Pain is the toughest riddle

It is early spring and Alan is picking me up to start our new weight lifting routine. He’s a former Navy SEAL working in my group now, adjusting to normal life. Everyone thinks it’s cool that Alan was in the SEALs. He’s good looking and well spoken and very polite. And he’s big, so he puts the car seat all the way back to fit his legs under the wheel.

Alan talks about his time in the SEALs but I never probe for more because he knows I’m a writer and I feel like a thief casing someone’s mansion when he starts telling a story. One of the first things I learn is that he’s always cold, which seems strange for such a big guy. After the workout he runs the shower for a few minutes so it’s steaming hot before he gets in. They had to swim from the border of southern California to Mexico and back, that was one of the tests, along with others where you had to hold your breath underwater for a very long time or run long distances in sand carrying a lot of weight.

Alan is type A. He was set to marry but his fiancee backed out last minute and so he packed up his things and moved across the country, decided he’d get a job where I work. He just rode the elevator up, asked for the HR guy, told him he wanted to work there, and interviewed. That’s when we met: I let him in to meet my boss. He glowed with a kind of confidence like he’d thought everything through and knew how it was going to end. We were all just actors in a set he’d choreographed. But all that calm covered up some heavy stuff he couldn’t keep in.

When we lift, Alan does the same amount I do even though he could do a lot more. He says he doesn’t want to get too big, something like that. Whenever we walk the halls at work I get more attention from women because I’m with him. But he never lets on about any of it or seems like he’s looking for a mate, and he doesn’t talk about what happened back east or why his relationship ended. As a result, it seems like everyone at the company wants to sleep with him but none of that goes to his head.

It’s not long before Alan and I buddy up with two secretaries Mindy and Lynn. Mindy is the blonde, Lynn looks like Meryl Streep. It seems I’m paired with Lynn and Alan with Mindy, though Mindy and I had a thing going well before Alan showed up.

Lynn is house sitting for a wealthy couple who owns a place on the water with a deck and a view and it’s early fall one Saturday afternoon when we start drinking wine before the sun sets and Alan spills his guts. No one remembers what he said exactly because it comes as a shock when he lets on to the fact that he’s having to live with the weight of what he did as a SEAL. He’s so nice and well spoken none of us thought of him as a well-trained killer. None of us at work ever had to kill anybody and this separates him from everyone else. He has to carry around something no one ever sees and can’t even talk about it. And that must feel pretty lonely.

Mindy gives me a ride home that night and then I think she goes off with Alan to his place or hers. They wind up getting married several years later and I’m part of a small group invited to a ceremony on the beach. Alan’s dad is a former diplomat and gives a toast, but emphasizes Alan was the second child with a tone implying that Alan will never achieve real greatness as a result. And you can see Alan’s face change a bit, it’s the same face I’ve seen on him where there’s a flicker of pain behind his eyes, a tremble, but then it restores to the even keel he always assumes. That is the key to understanding Alan, that small moment.

Alan gets recalled after 9/11 and his discharge date is Christmas Day. They couldn’t wait until the day after I guess, that’s one of the things that separates soldiers from civilians, the idea of holidays, or days off. He goes back to the Middle East but spends his time in control rooms doing remote warfare, aiming drones. It must be soul crushing, he does two tours like that. They want him to come back to the secret service to protect a former president but he declines.

I never wrote down the stories Alan shared because it felt like a form of betrayal. Everything is from memory: the time he spent in Haiti keeping people in who were trying to get out. The kind of close-quarter combat taking control of enemy boats with sawed-off shotguns and explosives. He was the guy who set the explosives to blow down doors while his teammates fired rounds through the doorway over him; he described what the heat felt like on his back as he went face down on the deck and they piled in. He lost friends in scenes you picture in movies, jumping across rooftops in some crowded village in north Africa. Or goofing around on the beach drinking wine around a camp fire reenacting a scene when someone accidentally gets killed. All that he had to keep inside and reflect on from a distance. Having to get his eye sewn together in the jungle when a branch snapped back and split it open.

We think we know people but we don’t. It’s hard to even know ourselves, and when you come down to it it’s the stories we recall that make us who we are by what we did. And having to divorce ourselves from the truth of what that makes us.

Categories: writing

Tags: ,

18 replies

  1. Another fine piece of writing, Bill, restrained yet somehow seething as well–like Alan?

    Young, naive, and fresh from university, I found work with a military contracting company writing weapons software code. Most of my team were veterans, Vietnam onwards, who retired from the military yet never divorced it, good men mostly. They vibrate at a different frequency

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Bill. Love the ‘casing the joint’ line. I’ve sometimes wished I could record the stories I hear to capture the cadence of the speaker’s voice, their language, what they say and omit. How we make sense of our lives, examined or not. Oddly, that tension between healer and thief has only arisen as I ponder the end of my professional life. Last chances, last rites.

    As always, you engage me and make me think with your fine writing. (Thought that adjective was worth a see and raise).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Bruce! You’ve been one of the best readers and commenters here for years, thank you. I can imagine that position you’re in. Sometimes I wish I’d recorded my kids talking to capture their vernacular, not an uncommon desire I know. It feels like that’s part of the fun and the craft of writing, to mimic it from memory right? But it is a stretch to do so, how much a gap between what we render and the source. That’s part of the fun for me. You really get it. I look forward to reading more of your work and how you exercise those last rites, so to spring. You know about rites of spring, I wonder what that means in Australia now, rites of fall? Burn time! Be well.


  3. I was trying to figure out why Alan seemed so familiar to me, then I realized his description kind of reminded me of a more serious version of Dick Hercules. We do tend to think we know others when we don’t, really. And we do tend to define ourselves by our stories. But we forget that different people can read the same story quite differently, and different people can spin different stories out of the same raw material. May be best to view our stories not as the writer or the reader, but as the curator. Not the best analogy, I know, but that’s what came up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Different people can read the same story differently. My god yeah. Curator: thanks for that old friend, I’ll chew on that. Dick Hercules! Those were the days! About five years ago now by my recollection. Grateful to have known you all the while. Or some of the while, that is…be well, good buddy.


  4. The reality is always painful. It feels like a fiction piece drenched in real life and whichever way it is, I’d say you’ve reaffirmed with power the truth is always stranger than fiction, Bill!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s beautifully said Vishal, thanks! That line about the truth as stranger than fiction is one of my favorites. I try to work these up when I walk and sometimes think about that post of yours on the same subject, the kind of transformational properties of taking long walks. So there you go…be well my friend. Enjoy the day!


  5. Perhaps we’ve all come across someone more or less like Alan (but probably less). At one point in the memory maze that you opened in my mind with this post, l found Peter H, the anti-seal who went back to Jordan for a holiday, only to be conscripted into the army for a two year stint. (How like Peter to fail to read the fine print). Ten months later however he was sent back home to Australia because his good natured ability to only ever see good in everyone was undermining discipline. Well that’s my reading of the situation anyway.
    Cheers to you, Bill.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cheers to you David. You reminded me of a detail I meant to include but forgot, how my friend “Alan” wrote a couple notes to me when I knew them, efforts to express himself I think—and how that skill maybe wasn’t exactly taught in his line of work, but was more “rubbed out” of oneself. That funny dichotomy of not being allowed to feel in one’s trade maybe. Hard to rub out here with thumbs anyhow. Thanks for reading and for the note, love that.


      • That moment with the diplomat father; able story telling.

        Rubbing out with thumbs: something to stir thoughts with today. E
        More “Pebbles from my skull” (Hood, S).

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ha nice. Thanks David. The stories are all around us it seems, but hard to muster often! Pebbles, gems etc. …calcified turds too.


  6. Yes quite a few of the last.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. An interesting tale, suggesting hidden depths not just from Alan, but from virtually anyone. Perhaps Alan just had more to hide.

    I haven’t really hung around too much with military types (despite the fact my brother is retired Navy – he lives 1,000 miles away.) It is a different mindset. I remember a few years back having a contract at a company that built drones, mostly for military use, albeit unarmed. Even though the staff was civilian, just talking about warfighters in meetings gave them a different feel. I imagine hanging with a front-line guy could be even more intense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave! Welcome back to blog-land and nice to see you here again. I saw that post you did a few weeks back, nice to see you again. Yes, different mindset. Super grateful to all the people who commit themselves to that too. I did junior ROTC for a bit in high school, also navy, but switched schools. Might have enjoyed more of that but happy I think in hindsight I didn’t go that path, not for me. Be well!


Leave a Reply to vishalbheeroo Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: