Sarah and I are standing next to the back entrance of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. where she works as an intern. This is the good time when we are still together and giddy at the prospect of getting married at some point in the indefinite future. I am kissing her goodbye, the lanky urban geek necking with the shorter conservative suit clad woman causes a look of disdain from one of the shirts walking past us to enter the building. She pulls away from the embrace, still holding my hands and looks into my eyes.
"You're sure you'll be okay?" Smiling, the rhetorical question is one that the two of us were asking each other last night. Her perfume lingers on my clothes, wafting up and around me in an olfactory reminder of what it is to be loved by someone else. Amazing what close personal contact with another human being can do for the contents of your pores. The threat of my first cruise seems so far away here with her.
Standing in front of the reflecting pool after a decent dinner at Hawk and Dove a few blocks from the house she is staying in last night, I am not in the Navy. There are no helicopters. There is no Gulf. There is no war. There is no trepidation directed toward my current total lack of real world operations. The fact that I have never even set foot on a boat is inconsequential. There is nothing except the brown eyes and the quiet sounds of traffic. Later we curl into a ridiculously small bed, the two of us jockeying for space until I finally gave up and slept sitting against the headboard to give her the lion's share of space on the twin frame. All of this comes flooding back after I rip open a cardboard box this morning and find her smiling face next to mine on a cheap piece of Kodak paper.
The smell of her perfume wafts out and into the air, ghost traces of a million moments now lost to the intangible time passed between then and now. All of it mixed with the smell of cardboard, broken dreams and lost innocence on that first cruise, I sit and stare at the picture and wonder what it was I thought I was doing at the time. Goofing for the camera, I suppose. The ridiculous face leers out of the picture, the shining faces mocking the bitter man sitting in his closet looking for some now forgotten object.
Some hand, mine I think, takes the picture from the box and slowly rises above the floor. The hand rotates, moves around walls and plaster into the kitchen. Foot presses down, hand releases picture as the eyes watch the thin paper float into the plastic bag, two children disappear forever into the garbage. The lid slams down with a sharp metallic finality causing reality to rubber band back to the present.
This is all gone now. Returning to the box, I find another reminder of the past in the form of an old cruise journal. The first of the two battered Creepy Green Books, physical reminders that I was there and did see. Evidence of the past. Proof that I still live. Cracking the spine I find the first page and begin reading. So much water, so many miles between now and then. The truth of those moments not dulled by time I remember sitting in the hanger on the Valley Forge and writing furiously. Trying to find a way out of the labyrinth.
(6 October 1999, USS Valley Forge. Coast of southern California en route to San Francisco.)
Useless. No aircraft at the moment and no one has figured out a better use of my time. Therefore, I get to sit and write as the water roils past the hull. In a way I suppose I ought to be grateful for the little peace that I can get, that nothing (as of yet,) serious has happened. I just cannot bring myself to pick up back where I was the last time we were actually out to sea. The self-destruction is gone, but I still feel as though I am missing something critical. Perhaps it is more than a little hasty to jump on recrimination and rationalization. The former image of what I was is certainly gone. Sarah has been gone for over a year now, still the wound rent by her loss, (And exactly what did I lose anyway?) is just as deep. Hours, not days, pass without her face and the memory still surfaces again. In a way, I should be grateful for this as well. That she did leave, that the additional complication is gone. However, nothing has become any simpler than it was before.
They, (Chief, et. al.) seem to insist on reminding me on a regular basis how good, how great and technically wonderful I am, and how terrific it is that I am here. Grand. To be blunt and honest at the same time the accolades and 'triumphs' that I have 'achieved' are nothing more than linguistically complex metaphors for failure to me. Am I to believe that I am some technological angel fallen and sent to work for the U.S. Navy? Nice try. Nice, but not resounding, not in any way. I am no better, no more fantastically endowed with talent than anyone else that I know. Yes, rote memorization may be something of a strong suit but it has nothing to do with actual technical ability. These people, they point their fingers, pint their medals and make sweeping discourse over who (what,) I am. They call me names and pretend that the trappings of rank are temptation enough for me to continue doing what it is that I do. Truth be known I do what I to because it at least allows me to feel whole again, even if only for brief moments. Is this what they define as being motivated? Am I really the example that they want? Or is the who and not what the determining ideal? They the do not give a shit is obvious enough, do they care so little as to make more like me? What personal/karmic price have I paid for what I have managed to do? So what if I am good. Who fucking cares if I actually might be 'one of the best?' They have no idea. The machine I would remake myself into and then play as a puppet through life is far more disgusting than what I appear to be turning into. Slowly, with each day, another little piece slips away like floating jetsam on the ship that even now slowly undulates beneath me. The rat runs the maze and I am to presume that this is the rest of my life. Fuck it, anyhow. There is no real reason for any of this anyhow. I suppose I should be grateful for nihilism and desolation.
There is no continuance to any of this. It ends here, and goes no farther. Sarah is gone and not going to return. I can do nothing to change this. There is no real point in worrying about it either, just do what I have to do. Do the right thing as Spike Lee and other pundits of modern morality often tell us.
I find the ship interesting. Interesting in that it is a floating anachronism. It is a testament, albeit a mobile and somewhat self-sufficient one, to irony and the avarice of individual men. The ambitious and ambiguous moral decisions of men whom (believing in their convictions and the divine right of their cause,) are willing to commit devices and humanity to some droll fray are ultimately why I am here. In other words, someone wants to play chicken and prove to the 'bad' guys, (e.g. the Enemy,) that we are bigger badasses than they are. Trying to determine the reasoning and mechanics behind the machinations of men is at a bare minimum difficult. Do they, the generals and admirals in their 'ivory towers,' pay a personal price for the lives lost by their own action or inaction? Do they expect us to believe that they do? Am I to understand that they give a flying fuck about anyone they cannot see directly? What is truly bizarre is that enlisted people are all to a degree equal to Shrodinger's cat. We are placed in a box, out of sight, where we can be easily forgotten and left to our own devices, whatever they may be. If anything goes wrong, bits or systems malfunction, they can pull the box open and find us there again, blinded by the light and slightly confused but still there. God help those who manage to escape the box without arousing the attention of the minders without permission. The juggernaut runs even without those stupid enough to try to escape the jaws and ever crushing reality. Yes, the Navy may represent the finest this country may have to offer but at the same time, it also represents the worst. Equal concentrations must be available lest the balance fail.
Gah, I'm rationalizing the Navy's mediocrity. Must be underway again. Funny how you only feel alive six steps from death. Who will it claim next? How many other victims, how many other times will the system break down and kill some ghost just trying to fade into the shadows to find themselves there again. Perhaps not trying to find a soul or souls, but attempting to find some internal peace as I am now. Peace however may lie in violence or the path to it might lead through hell. I for one cannot say either way. What I do know is that I am here. I am the cat in the box. I am my own jailer. Yet at the same time I am nothing, and I am everything. Just a ghost, just another face someone may have seen somewhere else.
"Oh, I'd 'ave rather been in Nam than in that fucking Gulf."
Quarters rattle into the bag as Homer speaks in slow sentences about a bright shining lie, down in the laundry room where the only threatening choice is fluff air or permanent press. The smell of a thousand bodies and concrete seeping out of the floor laid in 1927.
"Smitty, that was his name. So Smitty gets his helicopter off and they're just tearing the shit out of everything with that minigun."
Where does this go, where do we go when there isn't anything left and all we have is a box of old memories?
"Brass all over the goddamn place. Three thou a minute."
Why does it have to hurt so fucking bad to come home and realize that nothing, ever, matters? Tears stream down this weathered face in a fruitless internal search. Alone with a box measuring out the price of my soul.
"Hell of a fucking mess. Quig, don' know how he an' Smitty ever flew together. 'Bout as different as, shit, one's a goddamn preacher and the others off terrorizing damn broads in the village all the time."
Homer the laundry repairman speaks often of Vietnam. Of watching the hooch blow apart down in the Delta when the VC got through the wire. I don't know what this is supposed to be like. I've never seen a war, I've never met who it is that I'm supposed to hate.
"Least there was only one motherfucker in there when the mortar hit. Man we had some kinda goddamn party in there the night before. We was all hungover and layin' on the PBR."
I don't know who the enemy is. What seemed like truth some short years ago is now a lie, now I find myself fading like the tattoos on Homer's arms.
"Hit that fucking foxhole quicker than shit when they started crankin' on that mortar. Christ almighty it was a hell of a racket. They blew the motherfucker clean outta tha water."
Dave's funeral. 66 crashing. All of it washing back in one inevitable tide to bring me back to the last time anything meant more than screws, wires, computers and data link. Just give me a purpose. Tell me isn't all a bunch of bullshit
"It was the barber, used to come over and cut our hair all the time. Didn' know that son of a bitch was makin' maps of the place the whole goddamn time. Found him hung up on the fucking wire later."
Just after dawn at The Wall. The names there, what I can never know. My own fucking face in that cloying black granite. The supposed badass in his Oakley sunglasses and mop of blonde hair. Broken to the core and alone. Anime T-shirt mocking popular culture. Still there and wondering if the answers are really the only ones. Gone now. Forever. Dead somehow. So cold here.
"You take care there buddy."
Sure Homer. I certainly will try.