This one was rough...
My Challenger: JT Whitaker
My Challenge: "in the end...was it worth it?"
The end. Depending on what you've been watching, this is either a relief or a sadness.
The end. Or perhaps it's more about the finality of the words. "No more road," so to speak. "The trail ends here." "Do not pass go" and what not.
Hindsight has the added benefit of, not 20/20 vision as so many people are apt to conclude, but blinding clarity: of the mistakes, the consequences, the growing pains...
The growing pains...
"You sure this is what you want to do," my father asked from where he sat in the living room.
I glanced up at him from the lowered foyer, through the banister. Sweat had collected everywhere on my body. "Yes." No! I turned back to peaking out the window beside the front door, waiting for the man to show up.
My mother had left half an hour ago, wanting to avoid the leaving. My leaving. Second oldest, first to leave the nest. She instead opted to go with a friend to get a tattoo. In hindsight, glaringly obvious. At the moment, hurtful. Robbed. Angry.
I sensed my father shaking his head. "My peace-nick son, off to the army."
He wasn't far off. The large, rainbow tie-dyed blanket with the large, black peace symbol in the center hanging from one bedroom wall was a testament to my "Make Love, Not War" philosophy. The matching pillows on the twin-size bed built into the small 8 x 10 bedroom I had demanded two years ago were further witnesses. Peace had been gained between me and my two brothers when that bedroom was finally built, allowing each of us boys the sanctuary our two sisters had never gone without--a space of our own.
But now I was off to war--or so I imagined. What else does a sheltered eighteen-year-old think? That he was really just doing this to pay for college? To see the world? To experience life away from a church-centric world of his home?
I heard the car pull up, and I turned to Dad. "He's here."
The recruiter walked up the charmingly-woodsy sidewalk, and I opened the door before he could ring the bell. My father came down from the living room to see me off, offer a final handshake, one last out. "You're sure?"
I nodded, never so unsure of anything else before this moment. I lifted my suitcase, waved good bye, blinked back the tears.
The end. No, it was an "Exit" sign. Just an exit sign. If I opened that door, used it for the stated purpose, however, it would be an end.
Two a.m. Fort Leonardwood, Missouri. Or, as I had learned from my fellow in-training soldiers, Fort Lost-in-the-Woods, Misery. It was the only time you could cry and not lose face.
Two weeks in, and everything I thought I had ever known in life was gone. I'd never been so far from anyone in my family before, especially my siblings. A week was the longest I had ever gone away from either of my parents; my siblings, however, had been there from my first memory. In school, on the bus, in the halls, at grandma and grandpa's house, at summer camp, on the playground, in the yard... My world had been removed, however voluntarily on my part, and I hadn't been prepared in the least. It felt like the end.
Muscles constantly ached. Sleep was fleeting. Yelling was a constant. The food sucked. And I felt so utterly alone. Next week, week three, we would be allowed, for the first time, to call home.
Home... The word had lost physical meaning. It was now something I only glimpsed in dream-like states, in fits of sleepless nights: when lying exhausted on the ground after my 200th push-up; when gasping for air as I ran that fifth mile in full battle gear; when silence reined but mind raced at night, wondering if I could do this, if I had made a mistake, if my body would fail like I'd seen it fail so many others around me...
The end. There seemed to be no end. Wake up at three, make your bed, shower, get dressed, clean the barracks top to bottom, exercise for three more hours, shower again, eat breakfast--all before 7:30 a.m. Then more exercise, weapons classes, more exercise, firing range, more exercise, army conduct classes... Bed by 10 p.m., unless you had guard duty that night... Over and over...
There was no the end.
Ring... ring... ring...
Tears. "Mom? Mommy?"
"Jason? Oh, Jason..."
There were more tears than actual conversation. And something about a new movie that had just come out, Forrest Gump. OJ was apparently still on trial. She had made a Jewish Apple Cake, only I hadn't been there to enjoy it.
But it had been, albeit briefly, home.
Ring... ring... ring...
"Jason! It's Jason, every body!"
"I graduate in two weeks."
"From boot camp?"
"Can you come?"
"I don't know... We'll try..."
"I miss you so much."
"I love you, too."
Ring... ring... ring...
"Hi, Jason! Are they feeding you? How are you?"
"No, I'm good. How are you guys? How is everyone?"
"To graduation? Really?"
"Me, and your dad, and Mike, Sylvia, and Cynthia. Tom can't make it, work and all."
"Oh... but you're really coming, right?"
"See you in two weeks, Jace the Ace!"
Starched uniform. Check. Polished boots. Check. Shining medals. Check.
The van pulled up into the parking lot below the barracks. Our van. My van. I stayed at the window. I had almost believed they weren't going to make it. They were one of the last families to arrive. The excruciating pain of hope evaporated, leaving a hole of questioning reality.
Dad looked a little more salt-and-pepper. Mom's red hair more lustrous. My little brother taller. My two little sisters more excitable.
I couldn't move from the window as I watched them pile out of the van, or, as we had always called it, "The Tan Van With the Plan Driven by the Man, man..." We had fancied ourselves 50s poets, I suppose, me and my siblings. My older brother was missing, and I felt that more, I believe. That absence more tangible than the others' presence.
I turned and raced down the stairs, boots clumping, heart racing: I was five again, playing dress up with my uncle Scott's cowboy boots and hat, wanting Mom and Dad to see how grown-up I looked.
Except they almost didn't recognize me. It took eternal seconds for the realization to wash over their faces that this soldier who had come to a racing stop before them was their son; their brother; their family. Painful, forever seconds.
I was no longer five years old. I was not playing dress up. I was not playing grown up. More than that, I had needed them to see that, I believe, to break free, to fly on my own. It was not enough that I had done it, that I had reached an end. I needed them to see it. To see me.
A scattered chorus of "Jason?!"s echoed, landing me back in the present.
Three days. I was no longer in the collective. Sharing moments with the three siblings who had come along were one-on-one. No longer as a tribe.
Alone in the hotel room with the baby of the family, Cynthia, as she was reaching the angst-ridden stages of mid-puberty.
Alone on the balcony with my other little sister Sylvia, who had realized she was as beautiful on the outside as she was on the inside, starting to date.
Sipping sodas by the hotel pool with younger-but-finally-bigger-than-me brother Mike, who had dropped out of high school, wondering what he should do with his own life, adrift on the seas of possibility his young eyes saw.
Out to eat with Mom and Dad, conversations which are lost to time, but remembering how different they were. How grown-up those talks were.