I have a friend who, when I was young, was like an older brother to me. Not a light thing, since I was the oldest of six. My friend, we’ll call him P, was the youngest son of a rowdy and occasionally violent clan that hunted, drank and on occasion were pursued by the police.
With P, I learned how to shoot, killed deer, walk for miles through the mountains with a BB gun and an old army canteen (at the age of 8…can you imagine that today?). One summer, after a particularly epic day, we were camped out in his backyard and we decided that we would swear undying friendship. So we took out our knives (how many 8 and 11 year olds are allowed to have and carry their own pocket knives these days?) and cut an X into each of our right hands, and then shook hands and swore undying friendship to each other. Our blood mingled in that handshake, and for many years, we were like brothers to each other.
Things changed, and so did we, and as is the nature of friendship, we drifted apart. We still on rare occasions see each other, and while our lives are very different, we still shake hands and embrace and relive that connection.
I have another friend I served with in the Army. He’s retired now and lives in the wilds of Montana. Our friendship has survived long silences, which is one of the measures of the pre-Facebook friendship paradigm — because of our work situations we would sometimes go years without speaking to each other, but when we did, we took up right where we left off, as though there was no time lost at all.
As a person with interest in perception management, public relations, social media and the nature of human communication, I’m fascinated intellectually by how the definition of friendship has changed and evolved. Fascinated intellectually and troubled on an emotional level.
It seems now that the working definition of friend is someone you text message or IM or Facebook, instead of someone you go out and have experiences and fun with. It seems now that a friendship is defined in phosphors on a screen instead of face to face interactions and a shared base of experience and common memories.
I find it troubling because I carry a lot of Old School definitions in my cerebrum — one of the advantages or disadvantages of being Old.
A friend is someone who shows up.
A friend is someone you talk to in person, face to face, or on the phone.
A friend is someone who trusts you and who you trust in return.
A friend is committed long term to your well being.
I wrote a story about the nature of friendship between two soldiers which I’ll post here below. Kind of sums up my whole position.
THE SOLDIER’S HEART
By Marcus Wynne
My name had come down from headquarters for an overseas levy, so I left Fort Bragg, North Carolina and the 82d Airborne Division behind me, and traveled to South Korea on orders for the 2d Infantry Division. I was in the two block long in-processing line at Camp Coiner in Seoul when a grim-looking airborne ranger sergeant pulled me out of the line.
“That’s right, Sergeant.”
He had my 201 personnel file. Over a cup of coffee in his office, he asked me about my experience in long-range reconnaissance with the 82d, and especially about my close quarter battle skills in unarmed combat and pistol shooting.
“I’ve got a job for you, Sergeant Miller. I can’t tell you what specifically, but I think you’ll enjoy it more than running a mech platoon in 2d Division.”
“What kind of job?”
“A special one,” was all he would say.
I volunteered for the job, and was assigned to a special unit which hunted North Korean Special Forces infiltration teams within the Demilitarized Zone. The isolated compound we operated from was a lonely huddle of weathered Quonset huts ringed in concertina wire, watchtowers and minefields pressed against the southern boundary of the Demilitarized Zone. I stood in the morning formation next to a big man wearing jump wings on his fatigues . He was six feet tall, and weighed at least 200 pounds, heavy and thick through the shoulders, with a square, broad face. His nose bent to the left with knotted cartilage from a old break. Nunn, his nametape read.
“Nunn,” I said. “Weren’t you with the 1/17 Cav at Bragg?”
He looked at me for a long moment. “Yeah,” he said. “Where do I know you from?”
“The raid on the 2/325 TOC.”
He nodded. “I remember you.”
John Nunn and I worked together there. Nunn, for all his size and muscle — half-rhino and half-grizzly, as he liked to say — was silent and graceful when we went out into the night. He melted like a shadow through the trees and brush, and slipped silently through the rice paddies; the only sound we heard when he passed was the whisper of branches and the night breeze in the trees. He was a superb shot. Once, in hot pursuit, he rolled into the prone, set up, and fired one shot from his M-16, all in less than ten seconds, and killed a fleeing North Korean, the sole survivor of his assassination team, at a measured 273 yards.
I was the planner, the organizer. John walked the point on the patrols I planned and led. I carried his slack and watched his back. We never worked without the other. On practice alerts and real-world callouts, we rode into the DMZ at night, the Quick Reaction Force trucks packed with our troops, their eyes wide and white in their green-painted faces, their rifles, machine-guns and grenade launchers bristling through the wooden slats above the armor plate of the truck bed; once we crossed the border under fire to rescue a lost 2d Infantry Division patrol, pinned down in the middle of a minefield and taking fire from two sides.
John got the Soldier’s Medal for that. I wrote him up for it. We were six hundred yards on the wrong side of the North Korean border, in the middle of a minefield, and with the better part of a North Korean platoon putting fire on us, their green tracers hanging in the chill night air. John ran back and forth between the medevac chopper and the perimeter we held around the wounded men. Each time he picked up one of the wounded and carried him back to the helicopter. When we landed at the UN Command helipad, there were 47 jagged bullet holes in the metal and glass of the unarmored medical helicopter.
We both got our first taste of “covert operations” there. John got his medal, despite the resistance of the politicians in higher command. Everyone involved signed classified nondisclosure agreements about the incident, and the narrative of John’s award was changed to read “unspecified action on the North Korean border.” If it had been a real war, instead of a non-event accomplished by a unit that didn’t exist, he would have won the Medal of Honor.
We saved some lives together there.
And we took some.
It’s hard to describe the relationship we built. Some compared it to a marriage, like an old couple that knows each other’s every thought and finishes each other’s sentences. Now that I’ve been married I understand. In the best marriages, or in the best times of a marriage, there’s a fusion at the cellular level, where the cells and skin and bones and nerves and eyes and brain of the other sound with the same thoughts and the same feelings. It’s two people who are separate, but operate as though they were part of a larger being, a larger spirit that moves through both of them.
There is an urgency like love in the communion between men whose lives depend on one another. I can see that now. We never talked about it then. We never talked about our respect or our admiration for each other. It seemed unmanly and unprofessional, a violation of the warrior’s unspoken code of conduct. We were afraid that if we spoke of it we might ruin it, sully it in some way. We didn’t want to tamper with the mechanism our lives depended on. It was more important to do it than to talk about it.
We did our time on the line and, after 18 months, we went separate ways. John went back to Fort Bragg for the Special Forces Qualification Course, and I quietly left the Army and went to work with the organization that we mockingly referred to as the Christians In Action. They had followed our unit’s activities with interest, and a man I had thought was a diplomat became my sponsor after I had operated as his bodyguard for a time on loan. I went through the training course at Camp Peary, and was put back in the field conducting special security operations in Asia, where my languages and previous operational experience served me well.
In the business, old friends often go for years without exchanging more than a few words. The few people who really know you learn not to ask about what you’re doing or who you are when they see you. It’s part of living a compartmented life. Over here is your real work, over there is your cover, over here is your love life, and over there are the people you work with. In the middle of all that fragmentation and chaos, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you can make order of it all.
Where does that leave you in your relationships with the people who love you and care for you? How was your day? What did you do? Who did you meet? How are things going? These are questions you can’t answer with the truth. You use some variant of the truth, a not-lie, a not-truth, something drawn from the gray world between black and white. When the substance of your life is made up of lies you must tell in order to survive, your friendships, those precious few that survive, are the foundation stones on which you base your sanity.
I lived with that for a long time, until I found myself in a dingy office above a ryokan in Kyoto. Through the window I watched the lunch time crowds walking over the Higashiyama bridge into the Gion district. On the hillside across the Kyoto valley the giant golden Kwannon stared back at me. On the desk before me were three sets of documentation — passports, credit cards, driver’s licenses — with different names and different lives, but all of them with my face. There was a woman in the next room, an artist on an exchange program to the Kyoto Crafts Center, a beautiful and gentle woman who had just told the man she thought was a writer that she loved him. She was humming, the contented sound of happiness, something I knew nothing about. And that day I folded those documents away, and went in to hold her, and went back to the world.
But only for a while. The secret world is like the perfect mistress: discreet, dangerous, and intoxicating. Once you have her in your blood, you’ll never really get her out. She’s always there, and, if you’re good, she’ll never say no when you turn to her in the middle of the night.
It was in Iowa City, Iowa, that John and I met again. I was there to complete a master’s degree in English as part of my cover, while actually talent spotting for the Agency recruiters among the Asian writers and exchange students in the translation program. John and I had kept in touch through letters and phone calls over the years. He was driving from Pennsylvania, where he had been visiting his family, to Wyoming for some hunting. He showed up on my doorstep with a six-pack of Rolling Rock in one hand and a blueberry pie his mother had sent in the other.
“Well, John,” I said. “Here we are.”
He grinned, the twisted cartilage of his broken nose knotting between his eyes. “The Rhino and the Greyhawk, reunited.”
I set him down on the couch with a beer in his hand and we talked and talked, the way we had when we were younger, sitting on the bunker roof looking out over the DMZ towards North Korea. We talked about our fathers and the legacies they had left us; the messages we grew up with and what we made of them; what we would have changed; what we would do if, and only if, we ever made time for a child in our lives. We were both oldest sons and the gypsies of our broods: catholic families of six or more kids, blue collar ethnic families that were proud of what little they knew about our vaguely defined lives. John loved his father, at least more than I loved mine, distant and unresponsive figure that he was, small and gray at the edge of my youth.
“So how is the old man?” I asked when I freshened our drinks.
“Something changed, after he figured out he couldn’t whip me no more,” John said. “You know, we always fought, as long as I can remember. My ma, she says it’s because we’re both so much alike. Too much alike. We just look at each other and see the parts of ourselves that we don’t like and we hit out at them, try to knock them away. Well, we can’t do that to each other anymore. Ever since he hurt his back, he ain’t been the same, not as strong, you know. And hell, I can’t swing on him, I’m likely to kill him. Last time, my ma just got in between the two of us — she’s just a little bit, you remember what she’s like — and she’s screaming at the two of us, and she don’t ever scream, raise her voice at all, you know, ‘Stop it, stop it!’ she says, ‘You two are killing me with all this fighting, just stop!’ And me and the old man just stood there looking at each other, and something, something changed. We still fight, but you know, they seem all the worse for there being no blows thrown.”
“Fighting is all I know how to do, Dale. And since we ain’t got the fighting between us anymore, it’s like we don’t know how to talk to each other anymore.”
There is a short verse by an anonymous author that goes like this:
You served your country for years and years.
Many laughs through many fears.
That life ends now, so another can start,
But a soldier you’ll always remain at heart.
Where did John and I learn to live with the soldier’s heart? It wasn’t in the structured deprivation and degradation of the training courses, or in the experience of applying those hard won skills. There was something more, something elemental in us, and in those other warriors we knew — something learned in the cradle, something learned from our fathers, either from their presence or their absence. It seemed to work both ways. There is a dark joy that rises in us and spills over into our voice or our hands. The self-nourishing nature of that beast makes it something we both love and fear. Once we’ve fed it on the hearts of the people who loved us or tried to love us, on the places we’ve been and the things that we’ve done, it becomes the most faithful companion you can imagine: a dark shadow at the corner of your vision coloring everything that you do, and every relationship you enter into.
To outsiders, everything that we do is colored with such high ideals: service to country, freedom, “to free the oppressed.” Or at least it seems so. It was much simpler to us. Behind the tradition and all those words was our love of the rush. It was our love for the adrenaline kick that carried us through our fear, whether it was leaping out of a C-141 at 30,000 feet, or smiling across the table at the bearded man whose betrayal will bring down the terrorist ring.
I think that the key line is ‘Many laughs through many fears.’ We were afraid together. That was our bond. We went through fear into the clean white light of fighting rage together. It wasn’t just the fear that comes from facing stiff odds or the technical mishaps that come about in special ops, but the larger fear, the fear that lurked at our cores: the fear of being found wanting at the time of the test, the fear of letting down the brothers-in-arms with whom we had prepared so hard and so long for those moments of sheer terror when we rode that adrenaline high through into the sudden let-down and fatigue of victory. It was the fear of being afraid. It was living for the laughter afterwards, the drunken, maudlin reminiscing over drinks days or years later, remembering a particular thing gone wrong, the look on someone’s face. And the love that engendered, unspoken and strong, communicated in glances and shrugs between us. Fear and love. Love of each other, love of the hunt. That’s what’s in the soldier’s heart.
John and I met again in Minneapolis, where I had been quietly organizing the training doctrine for what would become a new counter-terror unit targeted at air piracy and attacks against civil aviation. I was living alone. The years of a double life had taken its toll on my wife, and me, and the frayed remnants of our marriage.
“Dale, how the hell are you?” John said.
The years had not been kind to John Nunn. His hair, worn long as was allowed under special grooming standards, was streaked with gray on both temples. He was still huge and bearish in the armchair I put him in, a Heineken in his hand. His back twisted and stooped from a fused vertebra, the result of too many years under a rucksack.
“It’s been a year,” I said. “What brings you back to the world?”
“It’s my mother, Dale. She’s got cancer eating her up inside. They, the goddamn doctors, don’t know how long she’s gonna make it.” He drank from his beer. “I’m afraid of her not making it, man. I’m afraid for her. It’s like she’s all alone there, the old man, he don’t know what to do with himself, he just wanders around like he’s been hit in the head.”
“Where is she now?”
“She’s at the house. My sister is looking after her. She don’t want to stay in the hospital. She wants to be home, around all her things. You know how women are about that kind of thing.” His hands were wrapped tight around the neck of his beer bottle, his thumbs stroking the condensation into a stream across his knuckles.
“How’s she taking it, John?”
He shook his head and looked away. “All she worries about is me and the old man. I got into this beef with one of the doctors, I mean, these assholes can’t ever get a straight answer to her, and you know, they’re simple people, my ma and them, these guys are like doctors, and whatever they say is gospel, and none of them want to ask any questions. So I didn’t like the answer this guy was giving me, so I got in his face, and me and him are yelling at each other, and then the old man is yelling at me, telling me not to disturb ma, so we’re all out there, and I hear ‘John? John, come in here please.’ And so I go on in, and the doctor and the old man are still outside, beefing it, and she is in these little slippers, and those cheap goddamn ratty bathrobes they give you in the hospital, you’d think that with what they charge they could afford something nice for an old woman, or at least let her wear one of her own, but there’s some kind of damn regulation against that too. So she’s standing there, her hand on my arm, and she’s saying ‘Please, John. Don’t fight with your father. There’s no need.’ Okay, ma, I say. ” The corners of his mouth turned down, taut and trembling. “So I help her back into the bed. The chemo and the radiation leave her all weak. They took her home a couple of days later. Me and the old man, we’re not talking to each other. I took off for a couple of days, saw this old girlfriend of mine. I came back and saw to my sister taking care of my ma, and then I had to head back to Lewis. Thought I’d come by and see you.”
He hunched deeper in his chair. His shoulders, massed and sloping with old muscle, curled round as though to protect something precious and small clutched to his chest.
“She just loves you, John,” I said. “You and your dad, you’re her boys. You’re her only oldest son, and that’s special to her. She loves you and wants only the best for you.”
“You ever tell her that you know? You ever tell her?”
“She knows, Dale. ” He shifted in his seat, set his beer down. “Yeah, I say it to her. We’re not like that, my family. We don’t talk about it, we just do it.”
“That’s the best reason for just telling her, just flat out saying it, John. I learned something from my marriage, John, and it’s this: it’s more important for guys like us to say it. We get so caught up in doing, in the demonstration, or what we think is the demonstration of how we feel, that we forget that the language we send that message in isn’t always the language the people who love us speak.”
I remembered my wife and I shouting at each other in one of our endless arguments. I had felt as though we were in two different countries, shouting across the border in different dialects, picking out only every other word and then only in the wrong context.
“You got more leave coming to you?” I said.
“As much as I need.”
“You got to go back and make it right with them, John. You can’t take the chance that she’ll slip away. You don’t want her to remember you leaving like that. You owe her more than that. She needs that from you now. She needs you not to fight. She needs you to love her, and your old man. And just to tell them that. Tell them in words they can understand.”
There is a battlefield we all carry inside us: a battlefield lined with the long ranks of all those we have loved, or tried to love, and those who have loved us, or tried to love us. It’s on that field that the battle turns, first one way and then another, a blind nosing towards some kind of unity, a oneness, with someone, maybe even ourselves. That’s where the Great Battle is played out in the soldier’s heart. Some of us are winners at the end of the day. Others are carried from the field. And others retire, having never known defeat or victory.
I saw John Nunn face the change we all face in the middle of our lives, the necessary accommodation to the demands of the heart; I see him there in the hospital, late in the night, surrounded with light from a solitary bedside lamp, holding his mother’s hand, not saying those necessary words, but mouthing them, under his breath, trying them out.