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.

Advertisements

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.

704531_10102560701765010_625411215_o.jpg

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.

467387_10102572334243430_600024167_o.jpg

I was there once, in the desert.

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.

328937_10101176930508700_1754836775_o.jpg

The fields where I lived and walked often.

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.

How Are You Doing?

Posted in Prose by johnsontoms on January 12, 2017

Where are you? What are you doing? Is everything okay, now, there with you where you are? It’s been a long time but I haven’t forgotten you at all. I have a hard time living with the idea that I will never see you again because I haven’t forgotten a single one of you.

Over thirty years I’ve met a lot of people. I’d venture to say in the 20,000s or so. It seems absurd as a number, but really, think of the groups of people you’ve spent your life with each year: a different class of students yearly until the age of 18, sports teams, team mates and their parents and siblings, teachers, bus drivers, grocery workers, friends, class mates, and reaching college to know more students, athletes, professors, graduate assistants, then finally coworkers and their families and children and friends and everyone possible along the way that every shook your hand or smiled from the street. How are all of you?

On the start of my 31st year and fourth decade, my concerns are for you. Not in any way negative, but just simply that I have a hard time reconciling that I will never see any of you again. These are the lessons of my first thirty years.

The amount of people I learned to know and knew well amplified tenfold in a short window while in the Army. There, in basic training or overseas or in my garrison or just in passing while wearing the same uniform, I met thousands of wonderful people. Some stayed in my life for years while most were there for a day and sometimes a week or a bit longer. It was the nature of things, something that we were vocally taught by our superiors to embrace – life will lead many people to a million different possibilities. What I liked about this lesson was made clear upon my return to America, that something so evident in the vacuum of the army, was in fact true of all our lives. We go on our own ways, leaving behind everyone we’ve ever known. It’s not in neglect or for ill will. We each just got to do our thing.

So if you’re out there, I hope you are well. The world has conspired to change little in the years that have passed, and I hope you adjust admirably to the upcoming years ahead. Things are getting worse, and they’ve been consistently poor for most of our time now, and I worry about what will happen to each of us. I worry, really, for the sake of the world, but for those of you I’ve known, seen, met, loved, hated, fought for and against, you especially.

Without every single one of you, I would not be here today. I would be somewhere else, but I’m right happy to be here and having known all of you.

Let’s tackle the future ahead.