Mantle Of My Mind

By Iain Woessner, Journalist, Army Brat

I remember when I was a young kid, maybe 9 or 10 years old, I was living in Indian Head Naval Base, a quiet, almost idyllic little community right by the Potomac River. My family lived on Pickens Lane, in an enormous, elegant and old white house. I had the biggest bedroom I’d ever had, there were stairs and wood floors and everything was very nice.

I made a friend that year, a boy by the name of John Cross. He was the typical  military child—he worshipped his father’s work, dreamed of joining the Marines, and despite being just a year or two older than me, he already carried himself in that soldiering fashion. Serious, driven, possessing the anarchic military humor that’s been with me for all my life, a sort of cynical humor meant to keep the soldiers sane in an insane world, and we fell into an unlikely friendship, beginning because he had an awesome trampoline that I wanted to jump on.

We ended up spending a lot of time together, just hanging around, bouncing on his trampoline or playing basketball in the back alley behind our house. Then, one day, he knocked on my door and said we were going on a PT exercise. Not one for exercise, but never to turn down an invitation, I went along.

We went into this strange patch of woodland that lined the edge of the road and stretched out behind our houses and onwards. There was a steep hill lined with trees and roots, thick with dust. It was a warm day, but we kept in the shadows of the trees, ably ducking and weaving between low-hanging trees and squeezing between narrow trunks.

John moved through the terrain with the grace of a jaguar, seemingly unfazed by loose rocks and slippery pathways. I did my best to keep up, doggedly stumbling along. I fell once, a loose rock sending me tumbling down the hill and crashing hard into a cradle of roots. I lay there stunned, John calling out to me from above. I said I was alright, that I was just going to lay for a second. I turned my head and saw a dark gap under the roots, a tiny black tunnel leading into the heart of the earth.  An elaborate spiderweb caught the limited sunlight, and I leapt to my feet and scaled the slippery slope in three bounds, hopping beside John and demanding we be on our way.

Eventually we reached a point that neither of us could continue, and John—with some resignation—declared we might as well turn back. It was late, we were hungry, but as we marched out of the woods and said our goodbyes, I felt…triumphant. Satisfied in a way I normally wasn’t. For once it felt like, despite all the changes and shifts in my life, I was finally starting to belong. I don’t know how to express it entirely—the whole day, the adventure, is almost dully normal, but it’s always stayed with me through all these years.

John moved away eventually. I have no idea what became of him, but no doubt he joined the Marines like he always dreamed. He was ready from birth it seemed to sign up and sling a rifle. His eagerness to serve and fight for his country couldn’t have been any more polar to my feelings on the subject, my slow-growing  but palpable weariness of the military life style. He couldn’t wait, and in a way, I was incredibly envious of this. He knew from day one what he wanted his life to be, and everything we shared—the constant moving, growing up on a military base—only gave him more and more resolve and determination to pursue his dream. I’ve always felt my life was instable and chaotic because of my childhood, but for him it was never more straight forward. Maybe that’s what I remember the most—the fact that somebody could go through the same things I did and end up, not confused, but more determined and decided than ever.

I doubt I’ll forget John Cross. We were only friends for a short time, but it was a friendship that will always remain someplace on the mantle of my mind.

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