Veteran, father, husband, friend. We all write from our experiences. These are at my core.
I joined the Army when I was 17. My mother reluctantly signed for me to do so at such an early age, and I'm glad she did. I was eager to begin what I believed was my duty as a young man- my military service.
I had spent my growing up years moving around the state of Michigan, my family finally settling in a small town in what Michigan natives refer to as "the Thumb." (For those who might no know, Michigan is shaped like a mitten with a prominent thumb like appendage.) Growing up in a small community affords a kid a substantial amount of opportunities to make friends, and I had a good core of guys to keep me out of (or in) trouble. I know I leaned about certain aspects of friendship during those years of baseball, football, and summer camp, but the most powerful lesson came, not in school, but in those first months of training at Ft. Bliss.
The Bus Ride
I boarded a bus in Bay City Michigan excited and nervous about the adventure before me. As I settled into a seat I looked over and saw Shane (top left in pic above). He was sleeping with headphones on his head and Terminator style sunglasses. His hair was spiked. I didn't like the looks of him. He was a city boy, I was a country boy. I rolled my eyes in disdain and tried to sleep as well. We had a long ride ahead of us. I didn't realize he was to become one of the best friends I ever had, and that he would be the one who taught me the meaning of friendship...well, he and Clint too, but his role is especially meaningful to me. You'll see why.
Shane and I had talked on the bus and realized we actually had a lot in common. I had spent some of my younger years in Bay City where he was from and he had spent time hunting and fishing in the Thumb.
We rode from Bay City, Michigan to El paso, Texas on that Greyhound, keeping each other company, sharing stories about our recent graduations from high school, sports, girlfriends. We were fast friends. We arrived at night and were put into temporary quarters where we met Clint. The three of us formed a bond that is hard to explain. Looking back I remember the same thing happening all around us, other guys in small groups hitting it off, talking, laughing. Why did some groups form the way they did by fours and fives while others, like us, limited our circle to three? I suppose all that mattered is that we had found each other. The sense of aloneness was something I hadn't anticipated and it was beginning to grip me with a firm hand. I was glad I had Shane and Clint to lean on.
As to our personalities: Shane was ultra laid back. Calm with a good sense of humor, nothing seemed to rattle him. He never got upset, never got emotional, never lost his cool.
Clint was the eternal optimist. You may note from our austere environment that there wasn't much to look at. The mountain behind us in the above picture holds a special significance. I would fall into depression, or homesickness, whatever it was. Clint was sensitive and he was able to tell when I needed some encouragement. He would find me, put his arm around my shoulder, turn me around until I was facing that mountain and say, "Buddy, look at that thing. Isn't it beautiful? We're out here in the desert and God put that massive thing here for us to look at and just say, wow!" It irritated me that he could talk himself into a good mood, but it helped me.
Me: I was not prepared for separation from friends and family. The first week of training was almost crippling for me. I wanted to quit. I wanted to go home, but I couldn't. Shane and Clint helped me through that time and I don't know how I would've made it without them. Shane made me laugh, Clint made me see that the hell of training wouldn't last forever. The pain of distance from friends wouldn't last forever, and I realized something else. The pain of distance couldn't last because I had found new friends that were near me.
As the days and weeks passed I was able to manage my homesickness better. I was quickly forgetting the things and people I was missing because I was learning so much and working so hard. The environment was competitive, challenging, and at times, fun. I did more growing up in those early weeks than I had all my years prior. I was beginning to feel like a soldier, like a man.
Marching, weapons training, drill and ceremony. A sense of discipline I didn't think possible began to sink into my character. Then came desert training, the place where I would learn my most valuable lessons.
In the desert you become a discoverer. You discover your soul, which had been submerged in vain pursuits, which had been lost in the coils and toils of modern life. You discover your kinship with nature and man, which is evoked by the naturalness and the gentle humanity of the natives of the desert, and you will also discover God.
— Ameen Rihani
I have no pictures of the desert phase of my training. I'm sure I left my camera in garrison for fear of losing it or getting it full of sand. We weren't supposed to have cameras anyway and I must admit that even now, over 30 years later, there is a part of me that worries about one of my drill sergeants seeing this article and making me drop to do unlimited push-ups (something that would be all but impossible at this point). One of our drill sergeants would simply say, "kill yourselves" when he wanted us to do push-ups. I can still hear that casual command and the dread it instilled. "Kill yourselves. Do push-ups until I get tired!" We usually had to do a lot of push-ups before he got tired.
We were driven deep into the desert in cattle cars. I don't know how far, but it was a long ride and when we got out we saw nothing but sand dunes and sky. No telephone lines, no side-walks. Desolation. The desert definitely left its mark on me. It's barrenness is haunting. It's night sounds are mysterious and frightening. We marched silently at night along narrow paths where we heard rattle snakes rattling sending chills up our spines. A few were stung by scorpions.
There are four things that work against you in this environment.
For me the worst of the four was hunger. It was the constant running and sweating, burning calories faster than they could be replenished. The thirst was manageable because by that time military experts had come to understand that heat casualties and dehydration could do more to disable a fighting force than actual combat. We were well watered. But that hunger was always there gnawing at you, reminding you. We were provided three meals daily (usually). Breakfast, an MRE for lunch (meal ready to eat- a matter of opinion) and an evening meal that was sometimes followed by a modest dessert- a small piece of cake or a brownie.
The Measure of True Generosity
As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.
— Luke 21:1-4
The Lesson of a Lifetime, the Meaning of Friendship
During my time in the desert homesickness began to sneak its way back into my consciousness. I would turn 18 in the desert, on August 22nd. My thoughts were more and more drifting back to the life and people I had left back in Michigan. I was sinking deeper and deeper in direct proportion to the approach of my birthday, a birthday that would be spent apart from parents, friends and brothers. But I had new brothers with me in the desert, and in my self absorption I had forgotten about them. They hadn't forgotten me.
On the evening of August 22nd, after training and as the sun was setting, I can still see Shane and Clint walking toward me even now as I write these words. Again, I found myself resenting the way they smiled in the middle of all this...loneliness...hunger...thirst...all of it. How did they do it? I didn't know, but I was glad to see them approaching. I noticed they both had their hands behind their backs, boyish grins in tow. When they were just 2 or 3 steps away from me they brought their hands to the front, each revealing their after dinner dessert crudely wrapped in napkins. "Happy birthday, buddy" they said.
I think that to really appreciate the significance of what they did you have to remember how hungry we were and I mean really hungry! I'm talking about "lick the frosting off the fingers of the guy next to you" hungry. I've never let myself forget that gesture because in it is the secret to friendship. It isn't necessarily friendship when a friend lends you money when he's doing well financially, or when he lets you stay in his guest house behind his pool. A friend doesn't give out of their abundance, but out of their lack. Out there the only thing in the world Shane and Clint had that they could truly call their own was two pieces of carrot cake, and they both gave them to me, to encourage me, to help me find my way out of a dark place. True friendship is giving not out of your wealth, but out of your poverty. That's what they did for me that day. That's the memory that helps me remember the price, the high bar of real friendship.
For all my complaining and negativity I actually finished 2nd in the entire class! I do not say that as a boast, because the fact is, had it not been for my very first two Army buddies not only would I NOT have finished 2nd, I might not have finished at all.
The three of us were all from Michigan. I've told you about Shane and I. Clint was from the Detroit area. After training I went to Europe while Shane and Clint went to their respective duty stations stateside.
We've stayed in touch over the years. Clint is a success in the Warren/Detroit area and Shane went on to earn a bachelor's degree in business and became a sales rep for a well known medical device company. Shane and I fell out of touch for several years because he moved down South and I remained in Michigan. Then, in 2005, he moved back and we resumed our friendship picking up as though we'd never spent a day apart. He had a beautiful family and mine was just breaking up. I was going through a very difficult period and he was there for me again, giving of himself just like he had so many years before. I would be locked up in my house with the lights out at 5 in the evening, depressed, brooding, feeling sorry for myself. I would hear him pounding on my door shouting, "Hey, let me in! I have to use your bathroom! Don't worry, it'll just be number 1! Let me in! I know you're in there!" I would rouse myself from the couch, and let him in. He would make me laugh or take me for a ride around Bay City, showing me where all his relatives lived, anything to get me out of the house. As the winter came he invited me to a volley ball night his church was hosting. That got me out of the house too. I clung to my faith, and I believe God sent my old friend back into my life to be a source of help to me once again.
Shane got a job offer to move back to the southern states. I was very sad to see him leaving, but he and his family seemed happy to go and I was well on my way to recovering. I'd met Sondra and we were talking marriage! Shane was at the top of my invite list, but I feared he wouldn't be able to make it because he would be moved away by our August date. Shane said he would try to make it. He was unable to be there, but we talked on the phone, texted and so on. He wished my all the best and said we'd all meet up another time real soon. That was the last time I spoke to him. I don't know if I'll ever be able to forgive the Facebook post that popped up on my feed saying, "Shane R.I.P." I thought it was a joke or...I don't even know what, but I knew it couldn't be real- only it was. After making a few confirming phone calls I found out it was true. Shane had died. I walked around our dark kitchen in Laingsburg in disbelief. I felt nothing. Then all of a sudden a wave of emotion and realization washed over me. I would never see my friend again. I put the phone down and rested my head on the kitchen counter, and cried. Sondra put her arm around me. It helped. She was my Clint and my Shane now. "Look at that mountain. Don't you know God put it there just for you to look at and say, wow!"
Recently, I contacted Clint and asked him if he remembered that time in the desert so long ago, when he and Shane gave me their food. He laughed and said he did remember. I wish I'd mentioned it to Shane, but you don't think those things need saying while your friends are with you. Maybe they don't. I suppose its just part of the regret of wishing I'd had another day with him, another talk, another laugh. I think about him every day, and every day I remind myself that in him I had a great example of friendship provided for me. In that example I learned that it isn't words that make a friendship real. It's sacrifice and giving what you don't even have to give. Friendship isn't convenience. It's a willingness to endure inconvenience. It is being willing to be hungry so someone else can be full.
A Song for Shane
I write music you know. I write when I am happy and when I'm sad. One sad day I was in the basement and I found a picture of our Advanced Training class from 1986. Shane had signed the back. "Hey Lee, I hope we can hang out like two good old Bay City boys when we go home on leave. If not I'll have a beer for you! signed GI Shano." I wrote a song about that picture and that memory. It's called "Boxes in the Basement." I'd like to share a part of it with you. The second verse is the one inspired by Shane. It is in bold print.
Boxes in the Basement
I found some boxes in the basement filled with pictures from a long
There was one
of a son
on my shoulders, a boy I used to know.
Now he is no where to be found,
why do we keep them around,
all these boxes in the basement.
I found a letter from a friend. Every line made me laugh made me
Then I recalled he'd been lost 3 years before one cold morning in
Is it ever any different? We start with smiles and end in tears
as we re-live the years,
through boxes in the basement.
Our Last Photo
© 2018 Leland Johnson