The Gospel According to Dorothy Boyd

‘I just want to be inspired’ she said.

As far as cheesy, pull-at-your-heartstrings movie dialogue goes, that single line from ‘Jerry Maguire’ says it all.

As I’ve wound my way through the twisting careening career paths of adulthood, I’ve developed an intense and illogical aversion to mail from the Social Security Administration. The periodic letters that show up unannounced in my mailbox detailing just how many hours I’ve toiled away at any assortment of lifetime jobs are vaguely disturbing to me. While my Federal Government’s official interest and pride in my productivity is heart-warming, those mile markers leave me feeling hollow and a little forlorn, a living tribute to my own career indecision.

I remember the school scrapbooks of my childhood. You know the ones your Mom kept for you – a historical record, in case you actually grew up to be the President, the next Merv Griffin, or someone equally important. They had a space for a bad elementary school photo, hair askew, snaggle-toothed smile, horrible yellow and brown plaid short-sleeve shirt on. They had pockets in which to document for the Historic Record one’s scholastic achievement in all its glory. History shows I seemed to have had a lock on the ‘Best Citizen Award’. Most importantly, the school scrapbook had room for a few crucial lines of breathtaking insight.

Year ____________
Teacher’s Name ______________
Best friend _____________
Hobbies ______________
When I grow up, I want to be ___________________________

Ahh. And there it was, and for all the world to see. I can remember agonizing over that single final line for what seemed like hours. What DID I want to be? What could I be? This seemed like a hell of a lot of pressure to lay on a kid? Perhaps I should outline the origins of the Universe while I was at it? My early predicted career choices were exciting, but not always so pragmatic.

A dinosaur.
An astronaut.
A cowboy.
A fireman.

By the time I reached 12 that last line was left inevitably, emphatically blank. I had no idea what I ‘wanted to be’. The entire consideration seemed alien and absurd to me. At a time of my life when next week was an eternity away, I aspired to nothing. I certainly had no plan to attain some fantasized and great future. I figured, someday, it would come to me.

When I was in my early twenties, adrift and floundering in a sea of collegiate confusion, my Dad said something to me that left me speechless. ‘I’m 50 years old, and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up’. Huh?? Intended to calm and comfort me no doubt, his statement instead rattled me. A career attorney at the highest ranks of the Department of Justice, a Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves, uncertainty and indecision, of any kind, was incongruent with my rock-solid vision of Dad. Yet, he sounded like he really meant it. Was it really possible – to spend a career doing something you were really good at (and he was good at it) – and still have the kinds of doubts and uncertainty I’d felt my whole life? Apparently it was.

Fast forward to adulthood and the subtle and requisite pressures it demands. Raising a family, striving to be a dependable, decent husband and father, weaving a web of predictability and security, ironically leaves no time for ‘what I want to be when I grow up’. Years, decades slip by. Happy ones, but marked by the realization, immortalized by the occasional arrival of SSA letters, that I never filled in the last line of that scrapbook. I could have been an astronaut, a cowboy, a fireman, a dinosaur (though had that been a real option, I’d still have been spiritually torn – Brontosaurus or Triceratops?). I’d just never felt compelled to make a choice.

But something else happened along the way, as I traversed a series of career moves that were less conscious decisions than sudden curves in the river I chose to let myself be swept passively through. I realized it didn’t matter what I ‘did’. It mattered far more how I did it. This was decidedly different than the perspective, goals, and plans of almost everyone around me, but it felt true. It echoed another edict my father had shared with us, over and over, as kids growing up.

‘Any job worth doing is worth doing well’.

It was, along with ‘Don’t put beans up your nose’, one of the mantras of my youth.

‘Any job worth doing is worth doing well’. I’ve always liked that, I believe it, and since my Dad first said it to me, its become part of who I am. I hope it’s part of who I’m raising my kids to be. For 10 years in the United States Marine Corps, to the last 15 working for a progressive community healthcare system, it was the promise of forging something ‘exceptional’ that kept me waking up encouraged and ready to go to work. With more career years behind me than ahead, I really hope for only one simple thing. I’m comfortable knowing I’ll never wake with a certain knowledge of my personal destiny. I’ll never decide what I want to be when I grow up. And I’m cool with that. I only hope as I traverse the remaining years of my ‘career’, that I can make the journey with people who want to do amazing things, and spend every day trying to make it happen. And that I can be that kind of person to those, whoever they are, that I work with.

‘I just want to be inspired’ she said.

Me too Dorothy – me too.

The Great Getting-Up Morning

We all live in a world inside our own head. There’s the world we allow others in to see – what we say out loud and share willingly. And then there’s the ceaseless running narrative within our own minds which we are more than cognizant of during waking hours, but which continues on even in our slumber. Sometimes it’s those odd, strange, random thoughts that pop into our consciousness on the way to work, at the grocery, or during any of a hundred moments of daily repose that are most meaningful.

It’s probably been close to 10 years since I heard about a tragic event. A well-liked physician had a cardiac event while driving resulting in a horrible and fatal accident. He was my age at the time. A tragedy is a tragedy. Death is nearly always sad (I’ll explain the ‘nearly’ another time), but this particular death struck a resonating chord in me. I’m a nurse and like all nurses I know death is inevitable. Death is universal. Death is, more than anything else, natural. But death is also random, unpredictable, and unknowable. It’s the tornado that skips that neighborhood, that street, those homes, and levels yours. We rarely see it coming.

But the thoughts this physician’s death kindled in my mind, and to which I have returned to many times, aren’t about death. I’ll confess, there’s a thread of nihilism that runs through my belief system. I don’t find inherent meaning in death. I experienced, up close and personal, the death of both of my parents. I had the good fortune to know it was coming, the luxury of being able as best I could to say my goodbyes, and they theirs, and to make sure they knew what they had meant to me. But I’m not sure I found anything but loss in their passing. It was the suddenness and shock of the physician’s death – this one human’s departure that grabbed my attention and stuck with me.

It’s the ultimate cliché. ‘Live every day as if it is your last’. That sophomoric credo may be a wonderful sentiment, but it’s the spiritual equivalent of going on a diet to lose weight. It sounds good, it feels right, but we all know, it’s like climbing Everest to sustain. I know it’s a cliché and yet I also embrace the sentiment behind it. Today will be someone’s last day. We all have that last day. And very often, we have no idea that day the great Morgan Freeman in one of my favorite movies ‘Glory’ called ‘that great getting-up morning’, is today.

But what if we did know? What if we knew exactly, precisely when the milk was going to expire, when the final bill was due, the date of our earthly ‘retirement’? Would it change anything? This is the question I return to periodically, that this physician’s death sparked in my mind. It feels like an important question, one I should know the answer to, and that I should be answering every day of my life by my actions, priorities, and focus.

This isn’t about ‘regrets’. I don’t believe in regrets. We make the decisions, take the actions, and follow the paths we willfully choose in life. Don’t want regrets at the end of the race? Live your life thoughtfully and intentionally. Have a plan. Know who you are and what matters and try and act accordingly. Regrets are for suckers.

No, I think what moved me by this physician’s death was the question – what would I do differently if I knew the answer to the ultimate question, ‘When?’
My wife is the loveliest human I’ve met so far. She has the most amazing life philosophy. ‘Wherever you go, there you are’. She doesn’t believe in ‘adventures’, ‘epic moments’, or grand plans – for her, every moment of every day has meaning and importance. She doesn’t believe I ‘get’ this, but I do. On our kitchen refrigerator is a clipping with a Tennessee Williams quote that explains her worldview perfectly. ‘Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick you can hardly catch it going.’ You could hold a gun to my wife’s head, and she would still be incapable of creating a ‘bucket list’. Every moment of every day would make the list, each equally important and meaningful. I admire her view of life so much while at the same time feeling utterly unable to fully embrace it.

I’ve never written a ‘bucket list’. In some ways, I think I’m afraid to. I remember as a kid, living in mortal fear (unlike my siblings who grew up damn near perfect) of my report card arriving in our mailbox. Creating a list of life ‘must do’s’ that I’ll be graded on upon my demise is somewhat mortifying. And yet, I do have the urge to examine and redefine my life periodically, to invest energy in the question ‘am I making the most of my precious and finite time?’

Thoreau, the magnificent bastard, said it better than anyone else ever could in ‘Walden’:

‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…’

On our own great getting-up morning, what more could any of us hope for other than to have ‘lived deep’ and sucked out all the ‘marrow of life’? What greater tragedy than to have found that we ‘had not lived’? The challenge of this lofty goal, of crossing the finish line content and fulfilled, or as Charlie Sheen would say, ‘winning’, is that we know not how long the race is. We might find ourselves hitting that tape on any given day.

If it’s tomorrow, what does a life worth living look like for me? That’s the question the great doctor’s death burned into my brain.

I have some ideas.

Was I…
A wonderful husband?
A great father who helped raise two confident, capable, wonderful kids?
A loving brother to two of the most important people in my life, my brother and sister?
An important and influential person in the lives of all my extended family members?
A giving and caring friend to my non-genetic family?
Generous in every sense of the word to my fellow humans?

Did I…
Experience the world at every opportunity?
Live in the moment, celebrating ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’ or walk right past it unaware?
Make clear to those I loved, at every opportunity, that they were the ‘meaning’ in my life?
Make a difference to the people who knew me?
Create adventure and joy for myself and those I loved?
Live fully, lovingly, and meaningfully?

That’s my nebulously vague bucket list. I have no plans to skydive, swim with the dolphins, or climb Kilimanjaro. But as I’ve thought about the sudden departure of my physician acquaintance over the years, I’ve at least formed a vision of what a meaningful life for me looks like. I’m not there yet.

But I’m working on it.

Thanks Doc.

The Woods

Living in the wilds of Northern Virginia circa 1969 in a small suburban home tucked up against several hundred acres of dense woods, my childhood universe seemed, for a little boy with an endless imagination, vast unexplored virgin territory.

Child molestation, serial killers, and abductions most certainly existed back then, but our parents were blissfully unaware of them. Toys were made of wood, metal, and sharp edges. You really could ‘put your eye out’. My friend Bonnie had the glass eye to prove it, courtesy of an errant dart thrown by her brother. But by and large, we took our safety and the inherent goodness of our immediate world and neighbors for granted. When I exited my house at 6016 Marilyn Drive to play, I might be gone for hours, returning only at dark, or upon the distant hail of ‘Johnnnnny!!!’ if I happened to be within earshot.

Oblivious and impervious to danger, real or imagined, I enjoyed the kind of frontier freedom that short of living in wilderness Alaska, few kids could even fantasize about today. The woods jutting up against our property were a magical mix of environments. Thick stands of impermeable loblolly pine gave way to massive oaks and poplar that might as well have been redwoods to my youthful eyes. Mountain Laurel, blackberry, pokeberry, crabapple, dogwood, sassafras, and honeysuckle filled the voids in between. Stepping into the woods, the ground fell immediately away to the right, flowing precipitously downward into a deep ravine that ran for miles, all the way to the DC Beltway if you had the nerve to follow it that far. A meandering creek wound its way through the gully, like a forbidden but irresistibly inviting path that all but willed one to explore. On the high ground, dense woods reluctantly gave way to meadows, small estuaries filled with wild daisies, milkweed, and grass so tall you could disappear in it.

No matter where you went in the woods, life exploded around you. In the meadows, life filled the relative vacuum. Grasshoppers, crickets, praying mantis, lady bugs, spit beetles, you couldn’t walk a yard without spotting something crawling, flitting, or flying. Bumble bees and butterflies patrolled the skies, potato bugs and ants marched infantry-like over the ground, and insects of every possible variety clung to the foliage in between. Walk quietly enough and you might stumble onto a killdeer nest, mom or dad squawking wildly against the intrusion. Hitchhikers clung desperately to your pant legs. The meadow was a living, breathing organism.

Step into the tree line and you were met by the nervous cries of vigilant squirrels, barking warnings like sentries to their furry mates, a stranger is among us. Jays dove angrily, bombers on the counterattack, squawking their displeasure at the invasion. Robins, Cardinals, and Whippoorwill attended to their daily work, happily chatting with each other, oblivious to the intrusion. The distant caw of crows, triumphantly announcing their latest conquest, robbery, or crime, echoed in the distance. Pileated and Red-Bellied woodpeckers kept time on the march into the woods, with a steady thump-thump-thump. The stealthy might be rewarded with a glimpse of a possum, coon, or even porcupine.

But it was the creek, which ran westward for miles, whose life held my fascination most. Even in the wild west of my youth, there were rules. ‘Don’t go too far’. But the parameters of ‘far’ were never defined, and so, being kids, we did what kids do. We pushed them to their limits. An unspoken edict was never to explore beyond the ‘cussword tree’. Sitting astride the creek, this massive poplar was filled, as far as the eye could see, with carvings from what seemed a hundred generations of passersby. Despite the moniker, actual cuss words were scantly represented. Rather those seduced by nature’s blank canvas had chosen loftier thoughts to document, missives like ‘Billy loves Susie’, ‘Make love not war’, and even the ubiquitous ‘The Phantom Dork was HERE’ were more commonly engraved for eternity to enjoy. Harmless or not, the massive tree with its cryptic hieroglyphs stood like the Obelisk in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, a looming sentinel warning one to beware what might lie beyond it. Until my teenage years, it stood as an impassable mental barrier between safety and sure peril, the good graces of one’s parents or their wrath.

Stepping into the woods from our dead end street, you were pulled by gravity down a narrow jagged path barely visible but to the select lucky few. Traversing downward and sideways all at once, eyes on the ground looking for roots and slippery spots, you heard the creek before you saw it. Cut into a deep bank of rich Virginia clay, a carpet of impossibly green moss caressing it, was the creek.

I learned, quickly, to approach the water like an Indian brave. Slowly, stealthily, creeping on tiptoes, barely making a sound. There was always something reverent, spiritual, and holy about the creek. It was a place of solitude and mystery, its secrets earned and revealed only to the respectful and deserving. I sensed and knew this even before I understood the words. A clumsy step or rushed approach and you’d invariably hear the bloop-bloop-bloop of bullfrogs hitting a deep pool. But advance with the requisite care, and you’d glimpse the beautiful amphibians in all their glory, iridescent, impossibly green, perched on the edge of the bank or a fallen log. I spent countless hours viewing, observing, and catching frogs in my youth, sometimes at the creek, and sometimes by bringing tadpoles or eggs home to a small 5 gallon aquarium where you could watch the miraculous journey from egg to tadpole to pollywog to frog from your bedroom.

Perhaps even more intriguing than the frogs were those grandest of woodland architects, the crawdads. Their mud castle domiciles, meticulously constructed from the muddy creek banks, things of beauty. Finding and catching crawdads required skill and stealth. Lift a stone slowly from the water, wait patiently for the muddy cloud to dissipate, and look for the unmistakable and beautiful outline of the crawdad to appear. Crawdads are Marine-like in their fearlessness, never retreating or turning to run for cover, instead slowly backing away under threat, pincers brandished in threatening fashion. A mason jar placed surreptitiously behind one, and you could back him right into the trap. It was a skill honed to perfection over years of practice.

The creek abounded with life. Mud puppies, minnows, and water bugs that danced like ballerinas on top of the water, masters of surface tension for whom the laws of physics seemed not to apply. Brightly colored dragonflies of every shade and hue, often joined in mating pairs, the peacocks of the insect world, were everywhere. Even the occasional water moccasin or black rat snake could be found on a particularly lucky outing. Seeing them was my first introduction to the concept of risk vs. reward.

In the woods, there was always the promise of finding something you’d never seen before, something unique and fascinating. Turning over a rock to discover a large, bright orange red spotted newt. Flipping over a rotten log, and finding a wood salamander, blue-tailed skink, a behemoth rhinoceros beetle, or a chrysalis. Walk through a meadow and you might discover praying mantis egg sacks, made of one of the most formidable substances in nature, plastered to the stalk of a bush or shrub. I once collected 15-20 of these and took them to school in an empty mayonnaise jar for ‘show and tell’. The lid sloppily left ajar, Monday morning arrived with what must have been 10 thousand of the little newborn mantises crawling everywhere. It was perhaps the most entertaining school day of my storied elementary career.

Walking sticks, katydids, thorn bugs, neon green sweat bees, wooly bear caterpillars, red velvet ants, massive Hercules and stag beetles, and giant Luna moths – the more you looked in our woods, the more odd, strange, and mysterious the world became.

The treasures to be found in the woods weren’t all living. The clay banks of the creek beds were like time capsules. Pay close enough attention, and it was common to spot, beneath the mossy overhangs, ancient glass bottles peeking out from the clay. Yellow, blue, purple, and green bottles, medicine jars, hand blown and apothecary items were commonly found, many of them 50-100 years old. Triangular hand pounded nails, still bearing the hammer marks of creation, were easily discovered. A childhood friend found the mother lode of all discoveries one day in the woods as we sat astride a massive rotting tree. A civil war era rifle, wrapped in oilcloth and remarkably preserved had been hidden a hundred years before in the hollow trunk of the tree, long since grown over and sealed until discovered by my friend in its rotting interior all those years later.

The woods I grew up in and reverently loved so dearly are gone now. Like a lot of wonderful memories and experiences, fragile and fleeting, the woods fell victim to progress, the inevitable and inexorable expansion of the DC suburbs. I stopped by the old house a few years ago as I passed through Northern Virginia on a business trip. Driving through the extension of my childhood neighborhood, looking at the manicured rows of contemporary starter homes that now sat atop my former magical stomping grounds, it filled me with sadness. The sting of embarrassing and unexpected tears filled my eyes. The trees, creeks, meadows, and animals were beyond gone – swept away so effectively and cleanly by dozers and graders, it was hard to imagine they ever really existed at all.

But sometimes, in my dreams, I’m back there. In the lush greenness of my youth’s sanctuary. I hear the water, and the birds, and the hum of mosquitos, the smell of decaying wood wafting into my subconscious slumber. I’m there again. Wandering, wondering, exploring…

In the woods.


I’ve spent my entire life trying to spin gold from straw.

Like the Miller’s daughter in one of my favorite Brothers Grimm tales, ‘Rumpelstiltskin’, the idea of transforming something ordinary into something unique and magical has fascinated me. And that urge to create has never left me.

As a little boy, my urge to create quickly manifested itself. Anything remotely related to creating something from nothing was instantly enthralling. I vividly recall one of my favorite childhood summertime activities, one my saintly mother would likely have preferred I abstain from. Our northern Virginia home was, back then, surrounded on two sides by thick woods covered in mountain laurel, honeysuckle, and pokeberry bushes. The pokeberry plant is a young boy’s dream, producing generous clusters of dark berries that when crushed produced voluminous amounts of blood-colored juice. Stains from pokeberry, whether on clothing or skin, can last decades. For most budding juvenile delinquents, the pokeberry plant had only one meaningful use – it was perfect for throwing at one’s peers, particularly of the juvenile female sort. A secondary option was to throw the berries on a clean white sidewalk or the side of a house, conducting important field research into just how big a mess one could create before a responsible adult showed up to ruin the fun.

And of course, I may have engaged in a little of that, limited by the specter of my 6’4” Marine father’s potential intervention.

But pokeberries held another fascination for me. They were a potential and vital ingredient in a potent elixir. Carefully gathered and crushed into a bloody purple gelatinous jelly, they became a magic potion, the most poisonous substance known to man, or a secret formula surely capable of transforming a young lad into some incredible creature, or bestowing upon him any number of super powers. Of trivial interest, the pokeberry plant (some call it ‘polkberry’) is quite poisonous, although in truly rural settings it’s greens have been boiled and eaten as a poor man’s substitute for greens referred to as ‘poke sallet’. Tony Joe White even wrote a song about it in 1969, called Polk Salad Annie later recorded by the King himself. I spent a lot of childhood hours concocting my pokeberry creations. Even now, when I see those hanging clusters of berries, I get the urge to find an old mason jar and get to work.

The toys I loved as a kid weren’t bikes, army men, rockets, or skates, they were toys that allowed you to make something unique. One of my favorites was a ‘Wham-O’ creation called ‘Super Stuff’. Combining a pouch full of innocuous looking powder with some water, and shaking it for 20 minutes like your life depended on it, yielded a magical substance of clearly alien origin. I can’t quite recall what you DID with the ‘Super Stuff’ once you’d created it, but it’s gooey, slimy consistency, and the sharp unmistakable chemical smell emanating from it were far beyond the late 60’s technology that produced it. ‘Super Stuff’ taught me that perfection was fleeting and fragile. You could keep it in a container in the fridge for awhile, but it was only a matter of time before you dropped it on the floor where it became the world’s most effective, if a bit messy, vacuum cleaner.

Another of my all-time favorite toys as a kid was the ‘Strange Change Machine’. Place an ordinary plastic cube in an incubator heated to ungodly unsafe temperatures and you’d witness a dinosaur, a pterodactyl, a giant spider, or even a mummy unfold before your eyes. When you tired of playing with your creature, you’d heat him up and mold him back into a harmless plastic cube again. Sounds mindlessly simple, but it was an addictive, awe-inspiring toy to this 7 year old.

So powerful were the memories of ‘creative’ toys like ‘Super Stuff’ and ‘The Strange Change Machine’, I located both of them on the internet and purchased them just a few years ago. The lure of that pouch of ‘Super Stuff’ proved too tempting and I soon had it mixed and oozing through my hands. What can I say? When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I pretty much did the same thing. I’ve never really grown up.

I haven’t found time of late to mash up some local pokeberries, or break out my Strange Change Machine (although it’s still in my closet!). But an alchemic obsession to create something amazing from base materials still courses through my veins. Discovering the internet in the early 90’s was like flinging open doors to the universe. Cruising and perusing was never going to be enough for me, I had to create something on the internet. After several dissatisfying years observing others try to create something special on the web, I lit out on my own with a couple dear friends, and built a couple websites of my own. Website creation is the ultimate exercise in alchemy, the literal birthing of ‘something’ from ‘nothing’. I’ve found over the years as my self-taught skills have grown, that I’m much more enthralled by the ‘making’ and ‘creating’ than I am by the finished product or actually enjoying what I’ve created. I possess no insight into why that’s the case.

My other adult pursuits follow the same pattern. I am a rabid and enthusiastic cook. While others might cook out of practical need or view it as drudgery, designing a meal and carrying it through to fruition is one of my favorite pastimes. My loving wife is ambivalent about food in general. She would happily accept a couple of boiled hotdogs for Saturday dinner. She doesn’t always seem to understand that cooking is a joy for me. Why? Because I’m making gold, or trying to! I may resort to a recipe once or twice a year, but even then, I’m mixing it up, adding, subtracting, always trying to make it my own. For me, cooking is the ultimate alchemy – finding the perfect combination of tastes, smells, and consistency by the careful preparation of combination of just the right ingredients. The meal itself is only an afterthought. It’s all about the mystery of the result.

A decade ago, enjoying a tailgate spread with some friends at an NFL game, someone handed me a cup of beer. It may have been the best sip of anything I’ve ever had. And when I asked where he’d gotten it, he uttered those magical words…’I made it’. And that sparked my immediate 10 year obsession with beer making. As advised, I started with ‘extract’ kits, beers that are essentially planned for you, with even the malt pre-extracted. Basically, you add the ingredients, boil, cool, and dump in your yeast. 4-6 weeks later, you’ve got beer. The beer was good. But the Alchemist in me decried the experience as unsatisfactory. How much more magical might be finding the grains myself, deciding on which hops to add and when to add them, what yeast to use, and what other magical ingredients to add? Something from nothing – does it get any better? Perhaps I’ll create the world’s first pokeberry brew. I’ve made beer so full of homegrown blueberries the foam was purple. I’ve brewed beer with roasted homegrown pumpkins that could complete any perfect Halloween. I’ve even created my own custom labels for special occasion beers. And of course, many beers have been consumed, but that is of little import. It’s all about the brewing.

I’ve also reconnected with another childhood love, the home garden. My beloved Mom indulged my obsessions early in life, allowing me to cram a home garden into a 4’ x 4’ space in our back yard in Franconia, Virginia. When summering at the beach, we’d plant cucumber, cantaloupe, and anything else we could think of in the sandy backyard of our double-wide beach lot. We were terrible gardeners. But when I finally had my own place, smack dab in the tobacco farming community of Stokesdale, NC, the call of the garden was soon ringing incessantly in my ears. I could’ve gone the usual, moderate route and just made a trip to Lowes or Home Depot and found whatever I wanted. But that held no allure for me. Instead, I bought every book on gardening I could find, ordered ridiculous amounts of seeds of almost every kind, and soon turned my bedroom into a large greenhouse. Nearly every vegetable I plant I grew then or since, I’ve grown by hand, as well as many of the flowers in my yard. I enjoy the vegetables (although I probably give away more than we ever consume ourselves), but it’s really about the amazing transformation I help bring about from seed to plant to fruit back to seed again. This past summer, I began combining my alchemic efforts, taking super hot homegrown peppers, drying them, and combining them with sea salt and other ingredients to make some pretty amazing flavored salts.

In a few short months, I’ll move on to my next adventure – backyard beekeeping. Like many of my beloved hobbies, at its core it’s about the magical transformation that occurs when, under just the right circumstances, simple everyday ingredients become something amazing and unique. Granted, I don’t know how to make honey. But I’m going to create the ingredients and environment it takes for my new friends the honey bees to do it. And when I get that honey, I’m going to make my own mead and who knows what else with it.

Because that’s how I roll.

Even more than my wife wonders it, I wonder why I am the way I am? Who really knows why they are the way they are? Why does what fascinates us, fascinate us? Why are we driven and passionate about that which passionately drives us? I really don’t know. But what I do know is that my little brand of alchemy makes getting up every day worth getting up every day. The thought of creating something, anything kicks my pulse up just a few notches. It always has.

So get out of my way. I’m about to make something unbelievably cool.

And there’s nothing you can do about it. 🙂

The Storm – Part I

It was an early August evening in 1990 on the Hawaiian island of Molokai.

The island had once been home to lepers and outcasts, so we Marines felt right at home training on its rugged terrain. I sat in the pitch black, ear up against a PRC-77 radio talking to one of my squad leaders out on patrol. The unmistakable grumble of a humvee working its way up the dirt road beneath me drowned out a nighttime chorus of frogs and crickets. I watched a familiar shadow, tall, bulky, and clumsy stumble towards me. It was my C.O., Capt John Caretti, a behemoth from Philadelphia. And something was obviously wrong.

If you asked 1000 Marines why they joined up, you’d likely get 1000 answers. ‘I knew they were the toughest branch of the service’, ‘I wanted a challenge’, ‘I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life’, ‘They gave me the choice, jail or the Marine Corps’. But contrary to the Hollywood stereotypes, what you wouldn’t hear is ‘I want to get shot at and put my life in danger at the whim of a US President’. Like their human cousins, Marines enjoy being alive. But in the back of every jarhead’s mind, always, is the knowledge that we are trained to kill in order to impose the will of our leaders on the enemy – whomever that might be – and that someday, we’ll be asked to actually do so. Still, that reality is never quite real until it happens.

Capt. Caretti had me gather the other platoon commanders and dropped his bombshell. ‘Saddam Hussein has invaded Kuwait. We’re helo-ing back to Oahu tonight and we’ll be in Saudi Arabia in a week. Get your Marines in and let them know. Now.’ One of the prime directives of Marine leadership is that you always act like you know exactly what’s going on and what to do, even if you don’t. As soon as the C.O. lumbered away, we Lieutenants looked at each other and asked, in unison, ‘Who in the hell is Saddam Hussein???’.

We were about to find out.

The next week was a dizzying flurry of chaos. A Marine Rifle Company trains continuously. Unlike many of the other services, ‘grunts’ as Marine Infantry fondly call themselves, take enormous pride in being ready to fight anywhere in an instant. But we weren’t going on a 50 mile ‘hump’ carrying everything we’d need on our back. We were deploying to an unknown land, more than 8000 miles away. For Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines (or 1-3 as we called it) packing up everything we ‘owned’ was as simple as cramming a seabag and alice pack to maximum capacity, and grabbing our weapons. But to deploy overseas, to conduct a war – that was different. In addition to the rifles, squad automatic weapons, machine guns, mortars, and anti-tank missile launchers standard issue for Marine Infantry, we were taking everything with us. Hummers, Dragon anti-tank vehicles, Mark-19 grenade launchers, tons and tons of military hardware, the entire armory. The works. That was no simple task.

The preparation and activity level on our base at Kaneohe Bay was furious. Simultaneously, we had to prepare ourselves. Calls to insurance companies maxing out life insurance policies, writing of wills, de-escalation of spouses and arrangements to provide moral and other support for them in our absence, hurried goodbyes to girlfriends, storage of personal items we couldn’t leave behind. There was a lot to do. Some even banked their semen during that week, so that in the event they didn’t return, their wife could still conceive their child. There’s something truly bizarre about proactively planning for the possibility of not ever returning. And looming in the back of all our minds were questions we wouldn’t truly have answered for 8 months to come, where were we going, what would we do once we got there, and how would we each handle it? And of course the question of all questions, the one we didn’t even want to think about. We never spoke those questions, but they were there as a constant static one could never fully clear from the head.

And then, we were gone, leaving a literal paradise for some hellishly hot armpit of the world, willingly and, almost, gleefully. For despite the anxiety and nervousness pulsing just below the surface, we were glad to be called upon. Marines take foolish pride in finding themselves in the worst of predicaments. In 1918, as Marine Company Commander and Virginia Tech graduate Lloyd Williams came upon French troops fleeing the Germans enmasse on the road to Lucy-le-Bocage, he uttered words that typify the Marine mindset. ‘Retreat, hell, we just got here!’. Our credo is to wallow in the joy of experiences most would find entirely unacceptable and dissatisfying. There were the formal goodbyes as we all did our best to pretend this was ‘no big deal’, knowing how hard it would be for those we left behind, perhaps hardest of all for them. I was leaving behind my wife of not even a single year, already thrust into the role of stoic, unselfish Marine wife.

As I left her, I wondered if that’s all there ever would be? I’d offered to fly her back to her folks in Richmond, Virginia for the duration, but she would have none of that, opting to stay in Hawaii and wait there for me with the other Marine wives. And before we knew it, we were lifting off from Honolulu on a 20+ hour commercial flight to the Middle East, about which we knew nothing, and had never stepped foot on. No one in their right mind would want to go where we were going, and that made the journey irresistibly attractive.

We were going to war.

The Storm – Part II

The flight to Saudi Arabia via commercial airlines was surreal.

‘Please place your M-16’s under your seat, muzzle facing outwards’ isn’t a stewardess instruction you’ll hear every day. We were fed every 2 hours, watched continuous onboard movies, our every whim catered to. It had just a hint of that ‘lamb being led to slaughter’ feel to it. For me, that flight over was full of angst, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. Too much time to think about where we were going, what we might have to do there, and what we’d left behind.

After more than a day of flying, we descended to no man’s land. Stepping into the blindingly bright daylight of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, you didn’t just feel the heat, you could smell and taste it. A strange thing I’ve noticed in my travels to the far off corners of the planet, but every place on Earth has a unique smell. This place smelled dusty, barren, and strange, the heavy air a mix of petroleum fumes, exotic spices, and heat vapor. Of all the foreign lands I’d visited, this one struck me from the outset as most foreign. No wonder they’ve been fighting each other for thousands of years I silently thought to myself.

We gathered our gear and threw ourselves into waiting trucks. After a short drive we disembarked at our new temporary home, a series of vacant airplane hangers in which we would alternately bake and freeze for the next several weeks. Around us, other Marines from unknown parts followed suit. I remember my heart racing during these first few hours – silly in retrospect, we were months from truly being in harm’s way – but adrenaline is a funny thing, it won’t stand for reason. The brain stimulates, the body responds, and my brain was telling me we were here to throw men forcibly from an invaded country. That night after getting settled in, I gathered my NCO’s and told them we were going to PT (Marine-speak for exercise). I figured we all had a little adrenaline to burn off.

As dusk approached and my 35 man platoon and I headed into a 3 mile run around an unknown airbase, they sang. ‘Jodies’ we call them – songs about killing things, the girl we left back home, what some other non-Marine is doing with her – Marines sing a lot. It’s like a pre-emptive dose of pain and suffering, they constantly remind themselves of how hard their jobs are, how no one in their right mind would want to do what they do, and how, in the end, Marines are pretty much ****ed. Better we embrace it in song than let it bother us in real life. So we ran and we sang, and we sang with such ferocity and passion, not the usual lackluster winded refrain, that it was almost frightening. The sounds of our songs reverberated off the aluminum hangars echoing into the strange foreign night like a battle cry. My platoon was already changed, like a teenager left alone at college that first night, coming to terms with where they were and who they’d need to be. And they were looking at me to lead the way.

We stayed in the Easy Bake Ovens (as we called them) sleeping on cots for a couple weeks. We’d gotten there ahead of most of the support forces, so no one really knew what to tell us to do. We slept on our cots, held meetings, cleaned our weapons (in the absence of anything else to do, Marines clean weapons). We handed out freshly-printed US Government training booklets called ‘Identifying the Iraqi Threat and How They Fight’ and studied them. They described the methods and weapons of the Iraqi forces. We memorized silhouettes of mostly Soviet-supplied armor and aircraft, and practiced handy Arabic phrases such as ‘Halt!’ (‘Qiff!’), ‘Lay down your weapons!’ (‘Ilqi slaahak!’), and ‘You are a prisoner’ (‘Inta sajeen!’). Other phrases we might have found helpful (‘Do not attack us with nerve gas!’, ‘How do you stop this diarrhea?’, and ‘Get out of Kuwait and save us all a lot of trouble!’) were not covered in our phrasebook. We studied the many poisonous snakes, scorpions, and other creepy-crawlies we were about to meet up close and personal. And we PT-ed and sang.

Support forces – cooks, mechanics, armory staff, chaplains, and engineers soon arrived, and what we would come to refer to as ‘the good life’ (ie..some semblance of civilized existence) came to an abrupt end. We packed all of our gear and weaponry up, and moved to a makeshift base at a Saudi Arabian military camp on the coast of the Persian Gulf. We would not see a city or real amenity again for 6 months. My battalion, 1st Bn, 3rd Marines, the ‘Lava Dogs’, were tasked with reconnaissance and defense of the main coastal highway that ran along the breadth of Saudi Arabia, straight into the heart of our objective, Kuwait itself. And to get ourselves ready for something much more intense.

After a brief stint at our makeshift base camp (where at least tents, cots, and an occasional hot shower were available), we moved out into the desert. Our Battalion was organized with one company as a helicopter borne force, one assigned to trucks, and one (my company, Bravo) to AAVs (amphibious assault vehicles). AAVs are ugly, beautiful machines. Designed to be driven off the ramp of a special Navy vessel (an ‘LST’), the armored tracked vehicles propel through open-ocean waters via powerful water jets. Once on the beach, their tank-like treads and powerful diesel engines allow them to go almost anywhere at high speed. Inside, a squad or so of Marines are crammed like the latest meal into the dark underbelly of a mechanized beast.

It’s not a fun ride for the jarheads inside. They’re blind, oblivious to any threat which might be sighting in with evil intent, bounced around against the steel interior at will, subjected to a deafening roar of engine noise, and forced to breathe a mixture of air and diesel fumes. When the objective is reached and ramp lowered, Marines explode grunting and squinting out of the rear to assault the enemy. That’s the idea anyway. Truth is, we were thrilled to be the mechanized company. It meant less walking, and working with the ‘Amtrakers’ (as we called them), who were always an especially salty, profanity-rich, and unprofessional bunch. Besides, the AAVs were equipped with a nasty .50 cal machine gun, and Mk-19 40mm grenade launchers that could spew a fearsome rain of grenades on approaching infantry that was truly impressive. In short, they were a bad-ass, if not comfortable, way to get around.

Our stint at the tent-city we called base camp didn’t last long. Soon, we moved along with our mechanized friends up the coastal highway. We dug-in to positions on either side of the highway. It was brutal hard work, but we were motivated. Rumors flew everywhere. Saddam would launch Scud rockets laden with nerve or mustard gas at us any minute. Saddam would send the Republican Guard into Saudi Arabia in a pre-emptive strike at US and coalition forces. You didn’t know what to believe. All we knew is that we weren’t going to get caught unprepared. So, brandishing our ‘E-tools’, we dug. E-tools are collapsible shovels Marines carry and use for a variety of means, digging, hammering, even as a weapon if it came down to it, hence the nickname of a modern day Marine legend, ‘E-tool Smith’ (Ray Smith, legendary Marine infantry officer). We dug 4-6 feet down into the sand, sweaty, back-breaking work. We filled sandbags, thousands and thousands of them, because next to being underground, they provided the only protection from small arms fire to be had in a desolate, flat land with no significant terrain features. And we built overhead structures with anything we could find – wood, cardboard, camouflage netting, to mask our location and provide some protection from shrapnel. Once dug-in, we spent hours deciding where best to deploy our weapons, and practicing what we would do if/when Saddam did have the stupidity to send his troops down that coastal highway. At night, we boarded our AAVs and practiced night movement and tactics.

Even during the day, it was almost impossible to figure out where you were. As a Marine Lt., there is no greater sin than not knowing, at all times, where you are. Not knowing where you were, exactly where you were, meant you were alone. You couldn’t call for unit support, you couldn’t call in artillery fire, you couldn’t call in air support. You had to know where you were – always. In a flat country where the only occasionally identifiable terrain features were ‘sabkha’s’, old dried out lake beds which were really salt flat depressions of only an inch or two, or ‘wadi’s’, dried up riverbeds, this was no easy feat. Small rises, which we used the Hawaiian word for mountain (‘Pu’u’) to describe, became major beacons in the absence of other major features. Fortunately, as we’d left Hawaii, we’d been issued the betamax of GPS technology, the very first versions of the technology you can now get in a Honda civic. The things weighed 10 lbs, and could take up to 10 minutes to locate the 3 satellite signals necessary to triangulate your position, but when they worked they were a God-send.

My Marines and I were ready for anything at any time. But it was hard to know from which direction danger might approach. When she arrived, we never saw her coming. We were doing yet another night movement, this time with the entire Battalion. We were in our AAV’s, the rest of the unit on foot or in trucks. On a good night, with a decent moon reflecting off the sand, you could see incredibly well. But this wasn’t one of those nights. With no moon in sight, it was pitch black, and even our night vision goggles were of little use. The movement was led by our Dragon platoon, anti-armor missile launchers mounted on Humvee’s. My buddy, fellow Lt. Mike Monroe, was in the lead vehicle when it went over the top of a berm. It was too late when the driver realized they were driving over the wall of an entrenched gravel pit. The Humvee flipped over the embankment, fell the 20-30 feet to the bottom, and landed upside down.

My friend Mike, a gregarious teller of jokes, loved by everyone who knew him, was sitting in the gunner’s seat atop the vehicle when it went over. It took agonizing minutes fumbling chaotically in the dark before we could figure out what had happened. We’d experienced our first casualty of Desert Shield. Mike Monroe had broken his neck. He was gone forever in a stunning blink of an eye. We did the best we could – holding a memorial service in the oppressive heat of the desert for our friend Mike, wondering what his family would go through when they got the news, and wishing we could make better sense of it.

He wouldn’t be our last training casualty.

The Storm – Part III

My memories of Desert Shield and Desert Storm are a surreal patchwork of alternately intense, funny, and bizarre moments.

If war is hell, pre-war must certainly be purgatory. Waiting for George Herbert Walker Bush, the UN, and Saddam Hussein to figure out if they were going to kiss and make up, or have a little Mid-East throw down, felt like it could last forever. After a few months of ‘the wait’, the consensus of my Marines was that anything was better than sitting out in the middle of the Saudi desert, training day after day, and waiting for the next sunrise to come. Excitement, even of the bloody, dangerous, violent kind began to look awfully attractive. Marines have become so accustomed to weathering the drudgery of agonizing delays over the past 200 years, they’ve developed an entire way of life around it, the ‘hurry up and wait’ philosophy.

Hold up a Marine unit for more than 15 minutes in one place, and you’ll bear witness to the prime imperative of ‘hurry up and wait-ing’: when going nowhere fast, regardless of the time of day, weather, or location, it’s always a good idea to stop where you are, lay down on the ground, and sleep. When this approach wears thin, starting an argument, usually over whose girlfriend is most likely sleeping with some college kid back home, is good old-fashioned fun and a great time-killer. A closely related activity involves elaborate schemes to entice the ‘newbie’ (or ‘boot’ as Marines fondly call the poor bastard) into humiliating himself for the entertainment of the group. After 2 months in the deserts south of Kuwait, even these time-honored recreational activities began to lose their luster. My Marines needed entertainment, and they needed it badly.

Marines are gym rats by nature. Whether it’s simply a subconscious urge to be in the best shape possible should they find themselves in combat, or just a survival instinct to burn off as much nervous energy as possible, Marines work out. A lot. And it doesn’t matter where they are. Marines have invented some of the most brutally exotic exercises known to man, most of which require nothing more than the ground, a Marine, and a fondness for self-inflicted pain. The side-straddle-hop, flutter kicks, ‘Marine Corp pushups’, bend and thrusts, mountain climbers, the ‘daily seven’, these are their tools of self-torture. But in a sandy wasteland, with no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no internet (Al Gore hadn’t invented it yet), my Marines were looking for something more substantial to do.

The Flintstone Family Fitness Center was born.

When we weren’t training or cleaning our weapons, my Marines were filling sandbags. Our positions were glorified holes in the ground, reinforced with thousands of them. Our positions were camouflaged with poles and desert netting to protect us from aerial detection. Given the state of the Iraqi Air Force (their pilots were grounded because they kept flying into Saudi airspace and surrendering), we felt we could put these materials to better use creating an airy, inviting recreational space. My Marines got into it, and the next thing we knew a gym had sprung out of the desert sand. Dip and pull-up bars made from ammo pallets, weight benches forged out of MRE boxes, and free weight bars made by strapping sandbags filled with various amounts of sand to cammie poles, it was a fully functional gym complete with Flintstone-themed signage. A month later, we were still bored, but we were in the best shape of our lives.

You had to seize the opportunity for entertainment wherever you could find it. My Marines were losing focus during this protracted stretch waiting for a war that might, or might not come. I thought then, and still believe, sometimes, it’s good to shake things up a little, break a few rules, do something unexpected. One night while doing practice night assaults in our AAVs, I arranged for the driver to head the vehicles not at a fictitious enemy occupying some dune, but at a local gas station. Exiled to the desert since our arrival, even on the rare occasions we were trucked back to civilization, we were strictly forbidden to leave the compound or interact with locals. With a thunderous roar (nothing sounds as ominous as tracked vehicles driving on pavement), we pulled up behind the store.

‘Five minutes’ I said. ‘Get what you want, pay for it, and be on the tracks in five minutes’. My Marines stared at me in disbelief, a ‘you’ve got to be ****ing with me’ look on every face. I was a by-the-book officer. With a joyous whooping and hollering I hadn’t heard in months, they were off. I have no idea what the store owner thought when 20 armed Marines stormed into his little store, but they came out with a king’s ransom in unidentifiable Saudi snacks and drinks. Only an Arabic coca-cola can was readily identifiable. Although they were sworn to secrecy, forced to gorge on their spoils before returning to camp, this small adventure boosted my Marine’s morale for a month.

A fateful January approached. We’d trained, and sweated, and waited, and secretly, worried for almost 4 months. Still there was no war. There was only training, and planning, and more waiting while we prepared for the worst – the task of throwing a brutal dictator’s thugs out of a country they’d occupied like unwelcome squatters in the nicest neighborhood in town. Still, even in that foreboding atmosphere, you didn’t have to look far to find humor. One day just before Christmas, trucks appeared at our defensive position. From the back were thrown 4 months of care packages from names, addresses, towns, and cities we didn’t recognize. ‘Any Marine’ they were addressed. And there was good news. WE were ‘Any Marine’.

The officers stepped aside, enjoying the sudden and absolute loss of control as Bravo Company ripped into package after package. Shaving gear, stationary, aftershave, soap, lifesavers, there were plenty of bland necessities in those packages. But there were 3 huge packages that contained items grander than the rest, items talked about for months afterwards. One of them, from some tiny town in Minnesota, contained 500 lbs of venison jerky. The second held, inexplicably, an equal number of kites – yes, kites. What possessed some well-intentioned patriot to send a crate of kites halfway around the world to a group of combat Marines, I’ll never know. And yet, there they were. The last box contained 100 disposable cameras from the 7-11 company.

In the space of a single hour, all semblance of unit discipline was gone. Bravo company, stranded in the desert miles from anything even remotely civilized was gorged on venison jerky, with no less than 100 kites in the air. Those that didn’t have a kite were taking pictures of those flying kites. It was a jerky-eating, kite-flying, photo-snapping orgy of epic proportion. I smile as I sit here thinking about it. Unbelievably, I do not have a photo of this event. Rest assured though, lots of other people do. The kites flew long into that cold Saudi night, likely striking mortal fear into the hearts of those invaders to the North. What kind of beast be these Marines, who fly kites to mock us before the fight? No doubt.

The next morning, Christmas Eve, our Battalion Commander had scheduled a 30 mile force march. Nothing says ‘Peace on Earth, Good Will to Man’ like a force march. We started out at 5 a.m. in the dark. As the sun came up the entire battalion formation crested the hill looking over our defensive area. As far as the eye could see, strewn about the ground in an impenetrable tangle of string and plastic, were the kites. No one said a word, except Captain Carretti our company commander, who uttered the immortal words ‘For God’s sake, collect up those damn kites!’. It’s the special moments that etch themselves forever in our memory.

Christmas morning, we Lieutenants awoke early and gathered round a small plastic tree a loving Marine wife had carefully decorated with tiny Saddam voodoo dolls to share a cocoa toast. I said private thanks that I was with some of the finest Marines I’d ever known. Lt’s Kris Stillings, Greg Branigan, Tim Oliver, Leonard Difrancesi, great guys and outstanding Marine officers all. We knew ‘the wait’ couldn’t last much longer. UN blather and ‘negotiations’ were becoming increasingly futile. Things were happening. We were no longer alone in the desert. It was getting downright crowded. Hell, even the reservists were showing up, a sure sign that Armageddon could not be far behind. One way or another, we’d spent more time in the desert than we had still to endure.

After our force march, we’d been instructed to pull back and take our place digging into a Battalion defensive circle, spread out over roughly a mile with the Battalion CP in the center. Late Christmas afternoon, we decided to hold a formal Company formation. We had some Marines to promote, and some awards to give. As we got our Marines into formation, the Battalion was still making final defensive preparations, just in case Saddam decided a Christmas surprise would be good idea and headed south. Our company mortars were preparing to ‘seat baseplates’. A necessary step in preparing to fire real explosive rounds, the mortars ‘seated baseplates’ by firing off magnesium illumination rounds designed to explode in mid-air and float harmlessly to the ground via parachute.

Our formation ready, our Marines stepped front and center to take the oath of promotion to their next rank. As Captain Carretti prepared to address the Marines, we were serenaded by the unmistakable ‘thump, thump, thump’ of mortar rounds leaving their tubes at high velocity. The entire formation paused to stare off in the distance, waiting for the illumination rounds to open and deploy in the distance. ‘Pop, pop, pop, pop’ came the sound of the flares opening and igniting, but oddly, the brightly burning magnesium rounds were no where to be seen in the distance.

In unison, like some badly choreographed dance troupe, the entire company turned to locate the brilliantly burning illum rounds drifting slowly down to the ground. Someone at Battalion HQ had countermanded the direction of fire calculated by one of our Lt’s, and the mortars had been fired directly over the Battalion position. We watched with a mixture of horror and secret guilty glee as the rounds landed directly on the Battalion Headquarters tents, as a stream of frantic clerks and aides led by a bellowing Sgt. Major rushed to put out the flames.

‘Whose mortars are those?’ Captain Carretti asked infamously.

Sometimes you just couldn’t make this stuff up.

By early January we were on the move again, inching our way nearly to the Kuwait border. Things were heating up now with rumors of an air campaign that would break the will of the Iraqi’s and bring surrender without the need for a ground campaign. We knew better. The one constant in every battle ever fought is that, ultimately, it is won by the troops on the ground. We had no delusions. An air campaign only meant more delays, and more waiting. We’d been told Saddam had enough artillery and chemical weapons to kill us 1000 times over. We’d been told we’d have to make it through huge trenches filled with burning oil just to get to his troops. We were told if we survived and were captured, we’d experience torture beyond belief. We didn’t care. We had a job to do, and the only thing between us and a trip home was throwing 500,000 Iraqi’s out of the neighborhood.

‘It’s those Iraqi’s that need to worry’ said one of my Lance Corporals after a typical doom-and-gloom unit intelligence briefing ‘Because now, they’ve really gone and pissed me off’. Damn skippy.

On the night of January 17th, 1991, we were occupying our defensive positions just over the border from Kuwait near the Coastal Highway that runs along the eastern edge of Saudi Arabia. It was a beautiful clear night and with almost no ambient light to compete, you could see every star in the sky. Suddenly, I noticed some of the stars were moving – in fact lots of them were. Putting on night vision goggles, I saw thousands of specks, American bombers and fighters it turns out, heading north overhead to launch a devastating opening barrage in what would be a protracted air campaign. Like listening to some surreal Super Bowl, we caught the play-by-play from the BBC on a transistor radio, while the ground around us shook ominously and the flash of explosions danced in the distance. There wouldn’t be a peaceful resolution to this – we were going north one way or another, and soon. The endless training, the tedium, the wait was almost over.

This war was on.

The Storm – Part IV ‘Line of Departure’

Sitting in the pitch black Saudi Arabian night in a reinforced fighting hole, I pulled a set of night vision goggles from their hard plastic case and strapped them on.

Shivering in the surprisingly cold desert air, I looked starward and watched what seemed like an endless cloud of US and British bombers stream like angry hornets north towards occupied Kuwait and on to Baghdad. I couldn’t help but silently ask ‘Am I really here, living this?’ It was just one of many surreal moments to come. As we listened to Armed Forces Radio and the BBC give the play by play to the start of Desert Storm, we glimpsed a cacophony of dancing flashes on the horizon, felt the ground rumble ominously as if mighty dinosaurs once again walked the Earth, and wondered what the experience felt like from our enemies vantage point. War was no longer an if, or a when. It was real, and we were now in it, a few miles down the road from whatever was to come. Of the possible emotions one could feel at such a moment, I remember the strange mix that rose up in me that night. Happiness. Relief. Resignation. Fear. We’d been living a purgatory of watchful waiting, worrying, and preparing for months, far from our country, our homes, our loved ones. The furious barrage we were watching unfold meant only one thing – resolution. We didn’t know what form it might take, but it was clear, this would be over soon. And that felt overwhelmingly good.

The daily drudgery of months past shifted into something approaching urgency after that January night. There was going to be no governor’s reprieve on the eve of execution. Shield had become Storm. And there’s no stopping a storm – it comes and does what it’s going to do. I saw a changing expression in the eyes of my Marines. We trained on, as we had for months, but now with a serious intensity that was palpable. There were no more internal debates to be held – right or wrong, war for oil or justice, peace vs. violence – it didn’t matter anymore. We were going, and there were only 2 possibilities. There was little horseplay now. Jokes and sarcastic mockery, the daily bread of the Marine infantryman, dried up. In their place came determination – that we would impose our will on our friends to the North, and that it would be us that would be going home in the coming weeks and months.

Our first months in the desert had been filled with isolation, quiet, and dread. That calm was now shattered. We were no longer alone in the sand. Instead, every day brought more activity, like a swarming ant hill before an invasion. Trucks, helicopters, endless supply trains brought hordes of reservist troops, ammo, and the essentials of war. There are no warehouses in the desert. So as Marines always do, we helped create them out of thin air. Engineers used massive bulldozers and earthmovers to pile up sand walls 20 feet high. Sand berms thousands of feet long formed square ASPs (ammo supply points), fortified with razor wire, machine guns, and fields of claymore mines should the unfriendlies decide they wanted to come after our supplies. It was an exhausting time. We were tasked not only with training for an assault on Kuwait, but with defending our desert turf should the maniac in Baghdad launch a preemptive attack. We conducted helicopter and ground-borne assaults on mock Iraqi positions complete with tunnels and mock aggressors. We were issued new gear – high tech gear we’d never seen before – an ominous sign since the only time the Marine Corps ever issues new equipment is when they intend to sacrifice you to the Gods. Laser sights and night vision devices for our M-16A2 rifles, AT4 anti-tank missiles (real ones, not the empty training tubes we usually carried), bunker-busting SMAW launchers, digitally-designed camouflage that helped make you invisible from the air, powerful targeting lasers to help guide new laser-guided air munitions to their destinations, even Patriot anti-missile systems became part of landscape.

If the hurried influx and dispersal of new equipment and arms didn’t convince us war was upon us, the launch of SCUD missiles in our direction and frequent chemical alarms sounded now on a daily basis surely did. Nothing was dreaded by my Marines more than the prospect of fighting in MOPP gear. Saddam had huge amounts of biological and chemical agents to throw at us via missile, artillery, or tank shell, should he decide to make that suicidal move. He’d used them before, on his own countrymen no less, and there was no doubt he might choose to use them again as a desperate final act. In 1991, Saddam’s chemical and biologic weapons weren’t a GWB fairy tale – they were a fact. With every poorly-aimed SCUD launch, or British FOX vehicle chemical alarm, we donned the hot, bulky carbon-filled chemical suits, big clunky rubber shoe covers, rubber gloves, and gas masks. Fighting in such gear was almost incomprehensible. Not to worry though – if our cumbersome chemical suits failed us – we each carried atropine auto-injectors with 6 inch needles to plunge into our thighs to help counter the effects of nerve agents should it become necessary.

And preparation for Hell was not limited to gear. Our bodies themselves were prepped. We received nearly weekly injections of various kinds, many designed to protect us (in laughable theory) against innumerable biological agents. We passed out untested medications, called ‘NAP tablets’, reportedly approved for veterinary use, but never given to humans previously. The tablets supposedly competed with the same receptors nerve and blood agents bound with, thus limiting (again, in theory) the potential effects of a chemical attack. Given that our previous training informed us as little as a drop of nerve agent on the skin was enough to kill an adult male several times over, we were skeptical. But we took them – because that’s what Marines do. Two years later, when I lost the use of one of my arms for a year due to a strange demyelinization process my doctors could never explain, I would wonder how much my exposure to untested drugs played a role. A whole generation of Marines out there have experienced similar problems, whether one calls it ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ or not, and whether or not it was caused by medications, exposure to nerve agent (I personally believe we were exposed) – this was the price we paid for being where we were when we were. In the grand scheme of things, I consider myself beyond lucky all I ever had to contend with was some physical ills.

On January 29th, Saddam finally made the kind of foolish move we’d anticipated him making. He sent a 3 pronged mechanized force southward towards our position, near the town of Khafji. My battalion was positioned about 10 miles west of the coastal road leading into Khafji when Saddam’s forces arrived. While some of our unit went forward to support the recon units defending that town, the rest of us were sent to protect the massive ASP just south of us. Arriving at the massive earthen structure, loaded with untold tons of ammunition and explosives, we were told to defend the position at all costs. Loss of the ammo supplies held there would have been devastating. We had only a single company of Marines – about 200 total, to defend a 4-walled square covering a square mile. We spent the night frantically placing machine guns, claymore anti-personnel mines (Vietnam era booby traps that use C-4 explosives to throw thousands of ball bearings in the general direction of the enemy with devastating effect – a truly brutal weapon), and doing our best to dig in for what was anticipated to be a morning assault on our position. We worked through the night, listening to the explosions from nearby Khafji as we did. It was a nerve-wracking 8 hours. As the first faint rays of sunrise dawned, we searched the horizon for the troops we were sure were bearing down upon us. We were not disappointed. There, coming from the north, were thousands of Iraqi troops coming at us in a brazen frontal assault. We couldn’t believe even Saddam was so brazen as to send his forces into what was certain to be a bloodbath. Captain Carretti passed the word to us, we were to open up with all weapons when he fired a green ‘pop-up’, a hand held flare used as a signaling device. The seconds ticked by as the silhouettes of the attacking Iraqis came closer and closer. Suddenly and inexplicably, the invading troops turned away from us enmasse. What were they doing? And then it came, mumbled words at first, then a chorus of excited shouts.


We had spent 14 hours preparing for the slaughter of over 1,000 camels. They’d been an ever-present fixture from the moment we’d headed out into the desert. We should have recognized what we were looking for. But coming straight at us, it had been clear beyond doubt, they were Iraqis – their humps the head, their torso human shoulders piled with gear, and their 2 visible legs those of soldiers. Many times since then I’ve given thanks that we didn’t open up hellfire upon those poor camels. I’d like to say it was because I’d mourn the unfortunate loss of those beasts. But the truth is, I simply didn’t want to be forever linked to the Marine Rifle Company that would’ve forever been nicknamed, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, the ‘Camel Killers’. Thankfully, the great Camel Tragedy of 1992 was averted. The ASP was secure, and we returned to preparing for a more substantive enemy.

By mid-February, we had our marching orders. Our battalion had a mission, in fact, perhaps one of the most daring of all missions. On day 1 of the ground war, we were to conduct a helicopter-borne raid on an Iraqi Division Headquarters. We spent a week rehearsing the attack, over and over again. The more we heard about Iraqi forces in the area, the less we liked the idea. According to recon intelligence, the Iraqi’s had more artillery in the vicinity of the headquarters than the US had in the entire region. Recon reported that the entire area was surrounded by 50 foot wide trenches filled with diesel fuel which the Iraqi’s planned to ignite when attacked, then rain down artillery (perhaps with chemical agents) upon the trapped attacking forces. The only solution we had was to land right on top of the headquarters, putting the helicopters we were transported in right in the range of small arms fire – small arms fire more than capable of taking out our thin-skinned helicopters. We might not even survive the landing attempt.

Fortunately, only days before the ground war was launched, someone decided this was not such a great plan after all, and plans for the helicopter raid were scrapped. By that time, there was little time for the powers to be to devise a plan on how to best utilize 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, on D-Day. Our battalion, known as ‘Task Force Taro’ (after the purple root Hawaiians pound into their treasured native food – Poi) was to be split up, with each company being sent out as a support force. After all this time together, we were to fight, not as a battalion, but assigned to strangers. It was a bittersweet moment. Still, it sounded like a better deal than being served up as sacrificial lambs in some ill-advised helicopter assault debacle. And, we were getting lucky, my Marines, and the rest of Bravo Company, 1/3, were being attached to Task Force Ripper. We didn’t know it then, but we would be the tip of the spear that sliced first through the Iraqi lines and sent them scurrying like cockroaches out of Kuwait.

We said goodbye to our sister Companies. We were all heading West, part of the ‘left-hook’ maneuver that had an incredible mass of American forces picking up and moving 50 miles west to attack from a direction the Iraqi’s never saw coming. One company would go with Engineers to assist in blowing lanes in the 2 enormous Iraqi minefields that stretched for 20 miles and blocked our entrance into Kuwait. Another company would be assigned to guard Artillery units that would be supporting the attack. But my company, Bravo Company, would participate in the frontal assault – punching through the minefields, to the Al Burqan Oil Fields, and onto the Kuwaiti National Airport.

The night before the dawn assault, we were on the move. We loaded up with live ammo – more than we’d ever carried. Live grenades, M 203 rounds, AT4’s, sling after sling of M-16, M-60 machine gun, Bangalore torpedoes, C4 explosive, and every kind of ammo under the sun. Although we Lieutenants were supposed to carry only our service pistols, 9mm’s that would hardly serve as much of a defense in full battle, we issued ourselves M-16’s as well. Our training told us we were there to control our Marines, make battlefield decisions in a split-second, and use our radios as our greatest weapon – it felt more secure to have a substantial weapon slung over our shoulder. As we took on our new load, we shed anything on our persons that wasn’t necessary. Among other things, I buried a walkman, and two paperbacks – a copy of James Michener’s ‘Hawaii’ and ironically given how Custer fared, Evan S. Connell’s ‘Son of the Morning Star’. Somewhere out there in the Saudi Arabian sand, a couple of great novels await to be found again.

Somewhere around midnight, we loaded up into 5 ton trucks and began moving forward. Dressed in our carbon-filled chemical suits, we crossed the Line of Departure (the imaginary line of no return in Marine Assault language, the crossing of which constitutes the start of the attack). We followed the light of tiny green chemlights, left like a string of fireflies by the recon forces leading the way. We arrived at the minefields. There were no fiery trenches, there was no barrage of incoming artillery. Instead, for as far as the eye could see, there were anti-tank and anti-personnel mines lying right on top of the sand. The hapless (or perhaps disinterested) Iraqi forces hadn’t even bothered burying them. We could’ve tiptoed right through them with nothing more than a flashlight. Instead, engineers had blown great swathes through two great minefields, and marked the lanes with tape. We were through the defenses in seconds. Now the first early shades of grey and purple and red glowed with dawn’s approach. The day was here. We were on Kuwaiti soil and we were moving on the enemy. The trucks rejoined us on the opposite side of the minefields, and we mounted up again. We headed north, passing dead Iraqis, some on the ground, some burned to a crisp, frozen in a desperate but futile effort to get out of the armored vehicle they’d been caught in. It was grisly reality. We pressed on. Chemical alarms sounded, once, twice, then a third time. Each time, we would dive from the trucks, throw our gasmasks on, and wait for the alarms to subside. The thud of missiles came for the first time ever from our rear. We were getting close.

If I’d thought my trip to Southeast Asia had had it’s surreal moments before, I hadn’t seen anything yet. Things were about to get ‘Apocalypse Now’ weird. There, in the distance, was a sight fit for the depths of Hell. The Iraqis, with no other reasonable course of action presenting itself, had set afire the Al Burqan Oil Fields. For as far as the eye could see, there was nothing but a blazing inferno and thick, choking black smoke. It looked like the end of the world. And I suppose, for many of our unfortunate opponents, it was. If the burning landscape wasn’t surreal enough, many of the Iraqi tank forces had sought refuge from our onslaught by hiding in the burning oil fields. That would be no salvation however, as our Cobra helicopter gunships were picking them off one by one with sidewinder missile strikes. We disembarked the trucks, and watched in utter fascination as the helicopter-tank battle raged right in front of us. To add to the bizarre sense of surrealism, I turned to find nearly out entire company of Marines urinating while they watched. Here we were, battle raging 1000 yards in front of us, fire and explosions keeping us company, and my Marines were taking the opportunity to relieve themselves. I don’t know why, but it was at that moment that I knew we would be okay. As the last few Marines completed doing ‘their business’, a Humvee approached. ‘Who the hell are you guys???’ shouted an unknown Major who was clearly perturbed by our presence. ‘We’re Bravo Company, 1st Bn, 3rd Marines!’ I replied with a smile. ‘Well – right now you’re the lead element of Desert Storm Lt., so I’d suggest you hold up here until the rest of us catch up!’. And so, we held up. And they did catch up with us – Marines from regular and reserve units from all over the United States, British troops as well, by the thousands. Soon were but one wave in a sea of allied forces heading North. And we were soon joined by another force – thousands upon thousands of surrendering Iraqis.

They came over the horizon like wayward children looking for shelter. They had abandoned their weapons, and approached waving white rags and shirts over their head. Many of them were smiling. Some approached us speaking English. ‘What took you so long?’ asked one of them, a kid who looked more like a college student than an Iraqi soldier. He shared that he had been living in the US for several years, in school, but had returned home for a visit when he was ordered into a truck on the street, forced onto it at gunpoint, and given a uniform and a weapon. He’d endured months of air raids to embrace our arrival. Before the day was over, my platoon of 35 Marines had gathered over 1000 Iraqi POWs. Almost all of them carried propaganda leaflets we’d been dropping on Kuwait for months – promising them food, water, and safety if they gave themselves up, death if they didn’t. Trouble was – we didn’t have food or water. We corralled them into tight groups sitting in the sand, and surrounded them with the handful of Marines we could spare. It was a scary thing – because anyone could see, had they wanted to overtake us, they could have done it in seconds.

These Iraqi’s though, wanted nothing of the kind. They knew they were beaten before the ground war even began. Like Sun Tzu’s ideal battle plan, we had defeated them before a shot was fired. Those that didn’t see that were either dead already, or soon would be.

We turned our Iraqi POWs over to reserve Marines who came up to relieve us, and pressed on through the burning oil fields towards our ultimate destination, the Kuwaiti International Airport. It was hard to know what to do. We had no real command, our Battalion leadership far behind us, and we weren’t even sure where the rest of ‘Task Force Ripper’ was.Von Clauswitz’ ‘fog of war’ was more real than I’d ever imagined. So we just kept pushing forward. I was awakened after a few precious hours of sleep on day 2 of the ground war by my radio operator, a Lance Corporal. ‘Sir!’ he excitedly shouted, ‘Sir!!! The sun never came up – what are we going to do???’. I wiped the sleep out of my eyes, trying to solve the incongruence of the black of night I was observing, and the 10am time my watch was showing. ‘You’re right’ I said, ‘the sun didn’t come up. Now just exactly what do you want me to do about that son?” I asked. The burning oil fields of Al Burqan had belched so much black smoke, it was actually obscuring the light of a normal Kuwaiti morning. The sun never did come out that day. And by the end of it, we were covered in soot, oil, and ash.

The rest of the ground war is a blur to me. Wave after wave of surrendering Iraqis appeared. It was beyond comprehension as mass upon mass of them came over the horizon. It was a roiling sea of surrender almost impossible to comprehend. Before we knew it – it was all over. President George Herbert Walker Bush had, to everyone’s dismay, kept his word to the UN. We were not going to invade Baghdad. We were not going to exceed the authority given us by the UN resolutions. We had said we were going to liberate Kuwait, and nothing more, and that’s exactly what we had done.

Desert Storm, and 6 tumultuous months of my life, had drawn to a close.

‘You mean we’re not going to get to wade in our own blood sir?’ asked the most cynical of my squad leaders, Cpl. Mooney. ‘No Mooney. It looks like we might just get to go home one of these days.’


The Storm – Part V ‘Denouement’

And so the ground war, as quickly as it had started, was ending.

There was no grand pronouncement signaling hostilities were over. There was simply a subtle shift from being prepared to mow down anything that moved to resisting that impulse. We’d gone as far north as the Kuwaiti International Airport, found there was simply no one left interested in a fight, and had ground to a halt. Then came the official word – President Bush had issued a cease-fire.

And a merciful cease-fire it was. We had executed Schwartzkopf and Powell’s masterful ‘left hook’ assault, a lightning fast westward flanking attack, to near perfection. We had outmaneuvered and surprised the Iraqi forces, and were in the process of decimating any that elected to resist. Most did not. Those that did paid a horrible price.

President Bush’s decision to cease hostilities just 100 short hours after the ground war began was not without controversy. Many of my own Marines angrily questioned why we’d come to this foreign place, trained for 6 months, only to stop short of solving the ‘Saddam Problem’ permanently? Why not push on, all the way to Baghdad, and finish the job? The Iraqi’s wanted none of us. The vaunted Iraqi military had proven to be a straw man incapable of mounting a real defense against us – militarily, we could have done anything we wanted. Seeing the shambles of the Iraqi Army in clear daylight, and recognizing the state of their morale, weaponry, fighting capabilities, and will to fight, you couldn’t help but be angry. Angry that these thugs lead by a tin pot dictator had invaded their peaceful neighbor, angry at the destruction, death, and waste evident every where you looked, angry that our own lives had been interrupted and in some cases lost in order to deal with them. And angry in the knowledge that we could’ve wiped the floor with Saddam’s forces 5 months earlier had we not been so cautious. I felt the same urges my Marines did – an ugly desire to punish someone for screwing it all up so badly for everyone.

But the truth is, the cease-fire, however personally dissatisfying it may have been to US Marines, was President Bush’s finest hour. At a moment of total and undisputed dominance, with all the weaponry of destruction at his fingertips, with a hated enemy under his thumb, he did the inexplicable. He lived up to his word. He followed the mandate of the UN resolutions. He did exactly what he’d promised he’d do. Liberate Kuwait, expel the invading Iraqi forces from it, and go home. And in doing so, President Bush proved his critics, in the UN, in ruling bodies around the world, and at home, wrong. I knew when I got word of the cease-fire that US forces would someday be back to this part of the world to finish the job. And seeing it happen just 12 years later, it would be easy to second guess the President’s decision. But the impact of a US President living up to his word, and demonstrating for all the world to see that there are nations which, possessing the military might and skill to dominate others, are capable of restraint, should not be underestimated.

It was the morning of 28 February when we got the news that the war was officially over. An exhausting week filled with surreal moments was to end with another one. My company had collected thousands of Iraqi POWs, and guarded them nervously for days. This had been no small feat. The surrendering Iraqis came to us eagerly, almost gleefully. They handed us leaflets, dropped to them from US planes before the ground campaign which promised in cartoonish color food, protection, and mercy from us if they surrendered, and a horrible death if they did not. They wanted to cash their checks. Instead of feeding and protecting them (we had no food and nowhere to send them), we herded them into groups of hundreds, packed them like sardines into tight clusters, and guarded them with a handful of Marines around the group’s perimeter. It was nerve-wracking and scary. Had they decided to rush us, there would have been precious little we could have done to stop them, save sending a few examples on their way to Allah. Slowly, we relinquished our guests to their new masters, Kuwaiti and Saudi Arabian military officials. I have wondered many times what the fate of those prisoners ultimately was, but given the looks on the Iraqi troop’s faces as they were handed over to our replacements, I don’t imagine it was a fortuitous one. What concern or guilt I felt handing off these prisoners to those they had oppressed I balanced with the memory of the crimes they’d committed against countless Kuwaiti innocents. They were about to reap what they had sown. I assigned no right or wrong to that reality – it was simply the way things were done there. We were alien to their culture, and judging what might occur to the Iraqis seemed wrong. So we handed them over and walked away.

The day the war ended seemed, from the start, different. Upon waking, there was one stunning and obvious change – the dense, choking, petroleum-laced fog that had hung over us for days, coating us with soot and making it hard to breathe, had lifted. The sun shone warmly upon our shoulders. Like a Hollywood happy ending to a feel-good movie, the Director had called for optimistically hopeful-for-the-future life-affirming weather, and gotten it. Of all the ‘damn I’m happy to be alive this morning!’ mornings, it remains the happiest of my life. All of the deeply-buried fears, of losing Marines, of not performing to my own expectations, of death or mutilation, evaporated with the steamy morning mist. Life was back. It felt so good. Relieved of our prisoner of war duties, we climbed into waiting 5 ton trucks. As we pulled out, headed to tent cities awaiting our arrival, we gave Kuwait and the devastation stretching as far as the eyes could see, one last hard look. Despite the still-burning oilfields in the distance, twisted metal of what had once been tanks and artillery peices, and countless prisoners being herded by their new taskmasters, something seemed different, almost hopeful. And as if God were some cosmic practical jokester, as we headed southward away from Kuwait, war, and the stress of a 6 long months, one last vision caught our eyes. There, one hundred yards away from us, dancing mystically in some inexplicable circle, were a horse, a goat, and a mangy sheep dog. I’m not sure what grand message God was communicating with this bizarre scene, I’ll only say I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. We watched the 3 animals and their strange celebratory parade until we could no longer make them out in the distance.

‘Yes friends’ the Universe seemed to be shouting, ‘Whether 2 or 4 footed – it is good to be alive!’

The weeks that followed seemed to take forever. Getting out of the Middle East and home was a task as monumentally difficult as getting there had been. We’d returned to the tent cities where our journey had begun 6 months previously. We lounged on cots, listened to cassettes we’d listened to a hundred times since our arrival, and traded them to buddies for others we’d listened to hundreds of times. We PT-ed endlessly. Cleaned weapons over and over again. But mostly, we just waited. The return home came in fits and trickles. A couple of seats on a transport here, space on a cargo plane there. 1st Bn, 3rd Marines was finding it’s way home a few Marines at a time. We’d been in-country as long as anyone. We wanted out. Now. The wait was nothing short of excruciating. But finally, our turn came, and homeward we headed. I was tasked along with a squad of my Marines, with escorting our Battalion Armory home. I believe if they’d told us they had to box us up along with the mortars, M-16A2’s, and grenade launchers, we’d have gladly accepted.

The long flight back to Kaneohe, Hawaii is a blur to me. I don’t remember the route, where we stopped, how long it took. Nothing. I only remember having butterflies the entire ride back. I’d been married only a year when I was plucked from my happy, normal life in paradise and tossed unceremoniously into Operation Desert Shield. I’d received letters, and even had the chance to make a hurried, static-filled, desert phone call or two over the past six months. But basically, my loving wife had been little more than a memory, an ‘idea’, for half a year. The thought of seeing her again made me inexplicably nervous, almost queasy. The C-130 we’d hitched a ride back on hit the tarmac at Oahu’s Kadena Airfield and crawled to a stop on St. Patrick’s Day, 1991. As we gathered our personal effects, I stole a glimpse out of one of the cargo windows. There, in a sea of strangers, stood my beautiful wife Valerie.

I was home.

We drove to our base at Kaneohe Bay, traded our personal weapons for cold cans of beer they had waiting on ice for us, and were excused for the next week. I won’t regale you with boring stories of just how wonderful the return to civilization and all its comforts was. Suffice it to say that none of us truly appreciate what we have. Not really. The Lava Dogs of 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines had returned triumphant. We were ‘heroes’. We were lavished with awards and medals, paraded through the streets of Waikiki in front of adoring throngs. You couldn’t pay for your own beer or meal for months. And that was as it should have been. We had been through something, and in my mind, we were celebrating having lived through it as much as any particular military accomplishment. In the pauses between the celebrations, I tried to take stock of what I’d been through, and sort through what, if anything, it all meant. I thought a lot about Mike Monroe, my fellow Lt., lost in a stupid training accident. I thought about his family, and how seeing others return home from the Gulf must have made the agonizing hole in their lives and hearts ache all the more. And I thought about veterans of other wars, who’d experienced far more pain, suffering, and loss in the engagements of their generations and received welcome homes that looked or felt nothing like the glorious and thankful one we had.

An unwritten military rule is that those who ‘have done something’, don’t talk about it. If you ever meet someone in a bar who tells an amazing story of military heroism or war-time adventure, you can bet they never got within a hundred miles of harm’s way. Those that have, keep their mouths shut. Why? I’m not sure, but it’s probably because to talk about one’s personal experiences reeks of ‘self’. And ‘self’ is something the United States Marine Corps places a very low value on indeed. I hope, having broken that silent vow, that I told my little story with some humility, and that the unbridled affection I have for those that traveled along with me on my little journey, and for whom, I have undying respect, shone through in the telling.

Cupid’s Bow

It’s a cliché spoken a million times a day all over the world in a hundred different languages.

‘I am so lucky’.

But for me, it’s simply a fact. I have the same problems as you do. Stress. Financial challenges. Work-Life balance. Struggling to be the best husband, father, son, brother, friend, employee, and human being I can be. And frequently falling short. But I’ve got a secret weapon in my daily battles.

I don’t deserve it. I have no idea how I stumbled upon it, nor how I’ve managed to hold onto it. But it’s saved me from life’s destructive forces a thousand times. Her name is Valerie, and she’s my wife. This year we’ll celebrate 20 years husband and wife. In all that time, I’ve never had even once the fleeting thought ‘what would my life be like if I’d married someone else?’. Not once. Among innumerable daydreams, I’ve never entertained that fantasy. When it comes to Valerie, only one thought rises from the depths of my subconscious.

‘I am so lucky’.

It’s highly probable my wife is not human. I can catalogue the evidence and it’s nearly insurmountable. She’s nice. Really nice. Inhumanly nice, to almost everyone she meets. Strangers, poor people, rich people, foreigners, even those who don’t reciprocate her vast and overwhelming niceness. She waves to complete strangers on the street. The planet she comes from apparently demands it. I cannot relate. Although I admire and value kindness as one of life’s most valuable commodities, I am nice when I’m in the mood and have plenty to spare. I cannot always muster it up myself, as I am human, while my wife clearly is not.

My wife is a South Carolina girl, hailing from a tiny bastion of southern charm called Abbeville. They have a town square there. ‘Buddy’s’ is the local store where you can buy anything the universe has to offer – even wheels of homemade cheese. She loves stories, country wisdom, circus peanuts, nostalgia, and celebrates her small town roots every day of her life. She doesn’t call her colorful, bigger than life 90 year old grandmother ‘grandma’, but rather ‘Darlin’. She has no time for the usual daily fare of the human woman – isn’t interested in shopping, makeup, fashion, or jewelry. She doesn’t like shoes and would refuse to wear them if stores didn’t demand it of her. I believe this constitutes absolute proof she cannot be a human female.

My wife is too busy being kind, nice, and worrying about others to partake in the culture of the US woman. She gets up, every morning, to make me coffee. I tell her not to, but she doesn’t listen. Valerie works for minimum wage at a pre-school program during the week, although she could make more wages in one shift as a Registered Nurse. She wants to be close to the kids and loves teaching. A Bosnian family that barely speaks English moved in across the street. My wife immediately befriended them, took them food, and welcomed them with open arms. That’s how she rolls. These are the details that swell my heart with love so huge I feel like I could burst. Not manly words, I fully recognize, but true ones. I don’t tell my wife these kinds of things. She wouldn’t react since to her love is like breathing – its what we do. She believes you express your love in living, not in words. In my world, love is a maelstrom of complicated, personal, and secret emotions that scream to be expressed. For my wife, she quietly and simply lives love every day. That’s all the expression she needs.

When I met my wife, I misjudged her. Most people do. For we often make a common mistake when faced with people that are absolutely, inexplicably just too damn nice. We view them as weak. Or simple. Or naively detached from ‘reality’. We think we can dominate them, manipulate them, control them, or take advantage of them. My wife is the nicest bulldog you could ever meet. Mess with her husband, her kids, her family, anyone or anything that she loves, and you’ll find yourself facing bared teeth and an iron will. My wife knows what’s right. And God help you if you get in the way of it. Teddy Roosevelt would’ve loved my wife.

I love that about her.

I dated many a cool chick growing up. They were beautiful, witty, glamorous, sexy, dynamic, fun. I valued all those things as we all do. Then I met Valerie. She was beautiful, witty, glamorous, sexy, dynamic, and fun. But there was something else about her I couldn’t quite distill down to an adjective. She was…well….Valerie. She was someone I’d imagined my whole life but never recognized until she strolled up the sidewalk and knocked on my apartment door in late Summer 1987.

I remember our first real conversation that evening. It should’ve been stilted, awkward, stumbling, both of us bumbling along trying to make our best impressions. But it felt like reuniting with an old friend. I couldn’t believe the immediate connection, so strong, I hit the fast-forward button and made her kiss me halfway through, a clear breach of first date etiquette. Every minute since that night I’ve had but one feeling about my wife. She is the kindest, most loving creature I have met in my journeys on planet Earth.

I am so lucky.