Forward Operating Base Falcon
First Sergeant’s voice wavered when he called Specialist Frank Cady’s name one final time. The booming echo, forever humbled, drifted down the hollow chamber of the makeshift chapel.
The pews emptied in a somber and orderly procession as the congregation paid their final respects, saying goodbye to a friend, a brother in arms. Stained and dusty combat fatigues were all we had occasion to wear, feeling fortunate enough to attend the memorial during the brief quiet moments between missions. Assault rifles rested diagonally across our chests and backs, held loosely at the hips with our hands.
We filed past a shrine at the plywood altar: two boots and a rifle, dog tags hanging from the pistol grip. A framed picture showed Cady’s grin, a devious smirk that never let on to what he was thinking. The grin seemed out of place in the dim glow of the chapel, an untimely echo from the past.
The American flag in the photo’s background reminded me of the innocent patriotism that led to Cady’s final seconds in the streets of Baghdad, his willingness for duty, and his eagerness to please his superiors. I hung my head, reaching out to touch the dog tags, and I began to cry. Tears turned to stifled sobs as I failed to find the language to cope. The desperate cries from my mouth weren’t me but the release of months of fatigue and grinding psychological stress. Months of witnessing the worst in humanity, of never letting my guard down or letting myself think of home. Months of being stretched to the point of collapse. I wiped my eyes and buried the grief, gathering my strength for the night’s missions.
I set a coin at the shrine’s base, adding the precious silver medallion to the pile of offerings. The collection of honorary medals and simple mementos of shared moments were scheduled for shipment to his mother in California, along with a folded American flag.
Trail Mile 5.3
The orgiastic buzz of night life filled the forest air around me. Each hum and click betrayed an insectile fear or desire, a battle and victory, a yearning to play a round of Darwinian roulette. Without a conscious thought, I slapped at a mosquito on my neck, flicking the remains to the ground with little thought. A Pixar tragedy.
The beam of my head lamp lit the trees and falling raindrops as I scanned the forest over head. My gaze stopped at the perfect specimen to turn theoretical book knowledge into action. Potential energy to kinetic. I studied the horizontal beam of lumber under the light. It was attached to the clear victor in the territorial dispute for photosynthetic rights. “That’s the branch we’re looking for,” I declared.
I stood there, in front of my brother, as an outwardly confident but desperately insecure middle-class American youth, the typical 80’s kid with no sense of history and a public-education world view. The military was supposed to have made me a man, but I couldn’t tell you with any certainty if my time in Iraq had been honorable or if I’d been exploited by a pathologically greedy tribe of ivy leaguers, an oil dynasty waging war for oil. I could turn on a TV and hear commentary arguing both sides.
I was the kid in high school who cheered when the armed forces initiated the Shock and Awe campaign on Iraq. If asked why, I said that the act was about justice and democracy. If probed deeper, I could only fall back on the assertion that America was the best country in the world, that we had moral obligations as the freest nation on earth.
I look back on myself in those days—the way I wove my identity into that nationalistic pride—and wish I could tell myself to look deeper. I’d tell myself to investigate behind the shiny facade I had come to believe as objective truth, the one I learned about from the authority figures and media outlets entrusted to shape my mind. But I couldn’t.
And I was not a victim either. I only followed the same cultural currents, the swift and relentless torrent followed en masse by all the unthinking that led to so many of my peers going to college without any real clue as to their true calling, and that leads to middle-aged men asking, “what for?” after a life of corporate servitude and consumerism. This rising current finds young wives crying silently next to sleeping husbands that they don’t really know or understand. It’s the same unfeeling current that finds struggling families drowning in credit-card debt and onerous mortgage obligations in their unconscious efforts to keep up with their friends and neighbors and some imagined ideal sold on the TV screen. I dictated my behavior and thoughts on the way in which I imagined those around me would condone or even admire. I swallowed the cultural Kool-Aid.
And I became even more intoxicated with patriotic arrogance as I neared graduation. The sustained surge in patriotism following 9/11 made me feel as if my world view occupied the cultural moral high ground, that I was part of something larger than myself. I listened to vengeful country ballads on the radio. I memorized all the lyrics. Yes, I’d put a "boot” in their “ass,” I’d nod as I sung along. Just hand me a rifle and point them out.
And I sat in the theaters, enamored by the war films, imagining myself operating “in the shit” and “outside the wire,” imagining what it would feel like to shoot someone, to maybe even get shot, to earn a purple heart. People would buy me drinks at the bar and give acknowledging head nods. They’d know my name. Those nods and their approving gaze were the only rubric I had for success and self-worth. And in small town, Middle West, I would come home from war a hero.
“Okay, Ben,” I said. “Tie this end to the food bag.” I tossed him the bundle of rope.
He rolled the line between his fingers, asking, “Is this even gonna hold the bear bag?”
“Of course it will!” I was careful to project an impression of confidence. I had bought the cordage off an outfitter just outside of Fort Riley, Kansas. He’d assured me of the rope’s all-purpose backpacking utility. I took a knee and propped up the food bag in front of Ben. Water from the forest floor soaked into my hiking pants, but the strain and fatigue of the day’s hike had me past caring about comfort. “It seems skinny,” I began, “but it’s rated at, like, eight-hundred-pound test or something stupid like that. You could reel in a bull tuna with that stuff.”
“A bull tuna?” He brushed off the idiocy of my claim with an incredulous puff of air. He wanted to tell me that I had no idea what I’d gotten us into, that I’d started us on a poorly planned and pointless excursion along the Eastern Seaboard. He suspected that I’d made a continental-scale blunder.
“Just tie it,” I said, grabbing the bag as he pulled the knot tight. I tied a stout branch to the rope’s free end and threw the branch up and over the horizontal beam. I smirked condescending fuck-yous at my brother when the branch landed at my feet, just as I’d planned. When it came time to lift the food bag, I drew up the slack, pulling hard on the rope. The waterproof sack seemed to have taken root, so inadequate the rope and my attempt at American Muscle were for the job.
“Humph?” he snorted, looking me in the eye with an unimpressed look of inevitability. His gloating slowly faded into shades of uncertainty and almost-panic as he realized that the threat of a bear attack was a real possibility, especially in the wilderness of Maine’s Baxter State Park. With the dim Aha! expression of a Neolithic-order epiphany, he stooped and lifted the food bag high into the air. His frame toiled behind the unwieldy weight of eleven days’ worth of food. I drew up the slack.
“Again.” I was shaken, but still maintaining my grasp on authority. He lifted; I hoisted. I lifted; he hoisted. I jumped, pushing upward. Grunt, curse. Heave, ho.
Ben pushed at the bottom of the bag with outstretched fingers, and on tiptoes, trembling like a quaking aspen in a mountain breeze, a cascade of sweat swept bits of moss and duff down the side of his face. My chronic incapacity to think critically had turned a “How to Hang a Bear Bag” magazine article into a folly, approaching cinematic proportions.
“Okay,” I said, delaying the command ever so slightly, quite possibly sadistically, as I watched him struggle. My timing was just another passive-aggressive chess move as we jockeyed for a consensus regarding the actual wisdom of a five-to-six-month thru-hike of the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail. I gave him a nod while I tied the free end to a nearby stump.
“Backpacking is really awesome,” he droned, lowering his hands and looking up at the swaying bag overhead. He stood in a six-inch-deep pool of stagnant rainwater, shaking his head. Then he looked at me, pointed his thumb downward, and made a farting noise with his mouth. “I shoulda stayed in Oshkosh delivering pizzas,” he added, glancing down at his submerged feet. I couldn’t blame him. I had doubts, too, but I knew—deep inside—that time in the wilderness would help me, that I could find answers and clarity, even if I wasn’t yet sure of all the questions.
“Now can you find the way to camp?” he jabbed, wringing rainwater from his beard. He bent down and stretched his right knee, wincing as the tendon pulled tight. I didn’t care that he’d been uncomfortable all day. He’d asked to join my hike. If backpacking wasn’t his idea of adventure, he could quit whenever he liked. So I brushed off his insult, all of his snarky comments. He didn’t understand what the trail had come to represent for me.
Besides, he’d lost sight of the true irony of the moment: He had signed on to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail for the same reason I had. His worthless BA degree had given him the same flimsy sense of identity as my confusion over Iraq had given me. We both felt something was wrong, that certain social contracts and promises had been broken.
After all of our separate existential flailing, we’d found ourselves in the same spot—though, if you’d asked at the time, neither of us could have articulated why we decided to hike the trail. Ben might have said he tagged along because he had no job prospects and maybe even that he looked forward for an opportunity to hang out with his combat veteran brother, the hero. And I’d have said that I intended to hike the Appalachian Trail for the adventure of it all.
Neither of us could imagine that in the months ahead, Ben would find his confidence and life’s calling, and I would find an unlikely and unconventional mentor to help sort out my confusion and leave the Appalachian Trail with a completely new and lasting world view. All we knew, standing at the base of that tree, is that we didn’t know enough to be out there.