It took me a long time to learn who I was and what I wanted out of life. People told me what I should do, but I thought I knew better. Sure, every time I messed up and looked back, they were right, but I figured I'll do better next time. It wasn't until I gave up everything did I learn that I was free to do anything.
It was a really hot summer day, I sat in the shade, talking to a uniformed guy with a machine gun. His fist came up so fast I never even saw it. Next thing I knew I was on the ground, covered in dust. I didn't even know I'd said anything offensive, just made a joke. Maybe he was having a bad day...
Things like that didn't happen that often, but every now and then, get a hundred and fifty men in a single building, surround it with walls, put guard towers on the corners, stick some bored guys up there and give them guns and that's a recipe for an oppressive mood. Anyone's bound to get violent in those conditions.
I was different when I first showed up. Six hundred and forty eight thousand minutes. Ten thousand eight hundred hours. Four hundred and fifty days. I remember every one of those. It took that long for me to change.
The day I got on the bus to go, I tried to take everything in. Every sight, every sound, every smell. I wanted to remember it, just in case. When we started moving, we could hear the rocks crackling under the tires. Nobody said anything. Everyone just stared out the windows, wondering what would come next. We knew it would never be the same. Any of it. The way we saw the world and the way the world saw us. Fifty shaved heads, bobbing in unison as we went over the bumps at the chain-link gate.
We'd get letters from people we didn't know. People we never met. They all said the same thing. Nobody ever wrote back. Sometimes we'd get pictures. Those we kept. Put them up on the cots so they'd be the last thing we saw before lights out.
At the end of the night everyone was the same. Thinking the same thoughts. Thinking of what they'd do when they got out. Some wanted to start businesses, some had a job waiting, some just wanted to get back to their families, and some to beer. Every now and again, we'd hear someone trying to muffle sobs with their pillow, wet with tears.
It was supposed to be six months. That's what they told me, anyway. Things like this rarely go as planned, though. Six months turned into twelve. Twelve into fifteen. Near the end, I didn't think I was going to make it.
Eleven months into it, around midnight, I was standing on the rooftop, looking down three stories, wondering if it would hurt. It was just then this guy comes up, Barrow, this old black guy from Brooklyn, he comes up and asks me how my day was. I tell him. He frowns. Thinks a moment. Says hey, let me tell you something.
Four hours we talked. I never thought I'd open up like that to anyone, especially someone like him. Growing up, I had a problem with anyone of a different race. Hell, even my own race. I hated everyone and everything up 'til that night. It's what got me there in the first place. It's a simple combination, really: a step-father with a temper and a hands-on approach to parenting. A mother, concerned with making her husband happy and little else. Outsider in school, outsider in life. Drugs and alcohol to follow. Skipping school. Getting kicked out of home. Dropping out senior year. How everyone got there was the same story. Crappy childhood, poor neighborhood, no jobs, or just kids going out to look for adventure in the wrong place. Didn't matter, anyway.
By morning Barrow and I were great friends. Somehow, this guy convinced me that life is not that bad. There was a lot to look forward to. I believed him. We even made plans to write a book together we had time. The book never happened. He introduced me to some of his friends, I made a joke - they laughed. One of the guys asked me if I knew how to play spades. I didn't, but I learned quick. Here, I was the only white guy, but I was accepted for the first time in my life.
Over the next four months I learned how to tell R&B, hip-hop and rap apart. I was fluent in Ebonics. I finally got the giant shiny rims on cars. I understood a culture I hated just because it was different. More importantly I understood that it wasn't everyone else I hated it was myself.
By the time I left there, I had friends. Real friends. I had an identity. I had a purpose. I was going to go to college and make something of my life. I was going to be somebody. I refused to exist I wanted to Live.
When the plane landed and we got off, our sergeants formed us up and marched us into the hangar, just off the landing strip. There were families with banners, a marching band, a couple of news crews. A quick speech of congratulations from our Sergeant Major for being the first brigade to return from the Surge to Iraq as part of Operation: Iraqi Freedom and we were released to change into civilian clothes and go relax for the first time in over a year.
I will never forget the time I spent there. I will never forget the people I met. Most importantly, I will never forget what I learned about myself. I know now that I should not spend my life in anger and hatred, but enjoy every day to the fullest.