The first words I can remember David Alan Edmonds saying to me were something along the lines of, “Try to get off your soapbox for a second. And it’s Edmonds, not Edwards.” The way he said it wasn’t confrontational or dismissive: It was matter of fact. He wanted me to stop talking, to listen, and to get his name correct. I didn’t know at the time that he had experience running a classroom. But, looking back at it now, it was clear. I’d only ever been a student. And a high school student at that. I was not even a year out of high school. He’d already finished grad school, from what I understand. He’d already lived an adult life and I was just starting mine, I thought. What did I know about life? Nothing.
I never got his name wrong again, and I listened to every word he ever said if I was within earshot. Edmonds taught me something everyday when I knew him and worked closely with him. I wanted to be the man he was, but just couldn’t do it. It felt good if I could keep up with him on a run. It felt good if I could learn half of what he was trying to teach me. I always fell short but, at times, came close. For Edmonds, his time in the Marine Corps was not just something he was doing after high school. This was his new life. Again, he was ten years older.
I like to think that Edmonds was on some philosophical journey during those first few years he was in the Marine Corps. Fed up with the superficiality of the civilian world and the world of teaching, he decided to give himself to the Marine Corps. To find something real. To test himself in a new way. To serve as a rifleman in a war. To risk the ultimate act of selflessness.
“Greater love hath no man,” but not this way.
To me, Edmonds was a picture of what a man should and could become one day. A Leonidas. The kind of people you only read about. A historical figure. A great writer or something. A warrior. A future king. We used to joke about becoming the new Grand Old Man of the Marine Corps. I wanted to be Edmonds, but I knew I couldn’t, and I knew I could definitely not spend my entire life in the Marine Corps. I knew it from the beginning. But part of me wanted to. I knew I didn’t have the enthusiasm he had. The fearlessness. While I couldn’t imitate his warrior spirit, I wanted to imitate his mind. So I got out. I went to school and became a teacher. I thought about him so much as a student in college. I saw him everywhere: in the great professors I had who took me under their wings, the ones who put up with my immaturity and lack of professionalism, the students, my friends. I met someone so much like Edmonds when I was in grad school. If you’re reading this, Hi, Duncan. Even a few of the people I work with now remind me of Edmonds.
I think about what my mother said when I called her. I was still in shock after teaching three classes of middle school students for what felt like days. I’d heard the news that morning. I pulled over on the side of the road. I was running late. All I could do was try to drive to work safely and worry about it later. The kids could tell. I remember just looking around, staring at things. When a kid finally asked, all I could say was, “My friend just died.” Were you my friend? What were you, really? What was I to you? A little brother? A child you had to babysit? I couldn’t make sense out of how someone I hadn’t talked to in ten years could create such a hole. I could barely drive to work and I could barely drive home.
So I did what a child does. I called my mom.
“Was he the really smart one?” I think she asked.
“Yep. Yeah,” I said. “You met him before we deployed.”
I see his gloves absorbing the water as we rinsed them. Transparent pink water dripping into the sand. I think they burned the gloves later. I don’t remember. It’s blurry.
“Oh, David,” I think she said, to me. But she might as well have been speaking to him.
I called a friend. And another friend. And another. Then I called a leader I looked up to and told him I wanted to quit drinking but wasn’t ready yet. He talked to all of us. Who knows how many phone calls he took that day? But I know he took every one. I drank for nine more months, then called that same leader again. He’d lost another Marine by then. Took more phone calls. That man is a saint.
Mom didn’t know about Big Dave and Little Dave. An inside joke. The warrior and baby brother. The man and the child. I’ve never thought about how similar our full names were. My last name was Young back then. It never crossed my mind. I don’t think I even knew his middle name. And I never called him David or Dave. Just Edmonds, or Corporal, depending on who was around.
I haven’t thought about that “Oh, David” in a while. I am now.
There’s no song I can think of that helps, or that doesn’t suck. “Ripple”? Maybe. But only parts. There’s nothing. Just an empty feeling. And it’s fragmented. I get bits and pieces of you out of everything, but never a complete feeling. Nothing that settles anything.
And you know what’s one of the worst parts for my selfish ass, from my limited perspective and relationship with who you were when I knew you? I can’t think about the Marine Corps anymore, or talk about it like a sane person. If I do, I’m stuck. I’m there again, but without you. People barely understand what I’m saying. I don’t get to think about the long hikes, the grids, the kilometers of hiking, talking about everything, resting an MRE on a rock “or something.” I don’t feel pride on Veteran’s Day. I feel embarrassed. I can barely hold it together during Memorial Day Assemblies, the few we’ve had before the world went insane. I have to focus on looking sane and whole. The kids won’t get it.
Do you know how hard it is to teach Tim O’Brien and The Things They Carried now? You would. Guarantee you’ve read him. You probably taught it long before I knew what it was. “On the Rainy River.” To paraphrase it, “I was a coward. I didn’t re-enlist.” I can’t think of one other time you ever let me down. I honestly can’t. I don’t get it, man. Did I build you up in my head? Is it hero worship? Am I mythologizing? Who did you look up to like this? Am I writing this for you or for me? Is writing about you wrong? Who am I to write about you? Is it immoral? You’d know.
You re-enlisted. I didn’t.
I left. You stayed. I’m sure I let you down.
And ten years went by.
You died. I haven’t.
I have to stay and you get to leave. But I can’t bring myself to say you let me down.
And more years go by.
I just wish I would have spent more time with you, or fully understood how rare you were. I don’t even know what to tell kids anymore when they ask about the Marine Corps and being a rifleman and tell me they’re thinking about it. If you saw it, their eyes, I bet these teenagers would remind you of me when you knew me. A dog following someone around. The child trying to impress the man. I want to tell them to do it. “Go 0311.” I want to, but will they have an Edmonds? Will they have what I had? That feeling of safety? That feeling of knowing that somehow this insanely smart person is here with me, making sure I was safe and that I knew what I needed to know to keep others safe? I didn’t know shit. I was so lucky. Like so many people, I’m sure, whether they know it or not, or even want to, I know I wouldn’t have made it without you. I felt safe knowing you were there and knowing you were here on Earth somewhere. I don’t think that feeling will ever go away. I just felt safer knowing you were here.
Final Verse of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple”:
You, who choose to lead, must follow.
But if you fall, you fall alone.
If you should stand, then who’s to guide you?
If I knew the way, I would take you home.
I don’t know what that verse means. But it makes me think of you.