24. Free at Last

Free at Last

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…

Hebrews 12:1

I returned to SOI, though disembodied. As always in this cursed school, the earth is our mattress and the breeze our blanket. While on firewatch the first night back out in the field, I stared up into the expanse thinking about dad. The darkness, quiet breeze and surrounding mountains helped me feel alone in the midst of a platoon of Marines snuggled in their warm bags on the dirt. 

Staring up into the night sky, the stars scattered abundantly, shining bright in this calm desert. The same beings who introduced themselves to me while in dad’s arms quietly consoled me with their eternal, humble chorus. Somehow, these constellations, a speck of which could consume our wicked world many times over, whose furious torrents perpetually swell with power unimaginable, veil their awesome glory to a twinkle able to lull a child. They take notice of our frail form, reducing their terrifying refulgence into a glimmer of hope. Their graceful glow woos us to long for them, to wish upon them, to call upon and reach for them seeking to grasp them, not knowing the mere shadow of their presence would utterly undo us. Hiding their power they condescend to meet us, to listen to our grieving, and seeking, gathering as an innumerable host to dance away our pain in their quiet concert. They remain exalted servants, giving gods, silent witnesses, perpetually enduring the sins of man, never withdrawing their presence, never forsaking us in the midst of our turmoil as raging agents of peace.

I basked in the glory of the cool night. My mournful heart harkening back to memories of my dad as if recounting stories with my long lost glinting friends. 

I thought of the Arthur and Richard show. Dad would sit us down and start the show with a ridiculous little jingle, then come up with the adventures of two brothers on the fly. It wasn’t a coincidence that one boy’s name began with an A and the other with an R. I vividly remembered the Bear-icade. On Christmas morning, he set up a wall in the hallway with a bear sitting in a fold-up chair, preventing us from reaching the Christmas tree. We squirmed with excitement when it finally came down. He had a love for Pixar movies. He was blown away when Toy Story first came out, and Ratatouille was the last Pixar movie we saw together. One time, he picked us up from Mom’s house and sped down the road to McDonald’s, urgently saying, “I gotta shit, boys!” He parked with a screech, rushed into the restroom, only to find the single stall out of order. When he came out, he told us, “I’d rather the toilet be out of order than me!” I can only imagine how irate the person who found that monstrous turd in there must have been.”

A hollow mix of laughter and tears surrounded me. After my stories, my eyes dried as the starry sympathy encouraged me to press on. Looking back to the crowd of Marines lying before me, I returned to the present with a new determination. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the solitude, my eyes grew heavy. Once The next Marine relieved me of my post, I slept.

SOI finally came to an end. Thank God. We didn’t have the luxury of leave between duties this time. Now, I headed to Virginia along with Dust.

I’d never been to the east coast. The furthest I’d been up until this point was Colorado, and that only once. Dust’s uncle named Rich, a retired senior chief who lived nearby, picked us up from the airport and drove us to Marine Corps Security Force Regiment in Chesapeake to attend our next training evolution, Basic Security Guard course (BSG).

Upon arrival at the small base with boxy, tan buildings and a boring barracks, we ran a physical fitness test (PFT), the official test that is added to your record for the year. At that time, to achieve the maximum three hundred points one must complete one-hundred crunches in two minutes, twenty pull ups, and a three-mile run in eighteen minutes. I always smashed the pull ups and crunches, but my run time consistently landed in the mid nineteens. 

My stomach twisted and nerves quivered as always before any timed run. Some forty Marines bunched up with our tight shirts and short shorts, leaning forward to launch into our three miles of misery. I fought my way through towards the front end where the faster runners were. We leaned forward, waited, ears open. Some twitched with false starts and reset their fumbling bodies. Ready, eager, on the tip of my– “GO!”

We bolted off. The mass quickly dissolved into trace particles. I started off fast, within the top five. Many buffoons sprinted the first hundred yards, but within thirty seconds fell behind. My tri-fold inhalation and exhalation pattern began as the nervous twitches converted into lactic acid, burning my lungs and legs with oxygen consumption outpacing its supply.

My breathing caught up with the oxygen demand while continuing forward, though my aching chest and bloodless legs struggled to propel me. I ignored the gasping cries of my limbs. Ever since I completed wrestling with coach Nelson, my determined conscience resolved never to half-ass any physical challenge. 

One Marine now remained in front. He was fast, though didn’t seem to be much of a runner. The open straight road rounded a right curve, then a left, approaching a small treeline. A cone sat in the middle of the road with an instructor beside it. Our turnaround point. 

“Nine O three!” He shouted as the Marine in front rounded the cone. I remained about forty meters behind. “Nine seventeen!” I heard as I spun past. I was encouraged to hear I might be able to break my record, if only I could maintain this pace.

After revisiting the two curves, only the mile long straight away stretched between me and my sub-nineteen time. I continued to push, my body screaming louder than before. I fought harder, breathed faster and endured more overheating stress to keep up through this last mile, as the frontmost Marine shrunk into the horizon. He continued gaining on me as every inch of my body now hung in tingling suspension. 

“Nineteen thirty-two!” I heard crossing the finish line before tumbling into the grass, feeling completely gassed, gasping for air beside the road. After a few minutes of struggling to find reasons why I finished much slower than expected, something finally clicked. The Marine ahead didn’t speed up. I slowed down, way, way down. My legs and lungs gassed out. 

A few days after this PFT, the new BSG class picked up. Me and my comrades weren’t included. They informed us BSG had similar delays to SOI and we couldn’t pick up for three weeks. So they sent us back to our hometowns on recruiter’s assistance again.

As soon as I returned to Sammamish, I purchased a temporary membership at the small gym I attended while in high school called Columbia Fitness. Usually I would finish my weightlifting sessions with some form of cardio. In high school, at times I ran to the gym, worked out then ran back, about two miles each way with a steep hill in between. This time though, I tried something new, sparked by a memory that came to mind.

One of the recruiters I met before shipping off joined us on a short run around the recruiting station. He smoked all of us, despite being a smoker. 

“How do you do that? What’s your secret?” I asked.

“I know it sounds crazy, but biking made me a much better runner,” he said.

“Seriously? Biking?”

“Yep, you should do it, I guarantee you’ll run faster.”

At the time, I thought his recommendation was some of the dumbest advice I’d ever heard. But now, knowing that despite my best efforts, running hadn’t helped me break past the damned nineteen minute barrier, I figured I’d finally try this dimwitted advice. 

Though stationary bikes bore most people to tears, I quickly learned I can’t not go crazy on this hamster wheel, especially when music flooded my ears. Three times per week, I spent fifteen minutes of insanity on this contraption after my workouts. I figured fifteen minutes is close enough to the perfect PFT time, and rather than slow the pace and intensity down every five minutes, I upped it. I landed on a routine of averaging two miles every five minutes, though the resistance increased at five and ten minute intervals. This forced me to power through my set by half way, and by the last one or two minutes, I’d be in a sweaty trance, nearly doubling my starting pace.

I felt great. I felt confident. I felt stronger. I felt lighter, thought clearer and walked taller. 

Three weeks later, we picked up at BSG and ran our initial PFT. I floated on a cloud. The first half breezed by, my legs thrusting me forward faster than ever, effortlessly propelling my body through the flat, straight road. 

“Eight forty two!” The Marine in the lead passed the cone.

“Eight fifty!” I cheered inside as I circled back, tracking the one Marine ahead and the two Marines tailing me some twenty meters away. As the race continued, the fire kindled at my feet and rose to my legs and chest. I pushed my body to its limit. The road seemingly stretched indefinitely, vanishing into the unchanging horizon so I couldn’t tell if my efforts were paying off or dropping off. At least the Marine wasn’t gaining as much distance. As the final stretch closed in, I sprinted with the remaining fumes in my tank, closing in on the Marine some ten seconds ahead.

“Eighteen thirty three!” 

“Eighteen forty five!” I gasped, raised my hands behind my head, extended my back and walked, repaying my body the debt of oxygen loaned out to me. My results stunned me. I’d never been able to beat 19:20 and now in a matter of three weeks I dropped thirty-five seconds. At that point, I was hooked.

For six weeks, during the duration of BSG, I held fast to the stationary bike. Up to five times per week I wreaked havoc on the wheels in front of the gym. One of my instructors on the treadmill stared at me in bewildered awe as my legs blurred on the pedals and my deep breathing intensified with determined, rhythmic winds pulsing as a roaring engine. I was ready.

Final PFT. Make way. Front of the line. Next to my competition. He looked nervous. I wasn’t.

“Ready…” I leaned forward. “Set…” toes planted, arms cocked. “GO!”

I launched off the pad, though not to a sprint. The usual suspects won the first fifty meters of the race, then quickly dropped off. Too bad it’s a three mile run, not a forty yard dash. My target led the way as I held my ground. 

My lungs calmly collected air, heart pulsed oxygen-rich blood, and my once starved legs feasted an abundance of fuel. He’s at 95 percent. I’m keeping up at 80 percent. He’s mine.

“Eight thirty, eight thirty three!”

I continued to stalk him, clutching his wasted energy, smelling his nervous fumes, plaguing his ego, giving him every reason to fear his own shadow. We round the first curve, he glances at me in his periphery. We round the second, I’m still there. No more curves. Nothing can stop me. Now’s the time. 

With measured discipline, I gradually accelerated. I could tell he was struggling, but I wasn’t. I approached him, our relative speed adding insult to injury as I slowly crossed his path and drifted beyond. 

I was moving, pace established, eyes focused, leading the pack, running the race. The open air ushered me in. The road dwindled to a point on the horizon, my vision tunneled and my surroundings collapsed. Everything vanished but the vanishing point. The pavement reeled under my quickening feet, the wind parted to dodge my mass, the stars cheered hidden beyond the rays of the sun further fueling my unstoppable, steaming engine. My arms fastened to the momentum of my legs, revolving as coupling rods assisting the wheels of a storming train. 

Disembodied once again though now, through cathartic rage emptying my tainted lifeblood on the pavement. My breathing intensified to pulsing gusts, head tilted back, and body leaned forward. Arms swirled with heated twisters in a confident convection as legs thrusting assailing feet clashed in symphonic resonance, advancing a determined, scornful countenance, shedding the shackles of the past through one, final push. 

Sprinting, flashing, shaking, smashing, burning, dying, raising, flying, upward trending, soul ascending, breaking past my troubled past, the end is near, forget the rear, no longer last I’m free at last.

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