*go ahead and listen to the soundtrack while you read
Sometimes I drive at night to clear my head. There’s something about moving aimlessly in the dark that brings a certain perspective to all the chaos. And I listen to music. I love listening to music while I drive.
I was listening to one of my “Libera” albums when the theme from “Gladiator” came at me out of nowhere. I pulled it up on YouTube and a wave of memories hit me . . . hit me and rolled me under.
I am eighteen.
It’s Thanksgiving break. I am a high school senior. My younger brother, Noah, and I are house-sitting for some friends over the holiday while our folks go to visit our big brother who’s off at college. We fill the weekend with movies, and “Gladiator” is high on the list.
The movie begins and I am swept away by the sheer magnitude of Maximus’ world—the warrior, the journey, the loss. A month ago, I signed the paperwork and sold my soul to Uncle Sam. In May I will leave for boot camp. I will be a warrior too. What is it in the spirit of every boy that screams for something to test his mettle? Give me a battle; let me prove myself. I don’t know . . . but I will find out; I will find out what I’m made of. September 11 is nothing but a date right now. The world spins in peace. I know nothing of terrorist attacks. My perception of warfare comes from the films I’ve watched, the books I’ve read.
The passion, the weight of Maximus’ love for his wife rocks me. I have never loved a woman. I have never had my heart broken. Noah will one day be my best man, but I do not know this. Dating is not allowed in my small high school. I’m too busy anyway with school work, church, sports, piano. In the spring, I will win a writing contest and travel to Washington, D.C., where I will spend the weekend with other state winners from across the country. We will go to the White House and meet the President, we will go to Ford’s Theatre, we will celebrate, I may develop a crush, I will slow dance with a girl for the first time. This will all be new to me. But something inside me yearns for a woman to win and love. I tell myself I will do it well. I will not mess up.
I fight for achievement, for recognition. I am driven. My parents push me. My dad pushes me hard. I will graduate at the top of my class. I need these breaks from school, because high school is brutally hard. 5AM mornings and late nights will serve to make my upcoming freshman year in college almost a breeze. But I do not know this yet. All I know is that I have an inner voice that does not allow me to slack. I want to be the best. I have much to live up to.
I have not experienced great loss yet. My good friend is not dead. The tree he will be climbing while I am at boot camp this summer—the tree that will fall while he is still working in it—is still standing, but it is rotting even now. I do not know this. I do not know what it is like to get a letter that tells you your friend is dead. Standing by gravesides and asking unanswerable questions is not familiar to me yet.
Christmas will come soon. I will get together with my whole family—uncles, aunts, cousins, grandmas. I feel so much older than my little, innocent cousins; knowing I am leaving soon for the Marines makes me feel old. I feel a weight inside I cannot explain. I am scared. But I will not let anyone know. It will be a wonderful Christmas; they always are. Because I am surrounded by love. Because the entire world is open before me. Because life is still simple.
I am eighteen.