The loss of meaning prompted this story. It was a sort of tragic gift from the shattered, burnt body of Airman Rudd late one evening near a forsaken runway in the hot, sandy murk of the Republic of Vietnam.
Over the previous three months, I’d visited Rudd in the communications shack once every few days to send encoded maintenance reports to our squadron headquarters in Japan. We chatted, but we weren’t close.
Fortunately, rather than how I last saw him, a black and white photograph of his girlfriend posing on an arched bridge in a garden is the image that lingers in my head. I see it now, even as I tell you this is not Rudd’s tale. While I honor him and all those he represents, this account of memory and metaphor is about the end of innocence.
In my mind, Figment Of Reality emerged from the roots of the soft winter wheat that carpeted an inner prairie of history and belief. The tectonic animator of perception, it facilitated my need to challenge the steep, dangerous slopes hidden in that deceptively flat terrain.
It was out on those hazardous slopes that I encountered sufficient reason to ponder the sometimes capricious nature of existence, the catastrophic distortion of war, and, since I brought it up, wheat.
Don’t scoff. Good and necessary things like cookies, crackers, and whiskey are made from soft winter wheat. However, it’s only necessary to this narrative because it was a crop sown and grown in the black prairie soils of my preschool youth.
In those days, my friends and I roamed the nearby fields and their wet-weather, wooded creeks. In them, we found our imaginations and the growing power of our bodies and senses. Therefore, the sight, smell, and feel of black dirt and green winter wheat bring to mind those crucial years of moving from raw recruit to apprentice human. They organize this recollection.
The shock of Rudd’s horrific death that night, and the subsequent loss of meaning, caused my tentative, teenage sense of self to tumble ass-over-elbow down a steep, dangerous slope. The deadly irrational laid bare, I reacted with an urgent surge of nausea. Trying to steady myself, I reached into the darkness for some support that wasn’t there.
Leaning on nothing, I fell into an existential open grave.
Looking up from that symbolic tomb, I realized how humans were obligated to meaning. How it made us at least barely able to perceive the present. Without it, the olive drab boy-men sweating and swearing in the fire and night ceased to be the self-actuating, well-intentioned children of God my white, small-town childhood imagined us to be. Without meaning, however fragile, humans were mere automatons with no more use than to be confused and killed. To kill and confuse. To never perceive the present.
Figment Of Reality had escorted me into the shadows of this grave. Now it encouraged me to regurgitate my newfound doubt of meaning and of humans who define and are defined by meaning. It helped me splatter that uncertainty onto my bed of charred grass and sand.
Soon, a Marine like a field of wheat waving green above the flat black earth appeared and pulled me to my feet. He looked into my eyes, hoping I could see that he and I weren’t devoid of meaning. So that I could see we were still human.
He asked if I was OK.
While doubting that I was or would be, I said, “I’m OK.”
He nodded, and Figment Of Reality let him go about his duties. Then it led me back to mine: helping my comrades pull singed equipment, personal effects, and shards of Rudd from the smoking wreckage of our comm shack.
As I rejoined this task, I peered into the dimly lit faces of my frightened and confused peers, trying to believe that they were OK. Trying to believe it was OK to be humans who can only barely perceive. That each and every one of us were just half-unconscious people balanced on the edge of a steep, dangerous slope covered in charred grass and sand. That we all came into being from fields of soft winter wheat.
We just had to be OK, everything had to be OK because Figment of Reality imagined this tale of fear and death again. Of armed teenagers angry, afraid, and unable to understand. Of gunfire, explosions, shouting, and confusion. Of running to warn my comrades who work on warplanes in the black night. Of hissing flares creating shadows that dance macabre under olive drab wings.
Among the flickering shadows, I glimpsed an angry, armed, and scared teenager in the black uniform of the enemy. Unarmed and illuminated, I prepared to die alone and afraid at the precipice of a dangerous slope covered in charred grass and sand. Instead, I saw the blood of this teenager, the blood of wheat. I saw him stop sudden and fall, shot dead by another angry, armed, and scared teenager. This one wore the olive drab uniform of a Marine, just like a young Marine who looked into my eyes and asked me if I was OK.
United by lethal conflict, we fell into a perplexing fusion of fear, rage, pain, relief, and remorse. As one, we tumbled down a steep, dangerous slope covered in charred grass and sand, a trio of teenagers tumbling down in olive drab and black, a braid of living and dying frightened and confused.
Then I forgot. I forgot about it all.
Secure in the soft, safe womb of familiarity, I let the war slip from my mind like waking from a dream.
Love, heartache, work, failure, friendship, aversion, disappointment, and success; these are stories spun by Figment Of Reality. They fill one’s time.
They fill one’s lifetime.
Yet, because of humanity’s commitment to a feckless expression of itself, doubt about humans who barely perceive will continue to grow once planted. From the burnt blood of a dead airman, from an armed teenager become a lump of death, and from slaughtered fields of wheat that once strained to reach the sky from the musty black dirt of my first imaginings, doubt will continue to grow.
Unseen and unconsidered for years, it will extend its vigorous roots throughout the neglected shadows of Figment Of Reality, of self.
Decades later, a mature, thriving doubt rouses me from my bed long after the end of a sunny, spring day filled with a retiree’s busy nothings. It compels me to stand alone in a field green with wondrous soft wheat. It makes me ponder my isolation amid a ghostly horde of people I can neither completely remember nor forget. It forces me to see that I’ve transformed into an olive drab and black weed of unexpressed distrust and uncertainty.
Yet, taking pity, it wants me to grasp that doubt is just the need to understand.
Undeterred by this germinated doubt, Figment Of Reality continues to insist that as soft winter wheat grows green from hard, black earth, we must learn to accept that which we barely perceive. In seemingly all ways conceivable, it tries to tell us that everything is OK. That it’s OK people apply reason and compassion to every problem, yet only fear prevails. That it’s OK many millennia of armed conflict and unapplied reflection lay behind and before us. That it’s OK we concurrently learn and forget with each life lived long and well, and with each death too soon.
That it’s OK my restless doubt could be merely a diversion for an old man who, in his youth, tumbled down a steep, dangerous slope covered in charred grass and sand.
Figment Of Reality says I should accept this as the cost of sentience, which is the definition of itself, Figment Of Reality.
It says I should try to believe that this is enough.