We sailed from our homeport at Charleston Naval Base in June of 1999 en route a three-month deployment to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. We – the officers and crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Dallas – numbered one hundred sixty or so, more sailors than required for our usual drug- and migrant-interdiction operations. Before taking departure across the Atlantic, Dallas called at Norfolk Naval Base to take on stores, fuel, and ammunition. Then, laden with extra bodies and materiel, we sailed for our assigned Eastern Mediterranean OpArea.
I knew Dallas well; had sailed many thousands of miles on board her and her sister ships since enlisting in the Coast Guard in 1979. I had charted courses in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, the Bering and Caribbean Seas, and had witnessed a wide range of Coast Guard operations: fisheries law enforcement, cocaine interdiction, maritime search and rescue, and migrant repatriation. But I had never sailed across either of America’s ocean borders; or served in a war zone; or called at a foreign port, except a handful of Caribbean nations for a day or two of liberty.
We began our voyage that summer day expecting that Dallas would stop in Spain for military briefings, then proceed through the Strait of Gibraltar, follow the compass into eastern longitude, and report to the Adriatic Sea for picket duty. Once on station, we would patrol along a virtual NATO fence between the Balkan states and Italy to rescue Kosovo War refugees and interdict weapons smugglers sailing in the opposite direction. Not one of us had ever deployed to the Mediterranean but our mission would be as familiar as wind and tide: find a small boat in a big ocean carrying desperate people or cached contraband. We knew all too well the human face of anguish and resolve borne across an unforgiving sea, and all too well a smuggler’s desperation.
But before Dallas reached Spain, the Kumanovo Agreement was signed, ending hostilities and drastically reducing the number of migrants and guns crisscrossing the Adriatic Sea. And so the Navy reassigned Dallas to alliance-building duty in the Eastern Mediterranean countries of Crete, Israel, Turkey, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and Georgia. Officially we would exchange information and conduct joint training exercises with these foreign sea services on everything from maritime search and rescue and interdiction operations to oil spill cleanup.
Building alliances means sharing and listening, finding common ground, and working with cultures unlike your own. It is a necessary component of world peace. I was proud to serve the effort, albeit humbly; but I was also eager to visit other countries and learn what they were about. Still, what did I know about diplomacy? I had served the Coast Guard for two decades, was an ecologist by training and, between reserve call-ups like this one, taught high school science. Inevitably I would make sense of these travels through my sailor-scientist-educator’s eyes.
Approaching the Holy Land from Seaward
Three weeks after sailing from Norfolk, plowing gray-green seas halfway around the world, Dallas reached the Israeli coast. I was on a nighttime bridge watch when the fathometer readings jumped from four to three to two digits and the radar picked up the faint traces of the Levant. The chart showed Sinai through Gaza, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. An eerie deja vu swept over me until I realized the coastline’s familiarity came from my childhood Sunday school class studies. “Wow. The Holy Land,” I said to the quartermaster fixing the ship’s position.
“Yes, Ma’am!” We exchanged a look; I felt the wonder visible in her eyes.
To me it seemed that we had not only traveled across the ocean but also across time. We had arrived at the land of Abraham, the Philistines, and Christ as well as modern geopolitical conflicts. I peered through binoculars as we neared Haifa. If the ancients were still around they would be lost in the twinkling metropolis ahead of the bow.
The next morning, Dallas entered the ship channel escorted by an Israeli patrol boat, dwarfed by our slim, white, cutter with its bold red racing stripe, blue logo, and black US COAST GUARD stencil. I was on the fantail, the aft-most weather deck, when Dallas moored. The escort boat disappeared and in a moment our Israeli hosts were on the dock, smiling and waving hello.
The Country Briefing
When the lines were doubled up and secured the brow was put across and the Israelis escorted to the captain’s cabin. An hour later, the ship was called to quarters on the mess deck for the country briefing. The Executive Officer gave his sailors the usual “ugly American” admonishments: mind your manners, cast your country in its best light, and so forth. Then he turned the microphone over to the Israeli liaison, a young man with dark, curly hair wearing a khaki uniform wilted by the July afternoon.
His briefing was practiced and pointed. We were not to leave the port without our military ID, which was only to be shown to officials. We were not travel alone; or outside of Haifa without an Israeli escort; or to Tel Aviv, ever. He turned to the Dallas’ morale officer who held up tour bus flyers and sign up sheets for those wishing to take the Christian Galilee Tour, including Nazareth with an optional Jordan River baptism experience, and/ or Jerusalem, including Bethlehem and a kibbutzim tour.
The Israeli continued his briefing. We were not to advertise in any way that we were Americans; at all times we were to keep a low profile. We were to not leave a package or backpack unattended; if this should happen, it may be seized by the police, who may destroy it in a controlled detonation rather than risk the possibility of carnage caused by a terrorist device.
We were to remain alert. If we saw Israelis going inside — if they were deserting the streets — then we, too, should immediately seek shelter. He said that every Israeli has military training; every Israeli has served the country; any Israeli might be armed. He said that Israelis could sense trouble coming.
We were to trust the Israelis.
A second young man continued the country briefing, elaborating on the rules for travel. We were to sign up in advance for the various tours. Once a tour departed, we were to stay with our guide. One senior person on each Jerusalem tour must notify the Marine guard at the American embassy before we entered the city gates, and again after safe departure. Before entertaining questions, he specified where in Haifa we were not to visit: the standard military off-limits areas, normally bars or seedy neighborhoods. His list was short. “Off limits is that way.” He raised an arm and pointed accusingly east, toward Syria, then north, toward Lebanon. As he pointed, I realized how hemmed in Israelis must feel. The sea covers nearly half of their horizon while uneasy neighbors or avowed enemies occupied the rest.
The liaisons answered questions from the crew. The mess deck was overcrowded and stifling with all of us crushed together, shifting and shuffling to catch a breath of fresh air or a micro-breeze from a fanned tour brochure. Nobody had showered yet; the shore ties for water, sewage, electric, and phone had just gone over. Everyone was gritty and sea-rimed. Eyelids drooped. A post-briefing murmur rose; we all waited to be released from quarters.
And then came Gila. The moment she stood up a hush fell on the crew while those farther back in the crowd leaned forward and peeked between shipmates’ heads trying to glimpse the petite woman. I straightened my spine; my eyes widened. The light in Gila’s eyes was deep and alive. She seemed composed of energy rather than matter. Her complexion was polished sandalwood. Her lips were red poppies. Her exotic perfume drifted across the mess deck.
Her voice resonated warmly. She smiled brilliantly and spread her arms as to embrace us. “Welcome to the Holy Land! Welcome to Israel!” Two olive-skinned young women appeared with buckets of red carnations, which they began distributing to the crew. A breeze stirred and everyone visibly relaxed as our weeks at sea evaporated. “They are so serious!” she waved her manicured hand toward the rumpled officers as though to banish them. “Israel is wonderful!”
When Gila was done, we knew where to find bars, boutiques, and walk-streets. Shuttle vans would transport us to and from the USO club where she and the young women worked. Everything would be fine. When liberty was granted the vans began running to and from the upscale neighborhood high above the port where the USO sat like a beacon. From there, we hit the ATM’s to exchange Visa charges for shekels then wandered off to explore, clutching backpacks, our military ID’s buried in pockets, and, to the extent possible, muting our shiny American faces.
The second day my duty section boarded a luxury bus for the Jerusalem excursion. Our Israeli guide was young and handsome, his thick hair caught in an elastic behind his head. Once we were on the highway speeding toward Bethlehem, he began his narrative. Here is where David felled Goliath. There, you see the Golan Heights – the hills of the West Bank, which Israel took in the Six Day War, 1967. The road we are traveling on quickly converts to an airstrip to launch and land jetfighters when necessary.
Here is where Mary lived, and here is where she spoke with the Angel Gabriel. There is the Jordan River. I noted this river of mythic proportions was neither wide nor deep.
The bus pulled into a tourist trap for a rest break. A mammoth gold-painted statue of Elvis Presley dominated that mecca of kitsch. I bought Dead Sea Salt hand lotion and a commemorative coffee cup with a silhouette of the King and the words The Elvis Inn at Jerusalem. Back on the bus, the senior chief took a head count and phoned the embassy to check our group into the Jerusalem Sector.
Half an hour later the bus queued into a slow-moving line of vehicles waiting to clear a military checkpoint into the West Bank. When it was our turn the guard at the booth waved us through. The booth windows were hazy with construction dust blowing like desert sand through the narrow gate leading to Bethlehem, isolated behind concrete walls embedded with glass shards and topped with razor wire. O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie.
Beyond the checkpoint the bus crept down a street so pocked I grabbed the seat in front of me with both hands to stay put. On the street, women in black chadors picked their way along uneven sidewalks and cowered against the dusty wind. Men with eyes the color of despair watched us from the open doors of shabby businesses under fading marquees lettered in flowing Arabic, so different from the blocky Hebrew script we had already grown accustomed to. Neither was intelligible to me.
The bus came to rest at a white concrete building with high, barred windows. We disembarked. A Palestinian merchant opened a door to its rows of shelves and bins filled with Holy Land mementos. Crescent moons and stars, olivewood rosaries, gold chains bearing filigreed hands – of Fatima, or Miriam, or God – some palming chips of diamond or sapphires. Blue glass Allah’s eyes warded evil away. Eastern Orthodox icons deified Christ and his saints. Tiny plastic bags boasted Holy Land dirt, frankincense, and myrrh. There were olive oil soaps, Aladdin lamps, and carved Nativities. I bought a gold chain necklace with a diamond-palmed Hand of God. Everyone bought something. We were reminded to purchase cheap, loosely woven scarves to cover our heads and shoulders outside.
From the shop we walked up a steep, short street into Manger Square. We had been cautioned to not take pictures of the minaret opposite the Church of the Nativity, which the guide assured us covered the grotto where the Son of God had been born. Armed men patrolled the open plaza between minaret, grotto entrance, Roman Catholic Church, and Armenian Orthodox annex. The plaza felt weighted and tense.
The guide called us together. Inside the church he explained the Ottoman Emperor Constantine’s Christianized mother Helena cataloged Christendom’s holy places during her travels to the Levant three hundred years after the crucifixion. He said people then still knew where things had happened, the stories carefully passed down through the generations. He said three hundred years is not such a long time in this country.
We were given a choice of pathway to see the manger grotto deep in the church’s bowels. The ground floor option featured a viewing window; right then a group of nuns were bent low to peek through it. Or, we could file down a fissure in the rock on which the church was built. Countless pilgrims had descended along this crack over seventeen centuries; the rock was worn into rough steps. But the way was narrow, the steps irregular, and the grotto damp and slippery. Anyone with poor balance or claustrophobia should stay above ground. But who comes to Bethlehem and stops short of the holy? I chose the low road.
A plexiglass sheet was bolted across the manger grotto, a small, open cave. A garish yellow spotlight lit up the back wall. Each pilgrim’s press of hand or eye to the blurry window smudged the plastic while the line shuffled forward as a single serpentine body. We followed the tour on through the maze of basilicas making up the Nativity complex.
Samaritans and Jews destroyed Helena’s first basilica in the sixth century; a century later Persians, seeing themselves in the basilica’s Magi mural, spared its replacement church a similar fate. Crusader kings warring against Islam expanded the Church in the eleventh century. Earthquakes damaged the basilica in the nineteenth century. In 2002 fifty armed Palestinians took asylum in the Church while Israelis lay siege. I thought about stories passed from generation to generation. What will it take to change the narrative?
After the tour we boarded the bus and trundled back through the frayed town, cleared the checkpoint, and returned to Israel’s paved roads.
The Holy City
Jerusalem was our final stop. The bus discharged us outside the Old City’s Zion Gate, which opened into a cobbled alley, polished icy-slick by the centuries. Flags from every nation fluttered from bazaar stalls hawking souvenir crosses, landmark miniatures, and postcards. Uzi-armed soldiers patrolled the blue-cobbled lane. We regrouped at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the greater Christian Quarter compound, a patchwork of beliefs rising over Helena’s storied sites, which bury a first-century Hadrian’s temple, itself built over a ruined temple of Aphrodite. Clusters of priests and nuns milled around the courtyard; I tried to fathom the complicated negotiations by which any number of denominations shared that patch of earth.
The church interior was baroquely ornate with thick carpets, gold icons, and intricate mosaics. Massive chandeliers hung from vaulted ceilings floating above marbled columns. We fell into a line of humanity dressed like the world, in shorts and tee shirts, orthodox vestments, saris, skirts, and dashikis. In turn we looked through the round window to see Golgotha’s craggy rock. Legend says a bolt of lightning struck here the moment Christ died, splitting the rock in two, making a path for his blood to trickle down until it reached Adam’s buried skull.
In another part of the complex velvet ropes loosely cordoned the Anointing Stone where Christ’s body was prepared for burial; this tradition was established a thousand years after Helena received her already centuries-old information. I doubted the story. Yet my shipmates knelt reverently, bowed their heads, and reached their hands out to touch the smooth marble slab. Some crossed themselves. This humility, or awe, brought tears to my eyes and I joined them. I felt the cool stone and imagined the Galilean carpenter as visceral body and blood instead of papery communion wafers and grape juice. Here was concrete, present, and embodied belief.
We traversed airy and stifling passages past stunning and crude architecture lit by electric bulbs and burning candles. At the largest rotunda, the Quarter’s heart, skylight bathed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher through the dome’s high windows. We circled the ornate Orthodox chapel said to house Christ’s tomb and the rock the Angel Gabriel rolled aside the third day after his death. Armenian bishops wearing black robes, tall, white mitres, and gold medallions on long chains tended this holiest of their sites. Priests and acolytes ambled around, as if walking a labyrinth, swinging brass censers. The pungent incense clouded the air and made the sunbeams visible.
An hour later we hiked through the Old City and Jewish Quarter. A boy’s soccer team tumbled by wearing bright yellow jerseys and calling to us English. The street opened onto the gleaming Western Wall. There, it became a wide concrete ramp that curved down the sixty-foot drop into the sunken plaza where blue and white Israeli flags snapped in the wind. A large sign referred to the Holocaust: Remember. Six Million Jews.
Directly across from our position lay the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, just east of the Wailing Wall, which divides East from West, Jew from Muslim. Atop the Temple Mount Islam’s third holiest site, the Dome of the Rock, gleamed gold in the afternoon sun. They say it was here that Mohammed ascended to heaven in the company of the Angel Gabriel.
I started down the ramp. A young man wearing long, black Hasidic robes begged my pardon then sold me a passel of red strings. He instructed me in American English to find some paper, write down my prayers, fold them into a tight packet, and then tie the packet with a string. I nodded agreeably.
Thus prepared, I should approach the Western Wall – on its right-hand face reserved for women — and tuck my prayers into a crack between the massive limestone blocks. I squinted into the plaza where covered women, and to their left men in skullcaps, pressed their hands and bodies against the hewn stones. I imagined those stones grouted with prayers and strings, and considered the cacophony of need reaching God’s ears. How would He possibly hear my small petition? The Hasid said that when I finished my prayer I should back away until I was beyond the rows of women standing, rocking, and chanting from chairs set before the Wall.
I thanked him and rejoined my group at the base of the ramp. We filed through metal detectors. Soldiers slinging rifles scrutinized our backpacks. I covered my head and shoulders and clutched my prayer packet. I did as the Hasid had instructed. When I was done I retreated backwards, mindful that God was watching.
The Best Salsa Club in Israel
The morning of the last day of our port call, Gila stopped by the ship and promised to any takers an unforgettable night of dancing at “the best salsa club in Israel!” She would return to the ship at sunset to pick up the willing.
“Sunset” turned out to be closer to nine-thirty; by then, only a few of us waited for her. She waved us onto the pier where we crammed into waiting yellow taxis. My friend Jim and I jumped into Gila’s cab. The heat and humidity had only worsened during our stay. We rolled the windows down, damp in our shorts and tee shirts. Gila, in a silky, flowered dress, sat between us, not a bead of perspiration on her lovely hair and face. We turned onto the main road and zoomed along the coast toward our mystery destination.
We filled her in on our visits to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. The conversation waxed and waned. During a lull, she took my hand in hers, squeezed it, and, in a darker mien than I had seen her, confided that there are eight women for every man in Israel. I drew a blank. She continued. “From the wars and the rest of the troubles.”
As we sped along, highway lights cast her face in dark and light, dark and light. I scrutinized her and saw gray hair mixed into her dark waves and lines etched into her face. She squeezed my hand again and chirped, “So we share our sorrow but also? We share our joy.” Her smile returned.
It was almost midnight when we reached a deserted industrial park surrounded by chain-link fence. Sodium lights cast orange shadows on new concrete streets. The cab left us in front of a small cinder block building that had no windows and appeared to be abandoned. We paid the cabbie. Gila waved him off then whispered, “So you see, it is safe! I tell them there is no reason for this to be off limits.” I raised my eyebrows and looked sideways at Jim. Off limits?
“Fuck it. We’re here,” he said. Gila slid her arms around our waists and said the club would open at midnight. More cabs arrived, some of them carrying our shipmates and others, Israeli women dressed to kill escorted by trim, handsome men. Beyond the pools of sodium light, the industrial park glowed under a three-quarter moon.
At midnight the building’s steel door swung open. A heavyset Israeli stepped outside and waved us past an entry fee notice. “No cover,” he said, nodding to Gila and casting a watchful eye over her Americans. Inside, the building was a single open space, from wall to cinder block wall. The roof opened to the midnight sky and the floor was grass.
An untidy mix of plastic Adirondack and plastic chairs dotted the edges of the lawn. The bar was made of plywood and fifty-five gallon drums. One wall backed the DJ’s console. Another sported rotating red and blue lights. Stereo speakers taller than any of us thrummed congas, timbales, and brass from the room’s four corners.
A line snaked toward the bar with its two-liter bottles of vodka and tequila, six-packs of Cokes and juices, pony kegs, stacks of red and white paper cups, and cash box. The bartender hustled under a string of dim light bulbs. I ordered a vodka and grapefruit. He poured it fifty-fifty and served it without ice because there was none. Drink in hand; I turned to watch the action.
The music was Latin and loud. A couple of wiry guys in jeans hustled under the open sky, snapping together sections of a portable dance floor. As soon as a section was in place, the well-dressed Israelis began to dance: beautiful women in black spaghetti-strapped dresses, brooding men in loose black trousers and crisp white shirts. Each pair became a blur of dark hair, clasped waists, and skirts flaring away from the dancers. They moved so perfectly it that the music flowed from their moves.
When the second set began the couples broke apart and pulled our Dallas contingent onto the floor, breaking us away from our chairs and paper-cup drinks. It was impossible to resist this vortex of music and stilettos, gold bracelets and necklaces, spinning lights and moon shadows. We had come halfway around the world, across longitudes of space and time, as though our real mission all along was to be here now. All night we danced salsa on the floor unfolded over the grass, under the sky, with frangipani and salt breeze caressing the off limits bar.
Then the stars faded into dawn and as suddenly as the dance club had come together it fell apart. The music stopped. The lights went off. The bouncer opened the door. We slid into the cabs and rode back to the cutter. I watched Haifa wake up from behind the cab windows and wondered whether the bar was a regular fixture or thrown together for our benefit.
The Four Fundamental Forces
Our last night in Israel the USO threw a party at their club overlooking the port of Haifa and Dallas at her mooring, two kilometers away as the crow flew but more like six along the city’s winding streets. The shuttle van would run up and down Mount Carmel’s hairpin curves until midnight.
My friend Jim and I walked to the party. We wanted to explore and we both enjoyed a good discussion. Me the ecologist. Jim, the chemical engineer. Both of us were sailors wanting to stretch our legs. We left the cutter an hour before sunset. The afternoon light wove rush hour exhaust into gold and lengthened Mount Carmel’s shadows. We walked past forklifts, cargo pallets, and shipping containers before exiting the port gate to cross the coast road and begin our uphill hike to the party. Our steps fell into sync. Jim opened the conversation by asking my opinion on the Theory of Everything. Did I believe one existed?
“What are you talking about?” I worked to keep pace with Jim’s long legs.
He clarified. “There are four fundamental forces that explain every interaction in the universe. We treat them as different phenomenon but a Theory of Everything would unite them in a single, elegant, principle that explains it all.” He grinned and kept his pace up the steeply angled street. He thought out loud as he warmed to his topic. “One and two, the strong and the weak forces. The strong force holds atoms together. The weak force allows them to decay.”
I thought about the dancers at the salsa club clinging to one another as they spun around the floor: each man cinching his partner’s waist, she embracing his shoulder and leading arm; her black skirt whirling away from their center of gravity. “Like holding on and letting go,” I said.
“Sort of,” he said and went on to explain how the third force, electromagnetism permeates all space. It will deflect a compass needle placed next to a live wire, and force electrons through a dead wire wrapped around a moving magnet. It is a two-sided force. Electricity induces magnetism; magnetism induces electricity.
I thought of the Roman god Janus with his back-to-back faces of war and peace, the beginnings and endings of conflict. And what about the tour of Bethlehem and Jerusalem? Weren’t the Arabs and the Israelis similar in this way? It seemed improbable they would resolve their differences and coexist in peace. Yet seemingly neither could live without its other in this place they both claimed as home. One enemy triggered; the other reacted. And so on. Who could remember this endless conflict’s beginning or envision how it would end?
I wore a dark tee shirt but even its forest green bloomed into triangles of dark perspiration on my chest and under my arms. Still, it felt good hiking, sweating, and having solid ground under my feet. We turned to walk along the verdant terraced gardens of the gold-domed Baha’i Temple where Persia’s later-day prophet Bab, exiled because of his radical Islamic views, is laid to rest. Rush-hour traffic noise drifted up from the port road like surf shushing a distant shore.
We left the gardens and returned to the narrow streets. We stopped for bottled water then watched the grocer, in butcher’s apron and embroidered skullcap, sweep his sidewalk clean, lock his store, and then disappear around a corner into shadows. Our water bottles drained, we followed the cobblestone street to an alleyway so narrow Jim could have touched houses on both sides at once. He picked up the conversation. “Gravity is the fourth fundamental force – the tendency of objects to accelerate towards each other.” The row houses loomed on either side of us. The sky glowed violet overhead. Jim said gravity always attracts; its force increases as the distance between the objects decreases.
Maybe that is what I felt at the Wailing Wall as I tucked my red-ribboned prayers between those silent stones, witnesses to so much strife for so many millennia. I recalled the weight of the dividing line between East and West. It seemed there was an omnipotent gravity between tremendous forces separated only by scraps of paper scrawled with human hopes and fears. It was a zero-distance kind of gravity.
The Theory of Everything
The alley opened into a neighborhood with a maze of streets without a discernible slope. The straight, level roads were a welcome relief to my taut calves. I guessed we were two-thirds of the way to the USO. I looked forward to a cold beer. But it took us three quarters of an hour to find our way out of the enclave. In the end we backtracked until we found a tunnel through overgrown shrubs leading to a dirt track ascending steeply uphill. It was fully dark by then. The path led us to a deserted playground; stars twinkled above. The playground led to a street in a neighborhood sporting condos and Victorian streetlights. The street was also steep. The conversation fizzled as we pressed ahead.
Suddenly Jim stopped; even he was winded now. “Grand Unifying Theory. GUT.” He sounded like a textbook on tape. “This theory posits that three out of the four forces may merge into a single unified field that, once described, could elegantly explain just about every relationship between matter and energy in the entire universe.” He resumed our uphill march.
“Grand Unifying Theory? Just about explain?” I said. I was disappointed that one of the fundamental forces would be left out. “Slow down.” I plopped to the curb to catch my breath. Jim joined me.
But there’s more, he said. A physicist’s holy grail merges all four. That is the Theory of Everything. It should exist; would demonstrate how the strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravitational forces are interconnected parts of an overarching whole. He glanced up the palisade we had nearly summited. “But they’re still working on that one,” he quipped as though the odds of it being found were slim-to-none.
But I wondered if it is so hard to believe everything relies upon everything else, or that a more inclusive something might hold wildly divergent and seemingly distinct forces within its single palm. I reached for the chain holding the Hand of God around my neck. It was lacy and delicate. Its diamond chip was tiny. “Well,” I stood up. I pointed downhill. “You can see the Dallas’s masts and the aircraft warning lights.” We would be underway again in just a few hours, all one hundred and sixty of us living on top of each other on the cutter’s three hundred and seventy eight feet.
The final quarter-mile stretch was brutal, along a steep, brick, urban canyon. It was the kind of steep that makes you lean into the hill to keep you from tumbling down. I willed my feet to follow each other. At last the narrow walkway spilled into the open, the grade fell flat, and there, across the busy four-lane, our shipmates were bullshitting and hoisting beers under the brightly lit USO sign.
“Woo-hoo!” I said. We high-fived then leaned against the wall running parallel to the busy thoroughfare. I fanned my shirt, hoping it would dry a little before we crossed the street to claim a cold one.
Jim asked me again, “So, what do you think? Is there a Theory of Everything?”
I remembered my odd feeling of arrival while we were still underway, the sense that I been in this Biblical land before and had traveled through time and across the sea as Dallas gravitating toward the Levant, returning us to Adam.
“It’s the Holy Land,” I said.
“What’s your point?” Jim said.
I smiled. “Holy. You know, whole, something more than the sum of its parts. Maybe the Theory of Everything is all of us just trying to get along.”
“That’s your answer?” Jim seemed disappointed that I had nothing more than this to offer. He wiped his forehead on his sleeve. I shrugged. Why not? All of our beautiful, brooding faces, eyes dark and bright with ferocity and faith, everyone struggling toward an all-inclusive fix, something that considers everything and allows us to achieve more together than we could possibly do on our own.
“Yep, that’s it,” I said.
He furrowed his brow and gave me a quick nod. “Right,” he said.
And then we did what we had to do: crossed the street, ordered a beer, and joined the we, doing our best just to get our job done.