Vigil with the Stars

“Season of mist and mellow fruitfulness,
Close-bosom friend of the maturing sun…”

These lines of Keats, from an ode to autumn, came to mind this evening as I strolled home from the survival pool. The light was fading and the seasonal fog was forming (as it alway does now around nightfall, to remain until mid-morning tomorrow). The time of day and my recent exertions in the pool cause a pleasant, sleepy, inspired mood, which is well expressed by the lines of the poet. The sun is certainly mature these days, pale and low on the sky. The mist comes and goes comfortingly, offering a pleasant sense of isolation from a sleeping world. There is a signature beauty about in these quiet fading days of fall.

I have been afflicted with melancholy these last few weeks. The passing of high summer light and color, the imminent end of TBS, worries about my next step (which is still a mystery); these things are oppressive. I don’t think the mood ever caused me to lose sight of the good in life, but I couldn’t seem to break out of my mood enough to appreciate them. Now I feel free, and I think I know why. But more about that in a bit.

I am fascinated and drawn this world in limbo between fall and winter. Trees, solitary in their emerging nakedness, still bravely cling to a small remainder of their earth-colored leaves. The clear sky looks clear and remote between the naked branches. The stars at night are stunning and unbelievably clear – I saw my zodiacal sign for the first time ever last week. I am a Scorpio, which is the beast that jealous Apollo sent to kill the great hunter Orion, who had attracted the attention of the god’s sister Artemis. And sure enough, a diamond-bright scorpion stalked the deep night sky in trail of tall Orion. The woods are cold and quiet, introducing a profound solitude not present the torrid, lively summer months. Perhaps for this reason, my imagination has been running down the paths of reflection and fancy, especially when in the field.

Training reached a “culminating point” last week in the form of Field EXercise (FEX) 4. It was an exercise in frustration. In order to recreate the situation of Marines currently abroad, we engaged in Stability And Stabilization Operations (SASO) at simulated middle-eastern town (maybe the frustration is realistic). Operating in six shifts, we alternated between defense of our position, patrolling, and duty as the “Quick Reaction Force,” which we called the QRF. The role-players at the town engineered many crises, and our command element required many patrols, so I spent two-thirds of my time on my feet, as often as not with the Radio on my back. The only “down time” we got was during our spells on defense – but they only lasted four hours apiece and required wakefulness and attention. The temperature hovered around 30 degrees during the day and got much colder at night. I ended up with maybe nine or so hours of sleep all week, and four or five meals total. Nothing makes you suffer quite like being cold, tired and hungry. But I saw the stars.

They were brilliant that week. I saw them more clearly than ever before. The moon, bright in the thin wintry air, set early each night. We were not allowed artificial lights except in special cases, so the stars, prominently, were the only source of light. In the cold, sleepless watches of the night they kept a remote and crystalline vigil; to a life-long city dweller like me it was breathtaking.

That singular experience always returns to me in the quiet times between our activities. This weekend will be short for us since Sunday is scheduled for Urban Patrolling on the FBI Campus. The constant activity is cathartic in a way because it induces a kind of relaxation that eludes me when idle. So after a full day, and remedial swim training (required because the original training was cancelled due to lightning strikes), I walked out of the pool building much lighter in mood and greeted an autumn world covered and sinking to sleep. So I am back where I started. And it is a symptom of all this work and strain that I can enjoy childlike pleasures like the onset of autumn or a particularly beautiful night.

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