Homeland

It’s hard to express in words just how much I love Bavaria – it’s a place that I hold very near to my heart. Part of that is due to the friendships forged and experiences shared there. Part of it is because it nurtured my soul when I needed it most. And part of it is because it just felt like home, and I really, really needed that as I stepped onto a plane and into the Big Army. Like, really.

After graduating from West Point, I took my time getting down to Fort Benning. I had laid out the perfect plan, one that would allow me to roll straight from my officer training into the prime rotation of Ranger School, and from there into the Big Army. It was supposed to be 16 weeks of IOBC (Infantry Officer Basic Course), ten days between courses, and 61 days of Ranger School, walking with spring, en route to the active Army by May. Ranger, however, took 139 days, which placed me square in Florida’s summer squalls, in July. It sucked.

It’s an Army aphorism – no plan survives initial contact. I should have known better.

And so, I was still at Fort Benning in September 2012, more than a year after I’d first reported. I’d been friends with a self-described slum lord for most of that time – he, my friend Richard and I dominated trivia night at our local Hooters, big boobs and all. By Christmas 2011,  were well on our way to national Hooters trivia domination. It was… a different time.

In some respects, my slum lord friend was an unsavory character. He was also classy, fancy, and exciting. He owned a trailer park out in Cusseta, Georgia, and he loved to tell us how he’d have poor black people scrub his pool clean with toxic chemicals and no protection. He also wore meticulously monogrammed Oxford shirts and impersonated a military officer to get us nice rooms at the Ritz and W Hotels in Atlanta, with nice reservations at fancy steakhouses. I didn’t have the strength of character to call him on any of that then… I did benefit from the relationship, and he was quite a friend to all lieutenants, so long as we took care of him. He did take good care of us, mostly.

One fond memory takes place in Vaughn’s Platoon, at Ranger School. Vaughn’s Platoon consists of a motley crew of Ranger students who wash out of the first phase of the school, but get another shot – this is called a recycle. Their task is to paint rocks, string ropes, and mow lawns in preparation for the international Best Ranger Competition. Students get recycled into this once-annual event in a fairly arbitrary manner; the caliber of my peers there was testament to that. This cycle break a six-week ordeal. Colloquially, it’s known as The Gulag. And while I did have to mow an acre of grass with a weed walker while a junior soldier stood over me on his cell phone, I didn’t find it thatbad, even when the riding mower rode up behind me; I have read Solzhenitsyn. I liked to think of it as an easily-exploited minimum-security prison.

So I did.

My friend Richard had reported to Ranger on New Year’s Day, 2012, leaving his black Camaro in John’s care – we three rang in the new year building Richard’s kit on his living room floor.  I started in the next class, on February 26, 2012.

I passed through the Ranger Assessment Phase, a brutal week of winnowing, in the most notoriously difficult company of three – we did dumb things like lunge a mile to our water obstacle course and stand around with Camelback bite valves compressed between our teeth, sucking electrolytes for dear life: to let them fall was to face expulsion. Our pass rate for the week was right around 50%; the other two companies had to cross-load students into ours to balance group sizes. So purged, we moved into the training cycle, Darby.

Every morning, each squad would receive a mission and begin preparing for it in a planning bay; we had hours, but every minute mattered. Bear in mind that does get cold in Georgia. Now, all was proceeding according to plan until one morning, when a cinder from a burn barrel – our warmth – caught me in the eye, searing my retina. I didn’t seek aid until twilight, when my night vision goggles brought home just how badly I’d been hurt – localized pain that screamed for relief… on my eyeball. I had to report it as a medical emergency. It was, but it bore consequences.

I spent a succession of mornings at the clinic, where a doctor monitored my recovery; any worse, and I’ve had really washed out. But I was okay, even happy – the medic who drove me hooked me up with food, and I’ll forever associate the joy of Red Solo Cup with those drives – but it visibly took me from my platoon, morning after miserable morning. This, I believe, was what landed me in Vaughn’s Platoon – optics are everything, and I was optically absent. But I was joined by lots of good people with equally strange stories. We worked hard, got strong, and read books; we’d be back. Friends, even the enlisted folks read books! We talked about Marcus Aurelius and Lao Tzu together. It was, almost, magical.

It was also insane. We had three sergeants in charge of us. One, Rod, was the chief, but not quite in control of even himself. One, Warrior, was our friend, but quietly. And one, Hall, was a loose but lazy cannon. My friend Landon was the student chief of the Light Side. I was the student chief of the Dark Side – I was Red, and I could get you anything.

Anything.

Ranger School gives new depth to Shawshank Redemption.

Now, I had my ways, of course – that quiet friend of an NCO was really good at turning a blind eye when we went to the store for our weekly pizza run – as I’ve said, it wasn’t all bad. Landon and Warrior would cover the pizza, and I’d collect and pack my pockets with all sorts of illicit contraband: calories, caffeine, nicotine – I’d figured out that, if you sliced a ring out of your helmet’s padding, you could install a dip tin in its place, flush with the foam. We lined the long axes of out mattresses with Snickers bars and hid dip under the mop buckets out back – no sergeant is checking the mop buckets. Even after a friend got caught with dip spit in his canteen, I evaded every inspection, that time very narrowly, and only thanks to my friend Tyler and loose cannon Hall. I guess I’d developed a reputation. Rod called for me; Hall had just claimed me, and I walked him to Tyler’s second locker, which had naught but a tangled coil of paracord inside. He bought it; I was saved.

I did it for the thrill – and man, it was fun.

But John, John was an unknown, and he loved a thrill too. One day, I fixated on tacos, Taco Bell style – I had to have them. There were some 60 students in Vaughn’s Platoon, and a half dozen supervisor types in all. To do this, I figured, we’d have to source at least four tacos per person. And so I called in an order for 270 tacos to our local Taco Bell and coordinated with John to have it brought over. I guess this has happened before, and they didn’t make these tacos until someone showed up and paid for them. I, being a prisoner, had no credit card – hell, I called from a phone booth. But John stuck it out and brought them in by cover of night, lights off in Richard’s black Camaro. He was in and out before the sergeants ever saw him. And I had a bajillion tacos.

Sergeant Rod, the boss, should have been upset by my delivery – this was a blatant thumb in his authoritative eye. But I fed him, and his friends. So, he just shrugged and invited us all to partake – no sense in waste. We laid out the tacos in the classroom, buffet style, and jailer and jailed ate alike. It was a Shawshank moment. Right then, I was Andy Dufresne, and every man had a beer.   

John also supplied us with books. I read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbrokenthere. Louis Zamperini’s crazy tale was one that I needed then – I had my own motivation to push through, but he left me in awe. That book is still worth reading. John gave me lots of books – A Confederacy of Dunces, a Beatles biography, assorted fiction and non-fiction by the box load. I’ve never seen so many young men reading together in silence. It was, simply, amazing.

I eventually cycled back into Ranger School and went straight through to Florida phase – 61 days without a hitch. Well, fifty-something days then a hitch, and I recycled again, this time in the swamps of the Florida Panhandle in June. This recycle wasn’t so bad – it was only ten days, whereas the first was so long that I fed the class that I started with their graduation breakfast. In Florida, I ate lots of ice cream sandwiches. I also debated the merits of dumpster diving for last night’s cream pies with my most respectable peers – Ranger School is extremely debasing. We didn’t do it. I did eventually make it out, and with a tab. I know people who spent six months in the course and did not earn that coveted bit of cloth. The things we esteem.

Five days after I finished my Ranger training, I looked like a Holocaust victim. The cadre allow that time to feed students sort of like like foie gras ducks, beyond the public eye before we re-entered society. I wish I’d taken a picture that day. The image of me standing in a striped shirt in front of a full-length mirror is seared on my mind; my knees and elbows protruded. Ranger School is a brutal place that exacts a weighty toll on its students: I lost a fifth of my body weight and, likely, years on my life. My brother had a chance to go; he took my example and chose another way. He’s still in the Army; I got kicked out – but that’s another story.

I graduated on 13 July 2012. I hit my year mark at my apartment complex in August. My buddy John was always scheming, and his latest scheme was to provide fully furnished apartments to lieutenants in a luxury apartment complex. He pulled in furniture from one place, kitchenware from another, and clients from me and my friends. We all decided that it’d be worth a go – my place was kind of trashy, to be honest – so we signed up en masse and moved in quick. He was soon at capacity, and I was a third man in an apartment with people I hardly knew. John, he did everything under the table, acting as if in doing so, he were doing us a favor. In retrospect, that was a really, really bad idea – for him and us both.

Outprocessing at Benning is notoriously difficult for new lieutenants. We spend all of our time as students clustered in one small area of the post or wandering the woods, and the clearing procedure required that we cover the entire map, and without a good one. This was before smart phones matured – we had blurry 8-1/2 x 11 sheets of paper. That, and government employees with irregular hours… it was awfully stressful, and for no reason at all. So, when it came time to to move out of my place, I was already pretty frayed. The Army is nothing if not frustrating. That’s the nature of bureaucracy.

On top of this stress, comes John. I’d spent maybe two months at his place, and it was time for me to move on. We’d done that underhanded contract a few months back, and I’d given him a $700 deposit – a lot to most people. I hadn’t damaged my apartment, so I wanted my deposit back. He wouldn’t give it to me. Instead, he cooked up a story in which neither my brother nor my good friend had paid their deposits, so my deposit covered one of theirs. To get it back, I’d have to get them to pay up. I ardently believed, and still believe, that this was a crock of shit, and I wasn’t having it. The tension escalated day by day; my friend was no longer a friend.

I’m not a destructive person by nature. I’d grown up in the shadow of Matthew Shepard and 9/11, and I was an ardent idealist. I joined the infantry with this grand idea of being the guy who holds the hounds of war in check – me, a squeaky lieutenant. I’ve seen the dark core of my nature just twice in my life. One was precipitated by Butters, my Moroccan house kitten. The other was animated by John.

Our feud flourished. It spread to other West Pointers. We petitioned our friend’s father, a lawyer, and we initiated proceedings to get John on Fort Benning’s black list – an economic kiss of death, of a sort. In response, John spun terrible rumors among us, seeking to weaken us through division. He also stood between me and my flight. I don’t remember exactly how it resolved – he is still blacklisted, and I did not get my $700, but the specifics escape me. But one thing, I remember vividly. I vividly remember seriously contemplating harm to the only life he loved. I envisioned razor blades in peanut butter-coated apples, gifts  for his two beloved hounds. That’d teach him. It was awful. I know I can kill – I was bred to kill.

But my self-preservation instinct was stronger than my desire for vindication; years of Stoic meditation gave me the discipline to pass the test,  and I boarded the plane, peaceable but taut beyond belief – tension in the shoulders doesn’t cut it; I was rigid. My every thought on that flight was, ‘if Bavaria is like home, I’ll be alright.’ Over and over again – a verbal rosary. I don’t know how I’d have coped otherwise, not then.

But Bavaria, Bavaria did not disappoint. I landed hours away and boarded a bus to cross the German country into Bavaria. Even on the highway, the famed autobahn, the landscape was verdant, lush, tinted vibrantly by reds, yellows, and oranges – it was September, after all. As we crossed into Bavaria proper, I felt the weight slough off my shoulders; this was the very landscape of my childhood, and it welcomed my weary soul. I knew that, no matter what would come, that land would nurture me, and I’d be okay. I was a nomad, but I’d found my home.

And so it was.

Ergo, any time a friend invites me to a Bavarian wedding, I’ll go. I’ll always call that place home. Any chance to visit, no matter how short, is worth it. I’m glad I have such wonderful friends who feel the same as me. It’s good to belong.

Love you all,

James

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