Walked a Labyrinth and stepped into Vietnam last night.
Trouble is . . . I liked it. Did not want to leave the maze despite what lay ahead. Strangely, I felt “safe” there. Secure in my “skills.” Didn’t want to come home. Just like years earlier.
The good news: I should be able to put this behind me. Bad news is that I’ll have the memories where ever I go.
Didn’t expect a flashback to occur when I entered the grasslands surrounding the Labyrinth in Lansdale, PA, 20 miles out of Philadelphia. I walked several before, only to find release and calm in the walk itself, not to mention the feeling of accomplishment in reaching an end point, the center of the maze. In this case, it was a huge gray boulder in the middle of a field of high grass mixed with small flowers growing wild in Stony Creek Park.
Six of us met prior to the walk, as our spiritual leader, Tracie Nichols, gathered us in a circle, her facing the setting sun, asking us to “listen” to the Earth call to us. I felt a tug, and chose to go first. Walked point sometimes while leading a combat platoon decades ago. Could do it again.
I began the trek, slowly moving one foot after another, dragging the toe as my leg swept the earth beneath before placing it squarely in front of me. It’s part of a “walking meditation” I learned from my Zen teacher two years earlier, and from a Buddhist monk I made offerings with at Omega Institute, upstate New York. He served in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner and dedicated his life to helping veterans with post traumatic stress (PTSD, but without the “disorder” part.)
My thoughts slowed and I walked peacefully on the path bordered by grass patches two to three-feet high in some areas. I saw worn spots in the path. Lines of trodden dirt where others had walked before. Birds called from nearby trees, and you could hear the cascading of water from a “fountain” that spewed water into the air and onto a pond less than 20 feet away.
Insects greeted me some 15 to 20 feet into the walk. Took little notice of ’em, remembering them from the “boonies” in Vietnam. Plus, I’m practicing Buddhism now, and we revere all life, including those of a mosquito world.
Hadn’t walked more than 10 steps when a member of our group passed me. The path was wide enough for two to walk abreast, with a little squeezing here and there. Did not mind. Tracie instructed us to walk our own pace and to walk by another if we so felt drawn.
Soon, I realized all others had walked by me. It was then that I “returned” to Vietnam. I remembered walking paths just like this one. High grass on one side and wooded area all around you. My focus was on the ground, like I normally did while meditating this way. Hands held together and across my chest had morphed into an M-16 semi-automatic rifle across the chest, like the one I carried as a First Lieutenant. A 21-year-old who discovered peace in that world despite the “firefights” he — I should say, I — knew would occur. You learned to appreciate the moment more. Feel Life like you never felt it before . . . and rarely since.
It was serene. Comfortable. Secure to know skills I developed and learned would serve me well. To always be on guard. Be hyper alert. Hyper vigilant. Trusting my instincts to take quick action, any action and not freeze or, worse yet, flee. Airborne! All the Way, Sir! Fleeing’s not in my make-up. Face the challenge head-on and deal with it, accomplishing the mission while also looking out for the welfare of your men.
You don’t know how simple it made life, there in the “‘ ‘bush.” Things were black or white, with few if any shades of gray. We were the good guys. The others, the bad. You believed, if needed, you’d give your own life to save that of your buddy. Nothing to do with patriotism or “my country right or wrong.” I guess you could say it was out of love and compassion for a guy who might end up saving your life. He always protected your back as you did his.
Too soon, those beliefs would be tested on returning home. There’s no “buddy system” in civilian life. No need to quickly fire on an enemy at the least provocation. No market for ex GIs trained to use “killing force” to bring battles to an end.
But all of that remains inside of you, doesn’t it, LT? That’s the name my troops called me, “LT,” short for lieutenant. Learned some leadership traits, thanks to Vietnam. Found I couldn’t shake ’em back here in the States and — looking back — I see where I tried to continue using them in some career choices: union organizer and activist, college newspaper editor and finally attorney leading a defendant through a maze we call the practice of law.
It all came back to me while walking the Labyrinth. All my men. None killed under my command, thank God. Proud of that fact, but what rears its ugly head is a reminder not everyone was as lucky. Like two guys in Second Platoon who were killed when setting up an ambush only to walk into trip wire that exploded a claymore mine. And themselves. I fell to the ground when I saw some small wild flowers in the maze. I picked some, as tears poured out mixed with the messy stuff I felt coming out the nose. Sobbing, I remembered Lt. Vic Ellinger, Third Platoon leader, whose killing by the Viet Cong haunts me today.
Getting up, I wipe my nose. To hell with my eyes.
Finish this God damn walk, I say, determined to push on like I did when the hurt first came and I could not show the emotion or the pain because I was in charge and had to show a “good example,” to bear up under such circumstances. I walk the maze with more vigor, more purpose with my head held a little higher, seeing the “finish line” and the main goal, the center of the maze, where I fall to the ground again, throwing my arms around the boulder and crying, only this time with a smile stretched across my face.
You made it, Michael J. You’re going to live and tell your story. You’ll Eat pepperoni pizza and see beautiful women of all shapes and sizes in flowing summer dresses whom you’ll fall in love with because of a love you share . . .
Tracie Nichols tells us that we can leave behind what we experienced in the Labyrinth. Had something to do with the Solar Eclipse and the New Moon. Yet, the seeds we planted — the hopes we raised — will continue to flourish when the Full Moon appears two weeks from now, she said. I’ll be back. Sans these Vietnam souvenirs. And with a new resolve to continue on this journey with a lighter heart and more compassion for what seekers find within their maze.