I took the wrong turn on my way to Ft. Hood on Sunday. It was a block too soon, just around the corner from the main gate. Wrong turns are where the meaning is, though, you realize later, when you arrive where you intended to go, distracted by where you’ve just been.
Four soldiers stood in a square at the entrance to a residential neighborhood on the base. They were in camouflage fatigues and caps, and tan boots, laced up tight and dusty. A rifle hung straight down from each of their necks, on a strap, like a pendant from a chain. The guns were big, and they swayed as they moved toward my car, the barrels brushing the men’s waists. I am a reporter. I have seen a little more of life than the next person. Even so, it was hard to get past the guns.
“Could you tell me how to get to the main entrance?” I asked, my voice sounding odd in my head.
“You’ll need to go back down this road, make a left, and then a right,” said one, rosey-cheeked, not twenty. “You can pull up past us and turn around.”
I thanked them, a lot, maybe too much. They watched me drive ahead and make a really careful three-point turn. I could have been filmed for a driver’s education videotape. As I passed them, the boys with the guns, I waved out the window and called, “Thank you,” again. In my side view mirror, I saw one of them walk to a tank by the road and open its door. Wow, a tank. Gigantic guns on necks and tanks.
Civilians don’t see this everyday. This, being nothing, really, when it comes to what we could see, but do not. Yet, for me, it was compelling, and halting, and it made my brain leap to where those rifles might go, what they might do, or what they have already done. We do not get to know how these men and women live each day, whether they run nineteen miles each morning, or sit in a class with notebooks or choose the chicken or the fish. We do not know what they do if they have a stomach ache, or a worry or a fear, if they say, or if they think they shouldn’t. We do not get to know what it is like to aim and fire.
These are people who are not like the rest of us. They make a choice that will change them, unalterably. They have committed to the possibility that they may kill another person. If I draped a rifle over my chest for eight seconds, I would be different from that moment on. I would stand up with new strength. I would think with new vision, with gravity. I could not perceive what would happen to me if I ever had to use it, even on a practice target. I am changed for having seen one up close.
I found the main gate and took my place in a line of cars, waiting to be escorted to a noontime press conference. Another soldier logged my identification, opened the doors and trunk and checked inside. What did he make of the New York City Ballet beach towel or stash of soccer balls, I did not know.
The Colonel told us more about what we already knew, not enough about what we don’t. He said his soldiers are ready for this, in combat, not at home. But are they, truly. Are those boys by the road ready, telling me to go left, then right, kids with such weight on their necks, on their minds. How is one ever ready? What does ready really mean?
Later in the day, I found the house of the man who runs a convenience store across the street from the base. The suspect went there the morning of the shooting, bought coffee, used to stop in twice a week at 6:30. The man came out to the driveway to talk, nervous, his hands sweaty. His wife and baby watched from the window. I asked him about the soldiers. Four or five hundred come in each day, always in pairs, he said, in uniform, geared up for morning exercise.
“They come together, and they seem happy,” he said. “They are smiling.”
I would have expected something else, something serious. Purposeful, pre-occupied. But we do not know. We do not see. I hit the highway home and drove past my wrong turn, tempted to veer, wondering what the four boys with the guns were doing now.