The Manhattan to Fort Riley commute is fueled by testosterone.
It has also given me a clearer sense of the military mindset and forced me to think deeper about systems and culture. The result is my appreciation and admiration for American soldiers has elevated significantly since living here.
I’m often up and on the road at oh dark thirty. When westbound, the fastest, most direct route for me is Kimball west to Scenic Drive, to K-18 to Interstate 70.
The Scenic Drive roundabout shoots me into a four-lane superhighway of speed and controlled chaos. Immediately, I find myself jockeying for position and self-preservation. Floor it, or get run over. I glance in the rear-view mirror fully expecting to see Kyle Busch in the #18 M&M’s Toyota Camry preparing to bump draft and send me careening into the infield.
Wedged in by pickups with oversized tires, muscle cars, tricked-out sedans and the occasional SUV or minivan. Out-of-state plates, official Fort Riley window sticker. Often, rear window decals displaying some sort of military weaponry or sub-system of the Big Red One. Sometimes Calvin (sans Hobbes) standing on a Chevy logo, relieving himself on a Ford logo. Or vice versa.
Driven by American soldiers in their late teens and early 20s who make up a culture that fosters, encourages and trains for violence. It’s the First Infantry Division. Look up ‘infantry.’ Literally fighting on foot. Col. Nathan Jessup was a Marine, but his sentiment was spot on. Deep down in the places I don’t talk about at parties, I want them on that wall. I need them on that wall.
Because I’m a guy, I often find myself devolving to my 19 and 20-year old self. Oh yeah? You’re not gonna get ahead of me. They glance down or over at me and think no way am I gonna let a middle-aged dude with an increasingly receding hairline, driving a four-door Ford Escape pass me.
My next-door neighbor is an Army officer and has been overseas for months. Due back this fall, he’s one of those guys who could tell me where he’s deployed, but then he’d hafta kill me. His dogs have done some minor damage to my fence that separates our yard from his.
His wife says they’ll take care of the fence damage when he returns. We tell her not to sweat it. I mean what’s a couple of scratches on a painted fence, when the man’s half a planet away defending my right to even put up a fence?
At restaurants, my wife and I have been known to surreptitiously pick up the check of a military family or buy their tickets in a movie queue. When I see a man or woman in uniform at the airport, at the dry cleaners, wherever, if it’s not awkward for them, I will offer my hand and a few encouraging words. I try to do it quietly. It’s not about me, it’s about them. Theirs is a thankless job, so I want to be purposeful and vocal about thanking them.
Lately, I’ve begun to do the same with cops.
When my dog wedges herself between the toilet and the bathtub to escape the frightening sounds of artillery, demolitions or other training exercise noise emanating from the western horizon, I remind myself that’s the tradeoff for living in Manhattan, Kansas. I want them to be the best trained soldiers in the world. As a citizen, it’s what I expect. The greater good far outweighs the minor inconvenience. Hang in there, pup. This, too, shall pass.
I ease off K-18 into the westbound Interstate 70 traffic. Through the cedars and cottonwoods, I catch glimpses of the Chinook helicopters parked on the tarmac at Marshall Army Field. Then I see the men and women who pilot the choppers, who carry a gun, who stand on the wall. Hundreds of American soldiers picking them up and putting them down. Black shorts, grey t-shirts emblazoned with “ARMY,” neon green reflective belts.
At some point in their lives, each one of them made an individual choice to dedicate an enormously important period of time in their Earthly chronologies to something greater than themselves.
I wish I could buy them breakfast. Every single one of them.
Mike Matson was born in Manhattan, raised in Rooks County and Wichita. He’s called Manhattan home since 1998. His column will appear in The Manhattan Mercury twice each month. Follow his blog at mikematson.com