Whose Mountain #12
A story about stories and how they help me make sense of my life
Recently, I’ve been thinking about the stories I tell myself. I grew up believing in rationality, logic, and intelligence. Not emotions or narratives. I wish I had paid more attention to the power of stories and mythology. I’m trying to build a life filled with people who want to explore these ideas with me. So this week, I wanted to share some thoughts about stories inspired by my past.
The dark green eyes shot bullet holes in my soul. Through those holes, they looked for some way to understand how I could have betrayed her. Gravity pulled them down from my face to the nametag covering my chest to the floor. In the half-minute silence, she repeated this pattern a hundred times in a Sisyphean struggle to find something to latch on to. There was nothing I could offer her. While my own heart slammed against the walls of my chest, I stayed still. The hundred-mile silence between us expanded like a bomb, incinerating the trust I had worked so hard to build up over the past eight months.
Less than a year before, I had walked up the steel grate steps of the hangar into my first assignment as a junior officer. The oversized black eagle head painted on the door, single red eye daring me to look away, matched the welcome letter I had received a few weeks prior. I was in the right place. I hoped my walk showed more confidence than I felt. I was supposed to be a leader. Yet underneath that uniform, I was still a young man trying to figure out my place in the stories of life.
The entropy of squadron life quickly sucked me in.
The run-down hangar housed an alternate universe filled with four warplanes, hundreds of sailors, and the daily rhythms of our small community. It was completely separate from the surfer vibe of the surrounding California community. The haze of that first day slowly receded, as over two hundred introductions turned into dozens of names and a few friends. I got used to the smell of burned popcorn and charred coffee that clung to the walls of the ready room. My clothes absorbed the grease that coated not just the airplanes, but also the workshops, bathrooms, and floors. And I met the five sailors I was assigned to lead.
I was quickly introduced as their new leader. The five sailors, with a range of skin, eye, and hair colors all muted by the blanket of Navy blue in their uniform, stood in a half circle around me. I hoped that my baggy green flight suit had enough space to hide my trembling legs. I doubt it hid the break in my voice as I tried to sound put together. Years later, I don’t remember what I said to them. I’ll never forget the smiles they blessed me with after. Some knew full well that their job was to teach me. Others hoped they could trust me. I worked hard to earn their trust.
Over the months, I settled into the routine of preparing to go to war.
Every morning I checked in with my team. “What are you working on today? Anything I can help with?” Every afternoon, returning from that day’s mission, I checked back in. “How’re we looking for this week’s goals? What can I do to help?” Month after month, I bookended the day with the same questions.
The answers changed over time. Those first few weeks, my sailors would jump to attention when I walked in. They would stare straight ahead, their blue hat resting sharply atop their head. “Everything is good, sir. We’ve got it, sir.” The confidence they showed helped push back the doubt I felt. I think they knew it. Over months, the responses slowly morphed into more casual conversations. “Sir, I think we could use some help on this objective. Sir, I’m worried about him.” I knew I’d earned their trust the first time they told me, “Sir, this would actually go smoother if you’d just shut up for a few days.” There was always a formality, but a familiar bond joined it over the months.
In the weeks before we were scheduled to deploy, my team was packing for deployment. We filled coffin-sized red metal boxes with tools, books, pictures, coffee (so much coffee), and anything else that we might want while at sea for 11 months. Amazon didn’t deliver where we were going, so we had to bring it ourselves.
It was hard, backbreaking work. Fill the box to the brink. Latch it shut. Grab the wire-thin metal handles and try to get the 200+ pound box down to the palettes before the handle crushes your hands. Carrying our eighth box down the hallway, she mentioned that her hip was hurting. The comment barely penetrated my aching muscles and sore brain at the time.
I have no idea why I brought it up the next day.
I would find out she had a deformity of her legs and hips that caused her insufferable pain. Her last command had hidden the diagnosis. She should never have been assigned to us; she wasn’t medically fit to deploy. Her former leaders admitted as much over the phone, even as she denied anything was wrong.
I couldn’t keep this secret. I had to let my boss know.
That conversation cascaded in a surreal way. The grim logistics of ruining someone’s dreams took on a life of their own. In the hour from first telling my boss, we spoke of “readiness challenges” and “personnel procedures.” Not once did any of our superiors even ask her name. Nor should they have. They had a squadron to send to war. I had a sailor to tell.
I’ll never forget those dark green eyes. That pain felt surreal only an hour after feeling the pride in my commanding officer’s eyes. The words I spoke that ruined her dream were barely audible over the hum of propellers in the background. And yet, they were enough to destroy her story.
Four days later, the destruction of her self-image all but complete, her roommate found her under the thin covers of her bed with an empty bottle of pain medication angrily tossed across the room.
I believe we all need stories. The stories we choose to tell help us make meaning out of the events of our lives. Fun stories and deep mythologies offer us empathy, hope, and love. Without them, we feel lost. Ungrounded even. When her story was destroyed, she didn’t have another one to latch on to. I struggle with my own stories every day.
She had seen her life in the story of a sailor, continuing a legacy of going to war that had started with her great-grandfather in World War 1. The Navy had provided her with a central role within that story. At least until I appeared. I was the hero in my own story and the villain as I destroyed hers. Thankfully, her roommate was aware enough to call for help, and her story didn’t end there.
Twelve years and as many stories later, I’m still trying to make sense of my place. She grew up learning the stories of her family traditions. I grew up without any stories of my own. I had no mythologies to help me understand the events in my life. Instead, I was left to try and make meaning of things on my own. In the Navy, I found a mythology that I could fit into. Over eleven years of service, that story rooted itself in how I saw my life.
But I left that life behind. Now, I’m trying to define my own place in a story I’m not sure I understand. Without a tradition to fall back on, I look around me for a story that fits. I have the added responsibility of helping my children understand theirs. I think that’s why I’m so interested in mysticism and the stories of meaning.
Every so often, I wonder what story she found, and if she knows about her place in mine.
Somehow, we all find reflections of our lives in stories. It’s both deeply personal and universal, at least as far as I can tell. I’d love to know what you’ve learned about stories, what stories help you make sense of your life, and how the best storytellers help you in your life. If I can help share those stories, consider sharing your email and a story below.
Until next week, have an intentionally curious week.
I was really hoping you'd share some of this part of your life, and after reading this story my interest is even more piqued, not only in your experiences, but in your very thoughtful and authentic way of offering them. I'm not sure how many people have the capacity to express a journey of feeling and heart about their military experience.
Thank you for sharing this powerful story with us.
"Now, I’m trying to define my own place in a story I’m not sure I understand." This hits hard. When we're not sure of our story arc, we can look to other characters to help us. Keep exploring, stay curious.