It’s daybreak. Like an orchestra warming up, the sun prepares its array of colors behind the far hills. I’m standing on the edge of a narrow bridge that spans a sluggish river. Backlit by streaks of dawn, I can make out the silhouette of a seated figure leaning back against the railing. The image begs a thousand questions. I approach cautiously. The man turns in my direction – 50-ish, a weathered face beneath a canopy of greying hair. From a distance he looks like a party animal who’s been at it all night. Closer up, there is something regal about his posture, some quiet sadness in his eyes that shines – gentle, thoughtful…almost holy. Closer still, it gets complicated. Nestled in his lap is a pistol, the barrel glinting in the morning light.
“Join me,” he says, the voice unexpectedly deep and warm.
My eyes flicker uneasily across his weapon.
“Just cowboy jewelry,” he scoffs quietly. “Hasn’t been loaded for years. I’d only use it if I were dead certain…and I’m not there yet.”
“Certain about what?”
He doesn’t answer, just pats the ledge beside him. “Make yourself comfortable. I’d like to talk. You don’t have to listen. I just need to talk.”
I take my place next to him. For a moment we sit in silence, absorbing the morning as it makes its opening statement in the sky for the new day.
“I’m one of those restless souls,” he begins in a hushed tone, almost confessional. “I came at it from different angles – wild youth, semi-pro baseball, some social work. But mostly I’ve been a soldier…a bad one, haunted by nightmares. A few years ago I lived in a monastery trying to shake them off.”
“Did they go away?” I ask.
Again, he doesn’t answer. “War never ends, you know…it just changes uniforms. For guys like me, even when the tanks disappear and the gunshots stop, it doesn’t let up. Wherever you are – home, out drinking with the boys, the fight stays in the blood like a running engine. And if there’s no enemy…you turn in on yourself cause you don’t like who you are, what you stand for…you don’t…”
The words suddenly stop and hang mid-air. His eyes drift to the muddy journey of the river below.
I want to say something but don’t. He’s in the flow, following some internal cadence.
After a while, he stands up, leans on the railing and starts to talk quietly like a wind blowing across the waters. But the words are strong, painting eloquent pictures of crashing helicopters, firebombed villages…the heady power of holding an M–16…the horror of its aftermath.
The stream of thoughts go on and on into the late morning…as if finally released after centuries of being pent up. Much of the time he speaks about Male domination – the bully strongmen in the neighborhood or on the world stage. He doesn’t address men, themselves…but the culture that men inherit growing up. Like a uniform, he says, handed down from generation to generation…the mandate to follow its code. For many, it’s a blueprint that traps like a cage: Man up! Always be strong. Intimacy is the language of the weak. You buy into that and you’re asking for trouble.”
He shrugs. “I’m not offering excuses here. Violence, crimes of the heart – all reprehensible. But some might argue…no matter what…we’re all God’s children. And some of God’s children figure it out…a lot don’t. A few, like me, end up feeling like an unknown soldier…sitting on a bridge at dawn holding a military handgun.”
He pauses to glance up at the lightening sky above before continuing. “It’s out of balance, son. We need a regime change.”
“How do you mean?”
“We’ve put women through unspeakable hardships. Unspeakable…and ongoing,” he says shaking his head. “But women are the real hope. They have a better connection with the heart, bring an understanding of things that’s been missing. It’s their time – we either support them or get out of the way.”
We both nod, then he gazes out across the river. I lean back, close my eyes and let the sun wash over me.
For a long time my thoughts linger with the soul of this unknown soldier…his courage and quest for balance.
Timeless moments later, unwilling to open my eyes, I feel the bridge shift slightly. It could have been my mysterious friend walking away, crossing over to the other side. It could have been my imagination. A few seconds later, I thought I heard a sound that came from the river. It might have been the splash of the soldier’s gun hitting the water. It might have been the cry of the wind.