T for Tom

Age 25, First Snow

Posted in Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 22, 2017

I had only been back from Rome for a couple weeks and wasn’t traveling anytime soon to save for whatever came next. Most of my friends were off to the Alps for skiing, and I had been left behind without a plan, alone there on the post with the German winter to pass the time. It was inviting. Farmland spread all around, the grey skies over the rolling hills of deep green fields where the farmers woke before sunrise to till with manure before the ice set in. It was the beginning of January and the worst of winter hadn’t yet arrived. Without a snowfall, it didn’t seem to have been quite winter yet, though it was still very cold.

Just a few weeks before, on Christmas Eve in fact, I had been in a town about 30 miles to the east visiting a good friend at his own army post. We had gone out for the last of the Christkindlemarkts, the festivals in every German town where merchants gathered and music was played and food and alcohol was served and where the spirit of Christmas was so rich that it could’ve been a film played before our eyes. It wasn’t our first time to the Christkindlemarkts. I went there in Ansbach with John some three or four times, but I had been also to Wurzburg, Nurnberg, Munich, Bad Windsheim, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, and a couple more. Each were different and unique and I wanted to get them all in me, to see the lights and savor the mulled wine that was served by the cauldron at each, each township with their own slightly different brew. At the last of the markets there in Ansbach, we weren’t intending on getting wild, but posted up by a fire pit with a glass of wine and listened to the local horn bands play their renditions of Christmas classics up on the stage, complete with John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Under the blanked of night but standing under a wooden awning to cover the fire, the snow began to fall for the first time, at least in my life. John had told me before that it snowed in Ansbach a few weeks ago, but the 30 miles distance between the two towns was more pronounced by the nearly 300-meter difference in elevation as Illesheim, my home, sat just below a steep drop from the plateau that defined upper Bavaria. It was enough to keep us from sharing weather events, and the early snow fell above the plateau after drifting up the ridge with the rising winds. I had to wait for my first snow.

It happened in that couple of weeks after Rome when I was alone. I don’t remember what I was doing at the time, if I had left the gym or the commissary or was just generally going for a walk in the first place. But I remember seeing the snow begin to fall and thinking that I must walk further, out and into it. The thing I love and miss most about the German farmlands in their connectivity, each combined by a walking path for tractors to drive and horses to walk and just generally to get about in large areas where roads don’t exist. Where in Texas there was no way thru, in Germany everyone was welcome to saunter by. I had walked out into these fields this way already many times, but in the late morning hours on this day, I felt it in me as necessary. I packed a bag with a heavy number of half-liter beers, put on my jacket and just started walking toward the next village in the way I always had.

I remember along the way, after crossing the creek from the village twice and stepping over the bridge that headed to main turn toward Bad Windsheim, there was a little pond on the left. Very small, about the size of a bedroom, but a foot or more deep. It became the first frozen body of water I ever walked over on that day, and remains the last. I sat for a time at a bench along the walkway, staring at the thin line of trees that separated the two fields before me, watching the branches sway gently, the snow falling to the ground. When the skies are grey it doesn’t look like the snow comes from anywhere in particular. But the skies were always grey in Germany, and the snow was thick and real but soft and plenty. It landed on the arms of my black jacket and sat for a few minutes before melting away. It gathered on the paved walkway, it gathered on the leaves of the single tree next to the bench where I sat. I blew heavily under the bridge of the road about 100 meters away, and through that bridge by another kilometer was Bad Windsheim.

Instead of taking the path all the way to main road that entered the circular village from the south, I followed the short cut footpath into the village from the west where it would take me to the grocery store. The footpath ended on a road that guided me north into the heart of the village, a few lovely two-story homes along both sides of the road before a block of empty lots that sat behind the village cemetery. The cemetery gate was open and I went in.

There were a few people walking about the cemetery slowly. In the center was a small building that held maybe two rooms, and the headstones were on all four sides. It wasn’t a large cemetery, but it serviced the village well, I’m sure. The oldest date I saw was 1914, I remember clearly, because I learned from John later on that the bodies were interned for only so long before being rotated out – there just wasn’t enough room for all the people to be buried. But there were probably 300 graves there now, in one of most four shapes. The dark, dirt green and rust brown fading over the stone that on this dark day looked more black than any color of rock. Large oak trees sat in the center of each grouping of tombstones, to give shade to the dead. But in this grey, snowy sky, it cast a dark, late evening-like feeling over the middle of the day. I walked from corner to corner and took in the scene, all the grave stones that were marked with crosses, a few with saints, but none larger than a single headstone, no great fanfare for any single person over the rest. For the few people that still walked through the cemetery I eventually ended up on the northern boundary where the exterior wall of stone had a hallway lined with wooden benches. I took a seat.

I peered out from the hallway into the cemetery, dark above me from the brick overhead, shade below me from the trees, tombstones scattered out before me, and all of it shaking with the snow that fell to the ground, each piece growing more and more and more white with the time that passed and the snow that gathered. The sky never brightened, the day never ended, and I sat there for an hour or more listening to “o god, where are you now?” The song says there’s no other man that could raise the dead, but I felt like I could right then and there.

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The fields where I lived and walked often.

I Didn’t Miss It At All

Posted in Europe, Prose, Remember to Remember by johnsontoms on August 17, 2017

It was going to be my first time out of the country, or at least the country that was my new home. You see, in America, where I spent the first 24 years of my life, I had never crossed into a neighboring country such as Mexico or Canada. The distances were too far, the limits too great, the benefit too low. That last sentiment is surely wrong on all accounts, but it was the feeling I was given by my country – Mexico has nothing to offer, Canada is the same but colder. We never go, we never went.

But in Germany now for the first time, living and working with no end in sight, I had a grasp on the nearness of the countries, and by a large, unfilled whole in my working knowledge, I knew that each boundary meant separately unique, different, and succinct cultures and nations. I knew that each line was a defensive boundary built over hundreds and thousands of years and these simple lines meant new languages, new colors, new foods, new music, new politics, and new people. I had only been in Germany for six weeks but my appetite had grown immensely in the short time I had there. Each year in Belgium, the town of Bastogne celebrates its independence from Nazi Germany by staging a recreation of the march of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division that held during the siege of the Ardennes forest over the longest winter on earth, and pushed the Nazis back. There would be foot marches with citizens from around the continent, battle reenactments, regalia displays, parades, and booze of all kinds. I knew I had to go.

It was only a few months before while still in training in Virginia that I had purchased my first Norah Jones album, a CD of The Fall. That CD became a soundtrack to a room that I shared with the only person to understand me in the Army, and we played a long game of chess by moving a single piece at a time between our bunks. But when I got to Germany (as did my friend, although to another unit in another village nearby), I finally had access again to the internet. I decided I needed the rest of Norah Jones’s albums and went about getting them. In order, I listened to each of them in full.

So there, that month after arriving in Germany, I sat in the back of a Mercedes TMP, the kind the military purchases in lots throughout Europe to facilitate quick ease of transport for these types of events. It was a recreational event, but as one that promoted camaraderie with the local nationals, could be given a leave of absence and promoted throughout our unit. We were able to check out the TMPs and drive ourselves on the unit’s dollar. Everyone that was attending the event had been given pass to leave during the day on Friday, but there were a few of us stuck behind for the change of command ceremony to welcome the new battalion commander. As my reputation as a reporter always preceded me, I was selected to give the commencement and was among that small group leaving afterward. I didn’t know the sergeants I was leaving with well and took the entire back seat to myself, the floors stripped of any carpeting, the heater not working. And I sat there listening to all of Norah Jones while the roads passed by.

In Germany, there are no billboards or stores or gas stations on the side of the highway. There are farms and villages occasionally, but the highways were built to be out of the way of the people in the towns, and their rules regarding pollution keep it free of clutter and light and noise. The sky that day was a typical German sky, the kind I miss most; a deep grey throughout from the clouds that only just might drop rain, with small breaks of white, though the sun never shone through. The hills of Bavarian green grazed our sides for hours as first we passed Frankfurt, then Cologne, and continued west. Slowly, the hills became larger and the vastness of the forests grew in height. All the while the sky stayed green, and only occasionally a small mist might develop on the windows, but never a hard rain. The forest of oaks turned to large, upward columns of pine, and it’s the closest I ever got to a Vermont winter, all the way on the other side of the planet.

The first words were always the most important to me, from the moment I heard them: “As I sit and watch the snow fall…” It’s a feeling I always wanted since I was a child. To wake up and see the drifts of white descending to the ground, a new world unfolding over the one we walk through every day. I had never had that. But vast pieces of art, works of literature, and entire operas have been devoted to the snow. I had known it my whole life, but never seen these things other people talk about, the things that are dressed up in language to describe home, belonging, warmth. Snow always meant a sense of place to me – the idea that you could have a place to yourself under warmth of a fire while the snow fell outside. It wasn’t snowing on this day, but I knew it would soon, maybe days and weeks later, but I knew the snow was coming. I knew I would finally have the feelings I was never given during Christmas, during winter, during the times we should be alone and at peace. I sat there in the back of the van alone, listened to Norah, and stared at the pine and knew I would have my winter moment for the first time, soon.

I wasn’t talking, no one talking to me. There were no sounds of cars on the empty highway. There were no sights of people on a road miles from the nearest village. There was only the pine going by the thousands, and the sound of a piano in my ear.

I didn’t think of anything specific. I only thought of the general years and lifetime before these first few weeks abroad. And I didn’t miss it at all.

Mojave 3 – Bluebird of Happiness

Posted in Europe, Prose by johnsontoms on August 16, 2017

I have a playlist of 200 songs that remind me of the best, wildest, strangest years of my life, the sound track to my third life. This will be the first in a series chronicling just what a few of those songs means.

Rain pattered on the window as I stayed awake on the floor, eyes on the white, cantilevered ceiling. We were together on the floor unintentionally-intentionally because she was moving in two weeks and the furniture was already gone. This weekend was reserved for us to be together alone for the first time away from our friends, a chance to get closer. I drove us down to Munich that night in the dark, late on a Friday after I left work and picked her up from her home. The drive down was like the other times I’d driven to Munich on the autobahn, but a little darker and with a little more rain and with a girl I’d only just fingered the week before. It was her idea to go to Munich and I didn’t question the details, even now as I lay in a sleeping bag in an empty apartment.

The ceiling is the thing I remember most. How these types of homes in Germany and across Europe are so small, but so ample for a person. The spaces on the top floor are even worse, where we navigate the rooms that are built into the slopes of the exterior ceiling, one room drooping away from the center in this direction, the other room drooping in the opposite. It was like something out of all the black and white films I had ever seen, but I was living this one, a few minutes at time.

She was much younger than I, and I was only beginning to find out. She wanted to please me, do everything I asked, do anything I could think of and more, except for the few things she wasn’t ready to. Once we were through the door, and even while driving the two hours from Nuremberg, it was a constant series of questions about what I wanted, where I wanted to be, the things I wanted to do. I just wanted to fuck there in the apartment at some point over the weekend. After we parked my car that first night we went straight up to the apartment, dropped off our things, and out for dinner.

That night I learned that she wasn’t going to have sex with me. There on the carpet in a sleeping bag with two bottles of wine in us, I didn’t think much of it. But it was the morning I remember.

It was still raining but the clouds have a way of thinning out in Germany that provides enough high-grey light while raining and still keeping the sun from shining directly. I could see it was one of those days from the floor where I stared up at the ceiling. We were using her laptop computer for music, for the same reasons we were on the floor. It was silent as I woke up before her, dismissed myself to the bathroom and relieved myself of the night’s drinks. She had an eye open when I came back and so I turned on the computer thinking that I might get laid here.

I needed something quiet, peaceful, not overwhelming, and instantly I thought of the soundtrack to the O.C. Clicked onto youtube and started the first playlist I saw. We sat there on the floor necking and kissing and staring at each other before I moved my hands into her pants and really thought this time that she was too young and inexperienced, and I knew then why she wasn’t ready. Just never had before. She went down on me, and I knew from the way it ended that she’d never done that either.

I told her it was okay and stared back at the ceiling as she cradled into my shoulder, the rain still falling, the ceiling overhead illuminating with the rising sun and the soft words echoing over and over from the speakers: “Gotta find a way to get back home, gotta find a way back home.”

There are other things I remember. The locals in all the pubs celebrating the home team’s big victory, and the emptiness of being with a girl I knew I’d be leaving. I remember walking everywhere in the rain and sharing an umbrella that only sheltered one. I remember the weekend being like nothing I wanted, but leaving a lasting mark in my memory. And I remember, as much time as we spent in the apartment cooking food and drinking wine and laughing and not fucking, I turned the Mojave 3 on over and over again, time and time again, even though I’d just heard it for the first time during that rain-spilled Saturday morning. I remember lying there thinking of this girl and her wonderful innocence, and thinking that even as juvenile as the days had become, they were nothing less than sweet, and I remember thinking that even sweet has a place in my memory, like this day now holds. But mostly I remember lying on my back and staring up at that white ceiling, dotted with the shadows of the raindrops on the window, and I remember being hopeful.

I remember thinking that this was home. Not the girl, explicitly, nor Munich and Europe, necessarily, but the movements in my life. Movements forward had become my home and the only place I could truly be comfortable. Home for me will always be on the road.

Everywhere I go now, I take home, as a piece of mind, with me. Got to find a way back home.

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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.