I recently had the opportunity to speak with Dan Drew about the real life of soldiers-warriors and their disconnect with the civilian world. He sent me a story he had written in 2004; reading this intimate experience of facing the end of his career as a solider is nothing short of masterful. With his permission, I have agreed to make it public for the many military personnel and veterans grappling with careers coming to an end. Please cite Dan in any reproduction.
Dan Drew, 6 April, 2004
“UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN”
A Soldier’s Response
Our earth orbits a star we call the sun, which is the center of our universe, once every 365 ¼ days, a period that is known to us as a year. As the earth follows its elliptical path around the sun the axis remains tilted at 24 ½ degrees and so it is that the seasons are created, spring, summer, autumn and winter. These seasons are often used as metaphors when we consider stages of life, spring representing birth and renewal, summer, fecund virility and passion of youth, autumn, harvest and life accomplishment, and finally we think of the long winter as the end of that period that is known to us as a life. The ancients worshiped the sun as the source of all life, the God that banished the cold of winter and the dark of night and replaced those gloomy apparitions and chilling conditions with the enchanted promise of long, warm days when the heat waves danced on endless, fertile fields of gold and green.
As I watched the movie, “Under the Tuscan Sun” the icy hands of the long Alberta winter imperceptibly lifted from my shoulders, and that movie became the center of my universe. I was unexpectedly infused and enthused with a rather confusing emotion, a nearly uncontrollable, exuberant desire to drop everything and move to that same old Tuscan villa and begin life anew. It was as if the movie screen was a window that I could climb through to land in the garden in that far off country. Where, I might sit, feeling the soft caress of the sun’s rays and the gentle fingers of the breeze in my hair and overlook the centuries old olive trees and the stone fence walls, all the while sipping the dusky, earthy life blood of the local vineyards.
Why did this Hollywood movie motivate me to do something as rash as what I was contemplating?
I have been in the Army for 28 years, nearly two thirds of my life, and I am coming to the autumn of my life as a soldier. At 46 I am becoming an old man in a young man’s game, slowly being relegated to the sidelines, a staff officer who deals with peripheral issues so that the young and hardy can be freed up and go forth and do the job and experience the adventures that I have relished and lived for these past years. Perhaps it is the feeling created by the onset of irrelevance, once a warrior and leader, now a bystander betrayed by a body succumbing to the effects of the soldier’s load and that old enemy, time. My mind, still spry, full of yesterday’s glories is able to learn but unwilling to embrace much of the new, corrupt doctrine of the politically adroit, Ottawa careerists. I know the consequences of inertia, yet am reluctant, no, unable to give up the old ways, continuing to march slowly, inexorably to retirement and eternity. I am reminded that time is being shaved away in the same way that the oceans irresistibly erode the beaches, dragging those grains of sand, seconds and minutes, away from the light of the day, to the eternity of the ocean’s depths. Having been at the edge of that precipice on more than one occasion, I have no desire to be dragged into that eternal darkness.
My culture is an exclusionary one. There is only a single way of life, that of the soldier; discipline, fitness and proficiency at arms. It is a tribal culture of men where irreplaceable emotional bonds are the product of pain and shared suffering, joy and celebration, youthful excess and victory. Soldiers belong to a sub culture; really a cloistered segment of society that exists on the periphery of what most people would call a normal life. It is a dichotomous way of life where the necessarily brutal, bloody-minded and ruthless facets of a man’s personality co-exist with profound compassion and respect for the lives of all living beings, particularly those of the weak and defenseless. Who else would, or could, do the terrible close-in work of the infantry with deadly, single-minded determination and then spend their spare time organizing winter clothing for the wretched, hesitant inhabitants with whom they are unable to verbally communicate, in a miserable country shrouded in hatred and fear? And, it is a culture that reluctantly, in the same way that one would put down a favorite dog, releases the sick, and the wounded and the old so that they do not slow down or impede those that carry on to the next battle or the next war. I have put down my share of favorite dogs, old friends and comrades fallen by the wayside, farewell and a quick wave and then fearfully, thankfully, eyes hard squinted, refocus on that road leading to the edges of the empire, marching to the rhythmic, hypnotic, crunch, crunch, crunch of the soldier’s distance-eating cadence. And now I can see that my turn is coming, soldier’s pride and a forged, never-say-die determination keeps me in the ranks but I know that my step is not as true as it once was or will need to be. The leaves of the trees beside my Roman road are beginning to turn, and in the distant hills there is snow.
As the rivulets of dust darkened sweat flow from the corners of those hard squinted eyes of mine, I return to the vision of that steadfast, solid, ancient casa. Stonewalls surround and defend the place while olive trees stand comforting sentinel, providers and protectors. “Drop out of the column, now. No one will miss you, at least not until it is too late. Get off of the road, nip into the field and lay up til dark. Then it’s a quick dash, and you’re home free bucko!” Free to start again, to feel the heart hammering, breath burning desire and the alluring promise of life giving breasts, to spend the summer sipping that dusky, earthy red wine from a lover’s succulent mouth.
Inside there is a young, vigorous woman, supple firm flesh, raven hair, sun kissed cheeks glowing under eyes a mile deep. The kitchen is brightly lit; the ceramic and iron stove warming the body and the soul as only wood heat can. It smells of the bounty of the earth; onions and garlic and tomatoes, baking bread and a faint hint of wood smoke; odors that define comfort and contentment. Outside, the first blades of new green grass are summoned forth from the earth, magical apparitions that signal rebirth and a new season, hope, light. In this place I am young again, and I will close my eyes at night and wake without the fatigue of aching bones and broken sleep night terrors.
Yes, I could trade the frostbite and shivers, the sunburn and sweat, long fearful nights and numbing physical exhaustion that is the soldier’s environment, and the odors of gun oil and diesel, wet leather and canvas, cigarette smoke and black rum, and, boot polish for that Tuscan kitchen. But, in all fairness, these soul testing, character building, body breaking challenges, and their familiar sounds and sensual smells were the narcotic attractants that brought me to the soldier’s world in the first place. And was I not coming to the end of my own long march, I would most likely dismiss Tuscany in favor of adventure that I know is just out of view, and the solid company of old comrades. At another time, this mirage would be a dream to chase another day. And, what if I did slip out of the ranks and make my way to that oasis? Would I be content to watch the trailing tendrils of marching dust settle in the last rays of the setting sun? Or would I bolt for that distant column, where the moon-silver bayonets shimmer, and the soldiers marching
sway, hypnotized by that crunch, crunch, crunch, of their distance-eating cadence, that was my true place?
“Under the Tuscan Sun”, casually dismissed by many as a “chick flick”, was a movie that struck deep into my soul, and the effect was an unexpected sense of elation and euphoria. Examining the roots of this reaction, I discovered that I was responding unconsciously to the reality that is the end of life as I know it, and euphoria suddenly became sadness. Soon, there will be a time when I no longer shoulder the soldier’s load and step off with a century’s worth of men marching in that customary, efficient cadence. The comradeship earned in the warrior’s currency of sweat and blood will fade in the distance with the sound of those familiar footfalls. No more crashing of cannons and gunfire, no more fear in anticipation or mind-blowing relief, no more finely dressed ranks with gleaming medals and razor sharp creases, just an old man and his memories of glories past looking into the setting sun to see if he can see the telltale tendrils of marching dust.
My legs say that I still have a bit of campaigning left in me, more importantly my heart tells me that although the end is near, it isn’t just the right time to be calling it quits. So, I know that over the next hill will be another challenge, and I can look forward to giving it everything I have because there will be no need to save anything for another day. When that day is done, I will be ready to slip out of the ranks and disappear into the field, saving my comrades and me from that awkward scene along our road. It will be hard not to look back, but I will be focused on the kitchen in that villa, a place where I might spend the winter savoring those enchanted, earthy Tuscan delights, and anticipate the arrival of the first blades of new green grass.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.