Old Man Hands

I lost an old mentor earlier this year and I’ve been so busy that I haven’t had time to sit down and really process much of it. Not with any perspective anyway. Normally, when something terrible happens, writing helps me learn from whatever it was, even if I don’t share the writing with anyone. Good or bad, writing usually helps me on a personal level. So the last few weeks, I’ve tried to write about it. Every time I do, I re-read it and I think it’s garbage. I have about six Word documents, and who knows how many actual words, sitting there that are just me writing about times I spent with him and some of the useless things I learned alongside him. I say useless because I don’t need to know how to call for close air support anymore. Not that I ever had to call for it, but if I needed to, I knew how. I don’t need to convert grid to magnetic or magnetic to grid anymore. I don’t need to remember the differences between grid, polar, and shift missions. Or how to shoot an azimuth, intersections, resections, etc. Those are just random bits of information that I learned with him and remember now better than I ever knew them back then. Anyway, I haven’t been able to write about the really useful things I learned from him.

One useful thing I learned from him that I haven’t been able to get out of my head is something he was never explicitly trying to teach me. It was just something he said once. In casual conversation he said, “You’d be amazed what the human body can handle when it has to.” He was talking about pushing your body to its limits. He seemed to live by this. He once pulled me to the bottom of a pool and wouldn’t let me go until I fully understood that the key to not drowning was to not freak out. Other times he’d take a few of us on runs until every single person, except for him, threw up. But we never actually had to go on these runs. It wasn’t him disciplining us. It wasn’t him doing some show of force. He wasn’t power-tripping. He just wanted us to know our potential. He wanted me to know that I was capable of great things as long as I pushed through imaginary limits that I set for myself. As long as I never quit, he would show me what I was capable of. I was always amazed at what my body could handle when it had to. Anyone who knew him would agree that he also applied this to his brain. He was insanely smart. Otherworldly smart. When I told my mother that he was no longer with us, she immediately asked, “Was he the really smart one?”

That lesson about the human body is what I’ve been wrestling with since I learned he passed. But I don’t think the lesson was about the human body at all. Knowing him, he was always emphasizing that it was all taking place in your mind, but I was just too young to see it. And now I’m left with a bunch of questions that he can’t answer. How did something break him? How was there anything he couldn’t handle? I hadn’t talked to him in nearly ten years and I’ll never get to talk to him again. I thought about him a lot and still continue to do so. He stayed in the Marine Corps and I got out. I opted out of re-enlisting. We would have re-enlisted right alongside each other. The last conversation we ever had was rushed. It lasted all of about ten seconds. We were getting ready for some battalion formation and I saw him moving toward the front. I asked him what he was doing in his new company. He laughed and said, “Nothing. I’m not doing anything.” I thought he was joking or doing his sarcastic thing that was always hard to read back then. Later I learned that they stuck him in an office during that time and that he wasn’t joking at all. They didn’t know he had a bunch of degrees and could have ran the whole show if they gave him the chance. They thought he was just another body with the right number of chevrons on his collar. We didn’t stay in contact when I got out of the Marine Corps, but he was ingrained into my brain. If I was studying for an exam, “Sleep is a crutch” would echo in my skull. I still say that about everything. I’d study all night. I barely slept when I went back to school. I pushed myself so hard that I think I went a little crazy for awhile. But therapy was a crutch. Eventually I had to admit that I needed crutches, even if I thought I didn’t need them. I pushed myself too far, I think.

I think back to the small period of time in my life when, for some reason, the Marine Corps had us doing everything together. I remember seeing the bloody gloves on his hands and him telling me he didn’t have anything to say about it, just that it was the worst thing he’d ever seen. I remember seeing someone pouring the water on his boots and hands. I honestly can’t remember if I was the person pouring the water or not. But it’s there in my memory all the same. After that, he was silent and walked off somewhere. A friend and I were left to stand watch over the hut. But I also remember the smile on his face, months before, when we were learning things together. The maps. The compasses. The radios. The artillery. The mortars. The runs. The swims. The hikes. The time a bobcat followed us for miles along the trails of Camp Pendleton. We called-in its every movement on the radio. I remember him letting me drive his truck while he talked about real punk rock and The Grateful Dead. I remember thinking, “This is the kind of person I want to be.” And now he’s gone because there was something going on that he couldn’t handle.

We joked for a while in Iraq about the way his hands looked when he wasn’t wearing gloves. All of our hands would get ashy and wrinkly. We called them Old Man Edmonds Hands. I think we even made a song out of it. But he was only thirty back then. He wasn’t old at all. And he certainly wasn’t old when we lost him ten years later.

I think back to what he said, “You’d be amazed what the human body can handle when it has to.” I can’t help but apply his lesson to the reality of losing him. I know I can handle anything when I have to, but what does it mean if he couldn’t? I mean, I learned that lesson from him. I’m left with another long block of words that don’t come to any conclusion and a sinking feeling that doesn’t really go away.