The Mighty Viking

Conquering those things we must, one story at a time

Posts Tagged ‘peace’

Not free yet

Departing the I-5 corridor in Olympia to the west in favor of Highway 101 to Port Angeles is much more than just an exit from the freeway when traveling on the bike. A gradual but gratifying process begins to empty me of the chaff of life. From the very first sweeping right turn at exit 104 that slings me under the interstate and onto the side highway, I feel something leaving me, some palpable entity whose inertia has prodded me like an unwilling goat for the last hundred miles, leaving me with an illogical sense of haste I cannot understand. I can sense it, still moving northward on the freeway I just left, every moment an ever-widening gap between that thing and I as it searches first for me, and then for some other easy victim. I have shaken it from my path. But I’m not free yet.

 

Three exits on this short burst of new freeway, and then the busy intersections and traffic of the city fade, extra lanes disappear, and after a few short miles are nearly completely gone.  Rural scenery replaces strip malls, and as the buildings disappear, so does an entire level of stress. My mind begins to slow. But I’m not free yet.

 

For the next half hour a greenway rolls past. In the open air of the saddle of the motorbike, a full azimuth of the arching foliage welcomes me through a kind of gateway. In autumn, this stretch of road is brilliant orange, red, and yellow, interspersed with the deep green of spruce, fir, and cedar. It has been nine months since I last traveled this path. If you’ve experienced it, if you know that autumn display, it stays with you forever, even here in the height of summer, and it colors your view with anticipation of another season. The road continues like this, passing through a couple towns, skirting one using a bypass, and then leading into the wilder country. But I’m not free yet.

 

After passing Shelton, the road shrinks to two lanes, and I feel like I’m stepping out of one world into a different one, that seems at once smaller, and larger, than the confined domineering existence of the city. Every mile I travel, another pound of tension drops off of me, like loosened shackles. The narrow road weaves beneath my wheels like a tightrope walker’s line, I push the bike along it, balancing and dancing its path as if a rebirth awaits me at the other end. The Olympic mountain range drives upward powerfully to my left, into snow capped jagged peaks which from this close range I only glimpse occasionally through the dense forest, but I can feel their presence. The smooth, soothing waters of Puget Sound rest gently just to my right, the road wending along its shores squeezing in between water and mountains. Vacation homes line the shores in some places, in others old bridges span across marshes, where the rivers caroming from the heights of the mountains finally spread out into individual streams so numerous and dense in places that the land becomes a marshland network of creeks. Fishermen work this shallow delta, and I smile to myself to see them again, as if they were cousins I’ve known all my life, and am returning to. But I’ve never met them. The bike reminds me to ride on. I’m not free yet.

 

Soon, all that’s left is the occasional house, with long-forgotten equipment in and around rotting barns, shoulder-high grasses hiding clumps of iron that used to be a crane, or a water truck, or an old sawmill bandsaw, waiting for someone to stop long enough to listen to the tales of long ago. So many tales to be told. I want to stop, someday, and listen to their stories, because I feel that I’m among friends again, but I am fleeing today, and cannot stop to ask for cover in their undisturbed appearance. Not yet.

 

The road leaves the shore, and winds its way up through a pass. The road peaks, drops through a series of blind curves through a wide ravine that suddenly opens into a new valley, yet another distance from the city. This place feels so removed from the city that it cannot be felt at all. Small farms here grow their hay and crops with the wild abandon that the rain forest climate provides. Soon, just like the replanted clear-cuts that cover over completely in two seasons on the vast mountainsides above, the last traces of my having been in the city have been cleared from my mind, and overgrown with fond memories of these places. But I’m not free yet. Not quite.

 

I turn aside from the highway, and ride a short distance up a road I only know for its penchant for going nowhere particular. It is a secret road, and I’ve only traveled a mile up its length, ever. And that is precisely the distance I travel now, to a wide turnout that commands a view of the valley and the mountains beyond. I stop the bike on the roadside, kill the engine, and wait. I look up to the craggy peaks that I can just see, knowing what is there, waiting for it to come. The wind whispers in the trees. A bird busies itself in some discussion at the bottom of the ravine beside me. The gravel crunches as I turn my foot for balance, still sitting on the bike, waiting. And then it begins. A commanding, colossal silence that is more than an absence of sound washes down the mountain, crossing the narrow valley, roiling towards me as if it will tear me apart. And it will. I relax, and take the wave head on – it thunders over me like a collapsing wave. I drink it in, this deep quiet, letting it fill me up, push out every hint of the chaos and insignificant chatter that has been raging in my head, until the separation between the silence and me no longer exists. I am no longer just myself. I am free.

 

Somewhere in me a smile forms, and a joy without words flows out of me with a force greater than myself. Here, on this back road to nowhere with nothing but a motorcycle, I am at home again.

 

Memorial of freedom’s sacrifice

This Memorial Day, I heard several people suggest that to honor those who served in combat honors war itself, and that perhaps we should not. I would like to take a moment to publicly dispute this.

They suggest that perhaps if we spent as much time working for peace as we do preparing for war, we would all be better off. It would seem there are those who still believe there aren’t and down through history never has been people who don’t want to work for peace, but for domination. There comes a point where you can’t talk to those people. There was no talking to King George, as Ben Franklin eventually came to believe and advise. There came a point where there was no talking to the folk who felt the need to own other people in this country, as gentle a man as Abraham Lincoln came to realize. Stalin, Hitler, Emperor Hirohito, Ho Chi Minh, Osama bin Laden…there’s a long list. At some point our freedom has been threatened by these people who didn’t fail to understand reason or respect for others rights, they simply had no interest in it.

I don’t use freedom as a patriotic catchphrase to be bandied around with a flag tied to it. I mean the right to determine our style of government, our right to raise our children with our own beliefs, not those of the state, our right to choose within the confines of personal circumstances our occupation, religious belief, the very location of our home. It is our freedom that allows us to change those things if opportunity, conviction, and desire motivate us. These are our freedoms, and it is these that were threatened. Many consider these freedoms trivial. I believe they think this way because that freedom has never been genuinely threatened or restricted, and the reality of life without them is too far away for most to give serious thought to, what with the joys or pains of the moment in front of us. But there are those amongst us who, when called upon, are capable of seeing a little further, and have acted upon the need to be prepared for our defense against those who would deny us those freedoms. We have set aside one day in a year to celebrate the foresight and sacrifice it has taken for us to remain free.

The people who have been in combat know a secret that is hard to live with. They realize that in spite of all the skill, or equipment, or training – often it comes down to odds that can only be influenced in small ways, and the guy they were just standing next to died because some guy across the battlefield just happened to target him. That guy didn’t die because he was a lesser man, but because he, and everyone else, volunteered to place themselves in the way of this possibility for a cause they felt was that important. Chance did the rest.

It is hard to live with this, because most men in combat have seen others act in a way that makes no sense to the common world – they’ve seen men take actions that endanger themselves in order to protect those around them. In some of the worst of human conditions some of the best human traits come to the surface to meet the need. And every man that’s been in combat and not died comes away wondering, somewhere in the back of his mind, why it wasn’t he that was killed, but some other guy. We wonder if perhaps that guy was more worthy, more courageous – if maybe that other guy died because we didn’t do enough- and we remember it for the rest of our life. We do this despite the abject fear we sometimes saw in that man’s eyes, the fear-driven anger, things that are ugly, and not comfortable talking about. We still wonder in the aftermath if that man was more worthy than us. Memorial day is one day for these men to share this pain of survival with others, to give those who were safe at home a moment’s glimpse into what it takes to maintain this way of life, and most importantly, to honor the men we had the opportunity to see at their best when no one else could. It seems most people don’t believe it takes armed conflict. It seems much of our society believes armed soldiers are bloodthirsty animals looking for prey. Memorial day is a moment for us to realize that most of those who have been in combat were not looking for blood, and expected no glory, on the day when our companions died. On that day when battle plans are executed, men feel fear because they do not want to be killed, nor do they want to kill. And yet, to protect the society they support, it must be done, and this is that day.

Most everyone prefers peace. But once in a while, someone who will not be satisfied with peace comes along, and needs defending against. We don’t have a memorial day for those people. We have a memorial day for those who picked up a weapon and defended his home against them, regardless of the danger. We don’t celebrate the brash young man who left home with his rifle to kick some butt yelling “yee-hah!” down the road in a cloud of dust. We celebrate the courage of a young man who got to battle, and learned quickly that there was more to it than that, that his glory came second to the survival of his group, and who, in the end, got his butt kicked defending them. We celebrate that transformation from brashness to complete sacrifice. And through that example we wish for more courage ourselves to face the need for sacrifice in living each day in our hard-won freedom, seeking peace.