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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking Back, Looking Ahead: The Empty Archway

In the five years since my last deployment to Afghanistan, I have been trying to put together a novel. I wrote out an entire draft manuscript and rewrote it twice before deciding to scrap the entire thing and start over. The original plot was centered on a Marine officer who, on the flight back from Afghanistan, gets drunk in Spain, misses his plane, and journeys north to Paris.

In the nearly three years since I left the Marine Corps, I realized that the story is much larger than that, so I'm back to the drawing board. But as we close out 2015 and head into the new year, I decided to read over the ending of the original. It resonates with me even more strongly now, albeit for the fact that I have not made much progress in doing the things I told myself I would do when I got out.

2016 is another year. I have no resolutions and I make no promises. I only hope that it does not pass me by in as much of a blur as 2015 did. One of these years, I'll start really living.

I hope that the ending of this novel that will never be published will remind me, and maybe a few others, to keep after it.

***
Paris, France
Darkness had fallen by the time the train pulled toward its rest at the Gare Montparnasse. The curved modern façade of the building defied my hopes for a grand Belle Epoque terminus. Rather than gliding into a tunnel set into a distinguished building, the tracks just skirted under the glass paneling of the station. The lamps within were too weak to reach beyond the tinsel and bathed only the platform in their pale light. The anticlimax feeling left me drained.    
I transferred to the Metro and took it one stop to Saint-Placide. Both tourists and locals both passed me by in their rush, but I savored each step as I emerged from the ground to drink in Paris one more time. It was a city to love and the sights, sounds, and smells came to me more and more with each step; like an awakening. And when I stood on the sidewalk in the Paris night, the indescribable city energy I’d always loved reached up into my chest and clutched it tight with that intoxicating anxiousness to roam and explore and experience it all. I knew, though, where I was going. The route was chosen, so I headed down Rue Notre-Dame des Champs briefly before turning left on Rue de Fleurus.
I walked more quickly, though not too quickly to gaze at the distant warmth of the apartment lights glowing above the street. I stopped for a moment to look longingly down the tree-lined Boulevard Raspail, but I knew I had to cross and continue on down the narrow vein. I stopped for a moment as the plaque at 27 Rue de Fleurus caught my eye, marking the place where Gertrude Stein threw out her dirty, easy labels. “You are all a génération perdue … all of you young people who served in the war. You are a lost generation.” I shook my head and stepped off again on my march into the night.
Registan Desert, Afghanistan
They flew south through the cold night, the wind biting deep and the roar of the rotors cut only by the constant frequency of the turbines that spun them. The sound enveloped us, leaving each alone with his thoughts for nearly an hour.  Nearing the border, the crew chief began to give us time warnings with a yell and a hand signal.  Looking across the helo and out the gunner’s door, I vaguely registered the streak of rockets firing into the hills north of the objective.  Ahead, huge flashes rent the night as 2000-pound bombs pummeled the areas around our landing zone. The crew chief yelled, “One minute out.” I looked at the faces across from me in their various expressions of concentration, nervousness, or dismissal. The helicopters reefed back, using their rotors to slow at the last minute. We heard the moon dust and pebbles blasting the metal belly below us, then felt the wheels strike the earth.  The Marines charged off the chopper, running through the open doorway into the black night, immediately positioning themselves in a hasty perimeter.  No sooner were we off the helos than the pilots powered into the sky, pivoted, and peeled back away from the objective.  I watched the last helo go, the eerie green light of its interior fading almost immediately into the night.  They left a tornado, then silence.