One of the things I do to keep myself in some semblance of physical shape, I walk. Seeing the same set of house numbers over and over again has a way making what should be a natural effort can in effect make a morning’s walk boring as hell. So in the interest of mental self preservation I have taken to walking in the Congaree National Park.
It is in my walks through the swamp I often deal with issues which have been bothering me but until such time my sub-conscious deems I am ready, they have lain fallow in the back of my mind.
I have something to say and I am going to state it and move one. I can talk to the dead. Or rather they choose to talk to me. It is not some scary or bloody affair and it is only people who have been my friends or family. I have no control over it either, they-(the dead) choose when to show up and for anyone wondering I can’t summon them from the beyond like a fantasy Necromancer.
A friend of mine once described a person’s death as nothing more than their having moved away to a distant land, with a really obscure postal code; which in turn just seems to take forever for a letter to be delivered and even longer for a reply. It was as good of an explanation I have heard and it has given me some semblance of comfort over the years.
One of the biggest surprises I have had while traveling through the Congaree swamp was coming across my Army buddy Rich. We had both been reservists and ROTC cadets together. Rich was a tall beanpole of a kid, with a goofy endearing smile, which got him into more trouble, than his mouth could often get him out of. Yet he was one of those charismatic individuals, with whom you were ready to forgive their transgressions, as soon as you realized you were mad at them.
Rich and I weren’t terribly close, in the sense we hung out together all the time, or were considered to be best friends; but we were close in what I call a military sense. We were in the same unit, had the same college and ROTC classes together, studied together, and even ate the odd meal together and occasionally chased after the same girls. Yet there was separation between us… which I have allowed to haunt myself with through the years. On a complete and honest assessment after lots of introspection, at some level I believed I was jealous of Rich and his easy charisma.
One Thursday in 1990, after an all afternoon study session at a local Pizza parlor, Rich was headed for home and before he left, he told me, “Troop I will see you tomorrow night at the armory. I need help on my history paper.”
I was shaky in my hard science and math courses, while Rich could barely stay awake during a history course. We often traded history papers for tutoring.
“Sure Rich. Don’t forget this weekend we are going to the NTC-(National Training Center-Ft. Irwin, California) so don’t leave your field gear behind or you will be sleeping under a poncho liner like you did the last time.”
He gave me his patented goofy grin, got on his motorcycle and headed for home. 15 minutes later Rich was dead. A dump truck driver didn’t see the red motorcycle heading his way and made a left hand turn. And just like someone flipping a switch he was gone. Later that night after identifying his body, Rich's mother made the phone calls to the cadets listed on our ROTC phone tree. With my last name I was second on the list.
I can remember walking into the old Armory on Eastern Blvd in Las Vegas. I went to find one of my senior NCO’s a former 11th Cavalry Veteran.
“ First Sergeant Anderson?” I asked as I walked unannounced into his office.
“Yeah Bake. What’s up?”
“Cadet Rich was killed yesterday afternoon coming home from UNLV.”
“Oh shit! Damn and blast! I’m sorry hear that.”
From then on every time someone was informed of Rich’s death the “Oh Shit!” in quotations was uttered. Rich’s death hit us all pretty hard, I didn’t go to the field that weekend. I and several ROTC cadets stayed behind to bury our friend. He was the first of my friends and class mates to die. I saw his face in crowds for years afterwards. I would hear what I thought was his laugh and spin around and it would of course, be somebody else altogether.
As with all things, Rich’s death and its associated pain faded with the passage of time, but I never forgot Rich. In those sleepy hours of early morning where I would often find myself contemplating life, memories of Rich still strode boldly through my thoughts.
It is October now and the heat from the summer months has begun to fade. I went for my customary pre-dawn walk yesterday and the woods were unusually silent. As normally a concert of songs from Crickets and Frogs singing in the darkness would serenade your every step. At first I was just too wrapped up in my own thoughts to notice the absence of sound. I stepped off the Norfolk Southern rail bed which bisects the Congaree park and followed a game trail running through a grove of Catawba Trees, which eventually lead to the east bank of the Congaree River.
As I walked into those silent woods, a darker shadow dressed in a camouflage pattern two decades old, detached itself from a tree trunk and spoke.
“Hey troop. How’s it going?”
To say I was gob smacked and stunned would be an understatement of epic proportions. I instantly knew who he was but had to ask, “Rich is that you?” I stammered out.
“Well who else am I supposed to be dummy? Of course it’s me. I’m too handsome to be anybody else.” Rich looked at me with a grin wrapped from ear to ear and said, “Hey! When did you get fat and gray?”
I stuck my hand out for a shake and pulled him into a bear hug as I did. I then held him by both arms and looked at him. He was frozen at 22 years old. I had forgotten how young that age is. Youthful energy radiated from him like a blast furnace.
“I brought my climbing stove with me. Want to have a cup of coffee? I promise to make it as dark and bitter as only instant coffee can be when made by an Army tanker!”
How could I refuse? I let go of him and watched Rich get down to his ritual of making field coffee. He pulled out the collapsible pot, filled it with water from his canteen and pulled out two mess cups. He lit the butane burner and three minutes later we were sipping coffee. It was just as horrible tasting as I remembered it.
We sat their in silence looking at each other over the rims of our mess cups, grinning like a couple of idiots. Finally, I broke the silence.
“What brings you to these here parts cowboy?”
“Dave to tell you the absolute truth, I am going home. Been hanging around the living far too long and it’s time for me to see what is over the next hill. I have been traveling around the entire world if you can believe that shit! Collecting tiny bits of pain from those who remember me and once loved me.”
He paused for a second and then continued on, “See it’s like this, I don’t mind folks remembering me how I was. But I set myself a little goal to collect all the bits of pain that went with those memories. I just hated the thought friends and family would remember me, and be in pain or feel hurt. I have spent the vast majority of the past twenty years working on my mother and father. When I finally got them to the point of a dull throb, I figured it was about as good as I was going to get. I then decided I needed to hit the bricks and find all the other places and friends who had little memories of me stashed away.”
I just sat there and cried as I listened to him.
“See your crying is what I am talking about. I know what you’re thinking. Some part of you is still hurting with the whole idea of my passing. You think we were friends but you weren’t a good enough friend or some silly stuff like that. It’s just not true. You were and are a good friend. You have carried me around in the back of your heart for the past twenty years. It’s ok troop. Time to let me go see what is on the other side the veil.”
I dried my eyes and just for old time’s sake, I accepted pinch of dip Rich held out to me. He always had at least one can on him at all times. We weren’t supposed to smoke while in a tank and had developed a taste for canned tobacco. We sat there for the next hour or so catching up on where Rich had found our friends. Some were still in the military, one was in prison, the vast majority were married and there was even one who was expecting his first grandchild.
I remembered I laughed a lot. It had been a good long while since I had, had an old fashioned belly laugh. We both had our eyes set on a female cadet named “Julie” we had a field exercise out in the middle of an adjacent Marine Corp base in the Mojave. Rich weaseled a slot as “Julie’s” battle buddy. Decorum and the fear “Julie” might locate me and hurt me keeps me from telling anymore of that story.
However it was the remembrance of the field exercise and Rich’s shenanigans which left me weak from laughing. It was at this point Rich got up and pulled an old faded butt pack out of his military Ruck Sack. He carefully disassembled his stove and placed it in the fanny pack.
Holding it out towards me, he said, “Troop… Dave, you were the last, but not least of my appointments. You are a good friend. You were a good friend to me when I was alive. Been twenty years of whipping on yourself you weren’t a better one. I just wanted to tell you, you’re done with that horse shit. I also want you to take my stove. You were the only person besides me who could stomach my coffee.”
I reached out and took the pack from his hands, and he pulled me into a hug.
We broke from our embrace and he looked east through the trees and then up into the sky saying, “Suns quartering and the moon is still hanging, clouds are running red and it’s time for me to go and more importantly, you have a little girl to get to school on time. Love ya buddy. I’ll be seeing you.”
We walked to the tree line with me crying like a little kid. Rich stayed in the shadows and watched me go. But for all of the emotions running from my face, it wasn’t sadness. I was happy. I finally got a chance to say good-bye to my friend.
As I walked away, Rich’s voice belled out like a hunting dog as he began calling a favorite cadence of ours…
“I don’t know but I been told, -Eskimo women are mighty cold…”