“No matter where you go or what you do, you’re gonna die,” my drill sergeant said once or twice to the platoon, and we knew he was right, that death was inevitable, but we still didn’t like the thought, and he sure as hell didn’t have to tell us.
I hated my drill sergeant. Hated him. He was just like the one in that movie, Full Metal Jacket, but he would never hit anyone. Sometimes you wished he would hit you, so that the pain would have a time limit, and you knew physical pain would go away. His assault was verbal, and those red cheeks and blackened eyes lasted a lifetime.
Here, though, is what he meant. He didn’t mean a physical death, of course. The Marine Corps wouldn’t kill us, and life would end, but that isn’t real death, anyway. Real death is when you’re heart doesn’t work anymore. It beats, but nothing more.
Let me tell you how I died.
I died in this war-torn neighborhood, not because of shrapnel or the gusts of lead coming up the street, but because I smoke cigarettes.
It was over four hundred and twenty degrees a few blocks away, but we weren’t concerned about that. There was a man on his knees praying, Muslim style. Around the praying man were dead bodies. There were bodies in various stages of decomposition everywhere, and Mecca was the other direction.
The praying man held something in his arms. A smudge of white against the heap of gray, I saw, and walked closer. This could be any battlefield, Gettysburg, St. Petersburg, Harper’s Ferry, Nagasaki, and if it were any of those places, I would still walk. I meandered past the broken cars on the street covered with dust and bones. I paced myself, knowing but not knowing what was coming.
I stepped on the bodies, not avoiding it because trying would only make me fall down over a stray arm or other appendage, attached or not. The bones crunched. The sound reminded me of playing in the newly fallen leaves when I was little, or the crunch from walking on a newly fallen snow.
Then I saw the baby, limp in the arms of the devout corpse, its eyes and mouth open, both dark and empty. Hands limp, head tilted back. Its skin looked like an old painting, dry and cracked. The child was wrapped in a blanket with an apple pattern.
I remembered the fire fighter carrying the dead baby in Oklahoma. The picture was on the cover of all those magazines. I thought that this scene should make a cover too. It should be there, with the cigarette butts, snuff films, sit-coms, and tele-evangelists. It should be there to be known.
I looked around for a garbage can, and couldn’t find one, so I dropped my cigarette and died.