Home is where the heart is

I was sitting on a flight between New York and Zurich when we ran into some very light turbulence. It wasn't the kind where your neighbor who doesn't like to fly gets a death grip on their armrest; most people stayed asleep, but the flight attendants still hurried to their seats. Curious, I checked the in-flight channel. We'd lost a couple thousand feet in a minute or two. I laughed out loud because most of the passengers didn't have a clue.

I was a pilot. I don't fly anymore, except as a passenger. On my first tour, I had three other helicopters crash in my squadron, with the crews killed or permanently injured, and almost died or crashed eight times. Of the times I experienced, one was due to enemy fire, one was almost due to friendly/neutral fire, and the rest were accidents. I did the math, considered myself lucky, and did my next deployment on the ground.

Everyone's combat experience is different. I can't speak for anyone else. I'm proud of the discomfort we experienced. I pulled a trigger and called in airstrikes; getting shot would have been fair play, though I successfully did my level best to avoid it. Another officer and I (and a squad of Marines) walked into an enemy controlled village in the middle of the night to meet an elder who never showed up. I had dysentery once. Corpsman gave me Cipro when I finally went to medical after several days of constant fluidity. I thought it was funny then, and I still think it's funny now. Dying for no reason, to no gain, not to save someone's life or in a measured gamble to win against a clever foe, but because I got a bad roll of the dice or stepped in the wrong place? Hard pass.

I finished my deployments, finished my commitment, got out, kept the stories, no regrets, I'd do it all again. But I was edgy. I called in a suspicious package, my first year in New York. When I took a walk through one of the less opulent neighborhoods of Geneva at night, I did my best to project "hard target" and people crossed the street to avoid me. I don't attack people who startle me, but I could. I don't take cover when a firecracker goes off, but I figure out where the sound came from, just in case. I plan to live a long time.

In April of 2012 (I think, I'm terrible with calendars), I went back to Monaco, where I grew up, for the first time in 10 years. Monaco's a funny place. One family is responsible for making sure all the real estate is maintained and painted regularly. The police officers dress like Marines, even though they're not quite as sharp, and they're polite, multilingual, and everywhere. It's governed by the longest dynasty in the world, including Egyptian and Chinese rulers. The streets are clean*; the buses run on time. It's so predictable, I used the passive voice. Nothing happens in Monaco, not even accidents.

I was standing in a park on the side of the Rock, where the palace is. The gardens in Monaco are lovely and, like cops and surveillance, plentiful. But the smell hit me, the mix of the sea breeze and that particular combination of Mediterranean flora, the feel of the springy rubber of the playground under my feet where I'd run as a child over a decade back. New buildings had sprung up in other parts of the Principality, but this place was the same. Something inside me relaxed. I didn't feel the need to be watchful at all, and I thought, I'm standing at the precise point on Earth where the form of an idea has taken substance. I was safe. This was home.

*Even Monaco can't convince all the octogenarian heiresses to pick up after Mr. Ruffles, but it'll be pressure washed away by morning.

 

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