from outside the known, a message of peace from the unknown. It sounds like night descending without relent, no more tomorrows. Just a long bleeding line of darkness.

That was the feeling out there in the desert. The pattern is familiar and the refrain is soothing, but it looms with regret, or even somber acceptance. It is an acquiescence – “no more false promises.” Somehow, in spite of the better part of this automatic life promising greater if not just simply other things than anything like this, we wake up in the desert. And then we wake up in the desert again the next day and the day after that and on again that way until someone of importance tells you to board a plane and go home. This could be metaphorical, but for me it was literal. And the notion of having a place to be is now senseless.

Home becomes the unknown and then rightfully dissolves. Familiarity, comfort, being in a place of belonging, these sensations are after all this time now relegated to the sound of kicking larger stones across smaller stones that line the sand floor during the walk to the dining hall, sitting on one concrete pillar for a cigarette while staring at the concrete pillars directly across that provide a blast shelter to every building and road and become ubiquitous, or rising early in the dark to see the one spectacular and humane thing available that is the cold, cold rising desert sun striped in purple and red across the long, flat orange and yellow horizon only to curse the same sun mere hours later as it melts a pair of boots to the cement and pasting the wind-blown sand onto skin and into hair.

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The sunset from the back of the USS Ponce, November 2012.

These are things we’ve never done and certainly were never meant to do. We run timed miles on uphill roads along chain link fences hundreds of miles from the nearest Quonset hut. We drag boxes of water bottles over a hundred yards into our tents and stack them five feet high so the single stream of chilled air from the vent can cool the bottles to a drinkable temperature. We each take up a hobby or two that will fill our time and do it over and over again every day. We have all the time in the world and somehow we didn’t do all the things we wanted. I wrote a book, mostly. Two people have read it in its entirety.

I’m writing it again, differently this time, though the thing remains the same. Because the memories can’t be swatted away enough. “Heartache one more chance for you, All those things in the days before.” I sat there alone, at a desk, in the tents, in the tents that were our offices, in concrete corners of concrete towers alone with the wind-whipped trash to just get a minute to myself, or on Sundays in a half-crooked lawn chair tucked away in a dried-up wash berm behind the mobile shower unit that didn’t work any longer, the berm high enough to block the light from the flood lamp over my shoulder and the sky just dark enough to see the stars through the sand in the nighttime sky. Those moments were simulacrums, facsimiles, representations of things I knew in forms I’d never known before and never experience again. It was a series of negotiations.

All the while using these fake plastic moments, we’re left with the memories of things we can’t any longer see. Foods, persons, clothes, weather patterns, foliage, sleep. These things are replaced with choruses of indignation, collective shouts, grunts to the familiar. We churn. And somehow amidst the time lost, an actual year of life and choice that cannot be taken back, we replace our acknowledged home with this open air prison. Coming back from the unknown, we long for more. There is never more comfort than in a life on the edge. And soon, memories replace memories. “Memory leaving what you knew, former times how they follow you.” We now think only of the desert, we think only of outer space. In outer space, the worries of man whither to dust, wash to energy. It is a place of wonder.

How to get back? The strange machinations that made it possible are treacherous, impossible, and I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. It could be that a desire to their effect is evidence of my crippling. I too have become unhinged. But I think of these modes, these methods, these negotiations, and I think of a time when I was at my highest frequency. I was alert, I was kinetic. I was interstellar. And whenever “Streetlights fall on hollow night, I see up ahead what could be.” I see the dark and I am not afraid. I see the dark and I do not wait for the light.

I try to picture myself in the desert and think of the work. The good, terrible, painful work of getting it all down, putting it to paper as much as putting it to rest. A true literary history must be told, of all that exists out in the open. There are no more stories, only the things that have been done. There are no more fantasies, only the horrors of man.

I’ll let you know when I get mine down again. It’s not about the desert, though, but a time on the way there. And aren’t we all on our way on to the desert.

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I was there once, in the desert.

In Darkness Without Speaking in the Czech Republic

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on January 8, 2018

Somewhere down from the mountain and past the first village on the road back to Prague, as the woods hastened the darkness that grew over the road and filled the car, only the light of a cigarette and headlights on the road, we drifted slowly back into bliss. Where the intersections were still just stop signs and only a home here or a shed there to pockmark the way home. The breeze was getting warmer as we descended further from the top, the windows open as we hit the highway. An hour or more on the road and we hadn’t a thing to say, out of peace, out of understanding. Soon, a highway opened up and the car began to gain speed there in the night, the passing of yellow stripes accelerating by in the corners of our vision. Our hair whipped more in the wind and we breathed in, deeply. We were going home later than we planned, but it felt like we had only just begun moving. It felt like we would never stop.

It felt like I would never stop sliding down those mountain slopes, and it felt like I was still standing there on the top. It felt like I was heading home, and it felt like I could never go back. What started simply as the first time I’d go snowboarding ended as a whirlwind trip of just a couple days, the final keystone of a month I had spent abroad, in Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Austria, and now again the Czech Republic and onto the mountains bordering Poland. I had been invited on a Tuesday and by Friday was in Prague on my way. I was there to see my friends that I hadn’t seen since before year of the war, but when it was over, it wasn’t so much a reunion as a baptism. I left with the feeling that I had been led to a gateway, a new way of seeing.

I would be gone three days and two nights, but my time on the mountain was shortened to a single overnight at Spindleruv Mlyn. Petra had an exam early Saturday morning. I spent the morning walking around Praha 14 alone, nowhere to go and nowhere to be, in solitude. I discovered a beautiful playground gateway with Rudyard Kipling’s “If” etched into a gate, but mostly I stared at the soviet apartment complexes that lined these roads on the outskirts. We picked up Dan after her exam and made our way north by afternoon. They spoke natively to each other while I drove, the GPS guiding my turns.

That Kipling gate, though I don’t remember exactly where we were.

I had never been snowboarding, and I had never so often just gone with it. I only learned what came next as each turn approached. I was invited snowboarding for the first time in my life, and so I drove to Prague. A day later I was told we needed to pick up Dan and I did. After we were all together I was told to drive north and I did. Each thing only came as it was needed. I had grown comfortable enough to just let it happen.

The European night always came early and we arrived at the mountain in darkness. We bought lift passes for the night slope, which they could best translate to me as “not for first time.” I said let’s go, and they were happy to see my excitement. Petra smiled, Dan gave a laugh. I picked it up after only a few attempts and we spent the whole evening on the slope, together and alone. I went at my pace, seeing only their peace sign gestures as they barreled down the hill past me, smiling as they went. Eventually we met at the bottom, exhausted. They told me we would be staying with their friends who worked on the resort and we drove a block or so to the home.

It was the kind of resort lodge you’d expect, but turned into a hostel for workers. We threw our bags on the floor of a room that had four bunkbeds, a wall full of extreme sports posters, and a small tube television playing skiing videos in silence. The windows were fogged over from the heat indoors. We sat there for a few hours passing a bottle of moonshine, slivovitz. They passed joints and laughed. Petra told me “we may talk only in Czech, too drunk to translate” but I waved it off. They each took turns to smile in my direction as I downed another slug of slivovitz, and their gestures were enough. My movement was unbroken.

We kept passing the moonshine in that cabin room until it was gone, and made our way to a bar somewhere down the road. I remember being in a dark, red-lit room with loud music, and then waking up in the snow of a driveway across the street while it was still nighttime and then walking, soaked, in a straight line hoping I’d find the cabin. I was lucky enough, opened the door and fell asleep on the floor.

In the morning I was told we’d be taking a bus to a different slope and followed Petra’s gestures as she spoke in Czech to Dan, rushing to board the bus. It stopped at a resort up high on a different peak, and we started walking with our boards for what seemed like a mile in soft-pack snow, surrounded by nothing but trees. The sun had never shone so bright. Eventually we reached their friends at a small cabin and off in the distance I could see a new slope. They went to their friends and I started making my way down the mountain on my own. I spent the afternoon alone again, in turns snowboarding and catching my breath, and, unable to mount the single lift to ride back up, walking three miles back to the top. I was so exhausted there in the snow that I took all my clothing off just to cool down. Amongst the slopes, still no one cared. No one was even really nearby. Eventually Petra found me in the middle and we all paused to catch our breath. We stared east at the mountains and said nothing. After a few minutes Petra told me that the last bus back would be leaving soon. We slid down the slope as quickly as possible, boarded the bus, grabbed our bags, and loaded the car to drive back to Prague. Snow was falling as we started to leave.

The back of Dan’s helmet reflecting the second slope.

I was so excited to go snowboarding for the first time that I didn’t really think of my friends the whole time, friends I hadn’t seen in nearly a year. I was so excited to drive north with my friends from across the earth, that I hadn’t really thought that I didn’t have snow tires on the car. I was so overwhelmed by the isolation of the peaks that I didn’t really care to speak to anyone. I was so in tune with the rush of adrenaline and the beauty of the mountains that I didn’t feel like coming down.

We drove off in darkness without speaking. We let the wind speak to us. We spent three days together without saying more than a smile, but said everything we needed to say. I had been by myself but I was never alone. It felt like I had found out how to keep moving. The darkness at night on the way back had never felt so wonderful. A new day was on the other side.

On Plans

Posted in Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on December 2, 2017

The least flawed. 

I remember when looking up from the television in my dorm room when the voice called out. The door was open because that’s how I listen to music, but also because that’s how I wanted people to hear my music, to acquiesce. The voice was female and in a split second the mind wanders, who is this, what does she look like, will she like me, what am I wearing, what do I say, before computing the question “Have you heard the new album?” and, not knowing that one existed, answering with “Oh, when did it come out?”

Transatlanticism had been playing through the speakers, loudly, out into the hallway of the 11th floor of the Jester East dormitory, a building that housed 4,000 underclassman at the University of Texas at Austin, a time in 2005 when that total was more than the population of my hometown. The album by Death Cab for Cutie had come out just two years prior, and in my adolescent state of education in the sweet, sweet, late teenage years, I had selfishly neglected to listen to it: it was adored by some people within my realm of influence that I frankly didn’t like, and rejected it on the basis of keeping myself at arms reach. Now, just three months after graduating high school, I myself could acquiesce and consume this album on my own, for in that short period of time I had already moved away from home, moved into a place of my own, and started a new life. This day, the day the girl called into my room from the hallway of our co-ed dormitory, was only two weeks into that new life, and this was a moment I remember: things are different now.

There weren’t any decorations on the walls of my cubed room yet, and I don’t think I was wearing a shirt. I was playing with the cords that connected the stereo resting on a steel tower that contained as a totem pole the refrigerator I shared with my roommate, the television I brought from home, and on top the speakers that I was using to blast indie music throughout the hall. It wasn’t much, but it was home now, and it didn’t keep this girl from stopping on her way to her own room.

She was beautiful, was my first thought. And she’s asking me a question in fondness, in bonding. I don’t know this person, but we have shared musical tastes, which is enough to call out to others, it seems. It was such a surreal sequence to be in a place for the first time, here among strangers, and have simple, friendly conversations for the first time. As before I had rejected a piece of music because I disliked the people who recommended it, here I didn’t the girl and could take her suggestions swiftly, and she was gorgeous.

“It came out a couple days ago,” she said. “Come down to room 1156 and I’ll let you borrow the CD.”

The serendipity that swelled inside of me couldn’t be matched, the thought of this person so casually opening their self to me, just to share a piece of music that we had in common. In the few minutes that passed between throwing on a shirt and walking down the hallway, all sorts of ideas can pop into your head: does she study the same degree I am, is she involved in my groups, will I see her again, what’s her schedule like, will we become friends, am I going to hang out with her right now, would she like to get lunch tomorrow, and more. But I rounded the long corner and came to her door a few ways down, which was propped open also. She saw me in the threshold before I could speak and had the CD ready on her desk. She rose to pass it to me. “Just bring it back whenever you’re done.” She started to turn, but caught herself. “Oh, sorry, I’m Elisa by the way.” She quickly turned and began busying herself as if nothing could bother her, and these things just happened. I took the gift back to my room and set about adding the album to my digital library.

The album was called Plans, whose monument to time I still adore. Plans. They never seem to go the way we imagine.

 

That was September 2, 2005, a Friday. I took the CD back to Elisa that day and we crossed paths a few times more throughout the semester and the year we spent on the same floor of the L-shaped hallway, the males on one bend and the females on the other. A few people toward the middle took the effort to become the party-room for the entire floor and I was always invited every time they passed by continually open doorway, music playing out. But by then I had made friends of my own and extended the reach of my influence beyond those I was coincidentally living near. But that day always lasts, and probably definitely because of the album, its themes, and its body of work.

 

It starts with a single, hollow chord rasping away from a static filled organ, like a church hymn rising slowly in low-fidelity. Soon another chord rises higher, and the third starts quickly with after with a mood that is both familiar and warm, a rush of emotion starting instantaneously: this sounds like all the things I’ve ever head before with all the things I could never imagine, at once. A chance at something new. Knowing the name of the opening track, Marching Bands of Manhattan, places an even larger emphasis on the sublime. Like marching bands in Times Square, we hope for the same grandeur in our own existence. Plans.

Coincidentally for me, this came at exactly that time my life resembled such assembly. The album remains for me, by definition, the least flawed I’ve ever heard. From start to finish, there are no moments of complaint. Death Cab for Cutie was, unbeknownst to me at the time, an already decade old band that was just finding their footing in the mainstream, and I think looking back creating an entire sub-genre of music that now fills record stores and radio waves. But where Transatlanticism opened the door, Plans made everything possible. It is canon.

Plans encapsulates through its lyrical and musical combination the truest centers of both crescendo and nuance. It manages to both swell rapturously and remain rooted in the heart at the same time, balancing a growth of emotion so intense that we are super-welmed, while sounding throughout like our favorite song that we’ve heard thousands of times. It can manage to give us new emotions upon every listen while continuing to bring up the same old memories. I believe its longevity persists for the purpose that our lives are the same in each moment: all the time unknown ahead with all the time behind following still. Plans does not deviate from your existence. It is the least flawed.

Song to song, upon every listen and even now as I write this, I restructure my favorite moments. Halfway through the album with the playing of Your Heart Is an Empty Room, begins a description of a room burned down and the ashes still smoldering. And just as we hear that the room is our own heart, a rising, hopeful two-note echo emerges from the guitar that replaces any tension with a sound that defines our new beginning. That simple, two-note rapture is one of my favorite moments in the album, and it defines the ability of each, or the album in total, to rise up so ceremoniously, and yet be actual nothing at the same time: compositionally the rhythm and the melody do not change, and yet you feel moved. There are many more moments like this on the album. It is Death Cab’s burst of light into the darkness, and their hope for the future.

And just as Plans fractures near the end, asking, “who’s going to watch you die?” we are greeted again with crescendo, again with nuance. I simply cannot understand how someone, this band and its members, can find such a way to do so much with seemingly so little. Waiting for the crescendo at the end of What Sarah Said, we are swept away in the rising fortissimo of the end. And yet, again, compositionally, nothing really happens. Instead of climbing the mountain, we are merely swept away to some unknown end, as if choosing to drift out to sea. And it feels like home.

Before the end, we are imposed: “I’m not who I used to be.” That is the way it goes of making plans.

And so, Plans remains the least flawed in all its individual moments and in each in total sequence. The same can be said for all the lives still living with plans of their own.

Especially So On Sundays

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on November 7, 2017

The rain was always falling in Germany, but especially so on Sundays and often in the morning. Sundays alternated between blissfully hazy and rapturously gorgeous, and always there was nothing to do but reflect. I think it was some kind of law that kept all industry quiet on the holy day which had become a national day of rest, the Sabbath notwithstanding any longer. And for the opportunity to do absolutely nothing, I always took about sitting in a park and either watching the rain fall or staring into a big blue sky full of clouds. This particular day was the former, and I walked through the water towards the public sauna.

I hadn’t spoken a word since waking up. I was able to rise, shower, change clothes, check out of the hostel, smoke a few cigarettes and walk to the sauna across town without so much as a “hello.” We forget how pleasant it can be in a world full of noise. And so I was able to listen to my own thoughts as I turned the corners on foot, seeing a dark charge of leaves smothering the puddles, the late winter dreariness blanketing all paths. The branches of the bushes that were waist-high drooped over the fences and into the walkways, while a pallor of tree canopies loomed overhead to obscure the little light that broke through the density above. Eventually I reached the sauna and paid in, including the price of a few words. After locking up my things I walked with only a towel into the sauna room where men and women, old and young, stripped to sweat out the weekend. For me, that was a lot of sweating, but the peace always worked over me more than any of the heat.

The room had a couple different saunas on both sides of a foyer that opened into a garden, and in between takes in the hot rooms I would walk out with just a towel around me, breathing in the fresh air. The garden had managed to retain a bit of snow clumps on the tops of the bushes, and I remarked internally how fascinating the imagination can be if the public good is directed together – the existence of the garden in the sauna building, in the winter, to be walked through between sessions in the spa, was so simple and yet completely foreign to my American mind. I wondered why we didn’t like to do these things as well.

Eventually I tired of the sauna, exhausted and nearly sleeping there in the foyer between showers. I cleaned, grabbed my things and left again to walk about the city. I was only a thirty minute drive from home, give or take, and wasn’t in any rush at all. So I continued to walk around the river, staring at the homes of the people who were fortunate enough to live inside, and live here.

I continued to walk and stare at the green bushes that fell over from the weight of the rain and snow, and the grey concrete sidewalks that were spotted with brown and the colors of fall and winter. I continued to walk and talk to myself and at some point sat down to read from my favorite novel. I continued to walk and smoke cigarettes and take turns sitting and staring at the things around me, in total blissful ease. I continued by myself, I continued.

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This Proximity to the Water’s Edge

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on October 6, 2017

She had boarded the ship that would take her back across the water to her home, a ferry, but really a large cruiser that was used to transport people throughout the Scandinavian and Baltics via sea. I had made that sea-bound trip myself before from Estonia but this time flew into Helsinki and waited there for her arrival. Three days later she was leaving now and I had six hours or so until my return flight. I wanted nothing better than to walk around in the sun, or what little bit of it could slice through the Easter clouds of the typically grey Finnish morning.

My second time in Helsinki, this, and mostly all of both spent near the harbor, what is the heart of the city. That famous cathedral you know in the photos just a 100-meters or so off the central harbor not far from where she boarded, the steps to the chapel hall numbering some 50 or 60, enough that from its doors it overlooks the buildings at its feet and off into the water in the distance and further into eternity.

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I was so vibrant then.

Helsinki feels that way, the buildings rising to uniform height, all the even lines vertically and horizontally, so tight that merely meandering the human paths before you can feel as if stumbling through the Coliseum of the heavens.

But I didn’t go back to the chapel this morning, not for a third time just a couple days prior, but huddled close to the water line. It was early April and the sun comes up around 4am, had been up about five hours now as I walked the sidewalks along the water. The grass to my right separated me from the red brick apartment homes that overlooked it all. And from this proximity to the water’s edge, you can see, even in springtime, the frozen layer of ice that covers the sea for as far as the eye can stretch.

It’s been broken up now but not thawed. It moves slowly with the push of the ships coming to and from. It never laps recklessly like surf but merely slushes back and forth, hardly a line opening up to show the dark blue infinite. Just ice of various depths, the earth in cycle.

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…   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …   …

I sat there for the entirety of my hours and wondered how something could be seen as less than cosmic. Equally of magic and beyond our machinations but yet so rote and earthen. Here long before us, here long after.

Like the frozen sea so too like the fiddles here, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over over and over and over and over, slowly, again, ceaseless unending, evangelical and worthy of praise.

 

One Minute for a Million Opportunities

Posted in america, poem, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 24, 2017

Staring out the window of our second-floor barracks room, facing southeast outward to the parking lot in front of our Alpha Company building, there were a few tall, green oaks that stood in the hundred-foot space that separated our building from Bravo Company barracks next to ours. Our room was near the corner, and the two windows that on either side of my locker were always open because the air conditioner was in disrepair at all times. First thing in the morning and last thing at night, the scene out the window would be dark except for the orange glowing halogen in the street lamp between buildings. But every morning just after physical training and each afternoon at the end of class, the few minutes when I could slow down to think for myself for just one minute, I’d approach my locker and then swiftly move aside for the other five soldiers I shared the room with who were eager to shower or eat or busy themselves in some or other. Early on during that training phase in Virginia, the second and longest I’d endure after entering the Army, we had limited personal time and were under constant supervision. When other soldiers across the Army were training to be infantrymen and supply men and gunners and were scrutinized during a short, two-month period that saw constant activity and rare personal time, my classmates and I were the fortunate ones. As aircraft repairmen, we set about a long, six-month, class-based training phase that freed us up for almost every afternoon.

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The hangar.

And every day that I’d get off that converted school bus that carted us from the hangar back to the barracks, after standing in formation to hear our orders, if we weren’t scheduled to conduct barracks maintenance or trash pickup or supply loading or weapons maintenance or general training, and if we weren’t forced to get in the chow formation and march to the dining facility, if all those things lined up, we could have the evening to ourselves, only so long as we didn’t leave the barracks footprint. It was limited to the basketball court and bleachers immediately in the front or the PT field adjacent, but we could go there. If we wanted. And during those days, when I had the freedom to make a personal decision, I’d stand at that window and look out at the green, take in the sun through the window, and ask myself what I wanted to do that evening.

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The locker, the windows on both sides.

I’d listen for the clang of a chain net that meant some were playing basketball, or I’d see Ryan and Jason taking off to the smoke shack for cigarettes. Later on in training, as we were given more privileges, we would walk to the library a half-mile away and sit in the smoke shack there alone, away from the hundred other soldiers that were constantly around. During the first early weeks when we’d walk to the library or the post exchange, I’d picked up a couple CDs. It was the only way I had to get music, culture of any kind, and was the first time I’d been able to do either in six months time. One of them was the latest Fleet Foxes album, Helplessness Blues. A while later in the summer, it was Bon Iver’s Bon Iver, Bon Iver, but in the early weeks and with no other way to get new music, Fleet Foxes was played over and over and over. I put the album on my computer and on my phone which I had access to only in the evenings. The sergeants would occasionally do uniform checks in formation to see if any soldier had snuck their phone to class, and so going without, I made the habit of throwing that locker open when I came back from class, turning on a song and staring out the window. It was only 5pm, but after 12 hours of commands, that peaceful, gentle minute to myself, to make any damn decision, was the minute I lived for. What would I do today? really can be the truth of freedom.

We had a day once, just a couple hours. John and I set out to find the body of water on post, because godammit there was a body of water. If you’re not familiar with how wonderful the sight of a lake can be after six months of walls and trees, then you won’t understand why I nearly broke down crying just listening to the soft wave from a fresh lake lap up on the hard dirt beach. I mean, we just took a walk to the water, and it was magnificent.

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The lake on that day.

“After all is said and after all is done I feel the same / All that I hoped would change within me stayed.”

Through these little moments of repurposing our perspectives on freedom, the spirit was rich and growing, but I was still that lost, confused young man looking for answers, questions that led me to the Army. I guess I remember this song most during those early afternoons because I’ve always been afraid that I wouldn’t become something, even in the abstract. Because it was enough then just to have a cigarette after class, and it was enough then just to order a pizza a couple times a week if only to eat outside the DFAC, and it was enough then just to be with the friends I’d made in a forced environment. Inside me, some things stayed: the desire to be great, the unending feelings of failure and loss and hopelessness, that my dreams were always tethered to the fortunes of circumstance, circumstances that led me to the army. And I knew it would take much more time to get anywhere nearer I wanted to be, because in those times, in those vacuum environments, it was enough to just be with people who understood.

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That’s Ryan Landes in the smoke shack where we hid.

“After all is said and all is done / God only knows which one of them I’ll become.”

More days than not I chose to live. Thankfully. I could’ve never seen the rest coming.

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John, Jason, Ryan, myself; Hampton, VA, 2011

A Few Weeks In and a Future So Bright

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 23, 2017

There’s a moment I remember in concert with this song, but the swell of emotions more accurately encompass the totality of a larger, greater period of years. M83 is a French artist, and I’d listened to his music in various depths throughout college. But there was always something about the lead single from his 2011 album HurryUpWe’reDreaming., “Midnight City,” that just told me the coming set of songs would be special. It came out five days after I landed in Germany and was nothing short of a soundtrack to those years in my life. It felt like birth, and the song “Intro” remains as much to me a sensation of new beginning, tied permanently with any great moment of vision I’ve ever had and create still today.

The moment I remember clearly, though, centered around a conversation I had with John and Corey in Ansbach, only a month after we landed in country for the first time. Corey and I were stationed in our home village of Illesheim, about 20 miles west, and had been to Ansbach once before, with a weekend in Nuremberg sandwiched in between. Because I had a flare for the cinematic, I had set about a plan to only travel out into Europe in steps, one distance at a time, each distance greater than the last. It began by walking to the nearest village the first weekend I had arrived, even if I were under orders not to leave base. Two weeks later and no longer on restriction, I took my first train ride to Ansbach, only those 20 miles, but a little bit further. Corey and I then spend four days in Nuremberg, about 50 miles away, and made the greatest friends we could have imagined there in the city. Our suspicions were proven true, and we knew Europe would be the blessing it truly was. A week after that Nuremberg trip we had reconvened to drink again and walk around Ansbach. With little direction at all, and with more joy to ever gained in the town center than can be done in one visit, we went back to the old town, which like any good European city was the center of the town and built around a centuries-old church.

From John’s apartment up the hill, it was a direct walk down the towering land overhead that made way to the river bed where the church sat in the middle of the town, a 30-minute’s walk to paradise. Once through a little urban apartments that scattered outside the old town ring, and under the breezeway supported by a bell tower and clock, the walkways no longer accepted cars, narrowed into tight, cobblestone lined paths, and was lit up by the shops on all sides, the shopkeepers living overhead in the second floor and third floors. The road makes an S-curve quickly and just past the coffee shop there heading north sat a döner stand, on the east side of the street. It was the quick bite, but it was also the most rewarding. We started each night in Ansbach this way, and rather than getting cooped up in a restaurant, we took the döners outside with a beer and sat on the steps to watch the passersby, the light peering in from in between the tall urban shops and homes turning from pale blue to orange and finally to a rich hue of navy, night setting in overhead and the soft white of the cobblestone illuminating from the lamps on every wall and on all sides. Europe really has a special way of lighting up at night.

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John standing in that European night.

I remember sitting there buying beer after beer, talking about our hopes and dreams for the immediate future. We didn’t have conversations about the state of politics (not directly, anyway), and we didn’t set out our plans for financial security. We were men under control of other men, and the best we could hope for was the freedom to travel the world on the other side, one weekend at a time. We made jokes about the few places we’d been, the things we’d learned, and how we’d do it better next time. We talked about Corey spending an entire afternoon in Ansbach sitting at the outdoor coffee shop not 30 feet from our current location, sipping radlers until we were drunk, making his plan for approaching the beautiful girl who worked in the jewelry store directly in our vision. The sun hung sweetly overhead all that afternoon, a blue sky blue, as we burned through a pack of cigarettes and dreamed of getting to know her name. He eventually went in, tried on a watch, and came out alone.

Later on after the döners, we made our way to a nearby bar that became our patronage. I liked being in these new places with these wonderful people, like Aldi, the bartender and owner at Brasserie who always laughed with us and poured us shots of absinthe (pronounced “ab-sin-tay!,” emphasis on the exclamation), the only people in his bar after dinner hours. I liked being in a strange, small, low-ceiling building that I learned was commonplace and expected. I liked eating strange and different foods, drinking whatever was passed my way. But mostly I liked walking from each of these places to the next and not even really knowing where the next one was or in what shape it would take. We needed another bar and so we put on our coats to warm us from the chill of the European winter and started walking in any direction, usually the direction opposite of the way we came. Endless adventure, always onward. I remember walking by a chapel on the way back to John’s apartment, the kind of chapel that is innocuous in and of itself, but from the alley where we emerged just slightly downhill from the chapel, it appeared to rise like a mammoth and stand lit, a stone-cut yellow giant against the faint last breathes of a blue sky day fading into night. And I remember it being magical.

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That church rising like a monolith.

But mostly I remember sitting outside that döner stand and talking about the future and how it had no end. In a short week’s time I’d be able to pick up my car from the port of call where military vehicles were shipped. I’d finally be able to start driving around Europe. I loved the train, but I loved even more being able to go anywhere at any time. I remember how I didn’t even have an idea yet of where I would go, only that I would be driving through Germany and Europe like it was my home, because it had become that, though I didn’t feel it just yet. I remember telling John, “I’m going to get in that car and speed down the autobahn, M83 at full blast.” I remember saying it was “European music in a European car on a European highway” and I just wanted to feel the breeze from the open windows at ninety miles an hour.

And then I did, and the future never felt so bright.