“Yes I’ve had my moments–but I would have liked for my life to have been nothing but moments, one after another…”
I recently received a letter that one of my best friends wrote to me while he was in the Air Force and stationed in Georgia. I got it months ago, and spent the weekend thinking about it.
It resurfaced in my mind this Saturday while I sat on a porch in West Philadelphia with my close friend Jenna. She had finished her graduate school applications that night and we were celebrating by drinking champagne and discussing the future. We talked about what “quality of life” meant and how fear can and has sometimes prevented us and others from embracing it wholly. We had both been living in Philadelphia for comparable amounts of time, and we are now moving on and starting new journeys elsewhere. We talked about what could possibly come next.
Jenna and I have discussions that I hope (and think) everyone in their twenties has with their closest friends. What am I doing now? What is going to happen to me? What will make me happy? Will anything make me happy? Is what I’m about to do (quit my job, go to grad school, travel, etc.) the right thing to do? In my opinion, talking through these gigantic questions over glasses of champagne is truly the only way to push through the fog and muck of post-graduate, early adulthood and also maintain sanity.
Anyway, as we continued to sip and talk, I found myself suddenly overwhelmed and impassioned by the memory of this letter written by my soldier friend, Austin. He ended up dying in Afghanistan, and so I received a pile of notebooks and unsent letters from his bases in Afghanistan and Georgia. When I read this one particular letter, I remember exhaling as though I had been holding my breath; it was so powerful and ominous. So many unsaid things blared through the page.
This weekend, while I was on that porch in West Philly, talking through shivering breaths about fear and the future, the thought of that letter filled me with sorrow and exhilaration.
Over the years, I’ve been extremely possessive over my private correspondence with Austin for reasons that I cannot explain. While this letter is personal to me, it is so compelling that I can’t keep it to myself. It might be addressed to me, but the lesson belongs to everyone.
Before you read it, understand that Austin had a great sense of humor that was also very dark. It’s somewhat sad, as you might expect, and to be totally honest, I don’t know how he would feel about my sharing it with the internet. But, he wrote it to me, it is my letter, he is dead, and I think it should be shared and not hidden away. So there, Austin! (lol):
Time in: 0 days
Time left: 179 days
7 Feb 10
I signed up for the Air Force in September of 2007. A month later a man named Steve Fawcett went missing in Western Nevada. He was flying a single engine prop plane in a mountainous area known for its extremely dangerous winds. He went out in the morning and never came back. Thousands searched for him. The Nevada Civil Air Patrol found over five previously unknown aircraft wrecks but could not locate Mr. Fawcett. They even took satellite pictures of the area and had anyone who had Google Earth looking for signs of a crash. But even with all the King’s horses and all the King’s men, no one could find him. The Nevada wild lands had swallowed him up.
I promised myself I would find him. I would go to Nevada after graduation and find Steve Fawcett’s plane crash. I would be the kid who for no reason but curiosity found the famous adventurer that nature herself would not give up. It would be the first of many adventures in my life. It was going to be the start of an awesome chain of experiences that I would call my existence.
I saved every article, every story, and every piece of information I could find on him. I started planning how I would get there, what I needed to learn, how extensively I needed to train. It would be perfect. Even if I didn’t find him, it would still be one hell of a story.
But as the end of senior year approached, the day I had to sign my final contract with the Air Force drew nearer. I had run into a serious problem: Join the Air Force and have stability in life or go on adventures and always be struggling to get by. I couldn’t be poor forever…that’s no way to live. But doing nothing and being “stable” (i.e. “boring”) was no way to live, either. However, the Air Force was a sure thing. It was guaranteed. So after crying for a while after I signed the contract, I went to play practice. It was like the movie The 25th Hour haha!!
So I went to basic training in July 2008. Several weeks after I graduated from there (some time in October), one full year after Steve Fawcett went missing, some hikers stumbled upon his crash site.
Sometimes I really fucking hate myself.
He wrote that letter only a few days before his deployment when he was nineteen-years-old. He died a few months later, still nineteen-years-old.
His life was precious and significantly shorter than a life should be. When I read this letter, it reminds me that, while my life has already been longer than his, I still only have a small amount of time on this Earth. I don’t know if I’m going to have the next couple of decades that I’ve been counting on to get done all the things that I hope to do. You just don’t know.
Granted, Austin had a bit more of a reason to reflect on life and death and regrets than most people because he was a soldier about to be deployed. But, when I think about what he wrote, I ask myself, what if I’m a soldier who is about to be deployed? I don’t mean that literally, of course. What I mean is, what if my life should come to a swift and sudden end? What if I get hit by a car, or electrocuted, or have an aneurysm, or all those morbid, tragic, and unforeseen things that could take away my precious life? I don’t want to be that nineteen-year-old kid filled with so much regret.
If there’s one thing all of this says to me, it’s that I should get the hell out into the world and start living a life that makes me happy and excited even if it’s not necessarily the safest and soundest choice. In fact, the safest and soundest choice probably will not be enough to fulfill me. Austin and I are similar in that way.
His life and his letter helped me realize just how invaluable my time is, and that it is an absolute travesty to waste it.
How about you?