Farthest Reaches

Night Sky—Forward Operating Base MASUM GHAR | Panjwayi district, Kandahar, AFGHANISTAN

In November of 2012 I was sitting in Afghanistan in a very lonely camp where the evening sky stretched with a deep blue tarpaulin—the kind you can look into for a very long time. Every star looked like a gold coin, every breeze felt isolate and comforting. The nighttime chill reminded me of the distance between myself and comfort. In boots and army trousers and a long-sleeve thermal I sat outside my small hut, all of 30 feet in length where I slept, along with many other soldiers. There was a small white, plastic table and a large spool turned on its side, which once held cable wire; there was an old lamp with a weak bulb whose light quickly diffused in the dark of the night. 

It was there with a sometimes cigar that I began editing my first publication. A memoir entitled Unapologetically Human. It was there in that austere land that I examined my words and my life over and over. There that I sat with myself, there that I considered the path which had led me to the point, and there that I ruminated on the divorce awaiting me at home. It was there that I thought about my life as a boy and there that I allowed myself to feel anger toward the mother who had hurt that little boy. It was there that I slept and ate with mice, there that I listened to explosions, and there that I watched our casualty numbers rise. It was there that I wondered so often what I had done that I should be stuck with the living and not with the dead.

I don’t remember thinking about whiskey much, although I sure drank a lot of it when I got home. I do remember feeling the entire world on a barbell and trying to press it. I remember feeling tired, but more than tired I remember feeling expended—expended like any item that can be used only once—like a battery, or toothbrush once its bristles are too bent and cannot go back as they used to be. I stared off into things an awful lot, much more than in Iraq. Something about the isolation, the mountainous landscape, the nearness of death, the open space—it made me watchful. I stared at spiders and spider webs, at stars, doors, hanging clothes, rocks, specks of dust and mountains. 

I was dusty and dirty all the time, but I didn’t care. My indifference to wind, cold, snow, death, love, food, smoke, blood, or luxury cohabited me, and I cried for things I had never before thought to cry about, but I still felt alone. Despite this I felt resilient like the last man on earth with a great undertaking of reinstating some kind of existence. Somehow, I felt like a mere residual of life, and, all of life, all at the same time. Both God-like and forgotten breathed in the same breath.

Being so close to death, so near to mortality like a letter tucked in a shirt pocket, I was the most alive I have ever been or will ever be. Feeling the rotor wash of helicopters landing and lifting, touching bodies which had already given up their spirits, feeling the sorrow of my own humanity, the senselessness and powerlessness stitched into my skin—I was free. I know now that I was touching life and humanity, and the strange thread of inhumanity that only some men throughout the ponds of time have ever dared to touch. I was in the nether regions of this thing called “being man,” and it was in that place that I found him.

~ Roman Newell

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by: Darlene Carroll

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