by Cornelius Coleman II
His return to the individualized and lonesome trappings of private civilian life had become a pendulum of anchorless abstractions: a changed man’s thoughts wandering aimlessly through an alien environment. Sergeant Josiah Betancourt’s homecoming from Operation Enduring Freedom bore no resemblance to the ticker-tape deluges of welcome home parades or the iconic still-life photography that immortalized Lucky Strike puffing American G.I.s’ embracing starry-eyed pin-up girls. These romantic celluloid mirages, for him, always captured that generation’s collective need to simply appreciate survival as the zenith of all joyful moments; the precursor of all great things large and small. Now, Josiah foraged for these sentiments through the thick brambles and thorn-laced briars of combat related stress However, his subsequent findings could only be described as disillusion as he looked directly at the final deposit for a veteran’s service – the confounding disintegration of a once-unvarnished faith.
Internally, he had been sliced to ribbons by the jagged terrain of his own damaged psyche which had become a revolving door of bewildering self-talk and fragmented images. This issue, upon more occasions than he cared to admit, hindered his personal interactions with others – a disparaging result of his flickering navigation of the here and now. It happened, once again, during his flight’s final descent as a visibly annoyed stewardess’ request for “upright trays and seat backs” finally reached him across the canyon-like expanse of a daydream. Even his reply of, “Oh, sorry, Ma’am”, seemed to slowly float through space in the way that an insect’s movements become protracted and sedated by unseasonably cold weather. This feeling of delayed and unsure social competence, albeit embarrassing, returned to him along with the immediate benefit of environmental awareness – just in time to see the Arkansas River – pockmarked from exposed sandbars and steadily inching its way through the emerald-hued arboreal canopy that gives Tulsa, Oklahoma its nickname: Green Country.
It seemed befitting, yet, tragically satirical that Josiah – or Joe as he was known by friends and family – would end up back in this place. Tulsa, by means of its topography, presented itself as a transitional netherworld: the gateway between the red clay deposits of western cross-timber plains and the thickly-wooded rolling Ozark hill country to the east. Regardless of its green veneer and small-city charm, however, it remained a relic of his former life – a rusty nail jutting up from the floorboards of his past. Be it ever so troubled, this was home and – like thousands of newly minted foreign campaign veterans – he would have to navigate the pitfalls of returning to this world.
As Josiah’s eyes intently followed the river’s shallow S-curvature, a heavily guarded cache of memories began to stir rebelliously in direct opposition to his learned mechanisms of behavioral suppression. He swiftly reminded himself that an iron-clad partition existed on both sides of the city’s unofficial dividing line at the Archer Street railroad tracks. At this moment, he was doing the exact thing that he adamantly set out to avoid. During his return travels, Josiah promised that he would not allow it, but the Arkansas brought everything crashing back and he was indeed thinking. Thinking of her. Years ago, in the time of youth’s energy-fueled optimism, they faithfully challenged the deeply entrenched prejudices along the divide as blissfully sightless fire walkers – bravely treading over smoldering embers. In unison with the plane’s slow-humming approach, Josiah felt his cognition meandering – deviating from the present toward the gradual side-winding slalom and herringbone-configured sandbars of the Arkansas River. His useless attempts at forward deliberation merged headlong with feelings of emotional asphyxiation inexorably tethered to a lasting and deep regret – the heartbreaking contrition of personal loss without catharsis, closure, or the comfort of saying goodbye.
The Earth rapidly passed under the airliner’s fixed wing and warped all of man’s meticulously engineered accomplishments into a wavering vortex: a blended, multicolored portal between Josiah’s window-framed reflection and a distant memory from the river’s edge. If he could just see her face, once more, or hear her voice beyond the warmly whispered recollections of tightly clutched past intimacies then, possibly, an understanding could be reached – a noble ending to the misery of uncommunicated feelings. During one of his less-desired military travel experiences – a week-long layover in the concrete and rebar-reinforced Dutch oven known as Ali Al Salem Air Base – he came across an article in a dusty, dog-eared edition of National Geographic. The journalist wrote about the scientific aspects of perception and the way that human beings use concepts of assimilation and accommodation for the alignment of internal and external realities – a fixed point upon which he could make sense of human suffering. Right now, he needed this more than ever.
Initially, Josiah dismissed the article as boring and hastily flipped through the magazine’s waxy pages until he found an article that better suited his interest in photography. Now, in retrospect, he often wished that he had given more attention to the validity and application of the journalist’s ideas. Now, without the security of military life and its “no personal decisions required” business model to keep him busy, he struggled to understand the correlation between frequent reveries from the past and his disjointed efforts to forgive himself.
He was, by all definitions, a working model from the article that he so swiftly abolished from further acknowledgement – a newly formed soul with no way of connecting his experience to the mandatory assimilations of society or the well-meaning accommodations of those who had waited and prayed for his safe return. Moreover, a troubled veteran does not know if he will be accepted or thrown out like leftovers – cast headfirst into the margins of society, no longer wanted or needed. Whenever he became overwhelmed by thoughts such as these, a small internal voice often placed itself between him and all of the bothersome inner conversations of self-loathing. It secretly whispered, I understand, Joe. Please, come back to us and we will figure this out….together. For nearly three years, this voice was his greatest source of comfort, the emotional mooring for an otherwise battered and beaten vessel.
Nonetheless, it was beginning to be of little consolation because he knew – at the end of all dreams, concessions to needed acceptance, or the inky-black coffin of an alcohol-induced blackout – those words were figments of his imagination, not the ones he had felt so close to his ear all those years ago at the river’s edge. Before the war, that voice offered kind words to an outcast teenage boy and, in defiance of Green Country’s firmly affixed boundaries, chose to love openly in a time of life when most relationships are decided within the smallest available framework – the avoidance of pain or ridicule. This apparition, manufactured from the deepest leagues of Josiah’s subconscious, was the psychological accommodation that he read about as he nervously awaited for his transport from the sweltering air base. It begged for him to remember all that was good and to always remember how courageous they had both been.
Her name was Karen Gregory and for two years, two-hundred-thirty seven days and sixteen hours, Josiah had been unsuccessful in his attempts to manage the spirit-crushing grief that, now, consumed large segments of his active conscious. In some instances, he was able to tamp the empty void by allowing his memorized version of Karen’s speech pattern and thoughtfully inflected, mid-southern dialect to guide him back to the hollow echoes from their footsteps on the Arkansas’ wooden boardwalk. Here, the river’s location proffered sanctum through its neutrality. Unlike the manner in which the Archer Street railroad tracks symbolized the equatorial divide between Tulsa’s north and south – its rich and poor – the Arkansas River was the prime meridian separating east and west. For this, both Josiah and Karen were grateful because north and south refused to acknowledge commonality, but the Arkansas played no part in this feud. It belonged to no man and only answered to the moon, the sun, and the mighty Mississippi.
The Arkansas’ palindromic indifference, in many ways, became the vertical section of the rugged cross endured by citizens on both sides of those tracks – the mental and physical bifurcation that exists when deferred dreams are forced to stand idly by and view progress from afar as forlorn voyeurs. Karen and Josiah’s understanding of the invisible bulkhead came in the form of a shared disdain for definitive labels. As a latent and undesired effect, Josiah became a ghost – levitating between less judgmental out-groups as a way to avoid the subjective and ridiculous inferences of teen popularity that were so vehemently engendered by his peers. In comparison to Josiah’s excommunication, Karen also suffered. Not in the way of teenage singling-out; she had plenty of friends and her affable nature made for an easy acceptance among the schools more affluent students. Nevertheless, she did lack the inherited socio-economic status enjoyed by her close friends. They made no mention of it, most of the time, but Karen was always reminded of her lack of material wealth when one of those “friends” would suddenly cancel on a planned visit her family’s small, two-bedroom house. This was a less publicly maligned form of exclusion, yet the feelings of social estrangement were the same. Karen, by birth, was neither a privileged south side resident nor a citizen of Tulsa’s north side. She was raised in a segment of the city that ran adjacent to the abandoned factories and railroad switching-leads due east of Archer Street, parallel to its steel lines and just out of prosperity’s reach.
For the better part of four years, they would meet regularly to seek out the river’s solitary gratitude and unchanging nature as a listener and unbiased mediator. It cradled their future hopes and remaining innocence for safe keeping in the fine particles of mist created by the constant lap of its southbound current – forever protecting the altruism of youth from the gravitational pull from Archer Street’s negatively charged stitching of rusty rail over lacerated concrete. In the years that followed, life’s inherent challenges would frequently visit Josiah Betancourt and Karen Gregory, but those fragile crystalline words of lasting friendship were carefully accepted by the river and deposited-free from the ravages of passing time – among the sandbar islands and cattail marshes.
During the intransigent boredom of Army downtime or lengthy security patrols, his mind made frequent trips back to that fateful evening in Ali Al Salem, Kuwait- vivid replays of flipping anxiously through the magazine and fighting back the nervous ripples inside of his stomach. He would ruminate over his half-hearted decision to rationalize the sudden burst of hyper-activity as the symptoms of a white-knuckle flyer; a last-ditch effort to satisfy the building pressure deriving from an internal need to accept reality. This feeling was the Arkansas and Karen calling him to return to the last place on Earth where his dreams remained intact; unmarred by the permanent injury of witnessing mankind at his worst. Even in the throes of despair, Josiah still held steadfast to that belief.
That day, he was on his way home under orders for an emergency leave and racing to beat time during his father’s last stand against terminal cancer. If not for that wonderful voice and its endearing message of resolve, the loss would have swallowed Josiah whole. She held him close again and whispered the words that left him fortified, ready to persevere. In a scene provided by his imagination, Karen stayed by her old friend’s side that evening – underneath the waning moon and intermittent firefly flashes. Although Josiah did not make it back in time to see his father off, he decided then and there that he would go back to the Arkansas. This was the only portion of God’s green Earth capable of convincing him that, after witnessing the unimaginable cruelty of war, he was worthy of a peaceful life.
A Return to Life
He barely noticed the lumbering, mechanical pop from the plane’s lowered landing gear or the air-grasping whirr of its avionic components. U.S. Army Sergeant Josiah Betancourt, after six years of war, returned home. As expected, there was no ticker-tape and no marching band, not a single camera flashed, and the USO stood empty with the exception of one lone and extremely old veteran who kindly greeted him with a hug and two cellophane-wrapped hoagie sandwiches. As he walked down the long corridor to claim his baggage – replete with the literal and figurative burdens of the recently discharged – he intently listened for her voice and hoped it would drown out the sterile reverberations of his military style heel-striking walk and the subdued rattle of anti-anxiety pills as they jumped and shifted inside of his carry-on like loosely held Tic-Tacs.
Life had become a series of forced solicitudes and coping strategies brought on by the pain of missing his father’s final moments in combination with a level of survivor’s guilt that made it difficult to look at his reflection in the mirror. Once, during a brief mid-tour leave, Karen saw the beginnings of his emotional isolation and perceived it as an aloof and strange detachment. Josiah had, definitely, changed. Moreover, the people who loved him were, also, changed by the gut-wrenching effects of awaiting his safe return. Karen Gregory was now an elementary school teacher – one those wishes from the river’s inlets of safe-deposit – and she was engaged to be married. Josiah was spared this information then due to its lack of appropriateness. She chose to inform him by writing a long and thoughtfully constructed letter which he received six months after his father’s funeral. Nevertheless, he still lived beneath the unbearable weight of lost time and opportunity, the vanishing of those secret conversations once stowed like buried treasure on the banks of the Arkansas River.
The end of the travel-weary veteran’s march down the terminal felt like a trip to the gallows through an ominous walkway designated to record the final steps of condemned prisoners. He paused and slowly started to fish in his bag for one of Karen’s letters. It was the last one that she wrote and – if not for a conscientious postal worker’s choice to forward it to his company commander – it would have been left behind: another unclaimed letter to be tossed upon the high wall of love, concern, and rejection in the back of the post office – examples of the home front’s own ailments and battle scars. Josiah was reluctant to read it – afraid of the news inside – the talk of weddings and her new experiences shared with someone else. Now, in the grey marble terminal of Tulsa International Airport – forty-five days, thirteen hours and four minutes after the arrival of that final hand-written letter – he still resisted the temptation to open it and confirm the exact day, hour, and minute of another loss: another hairline crack in an already crumbling existence.
He must have held that letter for five minutes, frozen, as the baggage claim’s conveyor belts uniformly clunked and screeched over the low den of one-sided cell phone monologues, reunited loved ones, and expressions of impatient discontent over lost belongings. He coached himself up to successfully manage the urge to manifest her voice out of the shadows of his cognition while cautiously lifting the opened loose-leaf to eye level. Regardless, he could still feel the stir of distant vibrations – the corporeal wave of connected intuition that either stands hair on end or dilates pupils in the fixated state of deja vu. A slightly out of focus silhouette stood just behind the letter’s top edge causing the soldier to immediately drop his hand and shift his eyes to a, now, revealed Karen – silently standing with a hopeful, tear-streaked face, and relieved smile.
It had been 2,190 days, 12 hours and 17 minutes since Josiah Betancourt enlisted in the U.S. Army. Six years of burden seemed to fall away – shed from physical form as he allowed the letter to slip from his disconnected thumb and forefinger – unaware of its slow downward oscillation. The full contents of the paper’s delicately scripted cursive ceased to matter beyond the first sentence. In its place there was a bottled message that had been rewritten nonverbally and visually cast across the 50-foot expanse of marble floor between them – the welcoming supplications of understood facial expressions. These unsaid words were the greeting that they both desperately needed but, for Josiah, it was a calling to initiate life – a loving salutation from the small chain of islands carved out by the powerful course of long-suffering dreams and the sanctified trust of the Arkansas as their eternal guardian.
Cornelius Coleman is a former U.S. Army Paratrooper and veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom-Southern Afghanistan. Through his own private struggle as a returning service member, Cornelius has discovered that creative writing can be an essential part of any healing process. In providing someone a different lens to view the world through, our individual stories can change lives. Cornelius Coleman currently resides in Houston, Texas with his wife, who is also a combat veteran, and their two children; Kaylah (7 years old) and Xavier (1 year old).