Monday, April 25, 2011

North Broad Trestle

Nestled amongst the forested hills of north Georgia rests a train bridge known as the North Broad Trestle.  Originally dubbed the Wells Viaduct, its construction was completed in 1919, and it remains to this day the highest bridge on the Norfolk Southern Railroad, connecting Washington, D.C. and New Orleans.  Although it has been over a decade since my last visit, the area was once a frequent retreat.  As a young, troubled college student, I often wandered out the backside of the Toccoa Falls campus and deep into the Chattahoochee woods.  I would follow footpaths out to the ATV trail and then wander aimlessly.  Beyond the beaten path was a world void of humanity, peaceful and uncomplicated.  Up on a hillside, overlooking the trestle, the view was panoramic, and only a landscape so large seemed suitable as a focus point for my open-eyed prayers to a faceless God.

Most of my excursions were companionless, although I occasionally convinced a friend or two to tag along.  On one such jaunt, I managed to corral four of my dorm mates into following me.  Our first adventure of the day began by the riverbank beneath the towering trestle.  Feeling inspired, we hustled our way up the embankment to where the track once again had dirt beneath it.  Even before we had all conquered the “summit”, Jon began making his way out onto the bridge.  The usual masculine banter ensued, as we accused him of being insane and he dared us to join him.  My memory probably places him farther out than he really was, but Jon seemed uncomfortably far away as the train suddenly thundered around the corner, barreling onto the far side of the bridge.  Bodies flew through the air, as Jon, Craig, Howey and I dove for safety; Lee was still clawing his way up the hill, barely five feet beneath the tracks, as the train roared overhead.  It was a classic scene of comedic stupidity.

That freshman year was my only year at Toccoa Falls as a student.  I would return only on occasion to visit friends and seek out my old stoop.  After a year or so I returned with some new friends, eager for a good hike.  Regret over my failure to cross taunted me back to the edge, where the ground beneath the tracks began to fall away.  Ignoring the possibility of a train, Brad and I stepped out onto the track.  What I had not anticipated, however, was my reaction to the staggering height.  The bridge spanned 1500 feet and towered approximately 200 feet at its highest point, and there was no barrier of any sort between the edge and us.  The space between each railroad tie was open air, so as I looked down for each foot placement, I could see straight through to the ground far below.  About a quarter of the way across, my enthusiasm gave way to intense fear.  I was paralyzed.  As absolute terror consumed me I became so shaky that each little movement scared me further.  I could not even turn my head to glance back.

So often the trials of living can be just as paralyzing.  Real life trestles come in the form of divorce or depression or job loss.  Sometimes we suffer from a trauma in our past or an uncertain future.  Painful, frustrating and terrifying circumstances become a reality for all of us at some point or another.  We grieve because we cannot turn back and undo the events that landed us in our mess, and we panic for fear that any action will only make things worse.  The great tragedy, however, is that it is truly our own fear and lack of perspective that bring about our demise.  We blame the circumstances, of course, but it’s really our own lack of resolve to rise above that restricts us. 

If Brad was ever scared he never let on, and he never harassed me for being scared.  Rather, he confidently grabbed my hand and coaxed me to keep putting one foot in front of the other.  My fear did not instantly dissipate, but Brad’s calm strength gave me the motivation to continue.  Once we reached the halfway point, I gained confidence with each step.  I realized that we were moving closer and closer to safety and to achieving our goal.  By the time we stepped back onto solid ground, my fear was barely a memory.

In perhaps his most famous psalm, David wrote, “Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.” (Psalm 23:4/NLT)  His prayerful confession was essentially declaring, “I will not be afraid, because you, God, are bigger than what I am up against, and you will never abandon me.”  I think that this is the perspective we are often lacking.  Does that make the pain stop?  No.  Does that make the healing process any less dreadful?  No.  What it does, though, is offer hope . . . hope that there will be an end to suffering; hope that the pain can refine us; and hope that while we were never meant to go through life alone, we do not have to.

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. – Psalm 46:1 (NIV)

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Remembering Kenny

In the military, a taboo topic is rare.  Given enough time, a conversation will touch on nearly every subject under the sun.  Where were you when 9/11 happened?  What are you gonna do after the army?  How old were you when you lost your virginity?  Someone always extends the customary offer to “spoon” and someone else always chimes in with the latest crude joke.  And when the setting is just right, soldiers contemplate death, the after-life, and whom they’d like to sleep with before that happens.

It was a winter evening in New Mexico when Kenny and I finally arrived at that point of religious discussion.  Huddled inside our vehicle, choking back some horrible variation of an MRE, we discussed what we thought it took to get to heaven and what merited a straight ticket to hell.  We got through it rather quickly and moved on without agreeing on any mutual conclusions.  It was just another conversation in a long series of attempts at staving off the boredom.

Fast forward to Iraq, one year later.  A group of close buddies were preparing to relocate to another sector of the war.  I bumped into Kenny as he was loading up.  We shook hands, and I wished him luck.  He made me promise to grab a beer with him when we made it back stateside.

I was attending a briefing when news of the attack was announced, and my heart stopped when casualties were reported.  It took me a few days to get an accurate report.  But when the facts were straight and the names known, my friend Kenny was already stateside, draped in an American flag.

Our journey together is almost a cliché.  We were promoted side-by-side.  We once discussed where we thought we’d go when we died.  And we agreed to meet up for a drink after the war.  Of the stories I recall about him, it’s these last two memories that haunt me every April 11th.  It’s been five years now, and I still pray that my friend Kenny got it right and that I’ll see him on the other side.  Until then, he owes me a drink.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

November 30, 2006

I think I cried.  It isn’t all that clear anymore.  All I remember for sure is that the quiet was stifling and the solitude burdensome.  Alone in a sterile barracks room, I grieved for the last sixteen months of my life.  Iraq was now decidedly in my past, but a quick survey of my surroundings and a sigh of relief accomplished far less than I had anticipated.  The weight of war was still crushing - inescapable and haunting.

I sat on the cold, hard linoleum, staring.  Waiting.  Waiting for something to feel right, to feel better.  I whispered a prayer of thanks; but even that rang hollow.  I had reached a stalemate with God months earlier.

And did I mention how quiet it was?  There was no sudden burst of gunfire.  No car bombs were detonating in the distance, followed by the telltale clang of falling debris.  Not even a solitary mortar round could be heard splitting the night.  There were no Blackhawks hovering above, no footsteps crunching gravel outside, and no generators buzzing beyond the concrete barrier.  No, rather it was eerily still; the fresh snow outside the window seemingly absorbing every last sound from the night.

This was my welcome home party.  It was the most isolated I think I’ve ever felt.  Yet anything different would have been worse.  I needed that solitude to appreciate the gravity of what I’d just endured, and to grieve . . . for friends, for my sanity, and for the last shred of faith I had - in God and in the world.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Collateral Damage

From the moment we moved into our house, my wife and I found ourselves thrust into the midst of territorial conflict.  Not with each other, and, no, not with our neighbors.  Our conflict has been with a squatter.  The extra body might have gone unnoticed but for the white streaks of telltale evidence decorating our front porch, and since our little problem can’t seem to go without leaving her mark, we quickly grew resentful of her presence.  When she disappeared this past winter, I gave the porch a good scrub down and hoped she would not return.  She did.

With the arrival of spring, our bird returned with a new behavior – nesting.  When her usual stoop proved unfit, our aviary pest set her sights on a decorative wreath hanging in the front window.   We were dismayed to observe the daily display of nesting materials that hadn’t made the cut scattered all over our porch.  Cleaning up after our squatter’s latest mess became a fresh source of resentment.

My wife and I regularly discussed knocking the nest down, however, our procrastination inadvertently provided the mother-to-be enough time to put some finishing touches on her masterpiece.  Finally, believing we had to knock it down before she laid eggs, we decided we couldn’t wait any longer.  In just a few seconds, we reclaimed our porch and destroyed the evidence.

As we gloated about our victory, an unexpected thing happened.  The mother-to-be returned, darting back and forth in distress.  Ready to lay her egg at any moment, she had been heartlessly evicted.  We were instantly hit with a wave of remorse.  We sheepishly asked each other how we could have been so thoughtless.  What had we done?  Why had it seemed so urgent? 

Some might argue that we were justified in our actions.  After all, it is our house and we have the right to be pest free.  It’s just a bird, right?  That very well may be true, but I cannot resist the urge to ponder the bigger picture.  The Apostle Paul wrote, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3,4/NIV)  Continuing on, he wrote, “Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.  He had equal status with God but didn't think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status…” (Philippians 2:5,6/The Message). 

Paul may not have had pesky birds in mind when he wrote this; but I wonder, how often are we so consumed by our own agenda that we show reckless disregard for the people around us?  How often are we guilty of viewing others as speed bumps and eyesores on our journey to happiness and success?  Perhaps it would do us all some good to slow down for a minute and evaluate the collateral damage we’ve caused.  Even better, it would do us good to realize we’re not the big a deal we think we are.  After all, aren’t we all just messy birds in the eyes of someone else?  And aren’t we supposed to treat others the way we’d like to be treated?

It’s something to think about anyway.  For now, I think I’ll go put up a birdhouse.