Friday, June 25, 2010

Of comfort in simple places

A cold frost is settling on the newly fallen Autumn leaves, on a dark night in late November. I can see my breath on the air, but I am warm, under a blanket, nestled near a campfire. I can hear a flock of geese honking through the air, and just barely pick up their forms against the inky purple of the night sky. It is cloudless, and the night is clear. I make out Orion’s belt, and stoke the flames of the fire with the toe of my badly worn boots.

My companions lay snoring on out tent, out of the wind on the top of a mountain ridge line. Restless, I’d wandered out to the edge of the cliff to listen to the night and enjoy the feeling of chilly open air rather than the stuffy confines of the tent. I light a honey cigar and think of my troubles, and wonder for my future. An owl calls out and moments later is answered by another. Unidentified night critters can be heard rustling through the leaves, but away from the fire. They are undaunted by my presence in their world, and pulled by some unseen force to gather what food remains to store up fat for the winter. I wonder briefly if our food cache was hung right, and if some raccoon might manage to make mischief of it later on.

I contemplate all the usual things a man should think about in the woods. I think of cold beer, which I was then too young to enjoy. I think of women, and my many failed attempts to woo them. I am surrounded by my own little patch of wilderness, and confront my insignificance to the universe. So many small things alter our lives in ways that we never think about. The path you take on the street may change who you meet. A small chance meeting adds a new friendship to your life that may never have happened if you were just five minutes late. The ambulance call that you don’t take could be the difference between life, and death.

I wonder if these things, and the wilderness around me are all biological randomness, if these events are just chance encounters, or perhaps just evidence of the miraculous, and God’s wonder in everything. I wonder if God is truly concerned with the everyday lives of man, or if he has a greater, more Godly purpose in the universe. I wonder, if I feel saddened by the terrible things that man does to one another, what sadness might mean to God, and how he might handle that, being the only one.

These puzzles bounced around in my head, unsolved, and leaving me confused and utterly awake. The noise in my head grew, in stark contrast to the relative silence of my surroundings. Nothing but the occasional pop of a branch in my now neglected fire broke the silence for a few moments. And then the music started.
A mournful cry came from the hill beneath me, a high pitched howl, a yelp, something close to a bark. Another coyote answered, and another. For a few minutes the hills all around me were alive with song, bouncing from peak to peak, and across the valley below. The coyote’s call seemed to be timed just so. There were indeed miracles in the world, and God listens, even when you don’t think you’re speaking with him.


It’s not quite 4am as I dress in the dark. I pull my camouflage on over my boxers, lace up my boots, and belt on my pistol. My room-mate lies in bed still sleeping, and my groggy, heavy eyelids can barely see even in the beam of my flashlight. I grab my ID card, take my vitamins, and pocket a bottle of water, then head out the door to go to work.

It’s already about 90 degrees, even at this early hour, but even that temperature feels pleasantly cool, if not quite chilly against my skin. In comparison to the 130 degree heat that I will see later on in this day, I am at ease with the climate.

I walk my way past the Dining Facility, my eyelids begging for coffee, but knowing that the DFAC won’t be open for another two hours. I head up Sharrarah Ur road, stepping light and fast, sipping water as I go. I pass a few vehicles along the way, and one or two soldiers on bicycles headed to work like me, but the base looks deserted, mournful, and lonely in the shadows of the desert night.

The wind is calm, and no dust has yet been stirred up, so I breathe deep and easy, taking the turn onto 6th Avenue, towards the swamp in the desolate far corner of the base. I walk past quiet motor pools full of war vehicles. I pass bunkers, left over from the last war in this place, when I was a child. They are torn apart, and in great disrepair. Gaping wounds have been left in the walls and roofs, where JDAM’s tore through them in bombing runs. I wonder if they were left as a reminder to the enemy.

As I walk, I wonder about the choices that have led me to be here. I think about the sense of duty I was raised with, the compassion that I was born with, and that my family cultivated as I grew up. I reflect on the strong feelings toward justice and freedom in my heart. I wonder if it will make a difference to the people here, who seem so indifferent and resigned to their standard of living.

I stop, and sit on the ground in front of the swampy lake. There are surprisingly few insects out to bother me, just crickets chirping. I look out across the water. It barely moves, with no wind to push it, but moonlight shining down on the ripples makes it look shimmering and alive. Tall water plants reminiscent of cattails rustle gently, the only noise that’s outside of my head.

I once again contemplate the random events that shape our lives-if I had stayed in college, I would be a different man right now. I would probably never have been a soldier. I would never have had the chance to experience the joys and sorrows of my job back home. I would not know the same people, or have the same views on the world.

I wonder if I will experience combat here, and wonder if I’ll perform the way that I hope. I try not to think about it, but I can’t help but ask how well I’ll take it if I lose a friend under my care. I ask myself if the mission can succeed here, with the political climate in Baghdad, and at home. I try not to think of the possibilities, and rise from my place at the edge of the lake to get to work.

From across the desert, and outside the wire, comes the singing. A high pitched howl, in quick, barking staccato. It carries from beyond my field of view, and the sound is joined with other howls in a moment, reaching me in a beautiful, if eerie chorus. I’m reminded by the jackals of a another discontented night, several years, and thousands of miles ago. They tell me that all is as it should be, come what may, and that there’s beauty everywhere, even in a war-torn corner of a desolate desert landscape.


  1. OK may be that I'm particularly emotional right now, but I'm actually bawling as I finish reading this. In many ways, your introspection parallels the questions I am facing now as your mom. Knowing that much of who you are right now is shaped by the things I taught you and the values I conveyed, I wonder if I chose the paths wisely. And yet Jim, I can't imagine being any more proud of you! Your dedication to service and compassion for everyone you encounter is so unique. I'm gonna try to go compose myself now.

  2. I can verify that Mom was "bawling." We are all so very proud of you and at the same time, concerned. Please continue your writing. It is a gift and will only get better as you hone and practice it. Can't wait to read your next blog. Pop Pop also read your blog and agrees with everything said.

  3. Very interesting made me stop and think. Will you have many medical stories to share during your time in Iraq or are you refraining from posting those until you get back?

    Stay safe!

  4. Hi Jim,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It was so beautifully stated. It helps us in the US to understand what it is really like to be there. Please continue to write and share. We are so proud of you.
    Love Aunt Donna and Uncle Tom