combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 01 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2003

The Right to be Wrong

I saw his invitation in a veteran's magazine, and laid it aside for later consideration. Several vets contacted me, in case his ad had gone unnoticed, but I put them off with polite vagueness. I needed to think about his proposed embarkation, because life was no longer simple and frivolous. I had learned the hard way that impulsive gestures and spontaneous acts have irrevocable consequences.

We were once young soldiers together, once working hard and playing hard ... sweating and bleeding together. We had been brothers of gelid rope and searing brass. We had endured and survived. But that was then, and this is now; and I already knew that you can never go home again. Perhaps, instead of trying to recapture the static past, we could forge a new bond and make new memories.

Because my shop hours were seemingly more flexible than his work schedule, we agreed to meet at a recreation center on his vacation. Although we were both divorced, and remarried to our livelihoods, I hadn't expected him to bring along his current girlfriend to such a reunion. She was everything the modern female is supposed to be, and took pains to demonstrate her credentials. My former comrade could not have been more delighted with her antics if she'd been his own daughter ... and chronologically, she almost qualified. This was, after all, their vacation from the stresses and strains of the economic jungle, so if I wanted to abandon this fresh adventure in favor of my musty relics and staid habitat, then I could make some harmless excuses, and wend my way to another venue. The parking lot was temptingly nearby, and the allure of the open road was beckoning.

Unbeknownst to me, by excusing his initial foray I had undoubtedly established the tenor for the balance of our relations. But people, being social animals, conform to as many conventions as possible when not provoked into disobedience. We had a shared past, and these meeting arrangements had taken some trouble, so a little more effort would not be untoward. In addition to being somewhat gregarious, humans are the only animals that rationalize their behavior. We were no longer confined by a military structure, and I was not yet willing to redress his comportment, to call him on the carpet, to read him the Riot Act. He was, in fact, not guilty of anything; but his judgement was in doubt. In retrospect, I can see how he would feel maligned, for he did not deceive me at any point. He was precisely himself. He was unabashedly who he wanted to be; and he was unapologetically what he had ostensibly wanted to become. I had expectations, and was willing to extend enough latitude for him to correspond. Obviously, I had deliberately deceived myself.

In maturity, he had become a sportsman. Although he enjoyed games, his idea of a really good time was outdoor recreation. This predisposition probably influenced his choice of vocation ... one in which his time and travels could accommodate some hunting or fishing, some boating or riding. They were, in fact, camping out in the wilderness on this holiday, and we would share some hiking and climbing. Of course, we would have to teach his girlfriend how to rock climb, but she could do it ... she could do anything, and was good at everything! His incorrigible wanderlust had been a factor in his marital disintegration, such that he had returned home after one of his extended outings to find that he was already divorced and relocated. Ever since that milestone, he had striven to beguile playmates out of their natural milieu and into his. That he could induce some nubile chick to exchange a cozy singles' bar for a patch of inclement wilderness bespeaks his salesmanship. Little wonder that his current partner, after two days in a sleeping bag on the damp ground, had spent so much repair time in the ladies' room of the visitors' center ... the biota is enormously impressed by feminine style! She would either redirect him or dump him, and he'd resume his endless quest for wholesome companionship amidst clinquant façades.

After she primped long enough for us to finish lunch, he handed her a bag of congealed food as we departed. I noticed that she bristled at his chauvinistic discourtesy, and complained about having to eat on the run; but I also noticed her affected preening when we two brutish males shouldered all the gear. Because I'd brought my own equipment, we were terribly overloaded with redundancies, and in that regard it felt just like long ago. We'd chatted over our meal, but this was really the beginning, or more accurately, the continuation of all that had previously transpired. The last time we'd been operational together was when my pathfinder element led his company into some mean terrain in a contested area. We fell into customary rhythm as we moved up the trail, and the center was soon out of sight. I took note of his solicitude toward her, and of her pretense toward me. Her objective was to persuade him, and she only needed to temporarily patronize his old Army buddy. When she tucked her debris away among some shrubs, I consoled myself with the knowledge that it was all paper, and would eventually breakdown. The center probably had experience of this, and had opted for biodegradability in lieu of eco-cops patrolling the woods. That she had done it told me something about her; and that he had let her told me more about him. I wasn't keeping a list, but I was learning things that I really didn't want to know.

When we arrived at the base of the combe, we reorganized. We'd followed the standard practice of placing the slowest member at the lead to set the pace, and now I would move from trail to point on the advance. This was not a difficult climb, but I will never free-climb ... for the same reason that I won't skydive without a reserve. I've been very close to death several times, and if I ever decide to commit suicide, it won't be by accident while playing around with innocent people. If she followed instructions, and didn't hug the rock face, she could watch my movements and placements while he gave her directions and encouragement from below. As base, he also served as belay for both of us ahead of him. It was now accepted practice on sport routes that any nail-up hardware introduced during an ascent would not be retrieved. I'd slung a protective rack of cams and nuts, bongs and pitons bandoleer style, but they were unnecessary. As I came to each new logical way-point, I found a previous climber's safety anchor, and crank tested it before linking us onto it. He recovered my carabiners as he progressed, always leaving us three points of contact, and a clean crag behind. There were no chimneys or overhangs ... it was really just a nice scrabble up a fairly steep hillside.

Upon topping-over the mantel at the crest, I took a seated belay for them. She arrived exuberant over her achievement. Her exaltation was actually her most endearing trait. When he crested the summit, he laughed at the way I'd improvised the belay around my prosthetic arm, after passing the line behind my back. My hooks no longer embarrassed me, because they were extremely functional. I had jammed with them directly into crevices during our ascent, placing them where fingers would bleed from crimping, and using harness leverage that multiplied my distal strength. No one would willingly abuse their own body the way that I abused my artificial arms, but they were tools, not flesh, and I was not averse to maximizing every possible advantage. When his artificial leg was shot at Gettysburg, Ewell quipped to Gordon that he was a better soldier for having replaceable parts. This is, naturally, not a recommendation for bionic armatures, but my alternative was worse. To his credit, he was amused by such incongruity, but I have found most people appalled by it ... my own wife had been.

The crest was not a pinnacle. It somehow connected to the cordillera, and offered a system of crowning trails that could be trekked for weeks. The views from the height are always magnificent; so while they waxed ecstatic, I searched for a better descent. After locating a tree that someone had protected by mounting vertical metal straps on its trunk, I convolved our rope, and joined their camp. He'd drawn his tethered pack up the face, and was making a light meal. Comparison and competition seem to be male traits, while females are always distracted or preoccupied. As she disjointedly commented on a hundred different impressions and observations, we inevitably compared this quiet setting with others we'd shared in another place and time. I'd always loved the primitive environs of our embattled past, and this serene park was too civilized to be equivalent. It shared parity the way a dog is commensurate with a wolf, or a tabby with a puma. She, of course, objected ... having no basis for comparison, but insistent upon the rectitude of her ignorant opinion.

He jollied her along with wry comments on alien flora and fauna, on torrid weather and viscid scents. He claimed to have won a Bronze Star for surviving the virulent microorganisms of their cuisine! And I attested that one of my Purple Hearts was bestowed after a particularly pernicious leech attack! I forked-up some bare soil where we sat, and asked her what it was. I told her that dirt was an inadequate answer; that it was really the decayed waste and deteriorated bodies of everything that had ever lived on planet Earth. Because of America's mania for packaging, we have temporarily interrupted this cycle; but the earth in foreign cemeteries smells different than cultivated soil or even raw excavation. I described how the bones become translucent and the brain explodes the skull of so called crispy critters, which have their own unique odor. And I boorishly informed her that she just hadn't lived at all until she was required to search a decomposing corpse for potential intelligence. With a bold gesture toward the panoramic panoply enveloping us, I exhorted her to itemize the bomb craters and pocked dwellings, the rusting concertina wire and abandoned minefields littering our homeland. Oh, that damnedable social contract! Out of kindness or courtesy, he too tolerated transgression ... mine.

As dusk darkened the deepening dells, we prepared to descend. I was distracted from my preparations for tying a Swiss-seat from a length of pre-cut kernmantle by the elaborate harnesses that he'd withdrawn from his pack. They resembled medieval devices for aberrant forms of bondage, and she was luxuriating in his ministrations. I had already policed the area and lowered his pack on our doubled rope by the time they had sorted-out the proper configuration of the straps. Like a jumpmaster friend of mine, I think they were just using the double-check process as a way of titillating each other. He again marveled at my deft dexterity, so I took the opportunity for a very short and too rapid refresher course in essential knot tying. I reminded them that it's not the minute manipulation that makes the knot, but the pattern of interlacement. This lesson had been reinforced in me by a blind handweaver who did all his own setup and finishing interlacement. If he could tie knots in the dark, then I could tie knots with hooks. He gave her some more instruction, but you could see how frightened she was. She was listening, but wasn't hearing. All she could think about was the long drop onto the detritus at the deck.

He wanted to have some fun, and we hoped that his show of proficiency would help to relax her. After his combat tour, he'd joined a reserve unit that regularly demonstrated military skillcrafts to the public during interludes at fairs and races, shows and concerts, rallies and other meetings. While she traversed for a better perspective on our descent, I slowly abseiled down the pitch. Although hotdogging causes premature rope wear, both of our lines were in good condition ... and it really is alot of fun. In combat, of course, such high-speed descent is a tactical necessity. When I reached the valley floor I did not disconnect. The belay post on the same rappelling line is at the base. Neither of us had brought ascenders, which would speed his return trip to the top; so while waiting for them to finish their preparations, I tied two more Swiss-seat lengths into Prussik loops, ready for him to use as improvised etriers ... he would walk his way back up the rope by advancing his own Jacob's ladder. He hooked-up and linked-on, signaled me, and glided down the mountain in a few graceful bounds. It was nice to watch ... as it is always nice to see someone exercise his talents.

After wearing himself out on the pitch ... either because he was having too much fun to be sensible, or because he was showing-off for his girlfriend ... he finally relinquished the line. I'd been eating his dust for quite a while, and once had to avoid a dislodged stone that added to the brash. She was again cheerfully confident, and enjoyed the intimacy of being hooked onto the line. He reminded and precautioned her, and she tried to imitate him. Ignoring directions and emulating his performance was only her first mistake. Like me, he'd done this kind of ropework under fire in a distant land, and had years of experience; but this was her maiden venture. She was too upright, her guide-hand was clenched, her break-hand was inverted, and she launched askew ... she was a disaster waiting to happen. He yelled at her, which probably distracted and confused her even more ... it certainly didn't help, but that didn't stop him from continuing to shout. Because she was too erect, her landing would probably collapse her guide-arm and cause her face to strike the rocks ... but this didn't happen. Because she was unbalanced, and the cliff was not smooth, her left foot struck first, and pivoted her body like a barndoor swinging into the unyielding wall. It looked to me like she hit both her knee and hand immediately after her foot touched, and she panicked!

Her screams echoed all around us. It was heartrending. This was probably the most genuine reality she'd ever encountered. Although this tawdry episode bore no resemblance to the authentic nightmares of a woman entrapped by unspeakable bellicosities, this moment on the edge of darkness was absolutely terrifying to her! As soon as events had not played-out according to her mental script, she tried to abandon the stage; but the Great Director had scheduled her for another role, one more innocuous than celebrity, and less extravagant than stardom. When her performance began disintegrating and her costume was at risk, that is, when her loss of control made her liable for injury, she opted-out. When the mountain was ready to softly caress and gently kiss her, she let go of the rope altogether, so as to fend against collision. In essence, she chose not to break a fingernail, not to suffer a little rock rash, in favor of making a crater, in preference to a terminal fall onto the scree. She quickly realized her mistake, as evinced by her fetal posture and voided bladder, but had already concluded that it was too late. It was utterly plain. She knew she was dead ... she just didn't know when.

No one was saying anything now ... there was no point. He hung over the top edge with his gaze fixed upon her. I sat immobile, keeping tension on the rope. She hung inertly by her harness, about a tenth of the way down ... totally incapacitated and debilitated. She was near enough for him to examine, but too far for him to reach ... and he knew better than to get on the line with her. The only thing keeping her up in the air was friction. I was already perched in the dark, and he was a skylined silhouette, but she was unresponsive, so by slow and easy intervals of rocking, I used my body to return her to normalcy. Leaving her crumpled on the talus, I disconnected her lifeline, and braced her with our packs. As soon as I returned to my post, he scaled down the rope to her rescue. I retrieved and packed our gear. He linked their harnesses, tucked her into his pack straps, and with flashlights illuminating our feet, they followed me back to the center. It has been said that life always administers the test before it teaches the lesson, but some of the most important lessons I've been privileged to learn have been difficult or painful. All the way back, I wondered if she would face the truth or try to pretend it was different. I already knew that he'd missed the point.

I didn't hear from him again until hunting season. While on stand-down or off-duty in the Army, I'd been a long-bow hunter; and later found that my prostheses were ideal for holding a full pull on wary game over an extended period ... and the release never slapped my putative arm or cramped my phantom fingers. Technology has neutralized my ostensible advantages, but it's still my preferred modality for still hunting. My hearing is already damaged enough, so I don't need to reduce it further by extirpating the wilderness with firepower. After stalking game that can shoot back, I'm satisfied with only sure kills that stock my larder. I own some wasteland that borders a government preserve in a state that waives licensure for disabled veterans. His locale was on the lottery system, so he accepted my hospitable invitation to abuse the game which arrogantly defies my property rights. He was going to hunt through both bow and rifle seasons, and he bought tags for every kind of animal, including some species I thought were extinct. I wasn't comfortable about admitting a squatter onto my land, but he was already paying more taxes than I was, so I didn't think the courts would let me evict him.

It must be nice to have a job that gives two-weeks of vacation for every month of work ... well, that's the way it seemed from our conversations, since he was always readying or returning from some sport. He intended to camp on my land, which was unsuitable for development. It would not be unlike some of our extreme training, except that he could bring all the pogy-bait he wanted, and didn't have some diabolical cadre maximizing his discomfort. I arranged to meet him where the dirt lane met the paved highway so as to escort him onto the right sector. I would remain through the day, and return regularly after each week of work. I had some waterproof contour maps to give him, and I would show him where the cistern collected spring water.

He arrived with his girlfriend in tow ... a different one. She was just like the other one, except that she was wearing sexy camouflage patterned clothing. And this one had not yet spent two days in a miserable sleeping bag. I briefly wondered if he outfitted each new conquest, or if they all just passed the same old stuff along to the next victim. I stared at his happy countenance, noting his bloodshot eyes and thinning hair, and opened the gate. He couldn't be blamed for being resourceful enough to bring along an attractive bedwarmer. This one had never hunted or shot anything, but her brothers had told her all about it. She already knew more than she'd had time to learn. Walking the perimeter was too much for her to endure, so he sent her back to the vehicles. I wanted to properly orient him, since he would spend most of his time babysitting his partner. Again, they were both here, but they had different goals. She too was hunting, hunting for a domesticated male; but he was like the wildlife that jumps the fence to feed with the livestock, only to move on to another range when the hunting pressure mounts. He was nipping from a flask and smoking his pipe as we toured. I ceased to remark on game trails and bedding areas, scat and footprints, when I detected disinterest. I realized that this was just a stroll through some fairly desolate terrain for him, and that I was incidental. When we found our way back to the start, she'd prepared some packaged food and coffee. I setup my bow for some target shooting at the surplus bales delivered by my neighbor. The tuning degenerated into an adult play session, reminiscent of the rappelling fiasco; so I excused myself before anything unfortunate occurred. Weapons should not be present at a frolic.

The honeymoon was still in effect when I returned the following week. This was the last day of bow season, so I proposed to maneuver wherever they were not located. I'd bought this land as a mental refuge after my divorce and rehabilitation. The land was cheap because it was so marginal, which was a metaphor for my own existence. But even in its worst times, it was a haven to wildings that were evicted from better areas ... they might not be able to feed here, but they could range from here. During my stalk, I had the sense of surveilling the aftereffects from a sortie or incursion. Wild signs were not recent, and even scavengers were scarce. There was no game in the area. The property is not very large, but I am an extremely careful and cautious stalker, so it took me all day to move into a saddle on the public side of my land ... whence I heard voices. This state is among those that have made the harassment of hunters illegal, so I abandoned my stalk, and went in search of the intruders. By allowing these crests to act as baffles, and approaching the government fence, I was convinced that the culprits were on my property. By reversing course, and following the draw, I gained a clear vision of the interlopers ... my invited guests! The great outdoorsman and his latest bimbo playing slap-and-tickle loud enough to frighten the animals! I unstrung my bow so I would not be tempted to use it, and I walked directly past them on my way back home.

The next time I saw him was at a wedding for a mutual friend. As a groomsman, it was a point of honor to create enmity between the betrothed and among their families, so as to countermand the wedding. However, after several drunken brawls and other purposive provocations failed to dissuade the couple, we were then duty bound to defend their plighted troth. So when he abandoned his new girlfriend to reenter the reception line to solicit the bridesmaids for the fourth time, I escorted him to the bar. As the night progressed, the groomsmen conducted mock door training in the dining room, so non-Airborne types could learn to do Parachute Landing Falls off the tables in their tuxedos. Several hours later, a distinguished guest complained that our mutual confrere, the masher, had made a pass at every woman present, had caused several disputes on the dance floor, and was now attempting, by loud and vulgar argumentation, to persuade a lesbian couple to let him try to convert them ... and what was I going to do about it?! Certainly not join the debate! As a God-given gift to wanton womanhood, he could be the best argument against heterosexuality, and the best evidence for contraception! In sibling badinage, I've often declared my forte to be a perambulating precaution ... living proof of what not to become! My sister's judgement on our antics was that all men are forever adolescents; and learning this, I turned to her husband in complicity, and proclaimed that all men were just superannuated boys with inferiority complexes. It is manifestly a posteriori that men are too strong to defy and too loveable to resist ... to which my sister objected by summary acknowledgement of my fugitive ward. He seems to have elevated arrested development into an artform. I found his latest girlfriend asleep in the lobby, and persuaded her to take him home. The bride has never forgiven me, and the bridegroom has never forgiven him!

He later contacted me when he was dating an instructor pilot who wanted to learn how to parachute. She had volunteered the use of her plane, so all we needed to find were a couple of parachutes ... he suggested borrowing them from a nearby jump club. Although I had performed both civilian and military style jumps, and believed that skydiving was safer than driving a car, I had not sustained my qualifications. There were no nearby clubs, and no creditable club would lend equipment to non-members without current certification. He had been a qualified jumpmaster, so he could teach her ... and plummet with her, and pick up the pieces of her demolished aircraft. Didn't this man have any other resources? ... or was I the only one who hadn't refused his entreaty? I was still young and fit enough to parachute, but the moral and emotional liabilities associated with him were enervating. Since travel was not a hindrance, any normal person would arrange conventional training at any of the several advertised facilities. The implication is that this is a special event that is only to be shared with special people, but his misconduct repeatedly belied such an imputation. The onus shifted with the sanctions.

Further sallies involved deep sea fishing, horseback riding after big game, canoeing down remote waterways, scuba diving into uncharted depths, and interstate autocross racing. I presumed a series of interchangeable dollies would enhance each campaign. He seemed bent upon either death or glory. He was unable to meld boyish charm with manly virtue, so his lapses precluded maturation, and his inconsistencies prevented integration. Each new invitation was as enthusiastic as the original. Each new episode was freighted with all the potential of an epiphany. He was an unrequited soul; so whatever made him replete also made him dissatisfied.

He'd achieved many successes, and like the rest of us, had also sustained a few failures; but he defined himself by the latter. He'd married young, survived a harrowing combat tour, worked his way through college, borne children who loved him, and found an accommodation between business and pleasure. By comparison, I am forlorn ... divorced and disabled, childless and degreeless. If my sister did not house me, I would become reclusive; and if I did not own my own business, I would be unfit for any enterprise. His endeavors are evolving, and mine are devolving, but neither of us knows into what. Despite all of his conventional shortcomings, he's projecting his mistakes upon each novel iteration. And despite all of my autodidactic shortcomings, I'd learned from my mistakes to delimit each iteration.

He's made a habit of doing the wrong things for the right reasons. If we knew in advance how things would be resolved, none of us would ever bother to begin anything ... for even joy brings hurt, and harm creates benefit. The older we grow, age grants us the opportunity to notice patterns ... not the least of which is the recurrence of ancient insight. One adage asserts that the more things change, the more they are the same; which is another way of saying that each new thing resembles every other thing, and that every event is just like every other event.

Those of us who've experienced war firsthand, recognize its essence in each new outbreak, and identify its effects in each successive generation. We find that when they are wrong, it is only until things change enough for us to harmonize or adapt; and when we are right, it too shall pass. As our tenets are changing at home, they are becoming globally pervasive ... and peoples are establishing the inalienable right to be wrong. The only absolute in human affairs is that nothing is immutable. We do not exist for the end, but for the process. Our lives are a journey that's sometimes violent and other times peaceful, sometimes catastrophic and other times quiescent. We make of this quest whatever we will, and no one knows whether it is right ... or will always be right. We can only be true.

by Erin Galloglass
... who is a combat disabled veteran, a bookseller, and freelance writer.