Under Silhouetted Pine Trees
by Adam Stumle
“As I write this, I can still feel that tightness. And I want you to feel it–the wind coming off the river, the waves, the silence, the wooded frontier. You’re at the bow of a boat on the Rainy River. You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared, and there’s a hard squeezing pressure in your chest. What would you do?”
The words are quoted from one of Tim O’Brien’s most emotional moments in his book The Things They Carried, when he broke the fourth wall, took a breath from the story, and told me, the reader, what he was feeling. He shared with me, what these words, about one of the hardest experiences of his life, meant to him.
August 2009. Two weeks in the military had passed. My platoon and I had all agreed: this was not what we wanted to do. People dropped out like dead bodies in a war. The ones who left became like dead people we never heard from again. I got a small insight into how we focus on the people who were alive, the people who were there with us, the friend next to you. Unfortunately I did not make many friends. The officers targeted me. I was the insecure recruit. I wandered off when everyone else was yelling, I stood in the window looking at the stars, feeling the breeze, enjoying a moment to breathe while everyone else was lined up to perfection. “Who’s standing at the window?” The officer would yell. “I do Sir!” “Why?” “I don’t know Sir…” He yelled at me to get back in line. Nothing made sense to me. I did not want to be here.
I have claustrophobia. I thought claustrophobia could only be applied to physically small spaces. I was wrong. I was locked inside a small mental space that did not allow me to be the creative person I am. I stopped thinking about my dreams. I stopped practicing philosophy. I wanted to get out. While trying to find peace where there was chaos, I only found my heart beating faster and faster for every day I was in the military. In the beginning I was excited. After two weeks I was ready to leave. I did not care what I had to do. I needed to get out.
That night I was lying in my open tent. I was wearing my sweaty clothes even though we were supposed to have taken them off. I was afraid I would lose them in the dark. That day I had embarrassed myself in front of the officers: I had lost my canteen and I had left my locker open. I had to promise my officer I would get better. Hours later I burnt my hand on boiling water. I was a wreck and this was the worst day of my life.
I like to analyze regret. How impossible it is to accept that you cannot change what has happened. How we wish we could find this superpower to turn back time. How almost imagining that this is not real, soon to wake up from my dream, can actually make me feel better, and let go of the illusion of regret.
I could not breathe and I could not sleep. Heart beating faster and faster. My stomach turned inside out. I felt like I was in a tight space where the walls were closing in. I kept telling myself: “I can’t do this, I need to leave, I can’t be here for a second longer, I am going to quit.” In that moment I saw something. I realized for the first time where I was.
I was in a forest, lying in my tent with a mosquito net over my face. I could see the stars in contrast to the dark sky. I inhaled the smell of the forest: pine, grass, and fresh air. I listened to the wind. A calm swoosh that you could only hear if you tried to listen to the sound of silence. It was like I was alone in the forest and all I could hear was that breeze caressing the trees. Under the dark blue sky I saw the silhouette of pine trees. Dancing in the cold breeze. My heartbeat calmed, I could breathe, and I woke up from my nightmare. I was filled with a strange peace that almost made me feel hollow after the anxiety I had just experienced. My mind was clear and I suddenly remembered a dream from my past: “I’ve always wanted to go camping.” I found an unexpected resolve: I am here in the military to become one with nature. I wanted to be a paramedic but I still choose to become a soldier. Why was that?
As I write this, I can still feel my heartbeat rising from the anxiety I felt that day.
I don’t want to remember it. That boy who burnt his hand and mentally snapped after only two weeks reminds me of how pathetic I can be when put in a tight spot. How I chose to cry instead of conjuring the strength to grow up. I don’t like to think about my past self. It reminds me too much of the hero in my dreams that I could never be. What I do like to remember though are those silhouetted trees that were dancing in the breeze. I will never forget the peace I was filled with. The peace I found in a world of chaos.
September 2009. The summers in Sweden can be quite tough for a country that experiences snow during winter. The sun hits hard during the day and in the evening the air is still warm. You can easily sleep outside without a sleeping bag or a bed sheet but the worst part is honestly the freaking mosquitos. During winter you freeze. During summer you get bit by mosquitos. At the time I would never think like that. I had never camped before. It was on my guilty list. I think we all have those things we wish we had done but it just never happens. Camping in the wild and becoming one with nature. That was on my list.
I remember this summer day was like any other summer day. Except I had just left my island and my Dad’s friend had just picked me up from the boat. I remember the smell of salt water, the strong winds, and a smell, a smell that was different from home. We drove towards the capital of Sweden. As I write this, I think about the innocence and the excitement to explore a new world. I feel sad for myself when I remember how unaware I was of what was about to happen after that warm summer day. The day I joined the military.
Spring 1998. Another day at my best friend Ricky’s home. We used to play after school. At that age you still said play, not hang out. I always find the transfer humorous. My friend Ricky had two elder brothers. I had no siblings. Ricky’s brothers influenced him. This was during the Nintendo age and violent games were popular. Ricky loved these games that his brothers played. He could be quite violent at times. “Are you going to enlist in the Army?” he asked, “The what?” “The army, where you learn how to shoot a gun. My brother is there now. He says it’s tough.” I told him I did not know.
I had personally never thought about it, I did not want to go to war. What good will that do me? He knew though. Ricky knew he was going to do it. Ricky was that kind of friend you had to compete with. The one who will run off screaming “beat you to the forest” and you just had to beat him. If he was enlisting in the Army, so was I. We were eight years old. Ten years later, Ricky had fallen behind one year in school. I enrolled in the military. He did not.
May 2008. The night before my military assessment test. I was scrolling through an endless list of options. Army. Navy. Air force. I remember sitting in my room late into the morning. It was warm and I did not feel very pleasant. I had no idea what I was going to choose. I came upon this article about a man who was denied being an amphibious soldier. However, he had brought it up to court and he did not stop until he was granted permission to be recruited as an amphibious soldier. I had heard about these soldiers.
I met one at a wedding where I just happened to work as a server. “Have you killed anyone?” I asked. The man was a few years older than me and had a certain understanding for my questions. “That is a very insulting question,” he replied. There was no harshness in his tone. Rather, it was educational.
That evening he told me about the pride of the amphibious soldiers and how their motto was to always adapt to the terrain and their only goal was to always solve the problem. It was the only memory I had of amphibious soldiers. I never did decide on what I wanted to be. I went to bed that night before the military assessment test thinking: “I’ll figure it out tomorrow.”
An officer told me the next day during my interview that I should be a Military Police, I told him no. I am going to become an amphibious soldier. As I write this, I feel a dark clog in my stomach, a tremble from my past. I still wonder sometimes why I did not choose to become a paramedic like my swimming coach, the man I looked up to.
December 2009. New Year’s Eve. I had been home for two of my three weeks break from the military. I was unfortunate to fall in love. She had surprised me that night.
I already had a date but I could not let go of this girl. Her name was Erika and she just mesmerized my mind. She had this fixation with psychology and how humans behave. She would teach me mind games and how to read body language. We could talk for hours about psychology. Or I would do most of the talking. I admire her patience for listening to all my crap. It was not until I accidentally looked at her back that I, without realizing it, had my first attraction to her. She was clever, the smartest woman I’ve ever met, and I will never forget that perfume. It was sweet but passionate. I don’t know how you can describe a scent as passionate but if you would smell that perfume, you would understand.
We would lie in bed and I could not make a move without her knowing why. She could read my body like a book: she knew when I was nervous, interested, and excited. We would touch without saying a word. A poem uttered in silence that only our bodies could understand. It was mesmerizing. I had just started to get used to the military and when I was ready to go back in, all I could think about was Erika. Our relationship was simple. Each weekend I came home and spent the warm nights with her. Each Sunday I left and spent the cold weeks in the forest.
They say that war is hell. If anything, the military did feel like a prison. A prison I had to go back to every Sunday for five months. We were never given more than a weekend off. I feel like I am crying about this because I know a man who spent thirty-six years in prison. I can never imagine what that would be like. I can only imagine what a year in the military is like. Erika always told me I was depressed during Sundays. Sunday depression she called it. The day of the week I had to go back to my life as an amphibious soldier.
March 2010. Miles and miles. Hours and hours. We learned how to appreciate a ten-minute break in the forest. We learned to appreciate any sleep we received. After being yelled at by officers who were educated to make us feel depressed, I learned how to smile when someone told me their professor was a horrible person because they were mean to them in class. I found role models in the military and built a confidence I live with to this day. So far I’ve only broken once in my life and that was on the 11 of March 2010. We had been at it for three days. Marching, shooting, carrying backpacks, anything to torture us. This exercise was about finding confidence in pain by experiencing it to the fullest.
By the end of this exercise I found myself running. My legs could not carry me anymore. I was drenched in sweat. Behind me I heard my friends shouting. They were as tired as I was but they had to carry each other. I was carrying the radio so I thought I would do best to just continue. I did not stop. Lungs frozen. This was wintertime in Sweden. I was in another world. I don’t know how my legs kept moving. I kept going until I was ready to collapse and despite that I did not stop: “I have to move on. I can’t fall behind because I can’t help my friends.” I wanted to, but I was too scared of becoming a burden. I could only help my friends by making myself one less person to carry. “I have to keep going.”
The past three days we had only been given four meals of food, two hours of sleep, and we must have marched at least forty miles. This was the end of the exercise and I was ready to collapse. My body bruised. Skin torn. The radio had pounded my back for hours. I remember after the exercise Erika was shocked when she saw my naked body: scars, wounds, and a new anorexic thin look. This was it, this have to be the end. I reached the rendezvous point, and collapsed. I do not remember how long I got to sit there and rest while I waited for my friends to catch up with me. I was relieved. “Please, no more,” I thought. Little did I know that in a few minutes, I would experience the most excruciating moment in my life.
I did not know how many hours had passed. I did not know how we could carry this box of 140 pounds through all this snow. They told us later it was filled with sand. The handles were located on the short ends so we could only walk two steps and then we fell down in the snow. The snow reached above my knees. Two steps. Fall. Get up. Fall. Get up. Fall. I wrote about regret earlier. I have never felt so much regret in my life. I was back where I was on my first night before the silhouetted pine trees. I did not want to be here. I want to go home. I want to leave.
“You will never become amphibious soldiers,” yelled Sergeant Anderson, a short man, just two years older than me. A semi officer who had been ordered to cause us as much mental pain as possible while we struggled to plow through the snow. Anderson told us we were worthless, how we should give up, that we would never make it, and to put pressure on us he came up with deadlines we could never achieve. Being tired is one thing, but the fear and anxiety of not even making it to become an amphibious soldier was a torment. I never felt so pitiful in my entire life. I can’t describe the pain in my legs, the thirst for water, the excruciating ache in my body, the hunger, and the guilt. We were surrounded by a dark forest, which echoed with officers screaming at the other groups.
We were eight guys and it took four of us to carry the box. Every time I asked to be relieved I saw the face of my next comrade drop. The guilt of letting everyone down the moment you could not carry the box anymore. Your fingers always gave in first. After that you felt your arm numbing. After that your legs stopped working. Eventually the box would break into the back of your knee. After four hours of doing this, I don’t even remember how we made it. I felt the way you feel when you’re sick and depleted but the thought of how long we still had to go was the worst. “This is impossible. I can’t do this. I want to be done. There is only one way and that is to make it to the finish line. One final push before we fall.” We lifted the box with legs aching, with arms soar, and with cracked fingers we all just dove into the snow again. I snapped. A sudden rage, I grabbed on to the box and yelled. “I will carry this box all the way myself.” I dragged it maybe ten, fifteen, or twenty feet through the snow. “You worthless pricks, look at him. He’s carrying the box by himself,” yelled Sergeant Anderson. I did not do it so my superior could harass my comrades. I did it to get closer to home. I was desperate. Anything to shorten the distance would make our lives easier. I did not want to be here. I thought about Erika, her warm body under a bed sheet during a cold winter night. I collapsed in the cold snow, not really sure what was real and not.
As I write this, my hands are trembling. My soul is shivering. That night was the worst night in my life of being twenty-five years old. We made it, but I will never forget what it did to me. No challenge that I have faced after that has ever pushed me that far. Today I smile. Today I am proud because I know the truth about regret. It was something I have always studied with interest. How can we deal with these impossible thoughts? I may not know how to deal with regret, but I do know how to prevent it. Never give up. No matter how hard a challenge may be you never give up. Because if you do you will always wonder what it would have been like to make it. The seed to regret lies in giving up. The military taught me how to find peace where there is chaos. If I would have given up during those life-changing nights in the military, I know I would have lived with regret for the rest of my life.
June 2010. Just like the military had introduced me to the worst moments in my life, to graduate from the military was the greatest sense of accomplishment I ever felt. No college degree, film production, or job will ever beat that. I was free and I needed that freedom to continue.
As I write this, I remember the 25 of June. This is the moment I described. When the writer takes a breath and feels the emotion of his memory before he starts writing about it. As I write this. I have tears. The 25 of June we were free.
We performed our last march on that base. The base that had haunted us for eleven months. It was a sunny day and every officer was on the base. Every officer that had yelled at us now saluted us on our way out. With tears of joy we could see the gate that would relieve us from our duty. Many filmed the march with their phones. I thought about that night with the silhouetted pine trees. The night I made my choice to stay in the military. That night in the breeze where I calmed my heart and convinced myself to not give up and finish what I’ve started. We passed the gate and a roar erupted. We were free. We drank. We celebrated. We cried. These were friends whom I had laughed and suffered with for a year and this was the day we went separate ways. I will never be able to think about the last moments with my brothers without sadness. I have not seen them since.
July 2010. Two weeks after I was free from the military I broke up with Erika. It was very simple. She wanted more. I wanted freedom. I had spent fourteen years in a pattern of school years and summer breaks. This was the first time in my entire life that I could see my life ahead of me without a definite schedule to follow. The life I saw was like the silhouettes of those pine trees dancing in the wind. I had spent every week for the past eleven months in a claustrophobic guilt that strangled my sense of freedom. I thought that when I finally found this freedom it would give me peace. It drove me nuts.
I don’t think Erika understood. I had spent a year fighting through the worst challenges of my life and now I had to go back and live a normal life? When I think back on that day I don’t feel relief, I feel guilt. It was hot. Her room was boiling. I was sweating. I sometimes wonder if things would have been different if she’d agree to have sex with me that morning. The heat did not go away, I walked outside and the heat was still there. I sat for two hours under a tree contemplating on what to say, what would happen, and how much pain I would cause her. I didn’t give her a hint or sign. This came out of nowhere and I knew it would devastate her. When I walked back to see her, I still didn’t know how to say it in a good way. Just like I did not know what to choose the day I decided to become an amphibious soldier.
“What is it?” She asked. I was speechless. It took me ten minutes of silence before I found the guts to say something to her. She was in tears but she kept her pride intact. She did not say much. She just started collecting my things. When she came to my toothbrush, it was too much. For some reason I’ve never been good at crying. I remember when I was maybe five years old and I saw my friend cry I thought, I could never do that. It’s too embarrassing. When I saw my toothbrush I started crying. It was the first thing she ever gave to me. Before we were official, I came back on a Friday night from the military and she said with a giggly smile: “I have a gift for you.” It was a green toothbrush. The simplest one you could get. “Because you always forget yours at home,” she said. It was not my teeth I was happy for. It was the invite. The symbol of Erika saying it was ok for me to stay at her place, the token of her wanting me there. She was my first girlfriend and I left her on that warm day without a good explanation, only silence, and tears.
I broke up with Erika that summer after the military because I was still living in a cage. I wanted to break free from the shackles of my own mind. Poor woman, she had nothing to do with it. I was cursed by my own thoughts and I needed a break from my life, from school, from the military, and relationships. I needed a break from everything. I convinced myself that to avoid regret you can’t ever give up, but what about happiness? All this pain and I never asked myself what would make me happy. I learned a lot from the chaos of the military, but I don’t know how many times I keep asking myself to this day: was it all worth it?
After the military I made myself a promise. I promised myself I would never put myself through this shit again. I wanted happiness. I did not want to overcome my fear or weakness. I wanted to be happy. I spent my entire life doing what I thought was best for me: school, work, military. But when was I going to start living a life based on something that I was excited to do? Something I could long for. Something that would let me exercise all the strength and energy that I wasted on such a useless thing as the military. What is a life well spent unless you make it count? All these dreams I have. When am I going to start living them? What the military ultimately taught me was that to enjoy life you need to learn how to appreciate the smallest of moments.
Tim O’Brien wrote in his book: “At its core, perhaps, war is just another name for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive. The grass, the soil – everything… You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self – your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by the force of wanting it.” I do not know what it is like to be in a war but I do know what he is talking about. Live in the moment. Carpe Diem: Catch the day. My professor and I agree. Carpe Diem is almost becoming more of a cliché these days, not what it stands for. Believe me, the words are good, but there’s a difference between knowing what’s right and understanding what’s right.
Before the military I did not know how to catch the day. You live life without living it. You let each day go by without making it matter. You complain about the small things instead of appreciating what you have. Like my professor told me, she’s a Buddhist: I’m here, I’m alive, I’m grateful. That’s all you need. When I had my days off from the military and came back to my island, I used to buy some cinnamon buns, a soda, go to a cliff by the ocean, enjoy the view, the bun, the soda, and the fact that in that moment I did not have to backpack with blisters for two days. I am free. I would never have done that before the military. I was too busy trying to get by in school, think about the future, and complain instead of just appreciating that I was alive. My only wish is that I learned how to apply that while I was in the military as well. To somehow, during those cold nights, simply appreciate that I was alive, I was among friends, that there wasn’t really any reason to not complain, and tell myself: Today I choose to be happy. In the depth of pain and hardship, we learn to appreciate life and if you are a true scholar of this philosophy, especially when life is tough, you will learn to make the best of it.
August 2011. The beer was bitter and sweet, the best beer I’ve ever had. I could not have picked a better spot. I was at a bar looking through windows the size of monuments purified by the sunset. Out there you could see the airplanes come and go. My plane departs early in the morning. I did not hesitate for a moment when I learned that there was a place beyond the seas where you could study acting for a year. The feeling was a pure and honest sensation of happiness and excitement. Not to mention the craziness of it. “Acting? America? Count me in!” Two weeks after I heard of it I had sent my papers and applied. I was ready for a new adventure.
It’s been two years since that first innocent day I was recruited. It took me six months to recover all the energy the military took from me. As I write this, I think about the day I decided to become an amphibious soldier and I compare it to the day I decided to go to America. Do I need to say more? On the other side of the Atlantic, where the sun shines for the entire year, no winter, no snow, not even any mosquitos, I took a look at my guilty list, and I looked my dreams in the eyes. I gave them a voice: “Bring me to life.” I discovered a different kind of fear, the one of living your dreams. But I have touched the doorsteps to hell. No way I am going to let anything stop me. I am twenty-five now and my guilty list is long, but I’ve started to cross them off. I’ve started to live my dreams, one by one. Giving up is fairly easy, compared to the pursuit of happiness.
As I write this, I don’t think I ever really did figure out why I joined the military. What I did learn however was that life is very short. And if you don’t stop to breathe for a moment, you might miss those peaceful silhouetted pine trees, dancing in the breeze.
Adam Stumle was surprised when he realized that writing is actually a lot of fun and good therapy. When he does not write he likes to think he is a filmmaker, cook food for others, exercise until he collapses, annoy his friends with philosophy, and live life to the fullest.