Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Long Walk

The memories of my time in the Army fluctuate. One day they seem so long ago that it must have happened to someone else and I just heard the story, and other times it feels like I just got back home from Ft Dix yesterday.

I wasn't an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician for long, yet I was young and it left a permanent impression on me. I did the job back in the days before bomb suits and robots. We walked downrange without hat or blouse, because they could get in the way. We had a hero kit strapped to our legs filled with a blasting cap crimper, a demolition knife, a dive knife, a Leatherman and a role of electrical tape.

During the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, I heard the expression "the long walk" for the first time. It's what the EOD techs now call that lonely stroll downrange to either identify or render safe an unexploded piece of ordnance or Improvised Explosive Device. The Long Walk. It fits. It says so much in only a few words. Yet despite the inherent danger associated with even the most mundane of tasks like blowing up a faulty hand grenade with a block of C-4, I never once remember being afraid.

This is not bravado. I didn't lack fear. I was just under the delusion that I could handle whatever was at the end of my walk. They did a good job at school and later in the unit reinforcing this belief. Despite having lost 162 techs between 1941 and 1985, it seemed like those were things that happened to other people. We needed to believe that, so we did.

This is what I thought as I took another kind of long walk today. The elevator door opened to drab colors, worn carpet and a tired institutional smell. The building is quite different from the one my father died in seven years ago, but the feelings are the same. I was there to visit one of my favorite people in the world and had no idea if she would even know I was there.

Like most people, I had two grandmas. My father's mom passed away when I was eleven. We were never close. She was so much different than the person I thought of as my real grandma. Grandma Dora was always my grandma, and now she's in hospice. She's 95 and has had a full, rich life, but I am greedy. I want more. One more game of scrabble. One more meal shared. One more story told. I sound like my daughters when they were small but I don’t care, I want one more.

The elevator closed behind me and I was afraid. Like the walks I took to see my father in his final days, I feared that I was not ready for what was downrange. I feared that I would not be strong enough for Dora or my mom. Would this be the last time I saw her? Would she know I'm there? Was I already too late?

You're never ready. There is no ready. So I put one foot in front of the other and patted the spot on my hip where my hero kit used to rest and I tried not to think about what could happen. Those things happen to the other guys. Now at home, all I can think about is to hope I have another chance at the long walk, so I can hold her hand and look into her eyes, just one more time.

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