Backstory - "Through the Black"
“It is beholden to senior leadership to express and demonstrate the courage required to overcome established negative paradigms and surmount the stigma culture.” — Capt Tim Finley, United States Air Force, Air Force Mental Health Think Tank, 2013
Endure (v): suffer (something painful or difficult) patiently.
The dim innards of the C-130 cargo plane shook with the vibration of propellers entering beta. The pilot hit the brakes. The metallic, Vietnam smell of a C-130 always magnifies when it lands, a recently learned fact. My half-eaten, long-refrigerated chicken sandwich fell out of the box-nasty cardboard container onto the floor. I watched it fall. I didn’t care. It tasted terrible. The violence of the aircraft coming to a halt after touching down at Manhattan Regional just east of Ft. Riley couldn’t jar my eyes from the top of the rucksack firmly squeezed between my legs. I had less than half the feeling in my ass after sitting on so many webbing seats over the previous two weeks. I adjusted my camouflage ball cap, eyes still locked on the tag attached to my rucksack. The blocky, bright-red cross glowed in the dark like a scarlet X.
A patient. A Goddamn patient.
Everyone in the C-130 stared at it. I knew they were staring at it… but I never looked up to verify. My dust-brown uniform reeked like it had been worn for two weeks straight – it had. Ear bud wires danced across my three-day scruff as the shimmying aircraft pulled in to park. My head still hung, relishing the last few minutes of safe, solitary existence beneath my ball-cap bill, relishing the unique darkness which protested the inevitable brightness outside. In the next few minutes the back of the plane would rip asunder and light would flood in. I didn’t want it to. I didn’t want to see the Kansas sun. I didn’t want to breathe that air. I didn’t want to breathe Kansas air. Two weeks prior… I didn’t want to breathe.
Nine months had passed. Nine months of the kind of roller coaster that compels the sternest adrenaline junkies to vomit until only bile remains. Nine months since I left Kansas. Kansas was home.
But I wasn’t home. There was no going home.
The noisy, pungent-metal whale spooled to a quiet stop. The absence of the engines’ drone permitted the chatter of the flight and medical crews to crawl in behind Johnny Cash singing “When the Man Comes Around” through my earbuds. I just stared at the tag and pretended. I pretended the bag was packed full of war-fighting equipment and supplies, and not almost entirely with Wounded Warrior paraphernalia.
Wounded Warrior. Jesus Christ. There’s not a scratch on me.
Baseline embarrassment sings a lovely, periwinkle tune compared to the thrashing scrap metal my ego heard. I swore I’d hide the fact, hide that I was ever ensconced on the walls of the Wounded Warrior hall. I’ve met Wounded Warriors. I know Wounded Warriors. I looked nothing like them. The enemy didn’t inflict my wound, and I suffered only from a malady of the heart – and not even the physical one.
My medical sponsor tapped me on the shoulder. He mouthed words Johnny Cash didn’t give a shit about listening to. He pointed to the back of the plane. By this point, I knew the routine and didn’t need to ask Johnny to stop. I stood. I tugged my hat deep against my brow. My teeth gnashed. I heard them over Johnny. In a quick, angry motion, I tore the rucksack off the floor and slung it over my left shoulder. The attached tag swung and hit me in the face. I seethed. People around me attempted to offer directions, well-wishes, thanks for service, and welcome-homes. They didn’t know.
Fuck you. I’m not home.
I stood in broad stance at the foot of the ramp, eyes locked on the hinge of the ramp, running along the floor. A few clicks of switches to my left by the crew chief rendered several loud clunks of releasing metal locks. The hinge began rotating. The afternoon June sun poured in like lava with instant insult. The back of the plane faced nearly due west… right at the sun. I felt the light warm my uniform starting at my head, then cascading down to my tan Oakley boots, still caked with Kurdistan mud. The ramp clunked one last time as it hit the ground.
“Welcome home!” The chipper crew chief offered a final cordiality. I craned my head to the left, just far enough to find him with my left eye beneath my bill. I squeezed every muscle in my cheeks. I wanted him to see. I wanted to bleed acid out my left eye all over his pristine smile. I looked away from him, out to the tarmac and stepped forward. One step, two steps, left, right, left… right. Halt.
My toes dangled over the edge of the ramp. I wiggled them. I raised my left foot and gingerly eased my sole onto the ground, breathing in the melancholy poetry of it all. My right foot followed, less ceremoniously.
My bag fell off my shoulder, collapsing to the ground. I stood on teetering, precarious legs. Knees buckled and slammed against the abrasive surface. Palms slapped and seared in agony against the tarmac’s heat. I pressed them harder into the ground and ignored the freshly torn skin on my knees behind threadbare uniform pants. I pulled my hat up and leaned forward. I could smell the gritty silicone concrete against my nose. I kissed the ground.
Two weeks prior, I led an entire air campaign to save 5 million Kurds and other ethnic minorities from either genocide or repressive, torturous control, or a combination of both. I and our team accounted for 2,532 enemy kills. My men were heroes of the tallest order. But I didn’t come home with my men. No fanfare waited. No news agencies, posters, brass band, or camera crews. No friends or colleagues. No rushing hugs drenched in tears. No babies to hoist and kiss. No socially-acceptable man-tears. No USO cookies. Not even a damn beer. Nothing. Only heroes get a hero’s welcome. I was a patient – a Goddamn patient, alone, kneeling, kissing the only thing willing: Kansas concrete.
A white Ford four-door pulled up behind the plane. Two Army Joes came out of the car and waved me over. My fanfare.
I travelled. I hadn’t taken substantive leave in over three years. During that time, I deployed twice and spent an additional nine months even when state-side on various TDYs. The moment I stepped off the plane home from Iraq, I had 102 days of leave. The limit is 60 without the deployment exception, and even that is 75. I scheduled 74 days of leave. I loaded Bruno in the backseat of the Challenger and we drove. We drove all night and all day visiting every friend I had from literally coast to coast. 18,000 miles spun madly onto the odometer. Visiting friends worked to occupy my mind in a constructive way, but in truth, the hours of monotonous driving provided a counsellor a friend could never be: the person in the empty passenger seat.
Bruno is deaf. Thank God. My passenger absorbed thousands of miles of blood-curdling screams, hatred, resentment, remorse, regret, apologies, resolution ideas, false hopes, idealizations, and warm self-encouragement. Then the pedestal always collapsed back into a roiling din of larynx-shredding explosions. I hated my passenger. I hated the way the passenger said nothing back. I hated the passenger for smiling disrespectfully and stabbing me with spiteful happiness. I yelled at the emptiness anyway. Time snails by during these days, I couldn’t tell if it was cathartic or toxic. I just kept driving.
After a national tour, I returned to Kansas. Things that previously brought joy brought nothing but the realization I was using them as a distraction. There was no joy.
Only the black. God the black.
I slid into the black in a month-long unravelling prior to coming home. I ripped and grabbed for protruding roots or firm rocks to catch myself, but slithery mud caked every wall. The black is an alien world. It is neither an imaginable nor conscionable world. Time and space lose meaning. All the same, you sense time and life racing away. You are forced to bear witness to the world moving on without you. You stand locked in a time prison-vacuum of darkness, and forget who or what you are. It’s not a hole – a hole, someone could toss you a rope or you could find a means to climb out. The black is just that – nothing – a boundless echo chamber where the only reciprocated sounds are the wails of lonely futility. You combat the black with any number of emotions, but in truth, only one emotion suffers the black to remain: sadness. Sadness isn’t the absence of happiness; it’s absence, itself. The past doesn’t exist; the future is a memory; the present is a scoffing shadow dragged along the ground. I hadn’t written a word of my book, “To Live With Honor” in months.
Honor. How ironic was it that as I came to penning the crescendo of the book, life took the sour turn it did? I missed my beloved horse as much as anything while deployed. I knew the riding and competitions I was missing. But the sweetness of returning to him would have justified all those lost months. I hadn’t ridden in almost a year. One night, I read through what I had of the manuscript. The poignant message of the story cut the wound deeper, as it seemed Tim of Honor-Past wrote the words months before so Tim of Honor-Future could ruminate them. I couldn’t believe they were my words. They hurt, like being impaled on a t-post.
I sat in bed at my brother’s house where I was living, taking repeated gauntlets to the chin as each word jabbed, crossed, and dislodged my jaw. I clenched my teeth and slammed the laptop shut.
I thought about Honor and everything he had been through. I thought about the scar on his chest. I thought about the invisible scar on my chest.
I need to ride.
I didn’t even want to. I can’t say the idea even appealed to me. I didn’t want the joy of riding. I didn’t want the joy of camaraderie or the joy of companionship. I had a horse who should have been dead, should have been crippled, should have been a decorative paddock gnome, or in his case, mastodon. What he accomplished was literally a miracle by his own perseverance. What I needed required worlds less. Honor resides in the effort, not the achievement.
I started regular training sessions with him, carting him up and down our old hacking haunts on country back roads. The playful boy, sedentary for months, giggled up and down the road, tossing his head and crow hopping when anything more than an easy trot was snuffed out. I could see the confusion in his body language. This wasn’t the robust training he knew or enjoyed. Honor thrives on speed. He celebrates the pounding of his heart and the thunder of his hooves. He revels in his strength and pulls stubbornly against the reins at any speed. The bit is his handlebars, and he snorts rumbling exhaust from his nostrils. Honor forced to trot at 6 mph is forcing a Hell’s Angel to ride a scooter with training wheels.
“Relax. We’re not going anywhere any time soon. Just walk. We’re just here for the ride.” Honor slowed to a jittery jaunt as his head bounced frantically. “Tough. Do me a favor. Remember your rehab? Yeah. Well… just shut up and walk. Besides, you’re not in race condition anyway. Who are you kidding? If I put a harmonica in your mouth, you’d look like a pre-gastro John Popper.” I started singing the rapid lyrics of “Hook” as Honor continued his insubordination.
A year prior, Honor and I glanced off the ceiling of greatness when I granted him the chance to run. I planned for months to let the Admire, Kansas competition be his moment. The trail favored his talents and all but eliminated his weaknesses. The course stretches nearly straight as an arrow, pancaking across the Kanza Prairie with barely a notion of a hill. The renovated railroad track trail kept Honor up at night, tossing and turning like a lion dreaming of thousands of wounded zebra. Every other ride, I wrenched on the reins to keep the dragon at bay. That would be the one time I let him go, and let him go I did. He set the trail on fire. Honor’s easy, course-devouring trot gobbled up miles in quick minutes.
After 17 miles, at the vet check, Honor, immaculately conditioned, cruised through with A-ratings in every category. At mile 23, I noticed him tightening and I slowed him – too little, too late. When we crossed the finish line at 2 hours and 47 minutes, Honor cramped and his idiot rider cost him the monumental achievement. Admire failed to produce great achievement, but instead, produced great lessons. That same race was scheduled in the upcoming weeks as a night ride. I wondered if Admire held more lessons. I have an ear for Providence by now, and heard the familiar whisper.
Once upon a time, I took a brand new endurance saddle, threw it on the back of a rookie dragon fresh off the track and pointed him at a 25-mile mountainous course. This time, I threw a dusty saddle on the back of a dusty horse. I harbored no delusional ambitions of grandeur. “I don’t care if we turtle. Hell, we could come in at 5 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds. I just want to finish. …I need to ride.” I told my new-found hauling/riding partner, Cheryl. Cheryl rode a dainty, white Arab named Athena. The soft-natured steed would carry her rider on their joint rookie endeavor into the endurance arena. The sun glowed orange in the rearview mirrors as we barreled down the highway, two horses in tow.
“That’s good, I’m still not quite sure what to expect.” Cheryl, an Army Major towered at nearly six feet tall. Neatly trimmed, straight blond locks curled under her strong jaw. She spoke softly, albeit with stern feminine strength. She was a single mother, and pointed in finding her happiness in life. There wasn’t much I didn’t admire about her. She bubbled with fun, praising stories of her horses. I suppose every horse person gushes. It was just nice to be in the company of someone else who gushed horses. I left horse people behind when I deployed. Or maybe they left me behind. Maybe the world left me… behind.
We pulled into the tiny country town of Admire with no time to spare, quickly tying up horses and readying tack. Most other riders were already mounted and warming up, including a young woman named Michaela and her mother, visiting from California. Michaela used soft eyes to to springboard playful sarcasm. Her sharp snark shrouded a deeply compassionate heart. Her rugged individualistic persona whispered a feminine fragility and sincerity I didn’t care to admit that I had missed the previous year. I missed home.
While Cheryl got the horses situated, I ran up to the pavilion to sign in. I donned a smile. It fit like a 5.56 round in a 9mm chamber… nothing but misfires. I rushed through a few welcome-homes and retreated back to the trailer before the rumbles of resentment drew close.
They’re all so damn happy to see me. So damn happy.
Cheryl and I returned, excited ponies in-hand for the vet check. After a routine check out, we dashed back to the trailer to tack up and climb into the saddle. I wore my trademark skull helmet brandishing my mount’s tremendous story. Rather than ride in my traditional jeans and t-shirt, I opted for what I had become comfortable in: OCP uniform pants and my TACP undershirt. On my back I carried not my usual Camelback, but rather, my trusty assault pack. The matching camo pack served as not only a hydration bladder, but a reminder.
Still in the fight. Buck the fuck up and MOVE FORWARD.
I loaded that pack one night four months prior with three full combat loads of ammunition, two radios, NVGs, protein bars, glow sticks, a med kit, and other various tactical items. When someone threatens to detonate a car bomb downtown, you take the threat seriously. When they do, you learn to trust their claims. When those same people then threaten to capture you and your men, put you all in cages, and burn you alive, you load your assault pack in earnest.
Then you mount a pale horse.
And kill every last one of them.
All systems were a go for a once-great, now-underprepared man to mount a once-great, now-underprepared horse for a leisurely 6-hour sojourn through… the black… of night.
Bright-eyed Michaela, face aglow with an endearing cherubic smile hurled playful putdowns at my only-slightly obese horse. Brown, braided pigtails fell forward of either shoulder as she chortled, amused. I rebuked her with jests of my own.
“Hey, he’s been deployed too! Just… to a place where the only battle is against weight gain.” I leaned over the left side and looked down, examining the girth knot, or the lack thereof. “And the struggle is real.” I mumbled to myself.
The attractive middle-aged woman accompanying Michaela spoke with a delicate smile, “We’re on rookies, so we’re going to hang back, so if you two want to go ahead, feel free.”
“Thanks, but if it’s alright with you, I think we’ll probably just make it a 4-ship. Cheryl’s on a rookie too, and I have every intention of walking in at 5:59:59. Snuffaluffagus here doesn’t have a prayer of anything faster without his lungs catching fire. Of course, if I don’t get him back soon, he may die from going too long without a jelly donut. It’s a tradeoff, I guess.”
Michaela chimed in, “Well if you can keep that dragon of yours on a leash, you’re welcome to join.” She knew Honor’s story and his rambunctious tendencies.
“No promises the first five miles. It’s his gig. But he’ll settle.”
The sun plummeted ahead of us to the west as Linda Cole, the Ride Manager, yelled the start call. Speedsters jetted away on cantering athletes. Honor’s coiled springs wriggled beneath him, itching with smoldering scales. I tugged on the reins as tight as his tail stood.
“Not today Smaug.”
One by one, other riders entered the trail head and ventured into the darkening, wooded trail.
“Oh shit! I forgot to put my headlamp in my pack! Damnit! Fantastic.”
“Who’s the rookie here?” Michaela shot a flirtatious, condescending smirk.
I chuckled to myself realizing how awesome it would have been to have NVGs. Who’s laughing now, right? Alas, joke’s on me.
“Honor will eat your pony. Believe it.”
“Last year I might have been worried. But Fatty would have to catch us first. Try not to get left behind. I’d hate for you to have to jog your fat dragon in the dark.” Her eyes twinkled with challenge.
We turned down the path, one step onto the gravel trail. The sun vanished behind the thickening tree columns guarding the ominous entryway to an insidious, invisible path. The black skulked in behind us. This is where we begin.
I wish I could tell you the fun, light-hearted conversation between us, but my mind inexplicably shut down, like someone wiped the slate clean. The details I remember are the details Providence demands I remember and then burns the fat. I remember parking Honor behind Michaela’s horse and letting her and her mom drive the pace. I checked my phone (aka: race computer) for speeds and times. A year prior Honor and melted the trail at 13 mph for long stints. We now walked at 3 mph. Two minutes of trotting, then back to a walk. Rinse. Repeat. Honor bristled beneath me, openly protesting the roadblock to the vastness beyond it. I ignored him. I sat in the saddle and just rode. A passenger. …a patient.
The summer of 2013, I contributed to a Think Tank commissioned by Senior Air Force leadership. The Think Tank objective sought to either oust or reduce the stigma surrounding Mental Health services. Suicide rates had not only spiked, but plateaued with no retraction. Airmen eschewed the services for fear of professional reprisal and the results were catastrophic. As a priority, Air Force leadership commissioned the Think Tank, comprised of 27 Captains, to isolate why the stigma exists and how to change an entire culture firmly entrenched in the idea that seeking help brought more harm than good. I knew the stigma well. I didn’t seek any counsel several years prior due to that very stigma. While engulfed in an ugly patch of life, I suffered through in secret, and thus never truly moved beyond it until I met Honor. Accordingly, the Think Tank charge felt personal, and I invested deeply.
For five weeks, we toiled for hours and hours on end, researching, debating, writing, postulating, revising, interviewing, and subsisting on intravenous coffee. Some of the facts we dug up startled us. Other facts hit so bluntly, we stood in awe at their obviousness. How could leadership not get this shit? It wasn’t rocket science! At times, the answers seemed so obvious, we felt the Think Tank was a sham only concocted for the optics, and that leadership didn’t actually want a solution. One realization gripped my spine and shook it. The Army has a website called RealWarriors.net. That website features real stories of soldiers who sought help and went on with their lives. Real, empirical vignettes showcase that no retribution existed. Moreover, the site features, front and center, Senior Army Officers and Enlisted leaders. LEADERS! I ransacked my memory for a single damn example of an Air Force Senior Leader who offered such a story. Nothing came to mind. I rifled through piles of pages, mountains of research papers. Not a single instance existed. Not one. The voice of reason needed to be the voice of a leader. The Air Force had no such voice.
Amid our research, a symposium was held to include over 700 Air Force Captains in a giant auditorium. At the front of the hall, 4 heavily-ranked officers, three Air Force and one Army, sat in comfortable leather chairs for a “discussion” on the problem of suicide and the correlating mental health stigma. Questions from the rank and file came boldly forth as we the Think Tank rabidly scribbled on sheets of legal pad. Questions rendered an occasional honest answer, but mostly diluted company-line euphemisms. I fidgeted in my seat. I turned to my colleague next to me, an old friend from Field Training.
“I’m going to ask it.”
“Fix, be careful. You see how they’re dancing. No one wants to take the fall for this one. Don’t get thrown on a sword you didn’t choose to fall on.”
“No one? We’ll see.”
I stood up and walked to the microphone.
“Thank you, gentlemen for taking the time today to speak with us on a serious topic that is difficult for all of us to engage. My question, Sirs, concerns leadership, or more specifically, leadership by example. Over the last several weeks, we in the Think Tank have toiled over thousands of pages of research and case studies. We’ve noticed a unique absence of leadership on the Air Force side that other branches don’t suffer. For example, the Army’s website, RealWariors.net proudly displays examples of two-star Generals who sought help and whose careers suffered no setback. By our assessment, the Air Force could benefit immensely by having just one single officer come forward and share his or her story and prove the stigma is a paper tiger. My question to you gentlemen, is this: if tomorrow you found yourselves in circumstances where you needed to seek help, would you? If you did, would you share your story? Would you be the candle in the darkness?”
You could hear a pin drop in Tasmania.
700 Captains passed out from lack of oxygen.
The stars on the panel’s shoulders twinkled in the stage lights.
I wish I could tell you the courageous response we got. I wish I could trumpet the intrepid ferocity of those stars. Aside from the Army representative’s honest, affirmative response, no such response came from the blue suits. Not even what should have been a softball question could get a forthright answer. To be clear, all three Air Force panel members absconded and scurried past the question without so much as even a baby-kissing, politicking, just-say-it-for-the-camera answer. There was the stigma, parading by. Right there for 700 future Air Force leaders to witness. There was the stigma, and there it was reinforced.
My stomach boiled.
I returned to my seat. My colleagues met my smoky expression with hollow, deer-in-the-headlight faces, stunned without words. My friend put her hand on my forearm as I gritted my teeth.
“Fix, that was ballsy. It’s bullshit. But everyone here,” she motioned toward the rest of the auditorium of blue suits, “they needed to see it.”
I spoke through a tight jaw, “Bullshit is right. Not on my watch. Not. On. My. Fucking. Watch.”
I don’t even remember the rest of the symposium.
“I can hear your horse breathing down my neck.” Michaela shot a smiling glance over her shoulder.
“He’s choking on your horse’s flatulence.”
“Well then back him off. Or maybe you two should take a break before he keels over. Sounds like he’s working pretty hard.”
“He’s fine!” My quick snap came off a little more authentic than I wanted it to.
I wanted her to turn around and stop talking. She emanated a friendly desire to connect and share in the experience, but my mind lingered thousands of miles away and months ago, precisely where I was left behind. She continued bantering conversation with this question and that. Trees flowed past with a light breeze, encapsulating the four of us in a light-less cave of fauna. Honor’s steel shoes sparked against the occasional chip of flint along the trail. The cicadas had ceased their late-dusk drone and now the crickets and toads chirped. Gaps in the branched ceiling sprinkled the ground with patches of starlight. I looked at my phone. We trotted at 6 mph. 4 miles in and Honor was already in focus-mode. Thank God no dragon tonight. My phone buzzed as a message from my long-time friend Dallas came through: “Good luck!”
Dallas… he made the call.
May 23, 2015, Camp Buehring, Kuwait. I hadn’t slept in three days. What had been bad collided with worse and exploded into worst. Everything important to me had slipped away in a month’s time and I had no power to change it. Imprisoned by the distance, I had no means to stop it. No means to fix it. No means to repair it. There is no word for something beyond worst. If there were a word, that word would describe what happened that night. Command was sending me home early so I could handle my personal business, but no one saw this coming, certainly not me.
I won’t say what it was – but it… broke my fucking heart. It would break anyone’s heart.
It would break anyone.
I messaged Dallas from my bed Kuwait, my first stop over on the way home. I rambled with tired thumbs the atrocity that had just come to light. I crumbled into emotional powder. Dallas worked to soothe and offer what solace he could. I let him know all the awful feelings I was having. I shared openly because I knew the pitfalls of not sharing. I knew the horrific pitfalls of not seeking help. So I spoke honestly, and I spoke rapidly, purging, offloading…
Then the power went out.
I can’t make this shit up.
At the emotional apex of our pivotal dialog, the tent power went out, thus ending my internet connectivity. The tent went black.
That’s when I thought about it. I wanted to do it. I envisioned the heaviness of the rifle in my hand and the taste of steel against my tongue. There was no going home. I didn't want what was left. I wanted control over my fate.
I had been here before. But this time around, I knew the path of honor and what it didn’t entail. I set my worthless phone on the bed next to my pillow and buried my forehead against the pillow. I curled up in a ball on my knees and elbows. I went still. I forced myself to breathe. I listened to my breath. I controlled it. I clenched my fists, and then I relaxed them. I squeezed my leg muscles. I held it and then I relaxed them. I held my breath. I exhaled.
I need sleep.
I repeated all the above until I dozed off.
My phone buzzed. I snapped awake, jarred by the oddity. A stream of message after message came spooling across the screen. The power had come back on and thus the internet.
Oh fuck! OH NO! NO!
Dallas, under no unfounded assumption, reacted as any true, compassionate, loving, loyal, concerned, caring, and faithful friend would: he panicked. During the three-hour power outage, he, a Captain himself, called direct to my commander in Kuwait to have him check on me.
“Dude, I’m sorry. I didn’t know what to think or do. Danielle [his wife] even said it was probably just a power outage. But I couldn’t take that chance. I’m so sorry man.” The text felt warmer than any I had ever received.
I reciprocated with that same kindness. “Don’t be sorry. You were absolutely right to do it. Thank you. I mean it. I needed help. You did just that.”
Minutes later, the lights in the tent came on. I climbed out of my bed, wiping crust from my eyes. Lt Col Monteiro, a jovial, rough-around-the edges man with a booming voice and soft demeanor, walked into the hooch. His slight awkwardness actually set me at ease. He was human too, and he cared. He didn’t want to fuck this up any more than it already was. I respected him for it. He asked me how I was doing. He mentioned the phone call from Dallas and voiced his concern to see me make it home okay. I reassured him I was fine and that I just needed to get some sleep. I was honest. But I knew honesty wouldn’t be enough for this conversation.
The rest would require courage… or a stigmatized lie.
“Look, buddy, we’re gonna getcha home, and we’ll get you squared away so you can handle your business and what-not. You know, I care; we care. We know you’re going through some shit, and man, let me tell you Fix, I’ve been there too. It’s shitty. Man, I know. And uh, we’re all right here for you, and I’m going to do whatever I can, not only as your commander and supervisor, but as your teammate and someone who cares. You did some seriously amazing shit up in Erbil and you rocked it. Your bros have you to thank for a lot of their success up there. We’re all super proud of you and what-not. But uh… as your commander I have to ask you…
Not on my watch.
Curse not the darkness, light a candle.
“Did you think about killing yourself?”
My spine shivered into cold steel. I swallowed a gallon of nervous spit. My chest billowed with deep breath. I squared my vision on his eyes. I reached into the bowels of my proverbial pocket and pulled out a hefty wad of cash… and shoved it into my mouth.
“Yes. I thought about it.”
“Okay buddy, we’re gonna take you where we can get you some help.”
On the dark trail of Admire, we approached the half-way turnaround 12.5 miles out. Honor’s pace remained strong, as did my under-practiced knees and legs. Conversation remained light and fun. Jokes accidentally fell out of my mouth which actually rendered honest laughter. Honor continued to breathe hearty exhales atop the two Arabs in front of him, still looking for daylight to break through the pack. Unfortunate for him, the one thing more stubborn than him maintained a firm clutch of the reins. Yet, he didn’t toss his head, he didn’t protest, he didn’t crow hop, he didn’t dragonmode. He remained content in the leisurely pace of walking and trotting. The rhythm of hooves against the gravel gave the blackness a comforting soundtrack. I stopped bemoaning my missing headlamp as it didn’t seem to matter anyway. I was amongst friendly company, riding my beloved beast, and so far, we were both still chugging along. Just a few more miles and we got a 45 minute break at the vet check. I checked my phone.
At the turn around, We broke ranks to allow our horses to drink from the trough. I allowed all three ladies to water their horses first.
“Hop in there, Tim.” Cheryl offered.
“Nah. You ladies go ahead. We’re going to wait our turn. Honor has a thing with water troughs and I don’t want to spoil it for your horses.”
Michaela’s mom asked curiously, “What’s his thing?”
“Well, uh… he uh, he has a drinking problem.”
She laughed. “Well let’s see it.”
I inched Honor up to the trough and his serpentine neck wiggled and stretched to reach it. Once in range, he began his ritual. First he gave a light buzz of nostril sniff as he grazed the water top with his snout. Then he flicked the water like an artist dabbling finishing touches on an oil painting.
“Is this it?” Michaela asked.
Honor then bobbed his head back and forth splashing the top inch of water. Then it happened.
Honor speared his snout to the bottom of the trough like Brutus’ blade into Caesar. His head smashed violently at the front and back of the trough as water exploded in all directions. Nearly ear-deep, eyes completely submerged, Honor attacked the water with brute-force of face, never taking so much as a sip. Then up from the depths rose the Kraken, as he always does, sheets of waterfalls draining off his Thoroughbred features. His eyes blinked heavily and his strangely adorable boy features seemed to smile. He lowered his head back to the foaming water, and with very still, surgically steady lips, drank several gallons of water.
All four of us rolled in our seats, laughing uncontrollably.
“Okay! I get it!” Michaela’s mom relented in between abdominal spasms.
Many rides require riders to pick up “tokens” along the path to verify they have reached certain points along the trail, so no one can shorten the course. At Admire, it’s easy, put a token bucket at the turn around. Linda Cole always uses playing cards as her tokens. Problem was, in order to get a token, one had to actually dismount because the bucket was too low on a fence post. Kindly enough, Michaela offered to grab mine for me.
She handed me the first card she came to: the Queen of Diamonds.
“No. Any card but this one. Nuh uh.”
“She’ll beat you if she’s able.”
“Hmph.” She turned back to the jack-o-lantern full of cards and sifted through them in the dark. She extended the card up to me, face down. I flipped it over. It was the Queen of Hearts.
She smiled almost imperceivably, and said nothing.
“She’s always your best bet.” It was my first warm smile in months. We were exactly halfway finished, the furthest into the black we would go. I glanced down at my phone.
“Wow, we uh, we might want to actually pick up the pace a little. We’re not going to make time.”
“Really?” Michaela’s mom asked
“Yeah. I’m something between lousy and shitty at Math, but if my gonculations are right, we need to average over 6 mph the rest of the way.”
I couldn’t believe I was saying it. As if 6 mph had ever posed a conundrum for me and Honor. But this was TimandHonor-present, not TimandHonor-past. The stars in our eyes tonight were literal and not the ones chasing down dreams of high achievement.
“Kay, for the rest of the ride, you’re our pace manager. Keep us updated.”
“Can do. But let’s not dilly-dally at the vet check. Let’s have our shenanigans together and get out on time.”
Cheryl and Athena began to show signs of wear a few miles shy of the vet check. The pretty white mare just seemed to be running out of gas. Cheryl started to fall back from the pack leaving us a three-ship as we pulled into the check. The two ladies ahead of me crawled off the trail, down the slope, and navigated the trees into the open area for the vet check. I paused on the trail.
“Are you coming?” Michaela shouted back from the blackness.
“You don’t understand. I’m doing you two a favor. Honor doesn’t do downhill very well. This is downhill in the dark with trees. I don’t want anyone going home with broken bones unless it’s me.
I gave them some room, and nudged Honor’s sides. “Okay tubby… let’s roll.”
I squeezed my legs and… and well, I hung on for dear life. My center of gravity shifted forward; I shoved my heels forward against the gravity change. I planted my chin against my chest and gripped the pommel with white knuckles. Branches scraped skin off arms; jarring, awkward footfalls jerked me to and fro in the seat. “Oooooh shhhh.” I prayed for gaps in the trees.
Honor found the gaps. I opened my eyes. Light. I inventoried all my appendages and eyeballs. No major injuries. I smiled.
“You know you can ride around the trees, right?” Michaela again.
“Honor loves trees. It’s a personal thing. Out of my control.”
The vet check illuminated behind the shield of dense trees with flood lamps. We ambled into the check, loosened and removed tack, fed horses, fed ourselves, and enjoyed the respite.
Jeanie, the vet, kindly examined Honor. Remarkably, Honor showed no worse for wear. Even at well past midnight, he stood alert, proud, and eager. However, during vet checks, Honor has a couple really shitty tendencies. First, his trot-outs make him look like a lumbering, lazy lug. Even in peak condition, Honor simply never shows any kind of impulsion. Getting him to trot for the duly named “trot-out” is squeezing oil from a diamond. I dreaded this one. They say don’t look at your horse when you trot him out. So I didn’t. I wish I had.
I faced the cone twenty yards away, dragon in-hand, and started jogging without thought, expecting to be yanked back by a mule. No such thing happened. Honor sprang to life as if it might be the only real running he got to do that night. I sprinted to keep up with him as he dashed in an extended trot towards the cone. I gave the trademark “brrrrrr” sound and Honor stopped on a dime. We turned. I looked at Jeanie 20 yards away and in that distance, changed my perspective in that my horse might actually trample her.
I looked up at Honor. “Don’t run the vet over. It’ll hurt our scores.”
We took off. Again, Honor showcased his gorgeous, floating extended trot with perked tail and ears. Five yards out, I called for him to stop. He cranked on the breaks just before the cone. My brow furrowed and I looked up at Honor.
“Who the hell are you, and what have you done with my horse?”
“Well, I guess impulsion isn’t a concern.” Jeanie chuckled. “He looks great Tim. You guys have fun the rest of the way.”
I returned an authentically happy smile. “Thanks. He’s been amazing. No dragon, no cramping, and surprisingly… as you’ve just witnessed… a lot of impulsion.”
40 minutes passed and the three of us mounted up and watched the clock. Cheryl still had several minutes behind us on Athena and told us to go on ahead. The timer called out the one minute difference between the two ladies and the tree-mowing elephant behind them. They started off into the black. I sat on Honor and waited for his other vet check bad habit: refusal to leave.
Honor is unquestionably a superb horse with a phenomenal attitude. But part of his quirky charm is his tenacity for being lazy. He loves the trail, but once off, that’s it, game over man. By Honor’s estimation, any and all vet checks should be extended 4 hours. Initiating forward movement out of a vet check is a fool’s errand. And I’m the only fool who rides him. I kicked wildly against his sides, certain they would bruise. I slapped reins on either side of his neck. My flat, gloved hand slammed against his rump. I yelled. I cursed. I huffed. Linda Cole came up behind him, shooing him with waving arms. Before long, seven women screeched like drunken banshees, flailing arms, hair, hay, branches, and anything within reach.
The pyramids move more than Honor did.
“Tim, do you need a flashlight? He may not want to go out into the dark alone.” Jeanie asked.
I paused for a moment. I turned in my seat. I looked up and saw stars. They shimmered in cosmic concert – a song I knew well. My eyes shifted to Jeanie’s. “No. We just need our eyes to adjust. And he’s not alone. We just have to catch back up.” My face soured with the gravity of my words.
“Well they trotted out of here over 5 minutes ago, so if you’re thinking of catching up, you might want to just hand walk him out.”
“Nah, we’re good.” A sly smirk pulled my cheek to the side. I turned back forward and lightly squeezed my legs. Honor broke his statue hooves free of the ground, as if this was the realization he had been waiting for all along. We walked forward… into the black. As we meandered back through the wall of trees I checked my phone. Time to move out.
A horse has essentially two means by which to render fuel: fat and carbohydrates. Aerobic exercise, such as the preponderance of Endurance Racing, burns primarily fat with very little glucose being used. Speed horses, like Honor in his previous career, leverage that glucose coming from carbohydrates first, with just a little fat being used up. Then there is the emergency reserve. Actually stored in the muscles, themselves, a horse retains a compound called glycogen. In a nutshell, it’s burst energy. It’s the one-time-use special move on a video game. It is the max-performance super-fuel – the nuclear option. Once that glycogen is used up, that’s it. It takes days to replenish those stores.
But like nuclear weapons, it wouldn’t exist if it didn’t have an appropriate time and place to be used.
We carefully inched back up the slope and onto the raised trail. I looked to my right, no riders behind us. We were the last. I looked to my left, no horses visible. They were already out of sight. I turned Honor to our left, back toward the start/finish line. A rested and springy Honor saw open ground before him and began his devouring trick he does with his feet. I checked my phone: 10 mph.
“Ah, feel good guy?”
His ears rotated like radar dishes, his posture relaxed and Honor and I rode comfortably down the trail alone, together… in the black. I breathed in the black as it shook the hairs on my arms and ran through Honor’s flapping mane. I looked out across the prairie horizon softly lit with starlight. I noticed that I didn’t recognize the scenery. I made peculiar note that I found myself miles from where I started, even without a light – just a horse and a trail.
Honor’s ears snapped instantly forward. His trot clumsily tripped to a halt. Nostrils flared and ears danced as his eyes struggled to adjust further. I squinted through the shade of night down the pipe of the trail. Was it? It was! Bouncing riders on bouncing horses. I checked my phone: 0 mph.
“Well this isn’t going to get us across any finish lines, Honor-Guy.” My eyes squinted with a dangerous grin. “You ready?” Honor remained fixated, nearly quivering with the itch. His scales began to steam. Something burned anew… or at least again. “Heh, yeah. Well, let’s get this show on the road, we’re burnin’ starlight!”
I stood in the stirrups and gripped the reins snugly in my left hand along with a fistful of mane. I crouched in an athletic stance on a bronzed horse. Honor grinded on the bit. I slowly and deliberately slung my right hand wide by Honor’s right eye, down the length of the slack reign, as a jockey “makes a move.” Then I yanked it back.
Layers of fat seared and shattered, then feathered away to reveal a sinewy steed of lithe, chiseled muscles and raging lungs. Honor detonated into a volcanic-powered machine of rampaging hooves and snorting violence. It was dragonmode. Sparks flew from his feet as steel found flint. I rode on glass-smooth stirrups astride a fiery beast of war, setting the night ablaze with white-hot illumination. The bouncing silhouettes on the horizon grew exponentially in size. I craned my head to the left, watching black trees and black rocks scream past. Artists couldn’t paint a smile with more perfection than the one I wore.
One is never left behind if he possesses the means to gain ground.
I have a dragon.
I checked my phone: 38.7 mph.
In seconds, I realized that Honor’s suspect brakes could bring a tragic end to such a spectacular demonstration of life. But how do you slow a race horse? You don’t pull on the reins – you’re already pulling on them.
Honor has never thrown me. Despite his monumental efforts, he has never unseated me. The moment I made the loudest brake sound he’s ever heard was the closest he has ever come. Honor’s hind squatted and dug deep ravines into the gravel as his front pawed against the ground to keep balance. I under-hooked the pommel and with brute strength, and curled myself down into the seat. The two horses in front of us had gone from distant illusions on the black horizon to nearly being bowling pins. But thanks to Honor’s mostly-sufficient brakes, we averted catastrophe.
“Good God! We didn’t know what the hell that sound was. I thought it was a stampeding elephant. Looks like I was right.” Michaela said.
“Good to see you too, Michaela; how are you ladies? Beautiful night for a leisurely 6 hour walk in the park, yes?” I sat proudly and feigned calm and collected as Honor and I both snickered, out of breath.
Michaela’s mom spoke up, “Well we had to move out otherwise we weren’t going to make time.”
“Yeah, Cheryl didn’t think she was going to make it either, so she said she’s going to walk it.”
“These guys have been doing really well. I’m so proud of them. I don’t know how much they have left though. I think they’re getting tired too.”
“Well, we only have about 4 miles left ladies. I’m pretty sure they’ve got it in the tank.” I looked down at Honor, who resembled another creature. He looked like Honor-past. I now had to purposely bury his nose squarely behind Michaela’s horse. Any lapse, and Honor looked for lanes. Honor trotted sideways. His head bounced. “Holy crap. 21 miles in… now you get going?”
“Well he’s got enough for all three of them. Keep him back there and he can push us to the end.” Michaela’s mom offered with a giggle.
“Ha! By the way ladies, how are those Arabs? They okay? You need a break? Want to dial it back a notch? I don’t want your ponies to get gassed.” I cackled as I rubbed Honor’s neck.
Michaela twisted to her left in her seat and faced directly at me. Her dry expression was readable even despite the darkness. She raised her left hand to her helmet and flipped her light on, instantly blinding me and Honor for a moment. Honor stutter stepped and juked against the frightening flash. Her mom laughed.
“Poor sport! Heh.” I said.
“Need some light?” Michaela asked.
“Actually…” I paused, suddenly pensive. “No, the sun will come up soon enough. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy the ride.”
“Hmph.” She flipped the light off.
Several miles later and many jokes and laughs later, we pulled into ridecamp. I checked my phone. “Shit! I totally forgot the time!”
Linda called frantically from the finish line, “Hurry! You guys only have a few minutes left!”
I kicked Honor a quick once-over and trotted into the vet check. I leapt from the saddle onto wobbly legs and ripped the saddle from his back. I put a cold sponge on his inner thighs. The vet pulsed the other two horses, and I could hear the seconds click away in my head. Linda Cole came speeding over, purple tie-dyed shirt now orange under the phosphorescent light, stethoscope at the ready, and jammed it against Honor’s right side. 70 bpm.
“Well you shouldn’t have trotted him in.” Linda scolded me. Linda and I thrive on bantering
“Well I wanted to make time.” I smirked.
“You should have made that time up further back.”
I gloated. “We did.” I winked. “We’re right were we wanted to be.”
“Time!” Linda called out as Honor pulsed down.
The timer on the other side of the other two horses called back, “5 hours, 59 minutes… and 50 seconds.”
My shoulders shrugged the heaviest weight of smug they have ever lifted.
“Welcome home Tim.” Linda offered. “We missed you.”
“It’s good to be home.”
I want to tell you everything got better that night. It didn’t. The struggle back from the black is a long and arduous endurance ride. I still yelled at the passenger in the empty seat. I still watched life race away onto the horizon. Yet, the Admire ride rekindled perspective. I knew the black was ultimately an illusion I had to learn to un-see. I knew that putting my head down and moving forward in an endeavor I enjoyed landed me among new scenery and miles beyond where I had been. I knew the only real solution to the black must ultimately come from my choice to move forward. The solution… comes from within.
I flirted halfheartedly for years about entering the Mongol Derby. Unfortunately, conventional school of thought pulled back against my reins. Conventional thought is thought mired in stigma. I was done with stigma. I was on to solutions… my solution, and when you yank the reins of a race horse, you pull the pin on a grenade.
There is a time and a place to burn glycogen.
One is never left behind if he maintains the ability to gain ground.
I found my solution on the back of a dragon.
Now… to light a candle.
Tim “Fix” Finley, 2016 Mongol Derby Competitor