42, the famous answer offered by the brilliant writer, Douglas Adams, in his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, to the question what is the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything, may be slightly incorrect.
What’s this, you might ask? Isn’t this presumptive of you? Bear with me, there is some rationale behind my idea, or delusion if you prefer.
Looking up in a night sky, especially away from cities and light pollution, the simple vastness of the Universe is overwhelming. What we see with the naked eye is an infinitesimally tiny portion of the stars and galaxies in the observable Universe, The most distant light from objects we can observe with radio telescopes is from 13.5 billion years ago, the time of the big bang. (Although there are now objects scientists believe are even further away—a scientific paradox if the speed of light is an actual limit, but I digress.)
When one looks at those stars, you are looking into the past. The closest star, not counting the sun, is actually two stars orbiting each other, Alpha and Proxima Centauri. They lie 4.5 light-years away. If one were to look at the stars today, June 22, 2020, you would see light that left the stars sometime in 2015-6.
You are actually looking back in time, and perhaps someone on an exoplanet is doing the same thing with our sun.
When I was growing up, there were nine planets. Since then, we have demoted Pluto to a sub-planet, leaving only eight in our solar system. We may have a finite number here, although there is a suspected planet X far beyond Pluto, but there are plenty of planets elsewhere.
Almost everywhere we look, we have found extraterrestrial planets orbiting stars, including an earth-sized planet, perhaps in the Goldilocks zone, which could support life, orbiting Proxima Centauri.
We have neighbors!
At last count, there were over 4000 confirmed exoplanets with thousands of more “candidate” objects yet to be confirmed.
It turns out planets are fairly common.
So, what does this have to do with my premise of changing 42 to 46 for the answer to the question? Bear with me a bit more.
This estimate is on the low end of the process, there could be many more. Or none. But let us assume there are at least thirty-six.The chance of our finding them—or conversely their finding us—is, well, astronomical.
But what if?
In the Star Trek series, one of the biggest objections from a biological-scientific perspective (aside from faster than light travel) is Mr. Spock, a blended creature with a Vulcan father and a human mother. The likelihood of the chromosomes from an extraterrestrial species being compatible enough to permit reproduction with us is low.
But suppose, like our once certain science there were only nine planets, we are wrong? Suppose planets are a common object in the Universe and that intelligent life will develop given the proper conditions. What if the “right conditions” for developing intelligent life is 46 chromosomes?
What if, given this requirement for developing intelligent life, we could crossbreed with ET?
If we can find them, that is.
I am an optimist. But I’ve long ago abandoned my childhood dream of flying to the stars. Yet, it may happen for my grandchildren (whenever they arrive… hint, hint.) But I still hope to live long enough to see the day when we actually communicate with another intelligent civilization.
Or at least know they exist.
Perhaps, generations from now, a blend of the 46 chromosomes from the Broadmeadow lineage will fly to those very stars, taking me existentially along into the Universe.
Here’s to 46 and all the possibilities of imagination.
On this first morning of my 365-day-long 62nd orbit of the sun, I took stock of life. Where I’ve been, where I am, and where I am heading.
From the time of my birth, I’ve traveled 556,625,000 miles on this spinning earth. Since my arrival on this planet, I and all my fellow humans who’ve been alive a similar amount of time have traveled 274,661,040,000 miles around the galactic center of the Milky Way.
Our universe, if Einstein and Hubble are correct, continues to expand. In the time it takes most to read this (say 10 minutes) we will be 85,666 miles further along in our rotating galaxy and about 166 miles further along in our latest rotation of the earth.
The point? We are never in the same place twice. Everything about our lives, our world, our universe changes.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” ― Heraclitus
For some, a birthday is a sad reminder of their mortality and aging. For me, it is a day to consider one’s life. Every moment of every day for every human is unique. No other human is like you. No other will experience any moment in the same way.
No other human, not one, lives the same life.
Now for many of our fellow humans, those living in poverty and squalor, tossed by the virulent politics of tribal legacy or totalitarian regimes, they may not see the difference moment to moment.
It is incumbent on us to remember this as we live our more fortunate lives. We do well to do what we can to change the world, understanding that the only way to happiness is through freedom of choice and tolerance of differences. It is not ours to impose our choices on others, but to ensure they can make their own choices.
James Taylor sings that “the secret to life is enjoying the passage of time…” I would agree, for time is an irresistible force. But I think there’s more to the secret of life. One has to look at the world as if for the first time. Recognize the vicissitudes of each moment of your life. Look for the potential for the future, not despair of the past.
What gave me this idea was a small puppy. Walking along the bike path, bouncing back and forth on his leash, everything was new to him. The grass, a fallen leave, a fluttering butterfly, my wife and I passing by.
Through that puppy’s eyes, the world was full of hope, opportunity, and discovery. As we age, it is hard to hold on to such wonder. Yet to lose it is to lose one’s best hope to enjoy each revolution around the sun.
Life, like the universe, is a matter of mathematics. Each of us experiences our first revolution around the sun and our last. It’s what you do with the revolutions between the first and the last that matters.
In the words of Warren Zevon, dying of cancer, when asked if he had any advice for others said, “Enjoy every sandwich.”
The following is a short story (albeit a bit longer than the
last one) written for a collection of short stories. A bit of an indulgence on my part, I admit, but I hope you will take the time to read it and comment.
So grab your favorite drink and find a comfortable place to sit. Let me see if I can entertain you with a bit of diversion, an escape from the realities of the world, if even for just a few precious moments. A story about dying. The fun stuff and the fine print!
Thursday morning, I woke up dead.
I did not expect this; it just happened. Later on, I wondered at what point I reached my end moment. Was it when I woke? Maybe I was dead tired that night. A part of me remained curious. All of me remained dead.
No matter, I am dead and there is no way out of it.
Here is how I found out.
I woke in my usual manner and time, reaching for my reading glasses and iPad. I could not grasp them. My hand passed right through them. Thinking I was still half-asleep, I stood up and looked for my slippers. They were in the same place I leave them every night. Yet they were at least 12 inches below my feet, which, I realized, were not touching the floor.
I must still be asleep. In a rather cool dream. I love the ones where I can fly.
Closing my eyes, I tried to draw myself out of the dream. Force myself to wake up.
I had things to do. Places to go. People to meet.
Turns out, death cancelled my plans. Indefinitely.
Reopening my eyes, I saw my human remains in the bed, not breathing. Very much dead. My exit from this mortal coil well in progress.
The words from the movie, The Wizard Oz came to mind.
…but we’ve got to verify it legally, to see, if she…
is morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably, and reliably dead.
Curiosity tempted me to lift the body, my body. See if there is truth to the notion that one does something in the bed at the point of termination.
I decided to leave it a mystery.
Walking or, to be precise, floating out of the bedroom, I glided down the hallway and into the living room. My wife and daughter were hugging, and crying. I assumed it was because of this sudden change in my status. I was sure it was. No insurance claim forms lying about, so I kept good thoughts.
“Bit of a shock, eh?” The voice had a hint of an Irish Brogue. The kind in a permanent state of amusement.
“What the heck…?” I said, startled by the unexpected words. “Who the hell are you?”
“You are not going to believe this, so give it time. I am your WTYPLE guide,” a somewhat diminutive, smiling being said. “But I prefer the old term, before political correctness infected this dimension, YADGOI.” He looked like a cross between a Leprechaun and a Hobbit. Although I do not recall Tolkien describing Hobbits as translucent. He shimmered like the Northern Lights.
“What is a WTYPLE guide?”
“Welcome to Your Post Life Existence.”
“Lovely.” I moved away, putting distance between this, ah, thing and me.
“Want to know what YADGOI stands for?”
“I don’t think so,” shaking my head.
“You Are Dead, Get Over It.” He smiled as he ignored my response. “Much clearer, don’t you think? None of the touchy-feely give them time to adjust nonsense. You are dead, move on I say. Hit’em with the reality and let them deal with it.”
“Is that what you do? Hit them with reality?”
“Oh no. We help you adjust.”
“Adjust?” Staring as I tried to get my head around all this. “To being dead?”
“Of course, it’s like a new job. There are new routines, new rules, you know, adapting to a new experience. The whole being dead thing.” He put his hands up in the quote motion, “Your post life existence as I am supposed to say. Such nonsense.” Shaking head.
“There are rules to being dead?” watching as this, whatever he was, faded before my eyes and reappeared on the couch. Sitting between my wife and daughter.
“They’ll be fine, you know. No worries,” putting his arms around the two. “Part of life, is learning to deal with death and the changes it brings. You have had a good life with them. They have more to do here. You, are the other hand…well, it is time to move on. You ready?”
“Now? Can’t I stay with them a bit longer? Say goodbye?”
“That is always one of the first things they ask, ‘Can I stay longer and say goodbye?’ Sorry, but no.” He rose from the couch. “Look, while you were alive, there were many opportunities for that. Those are no longer available to you.” He floated over, stopping next to me.
He put his hands on my shoulders. “You’ll come to understand, given time. Your life is now in the past. You cannot alter it or undo it. You can remember, for as long as you like. Hold tight to those memories.” Pausing a moment, I could see him studying me. “Now, what you have is a future. Different from the past, yet full of opportunities. Let’s go.”
I watched him gliding towards the window.
“Why are you, that is, why can I see through you?”
His appearance changed, turning from a shimmering translucence, into a solid something. A being, I suppose, for lack of a better term.
“Oh that. Special effects, helps convince people they have checked out. You are well along the way.”
I stood looking between him and the two most important people in my life, or former life anyway. Slowly, reluctantly, I moved away from them towards the window.
“So there is an afterlife?”
“Well, not like any of that psychobabble, contact from the beyond nonsense. There is no crossover between the living and the dead. It is a one-way journey. There is this brief transition phase. You meet your guide, that’s me, and learn to accept the new reality.” He reached over, putting his hand on my shoulder again. “Once you transition, there is no further contact with this level of existence, or the past.”
“But what about near-death experiences, or people who believe they speak to the dead?”
My guide smiled and shook his head. “It is all in the mind of the person that believes it. The human mind is capable of amazing acts of self-deception. You have a politically correct term for it.”
“And that is?”
“Delusional,” he smiled. “If you want something bad enough, the mind does its best to provide it. If you want to believe in heaven. It imagines it for you. If you want to believe Grandma comes to you in the night and helps you write poetry, ta da, the mind provides.
“You want to believe that a person has some special ability to contact another dimension. That they can speak to the dead. Your mind finds a way. You will soon understand. Depending on how well your transition goes, I may let you observe the next time one of those self-proclaimed psychics crosses over.
“The last one I had wet himself, twice, and wouldn’t stop whimpering for hours. The dead terrified him. Never believed any of the nonsense he told people. It was quite amusing.”
“So none of it is real?”
“Oh no, it is real. Real to the person that experiences it. Even so, it is all in their mind.”
I am sure he saw the disappointment in my eyes. “What about this? Is this just in my mind?”
My newfound friend smiled. “That’s for you to figure out, I suppose.” He clasped his hands together. “Okay, time to go. We have much to do.” Standing on the windowsill, looking back at me, his hand reached out to me.
“What do I call you, I mean, do you have a name?”
He voice took on a different tone. A deeper sound with an echo effect. “I am known by many names.” The voice returned to his normal lilting timbre. “There is a book called The Nine Billion Names of God. How about you use one of them?” The echo chamber effect returned. “Or just God will do.”
“God?” My eyes grew wide. “You mean you’re… there is a….”
The smile on his face grew wider. “Just kidding, I love the reaction when I do that. Sorry, a little guide humor. Just added this new app to my phone. Look.” He held up his iPhone, pointing at an app. An icon image of Charlton Heston from the Ten Commandments displayed on the screen. Underneath it said, The Voice of God (for entertainment purposes only.).
He put the phone away. “Call me Wyatt.”
“Why do you have an iPhone?”
“Ever since a certain person crossed over, we’ve gone full Apple. Although I do miss my Android sometimes. Ah well, no matter. Equipment choices are out of my control.” He turned to the window.
“Oops,” he snapped his fingers. “I almost forgot. You can take one thing. Something small, be nice if it fit in a pocket, but your choice. You have to carry it.”
I thought for a moment. “I don’t know what to take; there isn’t anything I’d want to have, except more time with them.” I looked back as my wife answered the phone, telling someone else I had checked out. “I can’t have that, can I?”
“There you go, Joe. You already figured out the first part. You, my friend, are ahead of the curve. There is nothing important you can take. It is what you leave behind that matters.” He patted me on the back. “I’m glad I got this assignment, you show some promise. I had one who wanted to take his 60-inch TV. Said his wife never watched it and it would be a waste to leave it.” Wyatt chuckled at the memory. “That project took years.”
I floated towards the window, looking back one last time. “Do we have to fly out the window?”
“Only if you want to. I always find a little dramatic experience in the beginning eases the transition. We can walk out the door if you like. My car is right outside.”
I looked at my new companion for a moment. “I think I’d prefer to walk out the door, Wyatt. There is no need for the dramatic gesture. I’m dead, I get it.” I walked toward the door. “Wait, a car? Why would we need a car?”
“We don’t. I just like to use one in this first phase. More a personal preference than anything else. What can I say? I like to drive. One of the things I miss from my life,” his eyes grew misty. He looked lost in thought.
“I see.” As we walked out, I glanced back one more time.
“Preserve your memories; they’re all that’s left you.”
“That’s quite profound.” Wiping a tear from my eye.
“I’d like to take credit, but Paul Simon wrote it. From the song, Old Friends/Bookends.” He sang the song as we went out to the parking lot. “Time it was and what a time it was….”
“So, when did you die?”
“Me, oh some time ago. Back in the 60’s, 1969 to be precise. I don’t remember much about that time. That was part of the problem. My single-minded devotion to the consumption of alcohol and drugs. A major contribution to my exiting in a spectacular way. Plenty of time to talk in the car. Long ride ahead of us.”
“Long ride, to where?”
“Review tour. I take you around to various places that played a part in your life. We find that it makes the transition better. You adapt to the new experience faster and it helps us measure your progress and suitability.”
“Suitability, for what?”
“Once your transition is complete, everyone gets assigned a task. For some it is a one-time thing, for others it is more complex. This will all come with time. For now, just think about what you’d like to do with your future.”
As we walked through the lot, my mind roiled with emotion. I felt great, if that was possible considering I was dead. The emotions of leaving a mix of sorrow, regret, and curiosity. I never expected this, but I suppose no one ever does. I continued walking until I realized I was alone.
“Over here,” Wyatt’s voice came from behind me.
He stood next to the last two cars in the lot. Before I croaked, I always parked my car in these spots. I did not recognize either one.
“So, what will it be? Which ride would you like?” he said.
“We’re going to steal someone’s car?”
“No, of course not,” Wyatt laughed. “I had them brought here for this purpose. Pick one.”
The cars were both the same color, deep forest green. One was a brand new Camaro, glistening in the early morning light. The other, a 1964 Chevy Bel Air. The first car I ever owned. Fond memories tempted me.
“Does it matter?” As the words came out of my mouth, both cars vanished.
“See, I knew you had potential. The choices people make, and why they make them, would surprise you. The new car represents all the things that do not matter, yet many spend their lives chasing them. The old car represents the past; many spend their lives clinging to what was.
“None of it matters. The only thing that matters is now, here, at this moment. The car you drive, clothes you wear, houses you occupy are fleeting and meaningless. Good for you.”
I thought about what he said. We are all guilty of both. Chasing happiness through material things, or craving the nostalgia filtered memories of the past. We have just one true thing of value, time. How we choose to spend it determines the course of our lives.”
Wyatt let the words sink in for a moment, his hand linked behind his back as he watched me.
“Let’s take the Camaro.”
His voice interrupted my thoughts of summer days long past, spent with my friends at the beach. Delivered there in my old Chevy.
“Put on some Led Zeppelin and see what this baby can do.” The car appeared again, the opening riff of Stairway to Heaven coming from the inside.
“I thought the point was it didn’t matter?”
“It doesn’t matter to you; I’ve already made the transition. I am entitled to a little fun.” Dancing to the driver’s side, Wyatt played an enthusiastic air guitar. “Like the irony of the music?”
“Nice.” I smiled. “Wait is there a–.”
“Nope. Another mass hysteria figment of a collective imagination. I find it amusing. If you prefer, I can play Highway to Hell.”
Just as we got into the car, another voice came from the back seat. I jumped as I looked around.
“Hi there Wyatt,” the Asian accented voice said. “I see we went with the Camaro again.”
“Hey there, Vong. Say hi to Joe, my newest project.”
“Hello Joe what do you know?” Vong said, laughing at his own humor. “I never get tired of saying that. My sister said it all the time.”
“Long story, I’ll tell, you later.”
“So is Vong your assistant?”
“He’s an apprentice guide just assigned to me. One who needs to learn to speak only when spoken to,” Wyatt glared back at Vong. “We’ve known each other for years.”
“How’d you meet?”
Vong chuckled. “Yeah, Wyatt, tell him that story.” Laughing as he played his own air guitar to the Jimmy Page solo.
Wyatt gave him a nasty look. “I killed him in Vietnam. He was a Viet Cong agent sent to sabotage the aircraft on the base.”
“I prefer patriot and hero to my country.” Vong leaned over the seat to look at me. “It is all about who’s telling the story isn’t it?” He laughed.
I stared at Wyatt, glancing back at Vong, as I tried to absorb this. “You killed him? And now you work together?”
“Death has a sense of humor. The fates love irony,” Wyatt said. “You ready?”
I nodded, although I was not sure why. I mean, here I was, dead for all of twenty minutes. A strange creature named Wyatt asks me if I am ready. Not sure how anyone could be. Still, I nodded and waited for what came next.
Next consisted of me thrust backwards into the seat as Wyatt lit up the tires and squealed from the lot. The car just made the corner. Sliding off the metal bridge over the Blackstone River, he accelerated up the road.
As we approached the traffic light, it turned to yellow of course. Wyatt pushed the car harder. Beating the red light by a full hundredth of a second, fish tailing onto the Mendon Road.
“Are you freaking insane?” I yelled.
“Nope.” Wyatt laughed. “Just dead.”
“How the hell did you die?” I yelled, as Wyatt cranked the volume on Jethro Tull’s Locomotive Breath. The car careened onto Route 295 north.
Wyatt flashed a sinister smile, “Car accident.” Glancing back as Vong continued his guitar performance. “Don’t worry, I was drunk then. I’m not now.”
“Would you slow down; you don’t want to kill anyone do you?” I hollered over the music.
“You mean again?” Vong added, breaking into the more intricate of the solo sections of the song.
* * * *
I stared out the window, watching my once familiar neighborhood fade into the mist. The emotions and adrenaline of the last few hours faded and I drifted off to sleep. Do you sleep when you’re dead? Warren Zevon thought so.
I did not dream, it was not a deep sleep. I could hear Vong and Wyatt engaged in an animated conversation about what we would do next. Still half asleep, I heard fragments of the discussion.
“A little harsh, don’t you think?” Vong said.
“Best get it over with. It is part of the checklist and he seems to have handled the initial phase well. Most are still thrashing around on the floor or hanging onto the furniture as we drag them away at this point.”
“Okay, Chongjin it is.”
The sensation of speed drove the sleep away. I opened my eyes and the adrenaline started pumping once again.
We were flying.
“Since when does a Chevy Camaro fly?” I asked.
“Since the day they were first made.” The song Magic Carpet Ride by Steppenwolf blared over the speakers.
“Not at 30,000 feet.” Guessing the altitude by the number of commercial airliners we passed. “And not at… How fast are we going anyway?” Being dead has a benefit of eliminating the fear of, well, anything.
Wyatt smiled, “8500 miles per hour, cool isn’t it?
I turned to look at Vong. He had his head buried in a paper bag, making guttural noises and moaning.
“What’s his problem?”
“He hates flying. Says it’s unnatural to be this high.” Wyatt chuckled.
“Unnatural? He can fly without the car. What is natural about any of this?”
“Try telling him that. We spend half the time preparing for our new arrivals trying to arrange the schedule to avoid flying. Just so he won’t–”
A huge retching sound came from the back, interrupting our conversation.
“Dammit Vong.” Wyatt cringed. “So he won’t do that.”
I turned to check on Vong. He lifted his head from the bag. He glanced inside it once again before closing it. “Funny, I don’t remember eating that.” A weak smile crossing his face.
Wyatt laughed, “Must have been the Somali Pirate we handled last week. The one the Navy Seal aerated. We took him to the village where he was born and we ate, ah, whatever the hell that was.”
“Well,” Vong said. “Whatever it is, it’s in the bag now.” He rolled the bag up, placing it in a larger plastic bag. He smiled. “We recycle.”
“Hang on boys, this is my favorite part.” He looked over at me, grinned, and pushed forward on the wheel.
Dying may end fear. I learned it does not end the sensations of deceleration and descent. Some parts of dead are like a ride on a rollercoaster.
I thought for a moment that I might need to borrow a bag from Vong.
“Hey Vong,” Wyatt said, looking in the rear view mirror. “I did it again. I turned you white.”
“I hate you.” Vong took deep breaths as his normal complexion returned. “I can’t wait until you sit back here and I drive.”
* * * *
Wyatt landed the car, such an odd thing to say, in the middle of frozen lake. As we got out of the car, the bitter cold and cutting wind assaulted me.
“Where the hell are we?” I asked, my body shivering in a feeble attempt to keep warm.
“Chongjin,” Wyatt said.
“Chongjin,” Vong repeated. “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
I looked at Vong, then back at Wyatt.
Wyatt handed me coat, gloves, and wool cap, then did the same for Vong. “You’ll understand soon. Just pay attention.”
“Can I ask something? If I am dead, why am I feeling the cold?”
Wyatt put on his coat. “Good question. For most of these little adventures, the ambient environment is unimportant. Some are better if you experience the elements. In this case, cold is an important element.”
“Okay, so why are you guys experiencing it?”
“Yeah,” Vong concurred, “Why do we have to be cold? I am from Vietnam remember. I like warm.”
“In order for us to help you through the process, it’s better if we all share the full experience.”
Vong shook his head. “I’ve been here, done this. I can wait in the car.
A moment later, I heard and felt a loud ‘whomph’ sound. Wyatt pointed towards the car, “Watch this,” he said.
“Oh shit,” Vong yelled as he dove to the ground.
A bright flash, followed by an explosion that shook the earth, engulfed the car. Parts of the vehicle flew everywhere. I joined Vong on the ground.
“What the hell was that?” I asked, raising my head from the snow.
“Mortar round,” Vong explained. “I love mortar rounds.”
“I know you sneaky bastards do,” Wyatt laughed. “Too bad you couldn’t hit the ground with one.”
Vong chuckled, “That is so true. If I had I would be in charge right now, instead of you.”
I sat up, knocking snow off my head and coat, surrounded by pieces of a once nice Chevy Camaro. Death was not much fun to this point.
“Can I ask why we’re here?”
Wyatt motioned for me to follow him. I looked at Vong, he pointed for me to go first.
* * * *
Climbing a hill, we came upon a group of men clad in padded white coats. They were firing a variety of weapons. Some of them alternating between shooting and blowing trumpets.
I started to ask, “Who are these–?”
“Chinese, People’s Volunteer Army, from the People’s Republic of China.” Vong explained before I finished the question.
“What year is this?”
“1950, November 26 to be precise.” Wyatt, handing me a pair of binoculars, pointed towards a road at the bottom of the ridgeline. “You’ll figure it out.”
Lifting the binoculars to my eyes, I focused on the snow-covered road. Wyatt leaned over. “Watch the bend in the roadway. Two men will be the last to come around the corner. Focus on the man closest to us.”
The sound of the battle increased. I watched a steady stream of vehicles, loaded with dead and wounded men, making their way along the road. They struggled through the unrelenting weapons fire poured on them by the Chinese. It seemed to go on for hours. I put the glasses down for a moment, looking to Wyatt. He sat on the stump of a tree. Next to him was a foxhole. Three Chinese soldiers, taking cover in the hole, tossed grenades down the hill. He made a motion for me to resume looking through the binoculars, pointing back to the road.
At last, two men came around the corner. One was carrying a large automatic weapon, the other a Thompson submachine gun. They alternated between firing at the Chinese and running to keep up with the convoy.
I watched as one of the Chinese soldiers fired at the man with the Thompson. The Marine went to the ground. The other Marine put the sling of the Thompson around the wounded man’s shoulder. He lifted the wounded Marine onto his back in the classic carry. He was of slight build. Yet he managed to carry the wounded man, and both weapons, to the nearest truck.
The Marine returned to his position in the rear, firing his weapon. Sometime reaching down and tossing one of the Chinese grenades back up the hill.
Wyatt tapped me on the shoulder. I put the glasses down. “Follow me.”
We walked another 100 yards or so down the ridge, stopping at a large boulder. The rock concealed a Chinese soldier from the passing column below. The soldier lifted a rifle to the edge of the boulder, taking aim at the Marines.
“What do I do?” I asked.
“There’s nothing you can do. This is something you just need to understand.”
The Chinese soldier fired the weapon and time slowed down. I watched the bullet leave the barrel, traveling down towards the man on the roadway. At the same time, I saw the man on the roadway spot the Chinese soldier and fire at him.
The rounds passed within inches of each other.
The bullet from the Chinese rifle passed through the outer layer of the Marine’s uniform. Spinning him around and knocking him to the ground.
A moment later, I watched the round fired at the Chinese soldier strike him in the forehead, killing him.
Time resumed its normal rhythm. The Marine rose to his feet. He resumed firing with the same intensity and continued to follow the column of vehicles.
The blood from the Chinese soldier poured from the wound. I watched the steam rising, the blood soaking the snow and freezing in the intense cold.
* * * *
I found myself back at the car. “Didn’t this get blown up?”
Wyatt laughed. “Nah, it was just special effects. A little drama to add some realism to the battle.”
“It seemed real enough to me. I could smell that distinctive coppery aroma of the blood. You want to tell me the purpose of me seeing that?”
“Wanna take a guess what it was you saw?” Wyatt asked.
I thought for a moment. “Vong, you called the place Chongjin. Does it have another name?”
It struck me at once. The nightmares of my father’s experiences with the Marine Corps during the Korean War. He was in the worst of the battle at the Chosin Reservoir, when the Chinese entered the war.
I thought for a long moment, remembering the few times my father spoke of the war. “The Marine on the road was my father?”
“And I watched as he came so close to dying. Why show me that?”
“So you understand the path of life is determined by small, almost imperceptible, things. A slight change in action or time or place creates a different history. If that man was not wounded, or if your father did not carry him to the truck, things might turn out differently.
“Maybe the bullet your father fired would have missed the Chinese soldier. Maybe the one fired by the Chinese soldier would have killed your father. Maybe there’d be no you. Maybe the Chinese soldier, or his child, would live to find a cure for cancer. You must understand, there is no such thing as insignificant.”
“So I am here because of chance?”
“You are here because one outcome prevailed above all the other possible outcomes. Call it chance, fate, or luck. It is what happened,” Wyatt answered.
“And the Chinese soldier? What about him?”
“His time in that moment was different. Not better, not worse, just different.”
“So there is a reason for everything? Things happen for a reason?”
“There is a time for everything, there’s no need for a reason. Everything has time. For some it is short, for others longer. The outcome is determined when it occurs.” The sounds of the Byrd’s singing Turn, Turn, Turn came over the radio,
To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
“I thought you said there is no heaven?”
“There isn’t. The lyrics came from an imaginative poem. Written by an insightful, but innocent and misguided, believer.”
Vong and Wyatt leaned on the hood of the car, talking quietly. Vong appeared to argue a bit, and then nodded in reluctant agreement.
“Ready for your next step?” Wyatt asked.
“What will that be?” I said, looking at my two companions.
“You don’t have to do this now, if you’re not ready,” Vong said.
“Ready for what? I don’t even know what the heck you’re talking about.”
“See?” Vong turned to argue with Wyatt. “He’s not ready. We need to show him a few more before he gets it.”
Wyatt smiled. “Look, I’ve been doing this longer than you and–”
“That doesn’t matter, we have a process.” Vong was getting agitated
“It isn’t written in stone, remember? I can tell with this one.”
“Hello,” I said, waving my arms. “I am right here, the new dead guy. You’re talking about me like I am invisible.”
“Well, you are.” Vong laughed, pointing at me.
I looked down and there I was, gone. Nothing, no light reflected off me. I could see where I thought my feet would be. Nothing but the ground.
“Don’t worry. The ability to reflect light, to make yourself visible, takes time. It will happen. Don’t try so hard.”
As Wyatt spoke the words, I seemed to reappear.
“See, it’s like quantum physics. Something does not exist until we observe it. Learn to observe yourself and you exist, ignore it and poof, you’re not.”
“Is this place always so metaphysical?” watching myself fading in and out of visibility.
“Nah, just some of it. The rest is like a self-fulfilled prophecy. You make it whatever you believe it to be,” Vong explained, as he faded in and out of visibility as well. “I’ve had more practice.”
“So if I forget about myself, I no longer exist?”
“You can never forget it all. That would be non-existence.” Wyatt disappeared, and then reappeared once again. “It’s like being asleep. You are there, but unaware.”
All this talk was making my head, or the space where my head should appear, spin. “So what is this next thing?”
Wyatt and Vong exchanged glances. “It is sort of a graduate level experience in deadness. A PhDead in the post life experience.”
“Okay, bad pun. It is an expedited explanation of how life works, or worked, and where you go from here. I have used it with a few of my projects, but I think it would work for you. It is a fast track approach to transitioning. I think you are ready.”
I looked as Vong made faces behind Wyatt’s back. “You disagree?”
“I just like to move a little slower. That’s all.”
Wyatt laughed. “That’s how I picked you off in the ‘Nam,” turning to look at me. “He was creepy-crawling all VC-like and I spotted him. Lit him up like the 4th of July.”
Vong shook his head, “Picked me off? You damn Americans; I try to take him on đàn ông với đàn ông, man to man. He calls in two jets with napalm. He has no sense of a warrior’s honor.”
“Warrior’s honor?” Wyatt chuckled. “You call firing a rocket into an outhouse being a warrior?” Turning once again to face me. “You know what he did, this brave warrior? He watched our commanding officer, Colonel Morrison, go in for his morning shit. Then the great warrior fired a rocket right into the outhouse. There was shit and dead colonel parts everywhere. It was hard to tell which was which.”
The two laughed at the humor.
“I HEARD THAT, SERGEANT!” a voice thundered from out of nowhere.
“What the hell was that?” I asked, looking around, terrified of the sound.
“Oops, I forgot the Colonel is on monitoring duty today. Sorry Colonel, just kidding.” Wyatt spoke to the sky. “It was easy to separate you from the shit,” leaning in and whispering in my ear, “The shit smelled better.”
Wyatt smiled and motioned for me to follow. Vong kept glancing over his shoulder, making me nervous.
“This isn’t what I imagined it would be. Being dead I mean.”
“But you’re wrong there, my friend,” Wyatt said. “It is exactly as you imagined. It is exactly as everyone imagines. Different for each, but just as they imagined.”
I tilted my head, “No it’s not.”
“Sure it is,” Vong chimed in. “Have you ever read Plato’s Allegory of the Cave?”
“Sure, I read it. I’m surprised you have.”
“Why, because I’m Vietnamese?” Vong put his hands on his hips. “I was a guerrilla fighter and well-read, they are not mutually exclusive you know.”
Wyatt broke in with a fake Asian accent. “I go your Harvard University. How many homerun Baby Roof hit 1927? You tell me now, Joe.”
Wyatt threw up his hands and backed away, bowing.
Vong turned to face me. “Apology accepted. As I was saying. Like the man seeing the shadows on the wall, that is reality to him. To you, this is being dead. To someone else, this would all be different. Each has their own perception of what being dead means. Just as we all have our own perception of reality.”
I shook my head and leaned against the wall. “I still don’t get it.”
“Would you like Plato to explain it himself?” Wyatt asked.
“Exactly,” Wyatt answered. “He is also here. Imagine he is standing in front of you. Close your eyes and give it a try.”
I closed my eyes. A moment or so passed by and I felt a warm breeze against my face. I opened my eyes. There was a small, bearded man wearing a white robe holding a scroll standing in front of me.
“Plato,” Wyatt said, “this is Joe. Joe, Plato. Ask away,” waving his hand at me and turning to sit on the bar stool. Somehow, besides the visit from Plato, we had transitioned to a bar. Vong made Martinis.
“This is the real Plato?” I asked.
The man smiled and said, “Έτσι, θέλετε να καταλάβετε το σπήλαιο”
Which, of course, was Greek to me.
Wyatt laughed. “Your imagination is too precise. Imagine Plato, but he speaks English.”
I looked at the Greek Philosopher. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Hey, it is your imagination. So, as I was saying, you want to understand the cave?”
“Sure, I guess,” I answered.
“You guess? You conjure me up, make me speak English and you guess you want to learn something?” Plato said, turning to Wyatt. “You think he has potential?” Pointing his finger at me.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “Explain the cave, please.”
“Okay then,” Plato said. “It is simple. Perception is reality. As you perceive, so you believe. How else can you explain Scientology? Or Xenu? Yet people believe it.” Plato laughed.
“That doesn’t explain anything,” I argued.
Plato smiled. “Yes it does. I am sure Wyatt told you, the mind is capable of wondrous things. It can conceive ideas, create masterpieces, and compose awe-inspiring music. It can do all these things just by being. Some believe it is divine inspiration. It is not. It is the power of the mind, if you use it. The sad part is most do not. They believe things fed to them when they are young without ever questioning any of it. Because they believe, because they want to believe, their mind makes it real to them. It is how all the religions, philosophies, and concepts of what it is to be human proliferated. Each one sincerely embraced by some, derided by others. As they perceive, so they believe. That is why this transition takes so long for most. It takes time to dissuade them of the nonsense which infects them like a virus.”
“This is all in my mind, isn’t it?”
Plato smiled. “Some of it is. I am real. You are real. All the things you experience are your mind’s creation. We are here to help you understand. Now that you have, it’s your turn to help someone else.”
Plato vanished. Wyatt and Vong carried on another of their secret conversations.
“So what’s next?”
“We’ve considered a radical departure from the norm,” Wyatt said, glancing at Vong.
“The best guides are those with an open mind and a desire to learn. It is clear to us you have that.”
“What does that mean?”
Vong handed me a stack of papers. “Call it a baptism under fire. We’re taking a chance here that you may be one of the rare ones. Capable of learning on your own. It’s all in there.” Vong smiled. “You’ll find the way.”
I flipped through the pages, when I looked up Vong and Wyatt were fading.
“Ah, focus there guys. Your invisibility is showing.” I smiled.
“Enjoy the transition, my friend. See you again soon….” The two were gone. I was alone.
I re-read the documents as I traveled along the road. I enjoyed walking, or at least this close simulation of it, as I went to my assigned task. Walking through the front door of the hospital, I went to a particular room. I encountered a large group gathered around the bed. Some were crying, others laughing and telling stories.
In the bed was a man of about 65 years old, looking confused.
“Bit of shock, eh?” I said.
The man turned to look at me, surprise on his face.“Who the heck are you?”
I smiled. “You are not going to believe this, so give it time….”