July 2002, Oneida Tennessee
It had less to do with 9/11 and more to do with being stuck.
If he remains in Oneida, he will walk the same route as his uncles before him. If he is fortunate (which he is not) that might mean escaping Scott County for Youngstown, Ohio and a job with the Iron Worker’s Union, a stint in a casino before reaching the furthest western shores of the US, or the option of a cabin deep in the woods, complete with a still and a supply of shine. Because he knows he is unfortunate, Austin’s options include becoming invisible, twinned to his past, earning an historical account of felonious arrests, or disappearing into the bottle, searching for its bottom. Nine uncles plus his father give Austin ten different choices and the only one that sounds the least bit melodious is to walk the same path as his uncle, Samuel Drennen Coe, who died two years before Austin was born. So Samuel’s life is of no use to him, but his path and his tradition seem like the only reasonable way to escape.
As a small boy, Austin tried explaining this to Martha, his sister older by two years. Martha, at nine, already consumed with the idea that magic would change her world, Martha who believed that buttons could hold fortunes and wishing on stars might make things change. At seven, Austin understand that his sparrow mama Janice wasn’t ever going to be present enough to be present; fleeting and flitting like a spring bird from branch to branch, looking for anything that might support her weight. Harlan wasn’t going to be much use either, caught in the mobius strip of exiting and entering the judicial system over and over. It was his aunt Hazel who taught Austin that it might be possible to escape if he was willing to work hard at it. When Austin asked Hazel what that meant, she squinted her eyes to slits and shrugged. Go play the lottery or something, she slurred, already too deep into her evening ritual of mourning with wine coolers to think clearly. But the kernel of Hazel’s words was enough to make Austin realize it would be possible to escape. Oneida is a black hole that looks like stardust from the edges but is really just waiting to cave in on itself. Again, Austin tried to talk to Martha about this, but he may as well have been explaining the concept of forever.
With no one to listen to him, Austin spent his childhood in the woods around Granny’s house, looking for arrow heads and wishing he were somewhere else. On holidays when the whole family gathered to roast a pig and eat potato salad, Austin listened close to his uncles stories and on the rare occasion that Viron came down from the hill, Austin listened closest to Viron’s re-tellings of Uncle Samuel’s boyhood. It was with those stories in mind that Austin strolled into this recruiter’s office inside his high school and signed his papers to enlist in the Marine Corps. The single two paged application asked basic information and it took Austin less than fifteen minutes to complete. He handed it to the blonde recruiter whose bun looked more severe than any hairstyle Austin had ever seen. She told him someone would be in touch soon, and Austin went on to his next class. Two weeks later, he graduated and told Martha his plans. Marhta blinked twice and called for Granny.
“Austin’s decided he’s going to go die,” Martha said to Granny.
Granny looked at him and then at the triangle flag that had draped Samuel’s coffin. “Better get to it then,” she said.
That was eight weeks ago.
Today, Martha has insisted on a celebratory lunch, something to mark the occasion of his departure. It’s the thickest of July, the kind of day better spent in creeks and woods. Hollyhocks have taken over the streets. Martha is clinging to details about my leaving because she’s nervous and scared. She looks at me sideways, pretends like she doesn’t see me pull on my gold and red lanyard, the one he’s been wearing around his neck since May. Exceeding the standard is the standard. You’re not average anymore. You’re a Marine. Act like it. Live it. Become it. There is no future for you outside the Corps. We are your family now.
Hollyhock takes over any chance of hope
I’m clinging to details because I want to understand the root of this sudden need to defend country and honor. Since Austin came home that day in May, he’s been peppering his conversation with the most oblique facts, info I guess he’s going to need once he’s in uniform. All of a sudden, the only thing he wants to talk about is weaponry. And when he gets too excited about that, Austin shifts to random details about fitness and his “new standards” as a Marine. I want to ask him why he doesn’t just adopt the standards for himself and fuck the Marines, but I’m trying to be supportive. Over the last week, as his departure crept closer, Austin’s favorite factoids have been about his new battle armor that he’ll receive when he goes to Iraq and the kinds of weapons he will train with.
Interceptor Body Armor designed in the late 90s is supposed to be good enough to withstand the newest desert war. When he says this to me, I don’t ask why the Marines felt the need to add a qualifier to before “desert war.”
The basic infantry weapon is a M27 IAR. IAR stands for infantry automatic rifle.
Austin tugs on his lanyard and sets his spine straight, gaze forward. He leaves tomorrow. One step in front of the next, his feet move on two skis. We’re walking to Taco Bell for lunch, even though I suggested we go to Preston’s for steak instead. But Austin told me that there was nothing Preston’s had that Taco Bell didn’t. I decided not to correct him, let him have the win. The IAR is lightweight, magazine-fed 5.56mm rifle.
In the eight weeks since signing up to become a future Marine, his shoulders have become boulders, forearms all sinew and rope. He’s wearing thick Walmart boots with steel toes and socks pulled halfway up his calves. Heat trapped in the blacktop transports me to the summer when Harlan first got picked up. Blackberries bursting in my mouth that day, his arrest, those handcuffs. That day, his neck was straight too, his gaze direct. I think about making a joke along the lines of his soon to be tan lines, but Austin doesn’t like to joke, anymore. What I don’t say is how long do I have to hold on, pretending everything is the same. The air smells like grease and chili powder. Teak wood creates fake promises of shade. I’m beginning to feel like I’m going to overheat but Austin is taking his time, and I want to remember this walk so I force down my hurry. I ask him one more time, just in case he wants to change his mind.
At Taco Bell, for their last in person conversation
“You sure you don’t want to go to Preston’s instead?”
“What’s Preston’s have that Taco Bell doesn’t?”
“Well for one thing, steak. But also, I don’t know. I guess this is kind of like a special day?”
“I guess. But not really. You’ll see me right after graduation anyway.”
“How long is basic, again?”
“One, it’s called Boot Camp. I’m not in the Army. And two. It’s only thirteen weeks. Not even that long, honestly.”
We’re finally at the door but Austin doesn’t open it. He looks at me, for the first time in as long as I can remember.
“You know why I’m doing this, right? It’s not even that I’m ready to go fight a war. But I have to get out of here. There’s nothing here. If I stay, I’ll just end up dead.”
There’s a pocket of tears beginning to form in my eyes and before I can blink away the feelings, one escapes. I nod instead of speaking.
“Okay so that’s fine then, right? I mean, you know that you’re always going to be my sister.”
I reach out, half attempt a hug, something that we never do. Austin pulls open the door and a blast of air freezes the fear and love right in my heart. We order too many burritos and tacos, prepared by former classmates and ex-cons, and I finally begin to see Oneida for how he sees it.
“I get it,” I finally say between a mouthful of chalupa.
Austin takes a big drink of his Dew. “Probably won’t be having much of this when I’m there,” he says. I don’t know if he means the Dew, the Taco Bell, or the conversation, so I just nod.
“Well you get to write letters too,” a swig of carbonated sugar, the taste of fire sauce thick on my tongue.
“Yeah but I mean, I don’t think many people do. The whole point is to learn to be part of a unit and to be a Marine. I think I’m probably not going to write much, just so you know.”
Austin crumbles the thin transparent sheets of taco wrapper paper into small mountains. He leans back and looks just like our father. I consider telling him this and then change my mind.
“Did you know that the IBA provides ultimate protection against fragmentary effects of IEDS?” he asks, once the silence has become too thick.
I tell him I did not know that,
On 4 May 2005, the USMC recalled the IBA because it couldn’t stop a 9mm bullet, let alone protect against fragmentary IEDs, but Austin was already dead. When Martha returns to this Taco Bell eighteen months later, she’ll remember the confidence and certainty of her brother’s rush off to war.
Austin’s Beginning, His End
One foot in front of the other. If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. Marines are who we are because we do what others can’t. Never call your weapon a gun: it’s so much more than that. Keep your “Go Fasters” close and get to chow early: The five take-aways from my meeting with my recruiter Troy, a boulder of a dude with a shaved head and a banged up thick wedding band on his left hand. I’m not supposed to call him Troy, supposed to call him by his rank and last name, but I’m talking to myself here, so it’s not that big of a deal. Troy told me to expect to write a lot of letters during boot camp, but since there’s no one to send them to, I guess I’ll just write to myself, which feels weird and nothing I would ever do if I were back home.
Before I got on the bus to take me to Nashville,Before getting here, I kept repeating these facts over and over, mainly because I couldn’t believe I was getting the chance to become a Marine. Now that I’m here, this all feels sort of inevitable. em. Impossible because let’s face it: the only thing I have going for me is this right here. Martha kept trying to pretend like this was going to be something temporary, a quick fix for me becoming grown. But I already know this is it, no matter what else happens. Joining the Marines during a war is a sure way to see some action, and if it’s anything like the games, I think I’m ready for it.
Granny didn’t say anything that day I came home and told her I’d signed my contract. Just sucked her teeth and pursed her lips the way she does when she gets a repeat pregnant woman come looking for teas.
Martha’s been trying to pretend like me becoming a Marine is something passing. But I already know that this is it for me. Better than ending up like Harlan, penned and trapped. Or like Janice, lost to wherever. I guess they were my parents at some point, but I don’t remember. What Martha doesn’t get but Troy understood immediately is I need to belong to something, somewhere. Otherwise, I’ll spend my life searching. Already watched my uncles do enough treasure hunting to last a few generations and they all came back with the same result. No gold to be found, look elsewhere. More like – no relief to uncover, drink until you’re stupid.
Guess I could have gone up to Youngstown, tried to make it with Uncle Foster. Or gone into the hills looking for Viron and his still. We’ve been living so close to the graves of kin that it feels impossible to escape the shadow of my family. California is a long ways off, and even though I never told Martha – I actually asked for it because North Carolina just felt too close.