Mid-December 1953, Fort Riley, Kan., Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 85 Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division.
I was an 18-year-old regular Army enlistee. We were well into basic training, despite a series of arctic blasts, not unlike what we’re now experiencing here.
The fragile cease fire that had been negotiated and was temporarily halting the Korean War was in jeopardy. Word in the old, coal-heated World War II wood Camp Funston barracks was that we would be shipped off to resume the fight as soon as we finished training in January.
My unit, mostly draftees, came from the upper Midwest. We all wanted to go home for one last Christmas with loved ones, and the company orderly room was overwhelmed with requests for 72 hour passes. Shivering in the cold, we awaited a decision by our company commander.
About this time, my platoon was assembled on the lower floor. The grizzled old first sergeant, “Top” in Army jargon, came in. A Korean combat veteran, he had taken a round in the face – in one cheek and out the other. It left ugly, disfiguring scars, took out some teeth, but left his tongue and vocal cords intact.
“I know you’re homesick and Christmas is on everyone’s mind,” he said. “We’re trying to get the OK from headquarters for holiday passes. But, soldiers, we’re all born alone and we die alone. That’s the way it is, so knock of the damn whining.”
Two days before Christmas, we got our passes and went home, possible for a final time.
Top’s words have stuck with me all these years, along with a few other printable military admonitions – the Army Ranger special operations motto, “We never quit, and He (God) is going to get us in the end, but let’s not make it easy for Him.” The paratrooper’s chant, “Blood on the Risers,” is a bit too gross to recite here.
Simplistic, cynical and crude as may be, they reflect a certain truism and a philosophy by which I’ve been guided. And given my youthful Jesuit Catholic orientation, they influence my behavior and how I view the human experience as I contemplate turning 80 in less than 18 months. Given my history, I never thought I’d be around this long.”
So it is, as another year ends, I again contemplate where I’ve been and what challenges the ongoing adventure of my life may hold. And I am thankful to have even one more day to engage this experience, for better or worse. “Bring it on,” is a trite remark, but I’m ready. My perverse sense of humor and ability to laugh at myself remains undiminished.
As I sit at my desk in this quaint, 500-square-foot log cabin overlooking a snow-covered wilderness lake and the forest beyond in the Wisconsin north woods, the birds competing with the squirrels at my feeding stations, my beloved 18 adopted dogs and cats warm and content close by, I reflect on how profoundly blessed I am to have this life and opportunity for just one more day.
I confess that I’m often overwhelmed, in awe to tears, by the extraordinary, primal natural beauty of my surroundings as the day ends, the pale twilight blue, winter sunset rose-tinged panorama before me, and the innocence, trust and dependency of the animals in my care.
I have a good life. Despite my military and CIA service-related injuries, I’m in reasonably good health and medically looked after by the Veterans Administration. Uncle Sam will cover my funeral expenses. My three sons are professionally successful and my grandkids well cared for. None of the immediate clan have gone to jail so far.
A VA pension and Social Security provide adequate income to meet my needs and those of my animals. While I continue to get around in 1994 vintage automobiles, I have no requirement or justification for anything newer.
Writing continues as my passion, and to have my commentaries (often outspoken) published by my hometown newspaper where I began as a junior reporter in 1952, while still in high school, is the greatest compliment anyone could pay me.
While my contemporaries and aging associates are disappearing from the scene, I’m still able to compete in running and snowshoe races. (I pay the price in recovery time, but I’m well-stocked with self-medication.) I miss playing old-timer hockey, but my primary care doctor recently certified me to resume skydiving.
Yes, life is good.
Brad Ayers, a Stillwater native, writes from his wilderness home in northwest, Wisconsin. He began his journalistic work with the paper in 1952 while still in high school.