Ron Whitehead / Untitled / Blue Nostalgia: A Journal of Post-Traumatic Growth

by Travis Switalski, Sr.

I’m home. That’s a weird thing to think about, home. The place that you dream about when you’re sitting in Iraq with five minutes of quiet, or in the bay at Ft. Benning in between the smoke sessions. Almost twenty years ago when I was home, I was just “Travis.” “Travis” smoked dope and skipped class. He had a girlfriend and a little rental house and a car. “Travis” was a fucked up kid with a lot of friends and no future. “Travis” ran away from a girl by joining the Army. “Travis” swore he would never return.

“Ski,” what they called me when I was in the Army. I guess like most kids with a name that utilized the entire alphabet I was relegated to being called a portion of my surname. So, “Ski” it was. In the beginning it was simply a means to identify me from the other camouflage clad, high-and-tight-headed guys in my platoon, a way of singling me out by name for details or for the entertainment of my leadership. In my first four years of service I was “Ski” to my leaders and buddies, but I was still “Travis” in my mind.

“Ski” eventually became more of a persona than a name. It morphed into an identity much stronger than the three letters implied, borne of a need to distance “Travis” from the evils and immorality of “Ski’s” chosen profession. “Ski” became “Sergeant Ski” followed by “Staff Sergeant Ski,” “Sergeant First Class Ski” and – God help us all – “First Sergeant Ski” for a time. “Ski” in all of his Sergeant forms took on a whole new way of life and image. The Sergeants “Ski” were no longer that skinny, loud-mouthed kid from Anacortes, Washington, but a heavily muscled, loud-mouthed, maniacal bully who terrorized Soldiers and victimized lieutenants. “Ski” was a guy who head-butted Soldiers and subjected them to all kinds of cruel and unusual punishments in the name of training. He was a guy who back-mouthed officers and got away with it. “Ski” was known to run head-on into gunfire with little regard for his own safety. “Ski” was fucking crazy.

It was nineteen years ago I left my home in the Puget Sound. This year I celebrated my first Christmas and Thanksgiving here since leaving. I’ve spent time with people that I haven’t seen since I graduated from high school twenty years ago. The funny thing is that, here, in this small little town floating on an island in the Sound, I’m still “Travis.” My good friends Joe and Zach simply refuse to call me “Ski.”  I remain “Travis” to them, something which I find strangely comforting. It occurs to me that I’m in the middle of an identity crisis. Am I “Ski” or am I “Travis?” I barely remember what “Travis” was like twenty years ago, but I’ve been discharged long enough that “Ski’s” shenanigans sound fictional. Guys from the Army will send me emails asking, “Remember when you did that?” I am embarrassed by their memories of “Ski.” I have no idea who they are telling me about, though I believe what they say is true. Here at home, folks have memories of skipping class and smoking weed with me. When we talk now, they look at me with a strange curiosity as if I have two heads on my shoulders.

Thomas Wolfe wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again,” a story about a guy named George Webber who writes a book that makes references to his home town. The book is a wild success, but the depiction of his home angers the residents, and he begins to receive death threats. Reading into it, though, it’s more about Wolfe’s view of the unfair passage of time that prevents Webber from “going home again.” In a way, it is much the same situation for those “lifers” or “near lifers” like me who have returned to their home physically. None of us can really, ever, go home again. There’s simply too much time gone by for it ever to be the same. There are too many personas and layers to shuck off for it to be the way it was. Being home has taught me that “Ski” was a front, an act for other people and the greater good. “Ski” was not a person, but an entity that over time has become enigmatic even to me. “Ski” is an anachronism. He belongs to a different time and place.

“Travis” is a grown-up now, a true victim of the unfair passage of time. I am Travis. I work at a Catholic church. I make time for my friends who knew me when I was a fucked up kid and accept that I ran away and had life experiences that they can’t even imagine. I have breakfast with my father every other week.  He doesn’t look at me with a worried stare that says “I hope he turns out okay,” but with one of satisfied accomplishment. My family sees me as a man who has overcome great obstacles despite my internal identity crisis. I’ll never be “Ski,” and I’ll certainly never be eighteen year old “Travis.” I, quite honestly don’t ever want to be “Ski” or “Young Travis” again. That shitty kid can stay back in the late nineties and “Ski” can live on in the minds of those with whom he served. Instead, I’ll just keep plodding my way through the middle ground version of the two. I’ll never be able to go home, but I think I can bridge the gap between this place, who I was, who I pretended to be, and who I am now.

(Image: “Untitled” by Ron Whitehead)