The most alive people I know are dead now.
Even now, years later, I think about a certain dirty-faced grin and have to breathe carefully for a moment. The second to last thing Darnel ever told me was, "You gotta have a system, dude." The last thing he ever told me was an unprintable attack on my lineage and personal choices.
People say terrible things as they die, and you must never hold that against their memories.
Darnel was a bright spark in the grey sea of humanity. A sculptor, musician, accomplished amateur mathematician, and silent film fiend, he was the kind of guy who regularly blew the bottom out of stereotypes. He was at home among professors and prostitutes. He could talk to anybody about anything, and if he didn't know he would ask. I've never known another person who was so hungry for any experience he could get his hands on.
Darnel would stand in the rain any chance he got, if it was in a place where he'd never felt the rain before. He swore that he could feel the specks of grit in the rain down south, where the dust was so thick that it turned the sky brown for most of the year, even when there were no clouds.
"Check it out, man," he said to me once while I was walking by.
He was crouched under the corner of one of the plywood hovels we lived in, with his hands cupped around a baby crow.
"They got its mom. You think it's old enough for me to keep it alive?"
I told him I had no idea, but we spent the day rooting around for bugs and worms anyway. He chewed them up and used an amoxicillin doser to squirt the food down its gullet.
Darnel got blown the fuck up over some grapes. They weren't even very good grapes, but they were all that one particular farmer had. Late one season when the Taliban blew up a convoy and a whole mess of burning fuel and metal ended up taking out a half jerib of grapes right before harvest time, he decided that it was the Americans' fault.
Never mind that it surely wasn't. Never mind that we paid him twice what they were worth, and he didn't even have to harvest the damn things.
In his bitterness he kept track of when we drove by and looked the other way when the local Boy Scout troop came back in the spring to bury another bomb in the same goddamned place.
One of the most beautiful human beings I've ever known died over some donkey fucking, small time dirt farmer's swollen pride and shitty grapes. Oh, the donkey fucking part is verifiable fact. It's crazy what you can catch with 12x optical zoom on a decent infrared camera.
The crow lived, by the way.
All my life I've tried to do the Right Thing. Most of the time I do. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I don't, and it's on purpose. Over time of course my understanding of what the Right Thing might be has changed and been changed, and has been refined by experience and careful inspection.
There is for instance the proposition of my youth that hunting be replaced by high precision photography, morphed by years into the understanding that in the absence of natural predators it is necessary to harvest certain game species in sometimes very large numbers.
I also look back on the pacifist streak imparted no doubt by my hippie mother and I alternate between amusement, bemusement, and outright dismissal of that past self. For better or worse I now understand that certain lines, once crossed, are tantamount to forfeiture of life.
I was in the car with my wife once, on the way home late one night. We live in a rough neighborhood. She asked me, jokingly, "What would you do if we came home and the dog was going nuts in the front yard and there were crackheads stealing the plumbing?"
We share an inappropriate and blackened sense of humor.
I told her I would kill them, and when I looked over after a minute or two, she wouldn't look back.
Later she told me, "I realized you were serious and it wasn't funny any more. I don't know what I thought you were going to say, but I'm not mad or anything. It makes sense."
Kicking a door in is not a particularly easy thing to do.
When you watch it happen on television, it's a sharp and careful thing that might have been choreographed by the Bolshoi Ballet. In reality, we relied on ugly mule kicks, or dangerous breaching rounds, or high explosives pressed into strategic areas of the frame. Or, if it looks like a good door, the kind you would want to have on the front of your house in a bad neighborhood, we charged the whole frame, or damn near.
What happens to people near the inside of the door in any of these cases, I will leave as an exercise for the reader's imagination. But I will tell you a secret about the ones too close to the wrong side of a sturdy door:
They are very hard to identify later.
I watched the breacher throw a breaching round into the chamber, and stick another in the tube. There were two deadbolts on the door; one at the top, and one at the bottom, and no way to get them both with a single shot.
There are many ways to do it, of course, and this is just one:
Ideally, the breaching round blows out the frame holding the locks, the breacher steps aside, and as he's switching to his rifle, the point man kicks the rest of the door in and the stack files into the room. This all happens instantaneously, with the point man having to actually be careful to not kick the barrel of the shotgun as it swings away. The breacher then jumps on the back of the stack.
In this case, though, there would be a delay as the breacher blew one lock, and then the other. Fractions of a second count when the people on the other side of the door very likely have weapons at hand, and are ready to kill everything that comes through the only door into the building.
They don't have fire codes there, you understand.
But this time, just as the breacher was lining up for the first shot, the fucking door swung right open, and a very surprised man took a one ounce sintered copper slug right in the middle of his face long before he could think to use the ancient Soviet pistol in his hand.
Every time I remember, I thank fate that it wasn't some kid being sent out to fetch water. Not for me, but for the breacher who blew the guy's head out the back, because his reaction would have almost certainly been the same either way.
I harbor a terrible and stubborn pride that makes my life more difficult than it needs to be. The rational actor of game theory or economics would not behave the way I do, but since when have humans been perfectly rational?
I draw no pension or disability, though if I cared to go through the labyrinth I could draw a disability pension for the rest of my life.
God knows I could use the healthcare benefits, and the free OxyContin. Most mornings I wake up it feels like I slept in a duffle bag and had the shit slapped out of me by pissed gorillas.
I do not tell you this so that you can ooh and ahh over my condition, and applaud me for my stoicism (though at this point if you wanted to buy me a beer, that would be fine). I tell it to you for the same reason that I tell you about some dumb fuck's face getting blown off with a breaching round.
I tell it to you because there is no other way to show you the context for suddenly bursting into tears at two o'clock in the afternoon at a four way stop three blocks past your house. The tears are the terrible kind that are self-sustaining, causing their own fear and confusion, a disgusting feedback loop that causes you to pull over and park the car and hope that it will stop soon so your wife doesn't wonder what's taking so long at the post office.
It's because I don't know another way to make you understand why sometimes I drive right by my house, or take a crazy route home, or circle the block once before parking; to shake the car behind me, and mislead anyone who might be watching.
Because there's no other way to tell you the awkwardness that comes from your wife asking what you're OK with her telling her friends who meet you at the shooting range and are certain to ask about how you learned to handle a shotgun like that.
Because there's no other place to leave a record of the things I've seen and done with the benefit of blissful anonymity.
The VA tells me they can give me a prescription for Prozac, and a referral to a "group counseling" that has a limited number of seats, and meets twice a month during working hours.
You may be familiar with the growing scandal over secret wait lists and records tampering in the VA. Shinseki recently resigned over the debacle, the latest sacrificial lamb for a problem far beyond his control, if not purview.
I was "waitlisted", and my response, now that the world at large is catching on, is to laugh.
I learned to laugh a long time ago. It's all you can do, if you don't want to cry.
I know I mentioned a while back that I used to spend my free time in the big hospital in Bagram when I was around. I wasn't a medic, but half the time just being able to stop and talk, or better yet, just listen to someone who was clapped up in a shitty government bed 24 hours a day was the best thing since penicillin.
I got to know a Lance Corporal who took a round through the radius and ulna about an inch below his elbow. This was the only round that penetrated, the first two having hit his plates, which he stripped off in order to keep breathing despite several broken ribs.
Struggling to breathe, he put a tourniquet on himself, called in his own 9 line, and kept shooting until his own medevac arrived. For those of you who may not fully understand, Marines, even the grievously wounded, are not particularly known for laying down quietly while others get on with the fighting.
As for his arm, they tried to save it for about two weeks until it became obvious that the damage was just too extensive.
I was there with him, hand resting on his good arm, when the doctors told him that they were going to have to take the other one off.
"Good," he said, "I fucking hate that bitch anyway."
And he laughed, then, pointing to the calligraphy tattooed on the dying forearm that read "Veronica".