I used to be able to crank out twenty pull-ups and a nineteen minute 3-mile run while legally drunk. But times change. Pull-ups are now excruciatingly hard, and I now run just a tad over desert-tortoise-speed. If I decide to go all in on a drinking session, I’m terminally ill for three days. But I’m still out there most days, putting one foot in front of the other, just like I did in the glory days. Running has become a form of active nostalgia for me; my own personal space where no one gets to bug me. Not my family, not my work, not the crushing responsibilities normally eating away at me. The dirt roads of Spangle, Washington are a place where the only company I keep are my past selves, and occasionally my Golden Doodle, Joan Didion.
The temperature was below freezing, the sun trying to get as far away from me as possible. Daylight fell into the Palouse horizon as I put on layers and checked batteries in preparation for a night run. I have a pre-run checklist that I’ve put in place over the years, another echo from my time as a knuckle dragger with the grunts of Second Battalion, Third Marines. My list includes function checks on comms (iPhone), PPE (A reflective vest because I’m worried I’m going to get hit by a teenage-girl-driven grain truck), weapon (I run with a small pistol because I’m worried I’m going to be either eaten by a mountain lion, abducted by aliens, or attacked by an Al Qaeda sleeper cell operating in Spangle), and the doggo. Check on all. The doggo comes with me unless she is particularly tired from a day filled with corralling goats and indiscriminately massacring the rodents that surround our country property. On this night, she was well rested, and I could tell she was excited to get out after dark, as if she was getting away with something.
I checked everything and stepped out on the road. The ground was frozen, the beam from my headlamp illuminated millions of ice crystals on the gravel road. Steam followed each breath as I kneeled to attach the leash to the dog collar, my reward a slobbery kiss that smelled like the painful death of a thousand rodents. But Joan’s excitement was contagious. I felt alive as the gravel and ice began to crunch under my feet. It felt good knowing people were sitting on their asses in their warm houses when Joan and I were out getting some.
I decided on no music or podcasts that night, instead focusing on my breath and the rhythmic thump of my feet hitting the gravel. Each night run connects me to my past, an unbreakable rod connecting my late teens and early thirties. Each run brings me to that first time I left friendly lines and stepped out on foot in a war zone. It was the first time in my short life that I actually felt alive.
My squad was the acting Quick Reaction Force for the Forward Operating Base. We were the baby-faced ground pounders tasked with throwing on our gear and running after the midnight grenade throwers that stalked our little corner of Iraq. I had only been on the FOB a couple of days, and all I had done was stand post, which basically meant stand there and sweat in a small wooden box and wait to get either shot or mortared. But for some reason the FOB felt safe, like it was already home. Our little America where the bad things couldn’t get us. It was an absurd notion. Marines would be killed and wounded on the FOB. It was barely safer than the open streets. But there was an electric allure to going outside the wire, and I wanted to feel the current transfer from my boots to my soul.
When we got the wake-up call that it was indeed time to hurry up and get our shit on, I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt like a little kid standing in line at an amusement park. Reality had yet to crush my romanticism, so to me this was all still fun and games, and that’s what it felt like when we left that last hooped strand of concertina wire for our first foot patrol.
We didn’t have enough rifles to arm the weapons platoon Marines now spread throughout the company. Nor were there enough machine guns to give a machine gunner like myself a belt fed beauty to call my own. I carried a borrowed rifle as I followed the point man around the twisting alleys that surrounded the FOB. We were forced to operate a kind of hot rifle, exchanging weapons with Marines who had just gotten back from patrol. It was absurd, but we were all abstracts in an absurdist’s world, and it wouldn’t be until years later that we would all realize how ridiculous our existence was out there on the frontier of the war on terror. So there I was. All dressed up like a GWOT Laura Ingalls, with my Kevlar bonnet fastened, my immaculate combat boots tied tightly, and my borrowed rifle.
We stepped off and abstract became reality. An electric current sparked through my body as we creeped around the base looking for creepers. I was forced to be truly present for the first time in my life. I felt alive. It all felt too natural, like this tension was where humans were supposed to exist, this razor’s edge of life or death. We moved with stealth and speed, at least as much stealth and speed as a clumsy teenager with a hundred pounds of gear and a borrowed rifle could muster. I remember feeling like the boy who had grown up playing G.I. Joe had come full circle.
Nothing happened that night, I’m sure we were too noisy and awkward to sneak up on anyone. Perhaps the boogie man that night was just a shadow moving around in a sleep deprived teenager’s mind when he frantically grabbed his post radio and initiated this little adventure of mine. But I remember the electricity, the surge of excitement as I racked a round into the chamber and things went from pretend with green plastic targets and range rules, to real life bad guys and the laws of combat.
Of course, it’s silly to compare my little night runs to combat patrols, but I can’t help but feel that little spark, that faint jolt of electricity that I used to feel. This is one of the many reasons I continue to put on my running shoes every day. There are the health benefits, but I normally erase most of those benefits with bourbon and BBQ. The hairy yeti that now runs with a designer poodle knock-off is a far cry from the raging 19-year-old machine gunner who survived on hate and cheap booze. But running is my way of introducing the two to each other; my way to get them together so they can make fun of each other. Both parties involved are ridiculous humans, but both have qualities I want to hold on to. One is young and fearless, the other old and riddled with the psychic bullet holes that come when truth collides with youth. Running is their shared medium, their way of speaking through the decade that separates the two.
Ice crystals of snot and moisture cling to my beard. I can see the reflective address on my mailbox. Five miles is coming to an end. I stop at my driveway and unhook Joan’s collar. She bolts away toward the house, tail wagging, barking at nonexistent threats to the homestead. I log my run into my watch and follow the dog, already looking forward to my next run, my next footfall conversation I can have with the young Marine. I smile as I walk, thankful I’m not still that young Marine I used to be, grateful that he ever existed.
Kacy Tellessen served as a machine-gunner with Second Battalion, Third Marines from 2005 to 2009. He lives in Spangle, Wash., with his wife and two children.