Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Drive on

I've been messing with this post for far too long. I'll publish it now, warts and all.


In the midst of crushing loss and grief there is joy and love so profound and soul filling that I can't begin to describe it.

It's a dichotomy woven into the fabric of my life. It's a state of dichotomy that the reasoning and objective part of my brain knows with great certainty cannot exist. Those two things cannot possibly occupy the same place at the same time.

Yet they do.

Once again I've been writing a post over several days. I began on Tuesday, December 1. The genesis of this post came from being pounded over and over in the course of only a few hours by a shitstorm of impossible dichotomies. I felt a great need to get my thoughts and feelings down on the electronic page and hash them out. It's an approach that helps me in sorting stuff out. As I wrote this paragraph, for instance, I was doing laundry, a task which requires unpacking and sorting before a single pair of socks hit the suds.

In a similar fashion I've been unpacking and sorting the enormity of my thoughts and emotions over the last 17 weeks. It's a dynamic process, and to my very great surprise it's nothing at all like an ending followed by some kind of new beginning. Continuity of love is woven into the fabric of my existence now, and coming to understand that is a great and important discovery. This journey has been impossibly different than anything I could have imagined. There's a vital and extraordinarily important truth emerging from what I feared would be little more than twisted and smoking wreckage.

This morning it's December 8 and I'm in the process of cleaning up the mess I've made here. I'm killing lots and lots of words; sentences and paragraphs which served me well but translate to little more than howling gibberish in this realm of communication.

The framework of this post is built out of dreams.


"My aircraft."

"Your aircraft."

It was a perfectly normal exchange coming over the ICS from the front office of the SH-3H Sea King. The voices of the Helicopter Aircraft Commander (HAC) and the 2P (second pilot) were calm, laconic, bored.

Except the voices were too calm, too laconic, too bored.

The helo lurched in a very distressing way. The sound of the rotor rpm alarm sounded over the ICS and the helo shook like a dog shittin' peach pits. I glanced forward and saw a wash of red and amber lights against a usually less holiday colored instrument panel.

It was a dream, and I knew it was a dream in the way you sometimes know you're dreaming. The part of me that recognized the dream state also thought the dream was very cool. It felt very real. I was there; seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting. I remembered this, and also remembered that I had never dreamed about it before. So, kinda cool, kinda reliving an adventure. Except, well, I felt the hard jolt of adrenaline too and heard myself exclaim, "Fuck!" I tasted the metallic, caustic flavor of fear. Maybe not completely cool then. 

Although I was there in the dream, really there, I could also tell I was not, that I was just dreaming. I knew what was going to happen, for I had lived the experience I was now dreaming about. We were going to hit the nighttime Mediterranean Sea in about 15 seconds. It would be moderately violent. The helo would instantly turn over. I would be shocked that the water stayed outside the aircraft, and then instantly even more shocked when the salty sea completely filled my world in much less than the blink of an eye. I would revert to training, popping the pop-out with my elbow and following it out much more easily and quickly than I had ever done in the helo dunker. My internal gyros would not tumble. I'd bob to the surface and strike out toward the nose of the inverted helo. The night sky would provide more than enough light. All five of us would be fine and we'd be hoisted aboard a rescue helo in about 40 minutes, then whisked back to the ship. All would be well.

In the dream I had all of this knowledge at hand, yet I was also suspended in that moment of time before water impact and felt the welcome/unwelcome surge of adrenaline and terror, felt the inevitability of the pending crash and helpless distress at being unable to stop it and return things to normal, to forego the wreck.

It was very odd.

"Hey. Hey Shaun. Hey, are you okay? Wake up, you're having a bad dream."

Her face looms close to mine in the dark. Cheerful streetlight photons filter through the curtain and combine with kitchen night light to dispel the dark, giving more than enough illumination to see her beautiful face, concern and amusement chasing back and forth across her features. I feel her touch, her breath on my cheek, I smell the wonderful smell of warm, sleepy, Alexzandra. It's an instant of bliss.

This is a dream too, and I know it in the way you somehow know you're dreaming. This dream of Alexzandra also echoes events which actually happened. My love awakened me from restless dreams many times, but never from the Sea-King-in-the-water dream. In the moment I want very badly to hold on to this dream, or more precisely to the realistic feel of the thing. I very much want that reality to exist, to experience a reality filled with this dream-state sight and smell and sound and taste and feel. I want to be in and occupy a real living moment with my Love, to be safe and warm in our bed. But the dream is already ruined, already spoiled. It's something that never happened, and something which can never be. The weight of realization is heavy and hard to bear.

I swim up from the dream and awaken alone, as I knew I would. It hurts. A string of "why" questions rattle around in my mind. They will be forever unanswered. It hurts.

She comes to me then, as she does each night. Her presence fills the room. It's more real than any dream could be. It's the realness of reality. I don't understand, I don't need to understand. I know her presence, and this is it. Calm, reassuring, loving. My hurt eases and I drift back into sleep. When the alarm sounds I awaken refreshed. Longing, missing, hurting. But refreshed, and reassured.

If you look up batshit crazy in the dictionary...

At 6 a.m. it's a beautiful morning for December 1 in Kimball, Nebraska.

I have widgets to make.

Longing. Missing. Hurting. Refreshed. Reassured. Batshit crazy.


At my widget assembly station I set up my phone to stream the Bilge Pumps podcast to my hearing aids. The latest software update seems to have fucked the streaming system up and I can only hear it in the left ear. Rats. But I can hear it, so I sink into the highly entertaining discussion of the F-35 from the RN/Brit perspective. I have to chuckle a bit for according to the guest expert on the podcast, a former RN aircraft engineering officer, the Brits saved the program from the stupid Yanks. There's probably more truth to that than my Yankee ego likes to admit. The former engineering officer served with 820 Squadron in the Falklands War and as best I can tell is the real deal. I've flown with RN crews in their Westland Sea Kings and those guys were without a doubt the real deal. The RN has a special place in my cold war Yankee aircrewman's heart. I begin wrenching widgets and time speeds by.

As the break buzzer sounds at 9:30 a.m. I'm already outside and minutes into my step running. I've cheated, blatantly breaking the rules to steal time from my employer. I feel a great need for hard exercise. Hopefully my widget production performance will buy some leeway and stolen minutes will be overlooked. I tell myself that the payback to my employer will be increased productivity. And it will be. Here's what it looked like on December 5 (no video from December 1 step running I'm afraid) when it was sunny and severe clear with air temps in the mid-50's and a light north-northwest breeze.

Conditions on December 1 were very different from the above video, yet it was still a beautiful day; warmish and dampish low 40's but with an overcast moving in and a gusty north wind beginning to pick up. Beautiful and profoundly uncomfortable at the same time. Overhead the winds were clearly stronger at 1,500 AGL, driving tattered shreds of scud along at quite a clip. The sky was an achingly beautiful demonstration of nature's wonder, one set of grey clouds tearing along beneath a solid and slightly different shade of grey clouds above. It was a pretty picture, but the stark picture and raw feel of the air pulled hard at still-raw heart wounds. Leaving aside  an aching sadness I felt good. Healthy, fit, confident, and ready to get some cardio in. I scampered (for certain values of scamper) up and down steps and drove my heart rate up to 150. My lungs were moving lots of air. Warming muscles quit complaining and began to enjoy their work. Halfway up the steps and attached to the side of the factory building a weatherproof speaker was giving forth with the usual Sidney radio station broadcast, the same background noise which echoes through the plant every day. Mostly 1980's era music with a smattering of local news and advertising. On balance it's okay noise, and most of the music is of my generation.

Then the opening chords of Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time spill out of the speaker. Those chords and the song that follows hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn't see it coming. It's not a favorite song, and I've never been anything like a fan, but of her work this is one I've always enjoyed. This morning, however, with a near-tactile cognitive click, the essence of the thing pops into place in my mind and heart. Impossible to describe, the experience is at the same time very hard and very good. Batshit crazy.

Oh, it sucks. I'm actually sobbing as I run, so I run harder. Maybe no one will notice, or if they do, perhaps they'll think it's what exercise is supposed to look like. The sobbing interferes with my breathing rhythm and soon a form of bronchospasm sets in, making it hard to breathe and even painful to move air. It's the kind of unexpected shortness of breath which could lead to panic, but at this moment with this mindset and this roiling, raw emotion I can't be bothered to panic. I drive on, harder and harder. I can only barely control churning emotion and there's precious little left in me to address the merely physical.

Here's a cover version of the song I quite like.

I smash and smash and smash the steps. I begin to see spots, and then endorphins and dopamine kick in. The crest of a powerful wave of loss and grief has smashed me and then passed. I've survived. Pain ebbs; physical, emotional, mental. I feel good. Really good. I am livin'.

The end of break buzzer blares out of the speaker. I'm going to steal a few more minutes; I've hit a good place and a good stride and I don't want to stop. One of my co-workers pauses as she scurries in from the smoking area. "I can't believe you're wearing shorts!"

"I'm not very bright," I reply with a grin.

All of the people at the widget factory know. Not only that I'm not very bright, but more importantly, they know of my loss. It's our loss. Some of Allie's aunts and cousins work there, and she was/is well known and liked/loved in this place. Small town comfort. These people have been so kind and caring, and while I haven't properly appreciated them, they have nevertheless lifted me up.

None of this livin' experience is playing out as I expected. I intuit the rightness of the thing. God provides what I need so long as I trust Him. He gives me gems I would never have thought to pursue, and they are exactly what I need. The things I think I need and would pursue on my own are not what I need. When I recognize this they fall to the wayside.


While I do laundry on Saturday I bake cookies. I bake them for the kids, and as I've mentioned before it's something I frequently did for our little family before Allie died. Cookie baking video? Sure, why not?


Worst cooking video of all time.



Which takes us back to the opening image, a screen capture from a video. I cannot begin to describe what sitting in that chair with a pair of cookie monsters means and feels like. God blesses me each and every day with beauty and wonder and love and grace. Living in this new dimension is heaven on earth.


Be well and embrace the blessings of liberty.


  1. Drive on. Live on. Keep on livin'. Have a wonderful Christmas. It's not far down the road. We are looking forward to seeing our older set of grandkids right after Christmas after having seen the younger set at Thanksgiving. They really make the seasons for us.

    1. Wilco Mark, and thanks.

      You do the same. Have a great Christmas with those grandkids!

  2. Yes, it is a continuation.
    It's how we choose to continue that is important.
    It is also important to not make any major changes in times of stress.
    It ain't easy, but it's simple.

    1. Hard is good, even when it sucks. I have a picture somewhere -- actually a book, "Tim Paige's Vietnam," with an interesting image of a Marine's helmet art, a message inked onto the cammo cover of his tin pot. Now that I think of it, I may be and probably am recalling a passage from Michael Herr's "Dispatches." Anyway, the message was this -- "A sucking chest wound is God's way of letting you know you've been in a firefight." Life is supposed to be lived.

      As for major changes in times of stress, I'm still getting finger tattoos on Saturday! ;-)

      Thanks Skip.

    2. Yes they are. As are most things in fact.

  3. Good and bad memories will follow us all.
    That top photo looks like a mighty good one to think of often.
    Cookies look good, but better leave them for the kids and Santa, lest you need more time on widget breaks to work them off.

    That upsey downsey SH-3 photo makes me realize how naive I was when I was a frequent H-3 pax in the early 1970s. No training or egress or dunker briefs, just handed a Mae West, told the get in, sit down, shut up and don't touch anything. But, we felt a lot safer than in the H34s they replaced, or in the hydraulic rain forest H-53 we rode one time. Blackshoes belong on ships and ships belong at sea, and we should leave aviating to others who get the flight pay.
    John Blackshoe

    1. It was a grand moment, and my cup runneth over with grand moments, minutes, hours, and so on.

      Good warning about the cookies. They just don't give me the same dopamine hit these days, so that helps.

      Never got a chance to fly in a -34, that would have been cool. I'd never voluntarily fly in a -53 that wasn't leaking hydraulic fluid. Just kidding but they leaked a lot and dry ones were said to be about to crash. In the one Sea King ditching I experienced I'd estimate the chances of a successful pax egress at zero. Crew briefings always included a ditching brief. When pax were on the manifest the ditching brief always included the phrase, "don't let 'em kill you." That said, off the top of my head I don't recall any H-3 ditchings with pax aboard. I'd imagine there were some, but I never heard of any during my time. I guess you have to weigh time and risk across other transfer platforms such as whale boat and breeches buoy.

      Thanks John.

  4. Wow...

    A thought provoking post Shaun. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Chris. Unpackin' and sortin' and livin'. Blessed beyond measure.

  5. I *was* going to say stop using “bat shit crazy“ for describing yourself, but then I read the part about how you smash the steps at work on your break, and I suppose perhaps such terms may actually be appropriate after all? (For the record, I probably resemble such Nocturnal flying mammal emotional instabilites as well!). In other words, I would argue that your mind has opened to an awareness to which closed minds would describe with such endearing terms! In completely unrelated consideration, i HIGHLY suggest you google raconteur report and read the blog that Aesop posted on Friday (if you haven’t seen it already) i’m not entirely sure if direct linking would be allowed to work by TPTB?

    1. I guess to suitcase crazy you have to define sane. If sane is what I was before I loved Allie, I've been crazy ever since. Feels to me like I was crazy before, or at least broken and incomplete, and that I'm sane now. So, batshit crazy? Compared to common experience across society, absolutely. And thank goodness!

      Shaun may sit in a chair against the wall stroking his long moustache. But this ain't a movie. With God's blessing and strength I will endeavor to do the best things for the best reasons to the best of my abilities.

      Thanks cT.