I've heard it been said, quite commonly, our sense of smell is the strongest at triggering old memories. I'm not too sure about this tossed around factoid. You see for me it is sound that excavates buried recollections like a child sifting through a box of toys. In my head sound echoes out from the past like a lighthouse cutting through the fog of the years. There is one sound I cannot escape. No stretch of time and no amount of new memory can exorcise it from my head. That sound is the buzz of cicadas in summer.
Their monotonous droning ricochets across verdant trees, in particular the largest in my childhood yard where a tire swing sways in the shade of its canopy. The entire world around me is jade hot humid jade. Carpet grass and the trees, my yard was a well groomed well maintained suburb home in a small cattle town. A red wooden fence already touched by the weathering cut and cordoned my childhood from the rest of the world. A large shed shaped as barn sat in the corner adjacent to my tree house built on a chinaberry tree.
We were not poor. My father was a draftsman for KCI, a company that designed and built hospital beds. My mother stayed at home to raise my brother and I. Back then, when the economy was booming, middle class families like mine could afford to have a sole bread winner. It was both a boon and a curse. At home my mother could focus on teaching us. She educated us on geography, literature, and even took the reigns from my father and gave us spiritual guidance. Those years put my brother and I ahead of other kids intellectually. When they divorced her lack of work experience was a difficult obstacle to cross, and while she eventually became a modern working woman the transition was a rocky one.
My green world, one filled with plastic dinosaurs and rocks collected from various places I had been- mostly souvenir shops- was stable. I spent my time playing in that yard. It was an Eden for my imagination and in that yard I dreamed up lands I'd revisit as an adult. Twenty years later I'd still go there going on long perilous journeys with heroes I created fighting villains of my design. The song of those summer cicadas would always call out to me, but their once vibrant peaceful ballad would change from the innocent green color of my childhood to the gunmetal of the violence in my adult years. No other icon in my life would represent the loss of my innocence, that divine purity all children are born with, like the siren call of those cicadas.
My teen years were quintessentially American. By then my parents had divorced. My mom, after up and down relationships with the man she left my father for, remarried. She and my stepfather cared for us and we never lacked a thing. In fact we were quite spoiled. My brother and I kept separate rooms outfitted with separate televisions and separate game consoles as to prevent fights over what we'd want to watch or play. My room was an exaggerated display of teenage libido. Every wall was plastered with posters and magazine cut outs of models- the female sort, not cars or train engines. Paintball was my outdoor hobby and for a time, mostly my junior and senior years, I was captain of a small paintball team called Team Llama Freedom. I dated frequently and had a sizable amount of friends, enough to consider myself moderately popular. The paintball team helped this.
The relationship between my father and I had however deteriorated over the years until eventually we had a falling out. We did not speak for years. My father had chosen his new wife over us. Over time I felt less like family and more like a stranger in their company. When I was a sophomore I decided I no longer wanted to be part of his life if my place was on the sidelines of his. There was nothing dramatic. No hollering, pushing, or shoving. I simply cut off contact. My brother continued to go but eventually he too distanced himself, although I chalk it up to his many extracurriculars and teenage social life. All the while my father seemed unfazed by our slow departure from his life.
In the summer of my sophomore to junior year I met a girl. Her name was Audbrie. I loved her name. I had never heard a name like it before. She had beautiful red hair and porcelain skin. It was love at first sight. One of the first girls I ever had a crush on as a boy was a red head. Her name was Megan. It was Megan who started my love affair with red heads and freckles. During summer I had been accompanying my stepdad, whom I had become close with in the absence of my father, to the San Antonio Speedway where he raced. I'd sit atop his trailer listening to my CD player jamming bands like System of a Down, Slipknot, KoRn, and Mudvayne. As a teenager these bands were required listening. Like a hawk perched on a tree I'd scope out the girls from my vantage point on the trailer. This was how I found Audbrie. We were introduced by family friends but sadly she was already dating another guy. After a month or so of persuasion and sweet talking she left her boyfriend to pursue a relationship with me.
We dated about half a year when her parents made her break up with me. I was crushed. I never felt about anyone like I did her. She was a drug that had been stripped from my trembling mad junkie hands. The months after were mired in cold and lonely depression. I did all I could to stay in her life but I had the feeling she didn't want me around. Eventually I moved on. I started flirting and chasing other girls to get her off my mind and try as they might I refused to date. I couldn't handle having another break my heart like Audbrie broke mine. Funny that she would break it not once but twice.
Summer again brought her back into my life. I was juggling four girls at the time. Two of which were cousins. Audbrie and I started talking on Yahoo messenger, back in the days of dial up internet. It had been a long time since we last talked and the last time we did it wasn't pleasant. But the wounds of the past were healed and we immediately reconciled. From that point on we dated through the entirety of my senior year. I proposed to her the first time near the end of my senior year. We were lying in bed after watching a movie. In the dark I asked her if she would marry me. Excitedly she said yes. Of course since it was so spontaneous I didn't have a ring and I wasn't happy that I asked her in bed instead of somewhere a bit more romantic. Not long after we took a trip with friends to Seguin. In the middle of the night in the middle of the town I got down on my knee by an illuminated fountain and asked her. It was a step up from asking her in my bed and for two eighteen year olds it was pretty damn romantic. I still didn't have a ring.
When I graduated I didn't have any plans. Audbrie was living with me in my parents house. During the day I went to work with my stepdad. I worked in the dispatch office for a construction company. The money was good for a kid right out of high school. I might have moved up in the company if I had stayed. It was, however, too stale. Somewhere out there was a better future for my fiancee and I. I don't really know what gave me the nudge I needed, that bit of extra salt in my resolve, but I decided joining the army was the answer.
Now you must understand the post 9/11 world was much different from the Nickelodeon slime-Backstreet Boys-N64 days of my youth. We were in the middle of a war. Soldiers, many I'd serve alongside, were already overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan fighting. You could hardly turn on the tv without the war being referenced. It was inescapable. Saddam and Osama Bin Laden had become iconic figures of villainy. Bush would sputter his typical gibberish that seemed to rankle Americans into joining the fight. On reflection I realize I too was swept up by his firebrand speeches. My young impressionable mind was pulled into the conflict. On July 21st 2005 I became a soldier in the United States Army.
I joined as a cavalry scout- MOS (military occupational specialty) 19D or nineteen delta to the uninitiated. At the time there were so many scout casualties overseas recruiters were pushing new recruits to sign up as 19 deltas. When I touched ground in Kentucky, to the fabled “School of Hard Knox” officially known as Fort Knox, they were so backed up with new soldiers my week long in-processing took nearly two months. As a scout I learned the basics of soldiering and the bread and butter of reconnaissance. In theory I'd be “observing” combat rather than taking a real part in it like infantry...
After basic Audbrie and I tied the knot. The ceremony was classic and intimate. We had close family and friends in attendance. The venue was a small church in the hill country, a quaint and peaceful stone structure straight out of the movies. We couldn't linger too long however. I was due to report in at Fort Bliss in El Paso to a new cavalry unit that was set up there.
Life a Bliss was a blur. In less than a year we wrapped up training at the National Training Center in California, came home for a little leave time, then got booted over to Iraq. Our area of interest would be in the north centered in the city of Mosul. We were urban fighters. It was here in Mosul that I first felt my life in danger. It was here in northern Iraq, amidst mosques and ruined houses, that the sound of cicadas would carry two memories in my life.
We were almost done with our extended deployment. Twelve months had become fifteen and thankfully it was the last stretch. At this point we knew the routines. My crew was my family. Each one of us- SSG Burkhammer, SPC Markham, SPC Freibrun, and SGT Lara- knew nearly every detail about one another. For nearly 15 months we were together almost every moment of the day. We had been through countless firefights, close calls, arrests, and explosions. That cold November was our last explosion.
Sergeant Lara had injured himself so he was sent home just before the incident. In his place we had SPC Lawrence take position on the humvee gun- a “ma deuce” M2 Browning HB .50 cal machine gun. It was one of those days when everything was just saturated in a dismal grey. The streets, the sky, and the buildings all had a sense of sadness permeating throughout. Inside our truck- the casual sobriquet we use to reference humvees- everything was normal. I was busy joking around with Freibrun, who was driving, when we were hit.
The IED detonated on the left side, the driver side, where Freibrun and I were placed. The air came to live and shoved me out to the center of the truck. I hit the ammo boxed strapped down just below and behind Lawrence's feet. A fraction of a second later the air rushed back in to fill the void the blast had created. My body flew back to the door. My head, luckily protected by my kevlar, smashed against the window.
In confusion I called up the contact. Freibrun, equally disconcerted, kept driving. We did as we were trained. Our minds didn't need to understand what was going on or what we were doing. It had become so engrained it was muscle memory. The army stressed training us until our skills became muscle memory. In that moment, when your mind is gone and the instinct of a trained soldier kicks in, muscle memory took control. Lawrence was somehow the luckiest in the crew. He was the least impacted by the last. Strange considering he was outside and exposed to it. Lawrence managed the radios. He was the only one who could. Burkhammer and Markham, on the furthest side of the blast, had been knocked out so hard they were unconscious.
We lived. We went home. And in time the blast became a memory. The humvee behind us recorded the whole event so any time I want I can watch it and relive the chaos of that moment. The fear is there, buried, but the cacophony is there all the time. Unlike the nightmares and memories the noise doesn't hide away in my mind. It buzzes in my ears day in and day out. When someone asks me what it sounds like I tell them, “It sounds like cicadas.”
I ignored it for years. I ignored the person the buzzing was turning me into. The cicadas, no longer an innocent memory, came to reflect the violence of my life, of a life in the army during wartime. And I was a fool to ignore it because it didn't take long before I brought the violence home.
I wasn't abusive. I didn't hurt my wife or children, but I wasn't a good man. I wasn't a peaceful man. You see we all change over time. For most folks that change isn't too dramatic. One year you like chocolate and then one day you find that you can't really stand its flavor. You stop hanging around certain people. We all grow into different people than we were yesterday. It's a small change, gradual. Then one day you realize you aren't who you were at the start. I had changed into someone troubled by the things I had gone through in my young life. It cost me greatly and by the time I saw the person I had become it was too late.
I lost my wife. She left me.
I lost my children.
I was left there alone with only my demons, blind and idiotic. And still I couldn't see what I had done. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I couldn't understand why I was so angry and fearful. I hated. I just hated for no reason. My skin would tremble under the weight of my ire. When it passed I'd feel disgusted with myself.
It was Freibrun's family who would finally help me see what I couldn't see before. It was something so stupidly simple. It had been years since we had last seen each other. We met up while I was in California. Freibrun introduced me to his parents and over some beers we opened up about our service together. Freibrun had apparently gone through some rough times as well. They told me something so profound and yet so obvious and at that moment it all came into focus.
They said, “No one is meant to see what you saw. Not at your age, not after the lives you lived. Normal people don't see things like dead bodies or have people trying to kill them. What you've gone through isn't normal and you don't come out of that the same person.”
That was the first time I truly heard the cicadas. Not heard them physically but heard them spiritually. They were the sound of my demons. Every time my ears buzzed with their song that was a reminder of the things I had gone through, the things I never really paid attention to. I had endured so much in so short a time I didn't realize the boy I had been- the kid playing in a safe green yard surrounded by plastic dinosaurs and a tire swing- was gone. I was something else.
Now I could either let the violence consume me and continue to ruin my life or I could find a balance. There's a place, halfway between bloodthirsty rage and child-like serenity, I had to find to keep my sanity. I lost my wife and children to the monster I had become. I couldn't let it happen again. So I made myself become better. I worked at shaping myself into a better person than I was. It wasn't easy. The hardest parts were the times when I remembered how alone I had become, but I had my friends to dig me out of those holes. Guys like West, Sizemore, Jones, McNeal, Taylor, and Castelan helped show me I was worth a damn. They gave me the confidence to go back into the dating world and made the transition into a better human being much easier than it would have been on my own. I wouldn't have survived on my own.
I work on myself all the time. I'm not perfect. It's perhaps a goal I'll never reach, but I try. I know how much I can lose if I let the monster take control of the reins again. I can't let that happen. It's a horrible feeling to fail like I failed. It's even worse to know I could have stopped it at any point before it boiled over like it did. But thus is life. Life is fleeting. We all stumble and fall. Sometimes the falls are hard and some of us don't recover.
It was hard getting out of the army. It was another challenge to find out who I am. Again I was tested and again I almost didn't make it out of that pit. Losing that family bond to your brothers, especially the guys who brought me through the darkest point of my life, crushed me. Two years later and I'm doing better. Today I'm better than I was a year ago. Tomorrow I'll be stronger than yesterday. I hope. Life is a series of waves. We all have the high points when we're carried up from the muck and silt of the seabed, given a little chance to fly. Then there are the waves that drive us down into the swirling darkness, a place we aren't used to being. You just have to be calm, let the tide take you, and wait for the wave to pass. They always pass and when they do you can come back up for air.
I don't hear the cicadas all the time. They come and go. Just like the good and bad in life. I'll never be that kid again and I won't be that angry young man. I'll be something in the middle, dancing between madness and tranquility. And if you care to know I did find out who I am. I'm Ben. I'm a father, an ex-husband, a boyfriend, an author, a veteran, a battle brother, a son, an artist, a hippie liberal, a friend, a roommate, a foul mouthed cunt, a procrastinator, a cat lover, a music addict, an old soul, an honest heart...
In summation, I am Me.