Figment of Reality

I guess everyone needs to express their existential unease at least once. This is mine, and it’s been in process for over 16 years now. I think I knew what I wanted to say, but it took a long time for me to learn to say it. Also, this quick note: although I had a few very real, very vivid scenes to start with, this story is just that, a story. 

The photo, by an anonymous VQ-1 airman looking west from the barracks next to mine at Da Nang Air Base, shows an illumination shell (center), flares shot by individual Marines, a Cobra gunship in action (far left), and a diving F-100 Super Sabre (Upper right: I saw orange-flamed Sabres fire blue-flamed rockets around that mountain pass many times.) It was nights like these that inspired this story. There were many of them in late April and early May of 1970.


Like a soft winter wheat carpeting my inner prairie of history and belief, Figment Of Reality became part of all I knew. A tectonic animator of perception, it grew to enable my need to challenge the steep topography hidden in the human terrain. Trekking these hazardous slopes, I encountered reasons enough to write about the arbitrary nature of existence, the catastrophe that is war, and, since I brought it up, wheat.

Don’t scoff. People make good and necessary stuff from soft winter wheat, like cookies, crackers, and whiskey. Especially whiskey. Because it was a crop sown and grown in the black prairie soils of my childhood, it has always echoed in my consciousness.

Be that as it may, it was the end of innocence, my innocence, that prompted this particular story. It was a sort of tragic gift from the shattered and charred body of Airman Rudd late one April night in the hot, sandy murk of the Republic of Vietnam.

I knew Rudd. He and I chatted, but we weren’t close. Over the previous three months, I’d seen him in the communications shack once every few days. He’d encode and send the maintenance reports I gave him to our squadron headquarters in Japan. 

Rather than how I last saw him, Figment of Reality let the image that lingers in my head be a black and white photograph of his girlfriend posing on an arched bridge in a garden. I see it now, even as I tell you this is not Rudd’s story. Even as I honor his service.

The night Rudd died, the almost nightly rocket barrage landed directly on my squadron’s area in the sprawling Da Nang Air Base. Blazing yellow explosions frightened us awake. Up-close deafening, destructive, and shock-inducing. 

Blown awake, I tore at dusty mosquito netting, scrambled from my rack, and joined the rush toward the door with all the other young men that made up our small squadron. As we bumped and stumbled out of our damaged barracks towards the nearest bunker, a few of us stopped at the sight of a fire off in the direction of our hangar. 

The rockets seemed to be hitting east of us now. Not a guarantee that they wouldn’t hit us again, but there was no discussion. Figment of Reality urged our impromptu squad to lace up hastily slipped-on boots and jog toward the blaze. 

Having fled the barracks in fear-fueled haste, most of us were shirtless–even pantless. No matter. We continued to run, unstrapped helmets bouncing on worried heads, flak jackets flopping heavy against sticky skin.

Only seconds passed before we realized the Quonset hut housing communications had taken a direct hit. In the next second, I remembered it was Rudd’s night to monitor the incoming and outgoing messages.

The comm shack’s corrugated steel skin was split like the egg of a fire dragon now aloft in the night. Thin, dying flames spurted from the blackness inside. Despite the heat, we attacked the shattered front of the hut, savaging debris to gain entrance.

A fellow teenage airman and I pulled at the mangled window. Splintered lumber tore my bare hand and I saw the blood of wheat, the blood of me, black as the dark earth of my childhood. I saw, too, my comrade’s face illuminated only by glimmers of fire. Unable to distinguish tears from sweat, I could still make out strains of dread marring his no longer boyish face.

He knew it was harvest time. The wheat must die.

Then we found Rudd.

Seeing his burned and broken body caused my tentative, teenage sense of self to tumble ass-over-elbow down the steep, dangerous slope of existential crisis. The deadly irrational laid bare, Figment of Reality caused me to react with an urgent surge of nausea.

Hoping to steady my spinning brain and stomach, I reached into the darkness for a telephone pole that I thought was there.

It no longer was.

With nothing to lean on, and having lost an anchor of belief, I fell onto the charred grass and sand as if into an open grave.

Prostrate within this somehow soft, silent tomb, I began a curious mulling about human reliance on assigned meaning. How we created meaning and then became obligated to the belief of that construct. And tragically, how our self-designed reality left us only partially able to perceive the present.

I raised my head and looked around, partially perceiving. Now shorn of my teenage innocence, the olive drab boy-men sweating and swearing in the fire and night ceased to be the self-actuating, benevolent children of God my inexperience imagined us to be. Without meaning, however fragile, my worldview began to reconfigure humans into puppets that confuse and kill, as mere things to be confused and killed.

Figment Of Reality had taken me into the shadows of this grave. Now it encouraged me to regurgitate my newfound doubt of meaning and of humans who define and become defined by fleeting impressions of substance. It helped me splatter that uncertainty onto my bed of charred grass and sand.

I felt weak. Lost.

A Marine appeared like a field of wheat waving green above the flat black earth. Pulling me to my feet, he looked into my eyes as if hoping I could see that he and I weren’t devoid of meaning; as if hoping I could accept this reality and go on.

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.

While at this task, I peered into the dimly lit faces of my frightened and confused peers. I was trying hard to believe that we really were OK. Trying hard to believe it was OK to be humans who can only barely perceive; trying to accept this revelation that we were all just half-unconscious beings balanced on the edge of a steep, dangerous slope covered in charred grass and sand.

I fervently hoped that we were OK. Everything had to be OK because Figment of Reality could imagine such a night of fear and death again. It could again conjure up armed teenagers angry, afraid, and unable to understand. It could again invoke more confusion, shouting, gunfire, explosions, and death.

A few days later, alone in the hangar office after our last flight returned, I heard the high pops of illumination shells followed by shooting at the runway’s near end. Remembering a pair of my comrades working inside a Constellation parked in the revetments, I ran to warn them.

Halfway across the tarmac, I became intrigued by how a hissing flare swinging from its parachute created sharp-edged shadows that danced macabre under the warplane’s olive drab wings.

The visual treat was short-lived. Alternatively revealed and hidden by the flickering shadows, I saw an angry, armed, and scared teenager in the black uniform of the enemy. I realized he could not help but see me, too: exposed, illuminated, and wielding no weapon.

My heart sank into a cold pit deep in my guts. Somewhere inside, I prepared to die alone and afraid at the precipice of a dangerous slope covered in charred grass and sand.

Instead, the enemy soldier looked stunned and fell, shot by another angry, armed, and scared teenager in olive drab.

My savior, a teenage, M16-toting Marine in boots, bandolier, flak jacket, and little else moved stealthily toward the revetments. He looked at me for an instant before both of us turned our attention to the young man dying under the airplane he was sent to destroy. We watched him become still while his teenage blood soaked into the tarmac as if the blood of wheat soaking into the black prairie soils of my childhood. 

I felt nauseated again. Dizzy in a swirl of anguish and joy.

Yoked by lethal conflict, Figment of Reality bade the three of us fall into a perplexing black and olive drab fusion of fear, rage, pain, relief, and remorse; three teenagers tumbling down a steep, dangerous slope covered in charred grass and sand; a tightly woven braid of living and dying frightened and confused.

And then, almost in an instant, I forgot.

I forgot those terrible nights.

I forgot about it all.

A few weeks after the sapper was killed, I flew out of Vietnam. Not long after, I flew home.

Once secure in the soft, safe womb of familiarity, I let war slip from my mind like waking from a dream. In its place, I found work, failure, love, heartache, aversion, friendship, disappointment, and success. More stories, different stories, but stories still spun by Figment Of Reality.

Stories that fill one’s lifetime.

But because of humanity’s commitment to a feckless expression of itself, doubt about humans who barely perceive continued to grow in my soul. From the burnt blood of a dead airman, from an armed teenager become a lump of death, from slaughtered fields of wheat that lay in the musty black dirt of my first imaginings: a seed of doubt flourished.

Unseen and ignored for years, that seed extended vigorous roots throughout the neglected shadows in and around Figment Of Reality.

And waited.

Decades later, an awakened, thriving doubt rouses me predawn from my bed. It compels me to go out into a field green with wondrous soft wheat. There, it makes me assess my attitude amid a ghostly horde of people I can ultimately neither remember nor forget; eventually forcing me to see that I’ve transformed into a black and olive drab creature who questions all it can only barely perceive.

Of course, Figment Of Reality will not be stilled. It rises to defend itself from this transformed doubt. It insists that just 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, Figment Of Reality continues to tell me that everything is OK.

That it’s OK humans concurrently learn and forget with each life lived long and well, and with each death too soon.

That it’s OK millennia of armed conflict and unapplied reflection lay behind and before us.

That it’s OK we deflect culpability by worshipping the pain and devastating loss of this endless violence.

It even tries to tell me that this restless doubt I can’t seem to contain is 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 demands I accept humanity’s haphazardly shared illusion of reality as the most we can ever hope for.

It says I should try to believe that this is enough.