About Must and About Must Go

“Hills,” by Jan.Mann, CC BY 2.0
“Hills,” by Jan.Mann, CC BY 2.0
I’ve had a rough few weeks. First were the burning hives that kept me awake night after night. Then came the steroid sickness from treating those hives. “Maddening” doesn’t quite capture the experience.

Hell, I’ve had a rough couple of years: giving up my old job; moving my household to Nebraska under time pressure; living with my spouse and Chihuahua in a single room that was also my work space, while our new home was prepared; learning to fit into an extended family for the first time; wrecking my classic motorcycle trying to bring it here; managing meager savings while shifting to self-employment; facing decision upon decision upon decision about my household’s future; dealing with friends’ and family’s depression—and bouts of my own.

There’s been lots of joy, too: Check my previous blog entries, Twitter feed, and Facebook page, and you’ll discover how much is right with my little world.

But the point here is the trouble, and how I cope. It’s something I learned in Army Basic Training 30-odd years ago.

I was 29 when I arrived at Fort Knox for Basic. That’s old for the Army’s grueling training program. Pretty much everyone else in my company was 18 or 19. They had youthful stamina; all I had was stubbornness.

Toward the end of our time there, we were taken on a long road march in full gear (backpack, weapon, gas mask, bed roll, shelter halves, etc.), a march that included three big hills—two of them horrible, and the final one called Agony.

Being “Smith,” I was near the back of the formation alphabetically. So I spent miles and miles suffering “slinky effect.” That’s when the first guy in line sloughs off a bit, so the second guy drops back to make space and drops back too far, and the third drops back farther, and so on all the way back to me. Then the Drill Sergeant shouts “Close it up!” and the first guy trots forward a few steps, and the second guy has to trot twice as far, and the third guy three times that distance, and so on all the way back to me. I spent half the march jogging several hundred feet at a time as the line closed up, and the other half marching in place to keep from trampling the guy before me while the front of the line sloughed off again and again.

When we finally reached the foot of “Agony,” I figure my “six-mile march” had been more like eighteen, and I was exhausted. I gazed up that slope, heartbroken, and thought, “I’ll never make it.” Then I gritted my teeth and said, “Goddammit, if I don’t, it’ll be because I passed out trying.”

I started up the slope, staring at my feet, not thinking of past or future, just asking, “Can I take one more step?” Yes, I could. “How about one more?” Yes.

Eventually, an eternity later, the steps got easier. I glanced up from my feet to discover I was at the top. I had made it.

“Take five!” the Drill Sergeant shouted. “Then we’re going back down to pick up the guys who dropped out, and we’re climbing it again.”

In that moment, I learned the meaning of “seeing red.” My vision tunneled, and I prayed to close my hands around the throat of just one of those young bastards. I knew I could kill.

So, we went back down. And I made it up that F-ing hill again—one “Can I take another step?” at a time. As we finished the march and neared the barracks, I felt a mix of relief that it was finally over, and sorrow that I’d suffered it alone; no one knew what I’d gone through.

That’s when the XO trotted past, slapped me on the back, and said, “Way to go, Smitty.” I nearly cried.

Since that day, I’ve plodded my way through many seemingly hopeless times. I’ve learned to whittle away at projects that seemed too large for me, until a hilltop revealed itself, or at least a path through a pass I couldn’t see before.

And it’s why I admire John Donne’s “… On a huge hill, / Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will / Reach her, about must and about must go, / And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.” Truth. Success. Peace. Joy. Or what have you. Keep marching, and you’ll get there eventually.

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