I grew up next door to a vegetable garden. It was quite large. At least 6 or 7 acres. I can remember the smell of the produce growing after the rain washed the heat off the plants. The spiciness of the cabbage and that unique smell from the cauliflower. I can remember the way that peppers smell still hanging from the bush. Green beans, corn, and pumpkin. There is a noticeable tang that comes from the leaves of any vegetable plant. Anybody that farms can tell you this. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was a smell I would never forget. I would yearn for it, and the sight of fog lifting itself from the fields as the sun burned away the heavy, damp spring weather.
I joined the army in the year 2000. It was a practical choice. My family didn’t have any money and I wanted to go to college. It was either factory work for the rest of my life, or do this for 4 years, call it quits and cash in. I didn’t foresee the epic mistake that I was about to make. When I first joined, things were, for the most part, copasetic. You did your job. People stayed out of each other’s business, and time kind of ticked away. My unit received orders for a peacekeeping mission to Kuwait. All seemed well. We were told we were to be given ammunition, but not allowed to fire it. If we accidently fired one round it would be a big deal. We got there, settled in for some nice desert sun, then 9/11 happened.
I won’t go in to it too deep. Everybody has their “Where were you when it happened?” story. But I will say that things started to change quite dramatically. Our leadership began a campaign with each other that was all about ‘Who could make their unit more prepared’. It wound us up pretty tight. Training happened often and unexpectedly. Then Saddam decided to have a little fun.
During my time in Kuwait, there were several air raid drills. They were designed to prepare us for an attack from Saddam. For decades since the gulf war in the 90’s they were there for training purposes to rehearse for the real thing. This was the year 2001. Before our invasion into Iraq and Afghanistan. One summer afternoon we heard the siren blare, and it was not a drill. Iraq had launched an active scud. We were told to get into bunkers and await further instructions. It was the most terrified I have been and will ever be. No person on earth should ever feel so helpless in their own future. My thoughts had been reduced to a never-ending repeat of ‘This is how I’m going to die. I’m going to get blown to smithereens. I don’t want to die like this’. On the other side of bunker, in gas masks, I could see hulkish figures heaving heavy sobs. Grown men crying, reduced to a primal, consuming fear. I wanted to go home.
The scud missile had been deemed a test by the Iraqi’s. It was detonated over their own land. I was safe, but I was not the same person when I came out of that bunker. I had been shown that my life was worth nothing more than the heartbeat inside my uniform. I had done nothing in my life worth merit. Nothing worth noting. In that half an hour inside that bunker the reason for me living had been reduced to nothing more than a target for another countries missiles. It was a thought that I would learn would follow me around for some time to come. Most veterans I talk to can relate to this.
When I got home I struggled, as most veterans do, trying to fit in to a place that I had outgrown. I tried several different hobbies and I tried to make music. I used my college money and went to school. I got a degree in a dying industry. I was flailing pretty hard. I had fun doing it, but something was wrong. I felt out of place, disconnected, used up in a way. I picked up rock climbing. I got married to the love of my life. We moved into a small house in the city and we got a dog. I got a good job where I was paid well, but the feeling of being disposable never left me. I sank into depression and the torment of feeling useless and ashamed. Then, more than anything, I wanted to revisit my childhood and get lost in the innocence that was there.
I began to yearn the smell of wet earth. I began craving the feeling of earth on my bare feet. I wanted to be in the silence that follows a storm. I wanted to watch rain drip off verdant leaves. I wanted to feel the dampness come off a field of vegetables. I wanted to smell the spiciness of tomato leaves. Above all other things: I wanted to watch things grow.
I started small, with only a couple of plants. A few corn stalks and a few tomato plants. Most walk-in closets have more space than my first garden did. I planted the seeds directly in the ground. I decided that even though I knew it would be easier to start them indoors, I liked the idea of the seed going in the ground.
When my first tomato plant popped its little jagged leaves out for the first time I was hooked, but it was more than simple pride in mastery over nature. It was more than a feeling of anticipation of harvesting my own tomatoes. I felt in control of something. I was responsible for something. I felt connected to something. I felt connected to the earth. I was growing my own nourishment. I was tending the very thing that was keeping me alive: Food.
As my garden grew I found myself looking at it after my night shift at 6 in the morning. I would spend an extra half hour in my small backyard while the rest of my neighborhood slept. It was strange how I loved to just look at what was growing. As the sun came up and revealed the dew drops on the green leaves a feeling of peace would come over me. I knew that no matter what happened while I slept, these plants would still be here. It didn’t matter if it were rain or wind or any summer calamity, the tenaciousness of the vines would endure. I learned from the plants. I learned that catastrophe happens to all living things. Whether it’s a scud missile, or a tomato worm, life will continue to try and bear fruit. Life in the garden began to reveal a reflection of how my life should be. I had been handed a rough deal, but not the roughest. My plants felt no self-pity, neither would I. My garden would always be there as a testament to how tenacious I should be in my own life. My garden would always try to overcome any obstacle to bear its fruit. My time to bear fruit was just beginning.