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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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.

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

On Age and Reconciliation

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on June 21, 2017

The smallest things can bring back a wellspring of memories so flush that the absence of the figures, the places, the smells and moments that created each one will be longed for so overwhelmingly as to supersede any wiser, calmer notions of present tense. Today I sat and waited through a simple slideshow commemorating the career of a lifelong officer in the Army, but the song that played over such militant bourgeois had with it the ability to conjure a past of my own – the song that played was typically reserved for soldiers who passed away and were then being memorialized, something I’ve sat through more times than a few. I hadn’t at any one time before known a soldier as a friend to have passed away, but to have gone through the act regularly to have then no longer heard the tune for nearly two years, put me right back there like the times before when it became passé. It put me right back in that place where I wish for all the earth that I could be 24 and in the Army again, but knowing all the while that every decision I’ve made that led to my exit has been the right one. These conflicting emotions are hard to reconcile.

As I get older, as each experience I endure becomes more rich, more colorful, more true, as I gain perspective looking back to understand the things I learned while I was young, I become more and more attached with the idea that their symbols will last forever. Even the past year when I was no longer in the Army and which I regard often as the hardest and most challenging mentally and physically, I find myself wishing I were back there to commiserate with those that needed commiseration. I wish that I were back in that bar serving beer and cooking hamburgers and finding company among the few others that understood how cruel the world had become, before I moved out to step back in line with the system that betrays us. A song maybe, or a certain color of the sunset, or even just the general sobriety that I keep these days can be enough to remind me that for a year and a half I was as if a child again with little obligations beyond paying my debts, which I was only just able to do, and the rest spent baking in the summer heat of a Texas sun while drinking cheap beer with my friends on the water we could find, the only peace available to those with little to spare. Even there, amongst the general confusion of a futureless existence, came peace a little a time.

Now with little present for sake of the future I am back to wishing I could have the world at my fingertips. I am reminded daily while working in the Army infrastructure that I once was the Army, in the uniform. Sitting next to me at all times is a framed collection of photographs that I made some years ago, photographs of the places that meant the most to me with the friends I kept – Paris, beaches of Italy, Salzburg winters, Netherlands adventures. And just as much as those moments shaped my entire existence, I think also of the hideous and despicable and asinine things that I was forced to endure just to have those few moments with those few great people – enduring gas houses, going sleepless for days wearing battle rattle, eating steaks off the desert floor, pushups for no reason, sleeping 50 to a tent, PT in the rain, yelled at constantly, standing in line all day, and above all, living with the knowledge that I could die if the circumstances were right.

There isn’t also a day that goes by that I know I haven’t made the right decisions. There isn’t a moment that I get home and not know that I’m in the right place because every time I look at the family I’ve got and things around me, only the things I love and need most, I know I’m going to be alright insofar as I’m allowed to control it. But when those times come and I haven’t seen or spoken to my friends in weeks, months, years, and I wonder where they are, I can’t reconcile that I wish I were back with them right then and right there, slapping each other’s helmets and telling jokes in the snow and missing chow time because we were greasing the cannon and working night shift in the winter and inspecting weapons and running in formation because we were friends and we hated everything we did but we did it together.

It’s hard to reconcile that time passes. I might still have my friends near me even after these changes if only the world didn’t separate us so casually, cast aside like figures on a map, each returning some way or another to a life they knew familiarly and hoping to stay in touch over the thousands of miles that now separates them. If only it weren’t so hard to get ahead and move freely about this planet, I’d have you all still near.

I’m working my way there. I just hope you can hang on until I get there.