When I arrived in South Vietnam in May of 1969, I was assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group which was headquartered in Nha Trang, a city located in Khanh Hoa Province on the South China Sea. This lively and attractive coastal resort city then, as now, was known for its beaches, diving sites, and offshore islands. Unfortunately for me, I was not there to sightsee and didn’t really get to experience the sights and sounds of that well known vacation spot.
Six months ago, I was about to turn 80, or as my family likes to call this birthday a decade transition. My youngest sister, who hosted my mother’s 80th birthday celebration wanted to know what I was going to do about mine. My children wanted to know if there was anything I would like on my birthday. Normally, the family would have a party with all the brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, and aunts and uncles with the number approaching 35 or 40 people. I am the oldest family member and the only person other than my wife who would be at a party who had one vaccination shot with the second one scheduled. COVID had changed a lot of family gatherings, and this would be no exception.
Beirut is a beautiful city, a mixture of the new, the old, and the ancient. It has been referred to as the “Paris of the Middle East,” with beautiful beaches, modern hotels, universities, and businesses to support tourism. Cedar forests surround the city and lead to majestic mountains just an hour, or two, drive from the beaches. The great cedar forests are intertwined in Lebanon’s persona, and a single cedar tree is the centerpiece of the Lebanese flag. The mountains are home for skiing and other activities during the winter months. The neighboring city of Byblos has been continuously occupied for 7000 years; and considered one of the birthplaces of humanity. Life has endured throughout the cycles of violence in the country’s long history.
“Welcome to IHOP, how many in your party?” asks the older woman at the counter as she ushers in the all-night partiers looking to sober up, early risers looking for a caffeine fix and families looking for a meal after a long flight. Each time the door opens the sounds of traffic is mixed with the sounds of planes landing and taking off from the airport, not a quarter of a mile away. I cannot seem to hear anything but the blood swelling my veins. The thump, thump, thump of my heart is getting louder as my scope of vision is narrowing. I try to revert back to my training to slow my breathing and open up my field of vision; I know that if this was taking place in a combat zone this could be deadly, but this isn’t a combat zone, this is at home in IHOP on a peaceful Sunday morning.
Taking the first step, I find my vision and look to the right. Rows of canvas align perfectly with the walkway parting the gravel. My bag bangs against the outside of my knee as I make my way forward. My hair wet, tightly wrapped above my collar. The cool streams of water sliding down my neck. The reflection of ripples in the distance pulls me forward. Memories of my past telling me to pick my feet up. Moving with a type of purpose that I can make up if confronted; I know that people are always watching.
Twenty-two years old, sitting in my patrol car on a Thursday afternoon, working as military police on the largest military installation in the free world – Fort Hood. I couldn’t believe it. Just a mere two years ago, I was working at McDonald’s and sleeping on my friend’s floor, with no real direction for my life. I was in the 64th Military Police Company – a combat support unit. Our sister company, 410th, was currently deployed so we were getting a lot more road time. We had been on patrol for almost eight months, and I was really getting into the swing of things.
So much can happen in 13 years. Careers change. Scenery changes. Relationships come and go. A lifetime can be lived. For 13 years I watched her grow. You can even say for 13 years I watched her slowly die. That’s what it means to live anyway right? From the moment we are born we are one moment closer to death. Every breath is a breath closer to the last time your lungs will expand. Every step is a step closer to your journey to the grave. But we don’t live our lives with those thoughts in our heads. We forget that we have an expiration date. We forget that we don’t go on forever. We live in the moment. We smile as if life will never end. Until the day it does.