Time in service

#theyearofhappiness

Posted by | Life, Time in service | 8 Comments
No Gravatar

The 4th day of the new year is winding down. A couple fingers of bourbon. Leif Vollebekk singing Cairo Blues. Two dogs vying for heat-run space and my attention. A crockpot full of brisket filling the kitchen like the recitation of a long-simmering poem. My wife will be home from work soon. The kids are with their mom. And I’m sitting in the midst of everything thinking about everything. Writing some stuff down.

Earlier this morning I dropped off a dear old friend at the airport who I was stationed with in Germany. He flew in from Portland on a last minute invite and serendipitous timing to visit and celebrate New Years with us. The last time we saw each other was in 2010 when I flew out to Portland to meet him and fish the Fall, Dechutes, and Metolius Rivers together. Prior to that was 1993 when my tour in Germany (and our tenure as roommates) ended and my boots pointed toward Ft. Benning, Georgia for my next duty station. We were teenagers. Army Privates who were a long way from home. A few of us became close friends, as happens when the world is suddenly far bigger than you’ve known and you need to rely on others to help keep your shit straight. Thankfully, he and I have managed to actually stay connected beyond Facebook likes and comments on pictures of kids, fish, or new vehicles.

During his visit, Josh reminded me of the substance of our late night Pendleton whisky talks from my 2010 trip west. We spent two cold April days up to our nuts fly fishing in unproductive water and two cold April nights crowding a riverside campfire before climbing into a thin nylon tent and 30-below fart-sacks, and then a couple better days of fishing and nights lounging in a yurt at Tumalo State Park outside of Bend during a snow storm. I wasn’t happy in work or my marriage, and wasn’t very present as a dad with my three kids. I hadn’t been for a while. He was trying to navigate a divorce and the intricacies of a tough dating scene while being a great dad to his (then) 6 year old boy.

We were back in a world far bigger that we’d known from both a personal and a camping-in-Umpqua-National-Forest standpoint, and needed to lean on each other to keep our shit straight again. We bared our souls and spilled our guts. We listened and empathized. We raised glasses to the things that we loved and middle fingers to everything that was wrong. We both just wanted to be happy, and find an even keel. On the last day of our trip we hiked up to the headwaters of the Metolius, a small garden of quiet, unassuming springs in the shadow of Black Butte, and Josh asked me this question: why don’t you just do what you need to do to be happy?

That question started the atrophied wheels of my motivated, idealistic, hungry-for-life younger self in motion. Far more than I understood at the time. Over the next six years it sparked my move to freelance, inspired Deliberate Life, helped me come to terms with ending my marriage, and strengthened my love and involvement with my kids, family, and friends. It also led me to a place (mentally/emotionally/physically) where I was ready to meet the woman who I just married this past August.

When Amanda and I started dating and sharing photos on Instagram we created the hashtag #theyearofhappiness to accompany all the big and small moments we captured and celebrated in our life (it seems to have caught on a little). And even though we’re well outside of that first year, it still lives on. It lives on because the year of happiness is not a finite period of time. It’s a state-of mind and being. It’s a reminder that you can, in fact, do what you need to do to be happy, and that we found each other because of our individual pasts, not in spite of them. Happiness is a choice that we are all capable of making.

I was extremely sad and nostalgic on the drive home from the airport. Saying goodbye to a brother after so short and meaningful a visit is never easy. The car was packed with the ghosts of the full expanse of our shared experiences, meandering pasts and mindful todays, our choices and the failures and successes born of them. We had so much more to say, so much more ground to cover than time available. But I’m grateful that we’ve stayed in touch and that Josh was here with us to close out the end of this particular year of happiness, especially since he played a significant role in making it possible. I know we’ll be making a point of not letting so much time pass before our next visit.

To that end, I wish you all #theyearofhappiness many, many times over. Hashtag the shit out of every one of them.

THE COURAGE OF HOPE

Posted by | On the water, Time in service | 6 Comments
No Gravatar

 


Camaraderie, balance, and hope.
I have two handwritten quotes on two small pieces of yellow legal paper taped to the wall next to my desk. Each given to me by friends at points in my life when I really needed them. The friends and the quotes.

The first is by John Buchan, a Scottish author:
“The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive, but attainable. A perpetual series of occasions for hope.”

And the second, by John Wayne:
“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway.”

As a freelance writer, fly fisherman, father, and veteran, both quotes have offered some much needed perspective at various times since they were gifted to me. Especially when it comes to my time spent outdoors and it’s value in my life. While it’s true for me of pretty much any wild place, I’ve come to see that rivers have a special way about them. They take what we give them and return our selves to us. They press and push and keep us off balance until we learn how to stand in seemingly equal measure.

The river is spiritual. Healing. Holistic, and wholly powerful. But what we give the river is only what we’re willing to let go of. And sometimes the river is not enough to loosen the grip we keep on that weight. Or loosen the weight’s grip on us. Rivers can never be too full of our sins and pain. Our fears. Doubt, guilt, anger, sadness. But sometimes simply finding our balance, whether figurative or literal, takes more than finding our small station in the constant rush to larger and larger water.

Through it all we need to lean on the ebb and flow of hope. If we didn’t have hope, there would be no reason to try, for anything, in the first place. And that, for me, is the draw of fly fishing, and the reason Project Healing Waters exists and serves our veterans. The hope of reaching out and having our efforts connect with another living thing—be it fish, or human being—and the healing that happens as a result.

There is an inherent danger in hope, however. Hope disappoints. Hope ends up far below expectation more often than not, if at all. It sets you up for failure. But our combat veterans are cut from different cloth than most. Even in the darkest hours, they manage to find the slightest, dusty ray of light. They hold on in spite of disappointment because that’s what keeps them in forward motion. Without hope, without some thread of belief, they would lose their edge, their passion, their empathy. Their fight would leave them and fear would take its place. It takes courage to be hopeful.

Our veterans live with the hope of finding some normalcy again. Hope of finding a respite from their pain—be it physical or mental. They hope to return home in every sense of the word. Imagine feeling as though you’re caught between two realities that are as different as oil and water. Imagine living with a constant reminder of the worst in this world, even in the best, most beautiful situations, and not knowing how to let go of that weight.

To see our combat veterans at the vise in the evening, intent on tying a fly that could catch them their first steelhead or brown or salmon at first light. To see them opening up, letting their guard down, and talking and laughing with mentors, guides, and volunteers—many of whom are veterans themselves. To see them wade with growing confidence into the river with those mentors and guides, the morning coming to life right in front of their eyes, the river alive with the possibility of huge fish willing to eat. To see them find their balance, holding onto the hope that any and every cast could be the one that will connect. Their mentor or guide standing close with the same hope. This is why we serve those who have served so selflessly for us.

Ultimately, one hope brings the other to fruition. The hope that comes with their focus on something as small and deliberate as a tying a fly. The hope that comes with finding their own strength in the power of the river, and finally reaching out, connecting, and holding their glorious, finned hallelujah with both hands. Each of these answer our veterans’ larger hope for normalcy and returning home. The camaraderie and glorious unquiet-quiet and life of the river loosens their grip on the weight they’re carrying, and loosens the grip of combat and all the shit that it has imposed on them. Ultimately, it’s a gift of presence, and greater courage. On the water and in life. Elusive, yes. But attainable. And absolutely worth saddling up for.

(fp note: this post was written to commemorate the Project Healing Waters event held on the Salmon River (NY) earlier this past November, hosted by the Ft. Drum and Syracuse Chapters of Project Healing Waters. I am honored to have again been a part of this event, and the fantastic work that PHWFF does for our veterans. Thank you to Dan Morgan, Ira Strouse, Fran Verdoliva from the NYSDEC, and all the guides and volunteers who made the weekend a success.)

HEALING THOSE WHO SERVED

Posted by | On the water, Time in service | 14 Comments
No Gravatar

The weekend of November 4th brought a pretty heavy frost to the Salmon River near Altmar, NY. It also brought over a dozen combat veterans from the Ft. Drum Chapter of Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing, and at least that many local fishermen to serve as guide/mentors.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing is a national organization that is dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military service personnel and veterans through fly fishing, fly tying education and outings.

Friday evening was check-in at the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation Officer School barracks just outside of Pulaski. Bob Rock, a long-time supporter of Project Healing Waters and master fly tier/instructor, arrived early, took a seat at the head of the table in the lounge area, set up his vise and tying materials and started warming up on a wooly bugger pattern.

As soldiers and volunteers arrived, they took seats, one-by-one around the table– some behind donated vises, some behind their own– and began working on goo-bug, egg-sucking leech and woolly bugger patterns of their own for tomorrow’s excursion. Many of the men in this group carried the scars and continued pain of physical injuries from the war–gunshot and shrapnel wounds, broken bones, burns, traumatic brain injury (TBI). Some wrestling with PTSD as well. That said, you would be hard-pressed to tell that any of them had any issues at all. The art of camouflage conceals so much more than any of us understands. It’s a matter of self-preservation.

After a while, announcements and house-rules were covered, BBQ was served and everyone started to warm to each other and the prospect of hooking up with the largest (for some the first) fish they’d ever caught.


Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

The next morning came quickly and after an even quicker breakfast of coffee and donuts, the group caravanned to an undisclosed rally-point to gear up, pair up with a guide and get in the water. Thanks to the tremendous leadership of the Ft. Drum Chapter of Healing Waters and the good folks at the DEC, these men had an entire section of unpressured and absolutely prime water to themselves. A small gesture of thanks for their service and sacrifice, and a great opportunity to have success on a river that is notorious for tough fish and Black Friday-esque lines on the shore.

But that success is bigger that just catching fish. For some it’s the success of making it through 2 cold days of difficult wading and fishing in spite of the pain and limitations of physical injuries. For some it’s finding a peace and sense of calm that allows them to relax and laugh from the gut and feel like things are OK. Life is OK. Being home is OK. Even if that feeling is only for a short time. While it will definitely take a lot more than just fly fishing, in the end, the hope and mission of PHW is that if enough of these quality days are strung together, it will help these heroes make their way back from those dark haunts that frustrate and scare the shit out of them–to help them finally make their way home for good.

Now, I’ve heard stories and seen pictures of other Healing Waters events in other parts of the country. But I’d be willing to bet that there isn’t another chapter that has experienced the number, species diversity and size of the fish that were caught by these guys–every single one of them–over our two days on the Salmon.

The weekend was a profound and humbling experience for me. It was an honor to be able to spend the time I did with the guys, to hear their stories, shake their hands and stand in the river together just like a bunch of normal fishermen chasing bent rods, lake-run monsters and grip-and-grins.

That is, if there is such a thing as a normal fisherman.

Be sure to “Like” the Ft. Drum Chapter’s facebook page and visit the national Healing Waters site as well. And if you can get involved in a chapter near you, please do. Our soldiers need our support right here at home.

 Photo credits: Grant Taylor

BASIC

Posted by | The road, Time in service | 12 Comments
No Gravatar

5:30 a.m.
Rain, low/mid 40’s
August 28, 1990, my 18th birthday
Ft. Leonard Wood, MO

Up at that hour, I wished I was getting my gear loaded in the truck to fish or hunt.

No dice.

I was doing push-ups. In a parking lot. With a rifle across the back of my hands. Our entire platoon was. Ponchos, kevlar helmets, BDU’s, boots and full canteens. Rain in puddles around our hands and boot-toes, reflecting street-lights and the steam from our breath. I don’t remember why we were doing them, other than someone did something wrong. I quietly hummed happy-birthday-to-me between push-up counts. It was going to be another kick-ass day.

I’m not being sarcastic either. I loved basic training. I still hold to this day that it was one of the best experiences of my life. Our wedding reception/pig-roast a decade later and the birth of my kids shortly after that soundly rounding out the list.

I had to get my mom’s permission when I enlisted at 17. Had to admit in front of her that I smoked pot before too. Hey, its a federal offense if I said never! and then came up hot on my first piss-test…at least that’s what the recruiter said. Mom signed and left the room. I was due to report for duty in Missouri on August 3rd, 1990. The first day of Desert Shield.

Becoming a Combat Engineer was a 13-week come-to-Jesus meeting between my small-town, undisciplined self and a half-dozen Drill Instructors hell bent on forging steel from my small-town, undisciplined self. Tank-trail road marches. Push-ups. Mud and barbed-wire low-crawls. Explosive-device identification classes. Push-ups. Field-triage first aid classes. Road marches. Rifle and grenade ranges. Push-ups. Muscle failure PT at dawn. Foxholes and midnight perimeter guard. Push-ups. Mine field-sweeping exercizes. Nuclear, Biological and Chemical training (aka the gas chamber). Road marches in gas masks. Push-ups.

The impending war in Saudi was held over our heads from day one.

You’re all going to the desert, the Drill Sergeants would bark. Every last swingin’ dick.
If you don’t pay attention, you’re gonna die.

The harder I worked, the better I performed. The better I performed the less the Drill Instructors kicked my ass, which in an odd twist of psychology, drove me to work harder.

I wasn’t the scrawny, insecure, undisciplined kid that was late to the puberty party anymore. Not another kid lost in the wild, confusing, irrelevant shuffle of freshman year at a State school back home. For the first time in my life, I was on my own path. A leader and part of something much bigger than myself. It scared the shit out of me. But it was something I could own and be proud of.

I didn’t wind up going to the desert, assigned instead to an Ordnance Unit in Germany, then returning to serve stateside. Many of my friends did though…and many more served in Panama, Rwanda, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan…are still serving.

I’ve moved on in another direction with my career and life path. But my time in the military and my cohort are never far from my thoughts. They never will be. Their sacrifice makes the freedoms I enjoy possible…freedoms I know I take for granted at times. Like the ability to write this blog. Or even something as simple and pure as spending time in the woods or on the water with my dad or my kids… for that alone I can’t express enough gratitude.

In the end, I wouldn’t have the perspective I do today without the…ahem…gift of those push-ups on my 18th birthday. I’m thankful, and proud, that I do.

Charlie - 35th, 3rd Platoon, Ft. Leonard Wood, 1990