When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me about nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets. – James Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
I spent eighteen months in what was called South West Africa, in an army base close to the Angolan border. Morning, noon, and night I was with young men my age, eighteen years old. Some of us had never kissed a girl or heard the words “Know Thyself.” We slept in small green canvas tents, ate in larger ones, performed our daily duties, smoked passionately, spoke with intensity, and laughed until we cried or cried until we laughed. Thrown into a world both beautiful and grotesque, we tried to make the most out of a situation that we had been forced into. Freedom as we knew it, no longer existed and we were the property of the state. The first few months, despite the backdrop of war, and our different personalities, was a relatively calm time.
The corporal in charge of us was a patient man, who had been in the environment for fifteen months, and despite the fact that he was soon to go home, was attentive to the needs of the troops. After we shook his hand and bid him a fond farewell, we were left to our own devices, and things continued under the watchful eye of a Captain, who was mostly not present but rather relied on our ability to behave in an appropriate manner. When the two new corporals arrived, fresh from military school, we knew that everything they had been taught, was about to be flipped on its head. The environment was vastly different from the bureaucratic thought that dominated military schools. Respect and trust had to be earned, as it does in most rites of passage. Initially, we gave them the benefit of the doubt, hoping that despite their authority, they would open their minds to new learnings. Unfortunately, they assumed the role of sheriff and deputy, new in town and with a point to prove. I watched the barriers of separation constructed, each day
higher than the one before, and felt the urge to reach out and tell them about who these boys were, their life experiences, some from broken homes, others from stable households, internal conflict, rage, calmness, homemade tattoos, poverty, wealth, education or lack thereof. Duality rushing through my stream of consciousness. I never got the opportunity and they never saw the “Stop” sign that sat on top of a road tarred with bias, and in an effort to confirm their prejudice, misunderstood it or chose to ignore it, hurtled through it and on a warm night while the camp was asleep, rage found a home and the sheriff and his deputy got sent home via a military hospital. Broken bones, cuts, and bruises clouding the lens through which they chose to see the world. There was no court-martial, no witnesses. Silence.
The Captain called me to his office and told me to take command of the group before all hell broke loose. I struggled to comprehend why he had selected me. I was a most unlikely candidate, introverted, small in stature, always looking inward, trying to understand myself. Yes, I understood them, I was no stranger to
hardship and disappointment. We met and I asked them for their support and they agreed. I climbed into the labyrinth with them, the sadness and the madness. A place of no womanly splendor, no palatial ostentation, no sheriff at the door. We ran through the halls of stone and crouched in the corners and the corridors. We laughed and nobody had blood on their hands and we drank out of beer cans and it was our world. Calm.
The ingredients that shape a man may be fixed, I am not qualified to comment, but if heredity, the environment, and the situation are part and parcel of the recipe, then my life experience has to agree and disagree. We inherit the sins of our fathers, but we don’t have to cash them in. We can try to make sense of the environment and the situation only by living in it, “Walk a mile in my shoes.” Having said that, we are free to think, especially in open societies. I have never lived in a closed society, I have no comment. All I know is that despite that which molds who we are, we can rewrite our story. But first “Know Thyself.”