Finding Hermitage

Dateline Europe: A visit to France’s L’ermitage St. Martin de la Roc. By M. Michael Brady

44 Camelas, ermitage Saint Martin de la RocaOne of the distinguishing features of Mediterranean France is its profusion of ecclesiastical buildings. Each village, each town has its own church. Away from the more populous places there are chapels, built in centuries past, when people traveled mostly on foot or hoof. In the Pyrénées-Orientales Department along the northwest coast of the Mediterranean Sea, there are 127 chapels, considerable for its area of 1589 square miles (about the size of the State of Rhode Island). Today there are roads to or near many of the Chapels. But most are accessible only by hiking, along dirt roads or marked trails.

The favorite chapel hike of this correspondent is to L’ermitage St. Martin de la Roca (or San Marti de la Roca in Catalan) in the foothills of the Pyrenees above the small village of Camélas (population 417), about 17 miles by road southwest of Perpignan, the capital of the Pyrénées-Orientales Department. It’s perched on a hilltop, with a panoramic view of the encompassing hills and valleys. Here the vegetation is sparse; it stands like a beacon, visible from afar.

43 Camelas, ermitage Saint Martin de la RocaAs its name implies, in the 13th century L’ermitage St. Martin de la Roca (“Saint Martin of the Rock”) originally was built as a hermitage, where one or more monks lived in seclusion from the world about. In the 14th century it was expanded to a trapezoidal church measuring 21 by 31 feet, including housing. In 1644, Honoré Ciuro, the local Abbot, decreed that the hermitage should become a chapel, a move typical of the 17th century, as the Church sought to give new life to ecclesiastical buildings that had been abandoned as families moved to other hamlets of the region.

Anti-clerical laws enacted in 1790 restricted the uses of ecclesiastical buildings that were not parishes, so the hermitage closed. But in 1801 the laws were moderated, and in 1838 the hermitage was restored. Thereafter it was well maintained, with further restoration in 1969 and 1977.

47 Camelas, ermitage Saint Martin de la RocaToday, “Saint Martin of the Rock” no longer is inhabited. But it is a popular hike destination, about a three hour round trip up from and back down to Camélas. The elevation gain is modest, from Camélas at an elevation of 1082 ft. to the hermitage at an elevation of 1699 ft., and the hiking easy, more than half of it on roads maintained by the local forest service for fire protection and woodland maintenance. The surrounding valleys and their winds also have made “Saint Martin of the Rock” a prominent site for paragliding; info here (selectable in French or English).

Getting to the starting point at the large, free public parking lot in Camélas is easiest by car, as it’s south of the N116 motorway and north of the D615 highway west of Perpignan. But there’s also inexpensive bus service at 1 Euro a ticket (about $1.12) throughout the Department. From Perpignan you can go by bus to Camélas with a transfer midway at Thuir; schedules here (French only), Perpignan-Thuir route 390 and Thuir-Camélas route 391.

Map: The French IGN (“National Institute of Geographic and Forest Information”) Carte de Randonnée (“Hiking Map”) series map “Thuir/Ille-Sur-Têt map, No. 2448OT”, shows Camélas and the trails around it. You can order it online from IGN here (French only, prices in Euros), or from map shops in other countries, such as Maps Worldwide in the UK here (in English, prices in British pounds).

A Night at the OX

Head, Shoulders, and Brains Above the Rest: Reflections on Missoula’s Oxford Saloon. By Cameron M. Burns

12319598_10206573767195747_2116353641_nIn 1990, after spending two summers in the Sierra Nevada, climbing with fellow sadomasochist Steve Porcella and a few other wayward grovelers, I returned to my parents’ basement in New Mexico while Steve headed back to Montana and graduate school.

Our two Sierra summers had led us to the notion that someone ought to write a guide to California’s fourteeners. I corresponded with Galen Rowell about the idea (he’d been up on Whitney with us in early 1990 when he and Dave Wilson finished off Galen’s and Kike Arnal’s abortive attempt on Left Wing Extremist). Both Steve Roper and Galen were supportive, so Steve (P.) and I hunkered down, 1,000 miles from each other, and, when time allowed, began writing. Within a few days, it was pretty apparent that we needed to be nearer each other in order to get the thing done. I was broke (as usual—how come after a 30-year and somewhat successful writing career I’m still broke? Maybe not as successful as I thought, huh?)), so my father offered me the job of sanding the entire exterior of his Los Alamos house, and staining it. He said he’d give me $1,000, which sounded like a fortune to me.

The job was brutal. The paint was like concrete, and it took hours just to do a few square feet.

Two weeks later, after several accidents, one of which included my right index finger getting caught in the belt sander I was using (you ever see one of those applied to flesh?), I moved on to the thrill of staining. At least the stain had some nice, mind-bending fumes whereas the sander just ate through any human meat it could connect with.

In the spring of 1991, I had enough money to head north. I invited a woman I knew from college, Ann, to go with me. She jumped at the idea. Like everyone who’s ever lived in Boulder, she was in a rut. And here I was—some young Romantic suggesting we were headed to paradise. It must’ve been the fumes from the stain. Or maybe she’d had a bad knock on her head as a child. Anyway, she agreed, and we shimmied north in my old, hand-me-down Toyota, camping along the way because that was all we could afford. We eventually got to Missoula, and moved in with Steve and his new bride, Sandy, who was pregnant. This arrangement was not to last, as Ann had already lined up a gig radio-tracking moose in Glacier National Park, and I was simply an easily rejectable third wheel in a situation that did not call for a tricycle. So Ann departed for Glacier within a few days, and I stayed with Steve and Sandy for a couple of weeks.

Each morning, for sanity reasons, I went and drank coffee at a place called the Oxford Saloon.

The Oxford Saloon was established in 1883 and has been continuously operated 24 hours a day since then. It’s not an easy place to describe, as it’s not just a saloon. It’s a saloon, keno lounge, diner, strip joint, casino, and liquor store all rolled into one. The old menu summed it up nicely: “Good old-fashioned eatin’, drinkin’ and gambling.” Think amusement park of adult vices and you get the idea.

After a couple of weeks in Missoula, Steve convinced Sandy that we needed to do a bit more on-the-ground research for the book.

How climbing Half Dome had anything to do with a book we were writing in Missoula, Montana on peaks mostly in the high Sierra has been lost on me ever since, but Steve somehow got out of the responsible would-be parent role, and we jetted south in his truck for a couple of weeks.

Half Dome was a bust. We got up a dozen pitches before some ne’er do well got in trouble up at Big Sandy (I think). The rescue gang came out and started blaring commands at the wall. That was all well and fine, but lingering out to the west was a massive storm. Massive, massive storm. We descended. Everyone descended before we were power-hosed off the wall.

Back in Missoula, we licked our wounds. And I spent more and more time at the Ox. Ann was out cavorting with moose, and my partner in crime was having a baby, doing his studies, and generally unavailable. The Ox it was.

As my visits there went on (typically in search of as much caffeine as I could hold down), it became apparent this was no ordinary … um, establishment.

Let’s take a quick tour—or a tour of it as I came to know it in 1990.

Walk in the front door of the Ox and you would be presented with a large hall-like space. Nothing out of the ordinary except that in that space there were three very distinct areas. Immediately to your right was a large, dark, heavy wooden bar—the kind of thing that could’ve done duty as a support pier for an interstate highway. People had worn sections of the bar with their elbows, carved initials in it, and generally abused it, although it was the kind of bar you could never demolish because it was just so darn solid. There were likely a few bullet holes in the wood, although I never saw any. Certainly there were several stains that I’m convinced were dried human blood.

Behind the bar was a great big mirror. Along the bottom of the mirror was a neat line of bottles—liquor of all manner and sundry. A few grizzled and genuinely rough types were always on the stools—morning, noon, and night—but there was never more than three or four of them. And, though they looked like something out a zombie apocalypse / western / hard crime / Rikers Island documentary, they were always cheerful and showed us their missing teeth, or rather, the gaps where said teeth might’ve gone.

Above the bar’s mirror was a sizeable collection of rifles and shotguns in glass cases, each with a placard describing the weapon and, I assumed, the kinds of flora, fauna, and road signs the piece had blown to smithereens.

I remember one morning, 8 am or so, when Ann was down from Polebridge. A huge man with eyeballs that pointed in different directions and wearing, it seemed, nothing more than a pair of dirty blue overalls and black boots wandered in. He looked like he’d been rejected by a mental health facility for being too crazy. He sat down at the bar, ordered six shots of whiskey, downed them, and walked out. Curious as all get-out, Ann and I stealthily followed him outside and watched as he climbed on the biggest, nicest-looking Honda Gold Wing I’ve ever seen, cranked it up, and chugged off down the street.

“Another day in paradise?” Ann suggested.

Off to the left side when you came in the front door was a pool table and, when I was there, a keno board on the wall. The temperament of the rough types at the bar was complemented by the elderly folks who seem to congregate for keno at all hours of the day. When the keno gang wasn’t in residence, the pool table was used for poker, and a dark and crusty collection of old men would gamble for hours on end.

Walk farther in—the bar ends and there’s an ugly Formica counter. This is the diner part of the Ox. Behind the diner were several refrigerated pastry display cases with pies of various flavors. The kitchen equipment—griddle, blenders, toaster ovens, etc.—all looked to be at least fifty years old, but they were kept miraculously clean and seem to work without incident.

When I lived in Missoula there was one waitress there with the most mannish of faces. She had a massive hooked nose, large beady eyes, a flat forehead big enough to mount a billboard on, and a strange tube-shaped body clad in what appeared to be left over worsted from the reupholstering of a couch. She looked remarkably like the Monty Python guys when they dressed up as little old ladies and reenacted famous military scenes. Her nametag said Francine or something, but behind her back we called her Frank.

Her sidekick, the cook, was a young man with an outgoing demeanor who both danced and sang Elvis Presley songs while he cooked eggs, sausages, ham, pancakes, grits, toast, and whatever else got ordered up. We labeled him, not surprisingly, Elvis.

There was a strange symbiosis between Frank and Elvis. Frank never smiled or said much and looked as if she / he might be in some kind of pain. Meanwhile, Elvis danced around and cracked jokes, laughed a lot, and was genuinely amusing.

“This guy’s pretty funny, huh?” Frank would snort sternly while thrusting a sloshing pot of coffee at Elvis. (Elvis would then blow Frank a kiss behind Frank’s back.)

The most notable thing about the diner, however, was the Ox’s most famous dish: brains and eggs. It was listed at the top of the menu on the wall, like some kind of gastrointestinal challenge. Our small collection of friends often joked about ordering it, but none of us really had the cojones.

Behind the diner, the Ox narrowed down into a wide, dark hallway of sorts. Each side of the hallway was lined with slot machines (one-armed bandits), where you could gamble away any money you might’ve saved by dining at the Ox. Behind the slot machines was a strip club.

Of course, when you’re sitting down to a breakfast omelette and a quite unclothed stripper leans over the counter next to you to order dry white toast and a Budweiser so she can keep her energy up … well, that works a mite better than coffee in the attention-span department. None of the strippers was particularly pretty, but they were all nice. The thing I hated was the fact they all smoked, even when standing at the Formica counter eating their toast and drinking their beer.

The other very noticeable aspect of the Ox was the “decoration” on the walls. There were excruciatingly rough portraits of longtime Oxford patrons. Dozens of these images were nailed to the walls, all the way up to the ceiling. The portraits looked like a cross between a fourth grader’s artwork and police suspect sketches.

Still, in 1990, while I lived in Missoula for six months, the Ox was a home away from home. Certainly it had an air of good down-home dysfunction. I fit in the way a glove fits in the bed of a pickup truck.


12348370_10206573771635858_45635775_nIn 1996, Ann and I returned to Missoula for a wedding. Our trip included a visit, with much of the wedding party, to the Ox. After some raucous taunting and teasing—and me considering that I might never see the Ox again—I ordered the brains and eggs. This brought me a round of applause from the gang, but it also meant I was committed.

After considerable time, the dish arrived. The meal was $5.99, according to the menu, but when it arrived it looked to be enough food to nourish a small Montana town. The scrambled eggs, of which there must’ve been about six, sat in one corner of the massive round plate. The rest of the dish was piled high with an opaque, gray Jello-like substance. There must’ve been five pounds of the stuff.

I pushed it with my fork, which slid easily into the gelatinous lump. I cut a piece off with my knife and put the soft gray Jello lump in my mouth. It didn’t taste like much. It was sort of tasteless. It was the consistency that disturbed me. Like some kind of soft pudding that you could probably snort through a straw. A violent shiver went down my spine. But I kept on.

I must’ve eaten about a third of the brains before I was forced to retire. The texture and color were making me exceptional queasy and the barrage of jokes from people rumored to be my friends was getting to me. I pulled up shy by several lobes and switched to coffee. Remarkably, everything stayed down.

In recent months I’ve read that the Ox no longer serves brains and eggs—the meal canned by one of the public health agencies. I’ve read the walls are no longer covered with the portraits of Oxford regulars (but, rather, with scenic images of logging, mining and railroads). And I’m sure Frank and Elvis are long gone. And as far as the liquor store, I never knew there was one until I read it online the other day—no clue if it’s still there or ever really was.

There are certain dining and drinking establishments that loom large in your youth. Places where you met your first girlfriend or ate your first Mezcal worm or tried steak tartare for the first time. Places that loom larger in your mind than they really were.

El Chapultepec in Denver, Evangelo’s in Santa Fe, the Purple Pig in Alamosa, Michael’s Kitchen in Taos, Laughing Ladies in Salida, Mother’s Café in Boulder (RIP), the Golden Burro in Leadville, Tacqueria El Nopal in Glenwood Springs—are among my dozens of loomers.

But the Ox stands head, shoulders—and, of course, brains—above the rest on my list for its sheer quirkiness, its colorful denizens, and the strange intersections of vice, humanity, food, and of course, beverages. I’ve never seen a finer collision.


Land in the Sky: Mountain Passages

I found my solitary way to the summit of a trail-less Catskill peak. It was hunting season, so the collie stayed home.

Though trail-less, the mountain is not without its occasional caller, each one finding his or her own way. They leave their traces—upturned leaves and duff, footprints in the mud, a scrap of paper. The lines they lay down on these forested slopes are entwined with the fading lines of previous visitors, long gone, whose vestiges themselves are entwined with those of others more timeworn still. And so they ensue, these mountain passages.

On the summit was a metal canister fastened to a tree. Inside the canister was a register of sorts. My hands were cold and the pencil was dull. I didn’t know what to write. What’s new? What’s old? Who you with? Who reads this stuff anyway.

Land in the Sky: Sound of a Summer’s Day

A map came up on my Facebook news feed: “A coast-to-coast picture of America’s cacophony of sounds”. It was drawn up by the National Park Service to chart the summer soundscape of the nation. I gazed upon this map for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. Then I re-posted it. With a click of the mouse, body and mind dropped away. And then the collie barked. He barked and he barked and he barked. He did not appreciate the mess left on the floor.

Postcard: Leadville, Colorado

This photo is almost 10 years old. In the spring of 2006, I drove over to Ski Cooper, on Tennessee Pass just north of Leadville, to meet some men with whom my grandfather, Robert “Snuffy” O’Neil, served in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. They hadn’t seen him for 60 years, and because he died right before I was born, I never met him. But something about seeing them with his photo reassured me. Of note, when I showed it to Nelson “Nellie” Bennett, on the left, next to Earl Clark and Dick Over, he told me he’d been climbing with Snuffy at Camp Hale on the day this picture was taken in 1943. Nellie watched Snuffy fall 80 feet and land in a grassy area between boulders. He had neither a broken bone nor a scratch to show for the fall, Nellie recalled. Snuffy got taken to the infirmary then kicked out for making a pass at one of the nurses. Happy Veteran’s Day.

Photo by Devon O’Neil

Review: Mary Sojourner, 29

The West’s misfits and outcasts put up a fight in the new novel 29 by Mary Sojourner (Torrey House Press, 2014). By Ana Maria Spagna

29 cover FNLv2.inddIn Mary Sojourner’s shimmering new novel, 29, Nell bails on corporate life and finds herself drawn to the Mojave—to Twentynine Palms specifically—as a place to take stock, to regroup, to start anew.

Always a keen observer of the natural world, as readers of MG well know, Sojourner describes the desert as “vast, hard, and generous.” Same goes for the characters who live there. Small kindnesses define these sun-worn survivors, from the owner of Saigon Sally’s, the local Vietnamese café, to elders of the local Chemehuevi tribe. Even minor characters leave lasting tracks. A young Greyhound ticket agent sets Nell on her journey and a docent at the Long Beach aquarium introduces her to the Leafy Seadragon, a “ripple of green and pale pink, silver and translucence” that soon glides right into her dreams.

Then there are Diamond and Shiloh, the two women who run La Paloma—an unofficial underfunded home for damaged people, victims of domestic violence or hard living or plain bad luck—and welcome all comers, including Nell, with a bed, food, coffee, and conversation. Though Nell’s damage is never precisely defined, readers glean its cause as equal parts David, her ex, and her own ravenous ambition. Nell has been through the wringer, and this is the right place for her. Diamond and Shiloh put her in touch with a used ’84 Buick LaSabre, cherry red, and a “computer nerd” job at Monkey Biz, the local car repair shop.

Turns out the owner, Monkey, is experiencing visions that may or may not be caused by his liberal use of weed. Early in the story he suffers “a dope hangover meaner than a pissed off boar hog” that seems par for the course. To say that Monkey and Nell hit it off would be understatement. Their banter sparkles, their chemistry smokes. Their insular music references (Little Feat, Chris Whitley) and movie references (Spinal Tap, Life of Brian) and book references (Dickens, Silvia Plath) feel exactly like those of people falling in love. Only they can’t. Or oughtn’t.

Monkey’s married to Jackie, a relationship that’s portrayed as tenuous but tender, and Sojourner’s own generosity here—opting for nuance right when her two main characters are falling passionately in love—is one of the highlights of the book. In the end, Jackie doesn’t deserve the betrayal and, moreover, Nell and Monkey can’t withstand the power of what they’ve shared. Which has larger repercussions.

Nell’s visions of Leafy and Monkey’s late night hallucinations turn out to be part of a much larger plot as the shift in the earth’s polarity, the exodus of bees, and the real threat solar and wind farms pose to ancient sites and dying species converge. The Indians resisting development take center stage late in the novel, and anyone who’s been to a grassroots meeting anywhere will recognize them. No one grandstands. No one flinches. Not even Nell, who resists too-easy narratives with whip smart skepticism.

“She clicked on the Mayan Prophecies and considered the nature of wishful mysticism—this world is fucked, an instant transformation will fix it; no sacrifice or effort on anyone’s part required; you can keep on living just as you have, grasping and glutted.”

We can’t, of course, any more than Nell can. If there’s a message in 29, it’s this: So you can’t find your soul-mate and settle in happily ever after?  You can still do what’s right and love what’s there.

With this in mind, the end of the novel is both unexpected and hard-earned. Nell’s mother, Tara, a peripatetic drunk who carted her daughter around Glass Castle-style through childhood, is moldering away in a Long Beach nursing home when Nell decides to go fetch her and bring her to the desert. Tara has little memory left and doesn’t communicate verbally, but she seems to remember the desert, to be happy there, at least Nell believes she does. And so we end with another damaged soul finding healing, at least partial healing, in a hard forgotten place.

Stories of misfits or outcasts, people running from one thing or another, are common enough in the West, and the props are in place in 29—cigarettes, donuts, a backyard goat, that ’84 LaSabre—but Sojourner shows these characters in a different light. They fight for one another, for the place they love, not in shiny sound bites, but one meal at a time, one meeting at a time, one long deep-rutted drive at a time, until it’s just a mother and daughter on the stump of a fallen Joshua Tree awaiting the moonrise over creosote.

Daddy, the War and the Webcam

A solider feels the costs of war. By Chris “Chez” Chesak

In the wasteland desert of Kuwait, I crammed my gear into duffle bags, preparing to fly into Iraq for a year-long deployment. At exactly the same time on the other side of the planet, my wife was giving birth to our first child. I packed ammo pouches, desert uniforms, and gas masks then I talked to my laboring wife on a satellite phone. I hurriedly packed trucks with more gear and made back to the phone center just in time to hear that labor had actually started. Then I hopped onto a bus and headed to the air base.

I was told there would be no phones where I was going. So, I kept taking photos, of formations of soldiers, of the vast Kuwait desert, of a camel, with my watch in the foreground so that I could mark the moment when my daughter might be being born. I wanted to have that photo around so that I could say, “See honey, this is where daddy was when you were born.”

Arriving at the air base, we were told there actually was another phone center available. My heart jumped and I started to sweat, wanting the briefing to be over immediately. The arduous speeches and warnings finally done, I absconded from assisting my Idaho National Guard comrades in their gear palletizing duties, and sprinted to the phones.

When I called, Sally’s contractions in the Boise hospital room were coming faster and stronger. I burned through my third prepaid phone card of the day and had a dinner of a breakfast bar and some Army peanut butter, which was the only food in my pockets. Finally, after many calls and through the cheers of friends who were with her through the delivery, I was able to hear my daughter’s first wails from 7,000 miles away.

Two hours later, we boarded a transport plane and flew into a war zone. As I sat in the near darkness, lit only by one blue light near the front of the aircraft fuselage, I thought flatly, I’m a daddy. The words rang hollow in my head, then they quickly slipped away as I focused instead on the long deployment ahead.

12219537_10153773098411155_1624015156019177905_nOver the next five months, I had to forget about home and focus on the missions at hand. I eased Humvees through rain-soaked palm groves and over slick mud roads, shivered in guard towers through freezing winter dawns, and once spent 22 hours guarding a polling place during Iraq’s elections. Throughout it all, I received plenty of photos of Lillian from Sally. But looking at them, I could only think, Okay, we have a baby. I am a father. I felt little more than apprehension. I couldn’t stop wondering what it meant to now be a father to a baby girl, or at least to a stack of photos of her.

On one hand, I had dreamt about having a child all my life—I ran over the scene in my mind so often that I long ago determined exactly what I would say to that newborn. I often envisioned picking her up and whispering three specific things into her ear.

But on the other hand, I had no idea what it meant to be a father, as I was brand new to babies. I had zero experience handling, caring for, or loving little ones. My only knowledge of babies was hearing them cry in airplanes and seeing them throw food in restaurants.

The few babies I knew—friends’ children and my own niece—were all born while I lived far away. I was training with my National Guard unit during Sally’s entire pregnancy so I missed the nine-month ramp-up that allows most people to attempt to mentally prepare for parenthood.

Sitting in Iraq with scattered photos of a newborn, I could recognize that I had a daughter, but I had no idea what that really meant. At last, I left Iraq, heading home for two weeks of leave.

After 69 hours of processing, paperwork, briefings, repeated customs drudgery, ten time zones, four countries, and travel in Humvees, buses, two cargo planes, and three commercial jets, I walked up the Boise airport jet way, still dressed in desert camouflage, embraced Sally, and saw a baby in a stroller behind her—my five-month old daughter, my first child, Lillian.

“Who’s this?” I shouted, both out of the exuberance of being home and unabashed pride in meeting my daughter. For me, this was the emotional equivalent of the day of her birth.

Through tears, Sally choked, “This is Lillian. Lillian, meet your daddy.”

I picked her up so carefully, gave her a gentle hug, and followed-up with a quick smooch on the cheek. We immediately found seats right in the terminal, passing a woman who, having overheard our exchange, was trying to hide her tears. A United ticket agent took our picture, our first family portrait.

That day was full of firsts: the first family meal, the first smooch on the nose, neck, etc., first daddy/daughter play time, and the first diaper change. We took photos of every bit of it. But laying awake that first night, joyful to be able to reach over and hug my wife, drink clean water from a tap, sit out in my yard to watch the sun set over the Idaho foothills without having to worry about roadside bombs, I still did not know what it meant to have Lillian in my life. The next morning, I began to find out.

Waking up far too early, still jet-lagged, I woke and went into our baby’s room. As I approached her crib, Lillian’s eyes locked onto mine. She smiled, issued a lilting little coo, and then yawned a tiny yawn, complete with a flailing stretch of her plump arms. I melted.

Over the next days, I became enraptured by her staccato laughs, and her very determined attempts to crawl. I slid into bed one night and told Sally bluntly, “I think I’m in love.”

With Sally as my guide, I learned critical modern parenting skills, like how to change diapers while cradling a cell phone between neck and shoulder and how to work on the computer with one arm. I held serious phone conversations about U.S. foreign policy while sticking my tongue out to entertain Lillian. I hummed Raffi songs while in the shower. I became fiercely proud of the “Dora the Explorer” sunscreen in our car, it broadcasts loudly, “Hey, we havefamily in here!”

A few nights later, Sally asked me, “So, what is it like to be a daddy?”

The words tumbled out. “It is absolutely amazing. It is incredible. It is literally awesome.”

2005-11-27 Homecoming 117I told Sally that I almost cheered when a determined Lilli Bean fumbled her way into finally getting her pacifier into her mouth the right way. I said that, every day, I became more and more enraptured just watching her grow and learn. I loved that each time I held her up on her feet I helped her develop equilibrium, and each time I made a funny noise I helped her learn about speech. I knew that I wanted to spend every possible moment of my time with her, teaching her, guiding her, fortifying her to someday unleash her own unique self upon the world.

But you’re never really, completely home while on leave, because you cannot stop thinking about the march of time that drags onward, pulling you closer to going back to war. You are like a condemned man, constantly aware of the passing of days, then hours, yet trying to forget it all and enjoy what moments you have left at home. Just as I was starting to learn what fatherhood was, my time was up.

The night before my return flight, I mechanically packed my bags, and slipped into bed around 4:00 a.m. for a few hours of trying to sleep, my stomach sick, a sodden ball of knots. Two hours later, I put on the uniform, laced up the boots, and, contrary to everything that my soul knew was true, contrary to the voices in my mind screaming to do otherwise, I stepped out of my home, stepped into the airport, stepped onto a plane. After 72 hours of travel on five different flights, reams of paperwork, and incessant waiting in line after line of similarly camouflage-clad soldiers, I was back in the Middle East. Returning to my base, I felt empty.

Seeing my friends and having them welcome me back helped but it still took a few days to get back into the groove of patrols, Quick Reaction Force response teams, knock-and-search raids, and guard duty. But the deeper emotional damage had been done. While it was easy to ignore Lillian before, not knowing who she was, it was impossible now. I heard the laughter and the coos behind the smiling photos pinned next to my bunk. I now knew a little bit of the tiny girl in those pictures and I missed her deeply.

Soon after my return, my squad drew an extra graveyard shift of guard duty at the summer palace of Chemical Ali, the Saddam henchman responsible for gassing thousands of Iraqi Kurds. Around 3:00 a.m. I stood alone atop an abandoned building in the tightly-packed urban compound. By chance, I looked down into the courtyard of one of the homes across the street. In the dim light of the few working streetlights, I saw a mother with her fussy newborn, rocking him on a porch swing.

I felt sick. I was disgusted that I was missing such moments with my baby. My mind raced, trying to calculate the time I had left here. It was still several months. I tried to stop thinking about it. I walked the rooftop’s perimeter, machine gun in hand, trying to calm down.

Finally, I tiptoed toward the edge, just close enough so I could see her over the rooftop wall. I tried looking nonchalant, like I didn’t even notice her, but I just kept staring, watching her rock and sing to her child. I was mesmerized, and aching inside. At last, she noticed me and, probably assuming that I was just another lust-filled, gawking soldier, went briskly inside. That empty night crept by in excruciating slowness like none before.

While simply difficult before leave, the days in Iraq now became interminable. Under the hot sun, I stood sweating in the gunner’s turret of an armored Humvee and worried if Lillian was sleeping well. I stood lonely vigil in concrete guard towers, wondering what she was learning that day. I roamed the empty nighttime streets of Kirkuk, wondering who she would be when I got home. I did what I could to make the days pass—lifting weights, running supply convoys, watching laptop movies, reading books, and always patrolling. But the days dripped past with an agonizing slowness.

Some relief came from a used webcam. Several weeks after leave, we had a wireless Internet network installed and soon we were all surfing the Web and emailing loved ones directly from our bunks (indeed, this was certainly not our fathers’ war).

Each night (Sally’s morning), I watched Lillian nurse, or nap angelically on the pillow in Sally’s lap. She would occasionally lunge, grab the camera and stick the whole thing in her mouth, allowing me a glimpse of her two brand new teeth.

When Lillian was fussing, Sally texted me about how she cheered up our daughter by holding her upside down. I would see (but not hear, since I didn’t have audio) her screaming wails of laugher on my laptop screen. Soon “Upside-Down Baby” became a hit with my whole squad, sometimes with grown men running into our squad bay once they heard that ‘Upside-Down Baby’ was on. Many night,s I had several soldiers, young and old, gathered around my computer for a chance to see my daughter’s bit-mapped, upside-down face, plastered with a huge, screaming smile.

The webcam was also a nightly reminder of my absence, however. Its images were both treasure and torture. Seeing Lilian’s digitized smile made me ache. One night I saw her stand for the first time, another night she drank water from my wife’s cup, yet another night brought my first glimpse of her eating solid food. I started to understand just how many miniature victories and tiny triumphs I was missing every day. I watched her grow and learn and thrive from ten time zones away, while concussions from car bombs rattled our barracks windows.

Lying in my bunk, I stared at the photos tacked to my plywood wall and was heartbroken every night. Not only had I forgotten to tell Lillian those three little sentences that I’d so long dreamed of telling my first child, I was missing so many more milestones as she started to grow into a little girl, all while I ran about in Humvees on the other side of the world, hoping each day that someone wouldn’t blow me up, or simply pop out of a doorway and shoot me dead in the face.

Harder still was hearing about the difficulties my wife faced every day. While even her good days were a chore, the bad days were horrid. For most of the deployment, she was taking care of both house and baby alone. The car needed repairs, the grass had to be cut, the floors needed vacuuming, and the bills needed to be paid, all while Sally, alone, maintained the constant eat/sleep/excrete cycle of an infant.

Since our families both live far away, we leaned heavily on good friends in Boise, one of whom had to come over in the middle of the night when Sally was stricken by a wicked bout of food poisoning. That woman stayed over to care for Lillian and my wife for two days.

When I heard about sickness or simply heard Sally blurt on the phone, sometimes through tears, “I just want to take a nap” (or take a bath, or read a book, or simply get away from here for a little while), I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I wanted to help, to do something, anything, to just be there for her, to simply take Lillian while Sally showered, or slept, or went out for a solitary hike. But, stranded as I was on the other side of the world, there was nothing I could do.

Slowly the countdown to our departure date ticked down from triple-digits, to double, and then, almost unbelievably, to single days. Our stoic, stone-faced replacements arrived and, soon, we cheered the takeoff of each flight toward home: the transport to Kuwait, the chartered jet through Ireland to Fort Lewis, Washington, and then one last, short flight back to Boise.

Amidst the signs and balloons of the small crowd of families gathered on the tarmac, I found my wife. We didn’t say a thing, just held each other and kissed and kissed and kissed and kissed. After loading my duffle bags into the back of our car, Sally offered Lillian to me and I held my daughter in my arms again, gazing into her big gray eyes. Wide-eyed, she stared back for a moment, then turned to her mother and pushed me away. She didn’t know who I was.

Lillian not knowing me is but one of the myriad intangible casualties of warfare and as old as warfare itself. Two other soldiers that I deployed with also missed births of their children. Sixteen years before I missed Lillian’s birth, a former Marine in my unit stood knee-deep in blowing snow in a rice paddy in Korea when another Marine handed him a telegram and said curtly, “Congratulations.” The telegram said he’d had a son born that day. He smiled, put the telegram in his pocket, and kept on training. (He still has the telegram.) While my father was missing his share of his children’s birthdays and a wedding anniversary during his year-long stint in the highlands of Vietnam, he had only letters and the occasional reel-to-reel tape recording with which to stay in touch with his family.

In Iraq, there were 4,000 other people in my Brigade, 150,000 soldiers deployed in Iraq that year alone, and that was just one war, one war of so many. While the terrible numbers of deaths by roadside bombs, vehicle rollovers, and helicopter crashes was (rightly) spread across the front page and technicians at Walter Reed Medical Center tracked the total number of limbs lost, there are no statistics for the even more numerous intangible costs of war. No one counts the number of nightmares veterans will have for the rest of their lives, forever plagued by incoming RPG rounds, burning Humvees, and charred pieces of children. No one keeps count of veterans’ total divorces and break-ups, the newfound paranoias, the discomfort around fireworks and automobile backfires, the flashbacks, the spousal abuses, or the alcoholic benders. And no one will count the days that all those military parents missed playing with children far, far away.

For me at least, I had made it home whole and I could start counting anew the days spent with Lillian. Iraq began to fade, ever so slowly, into memory as I jumped into a few weeks of accelerated ‘Daddy School’ where Sally taught me how to feed our daughter, play with her, get her into and out of her car seat and secure her while she slept.

One day, I was holding her as we danced in the middle of the living room to some blaring pop song. I rocked, dipped, and spun her around the room as she giggled and squealed, a sound I then knew was the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. I looked into her big eyes and it all hit me: I was, at last, a daddy. I hugged my 11-month old Lilli Bean close and finally said the words that I had for decades imagined saying to my firstborn on the day of their birth; “Hello Lillian Rose Chesak. I love you. Welcome to the world.”

Postcard: Vernal, Utah

It doesn’t take long to realize Vernal, Utah, is different from other mountain biking destinations. All you have to do is walk into the smoothie shop on Main Street (it’s called “I ❤️ Drilling”) and check out the price list above the counter. You order your smoothie, the gal makes it, then when you go to pay, she asks, “Are you a conservative or liberal?” Your answer determines how much your smoothie costs. They also sell T-shirts that say, “Yes, liberals pay more here!”

Photo by Devon O’Neil