|Points of the Compass
by David Wilson Atwood
as published in Gulf Coast Newspapers
Fairhope Sends Another
Sunday at church, I offered my hand to a tall, thin, young man who stood before me as we said our farewells. I
felt his strengths, physical and spiritual, as he took my hand, but that wasn’t good enough for him or me. He
gathered me into his arms and embraced me as a brother and so we are, and soon will be on another level. We are
brothers because we are of the same Corps, and brothers-to-be as only those who have been to war can be.
Fairhope is sending another Marine to war. Aaron Winberg leaves this week for Afghanistan.
His father, a warrior in his own right has prepared him well with insight, training, and spiritual strength, and has
had the courage to support his son’s dream and ambition to be a United States Marine. It takes courage to do such
a thing. My contribution to this young man’s training is my experience and advice, and as I offered it, I harkened
back to when I was nineteen and leaving for a war and wonder if I listened to guidance offered me. I’m certain I
did not and stood holding this young warrior who carries the hopes of a nation and prayed that he be wiser than
me. He is.
Thousands of such scenes have been enacted in the past several years as they have been since man hated man and
sent his sons and daughters to do battle. It is a bitter sweet thing knowing that handshake, that embrace may be
the last in this life. We send them with a prayer that will be constant until they are in our arms again, and are
proud of their choices, their strengths, and remember and envy their immortality because the years have taught us
that we are not.
We know that many more survive the experiences of combat than do not, but for the next seven or eight months,
we that wait at home will cringe every time the phone rings, and our hearts will beat faster at the knock on the
door. We will also listen for the faintest sound heralding the arrival of the mail and will for the rest of our lives.
“I’m going to check my e-mail”, will no longer be a casual act, but an exercise approaching that of a ritual as we
pray for word from our warrior.
The odds are good that our warrior will survive, and we will too, but none of us will be the same. Those who
fight will never see the world as he or she did before. They may not come back with physical scars, but there will
be those on their souls that will never go away. We at home will carry scars too. Waiting and not fighting is a
terrible battle. We will survive, and we will go on, and we will rejoice, but it too will be bitter sweet as we ask
ourselves, “To what end?” How long will Fairhope and countless other places send another one? The answer
brings a tear; we will as long as man hates man and threatens his peace to destroy.
I love chocolate doughnuts. I don’t mean the chocolate covered regular size ones; I love the little cake ones that are
dipped in thick chocolate that come in packages of five or six that you buy at convenience stores. Those are the
ones I love. I don’t just love them, I crave them.
Is there a twelve step program for chocolate doughnut eaters? If there is, I should be in it. I’m writing this at nine-
fifteen in the morning, checking my watch to see how long it is until ten-thirty. That’s when I can go get my
package of chocolate doughnuts and my Dr. Pepper and take my morning break. See, I do have some self
I blame this all on my mother. She’s passed, so she can’t defend herself, and it may not be fair, but it is her fault. I
was a finicky eater as a child (I wish I had that problem now) and on into high school. I would eat no reasonable
breakfast food, not even cereals. My mom, a nurse, having more than a working knowledgeable of nutrition and
the importance of a good breakfast, gave up and one morning plopped down in front of me a box of chocolate
doughnuts with a glass of milk, and with a disgusted and defeated tone, said, “Here”, and walked away.
You must be kidding me, chocolate doughnuts for breakfast?! Oh, there is a God, and he loves me! I was elated; I
was hooked. From that day on until I left for college and then the service, I had chocolate doughnuts for breakfast.
They weren’t practical in college. I mean, I would have to buy them myself and I had better things to spend my
money on. In the Marine Corps, they weren’t available. There, I ate anything I could get my hands on. Finicky
wasn’t an option. See, I can do without them, and have for varying periods of time; sometimes, years. Well, that
might be stretching it a little, but I can do without them…for awhile.
I have forgotten about them at times, but then out of nowhere, I get this craving and have to have them. Or, I’ll be
walking through a store and spy them on the shelf and they cry out to me; no, they sing to me, “Remember me?
Don’t you want me? You can’t live without me”, and they’re right. Then I’ll go through a period where the
Admiral buys them in quantities to stock the pantry. That’s nice, and she says that if I insist on being addicted,
that it’s more economical, but sneaking off to the corner store is so much more satisfying.
I’m sure I’ll quit again soon. I don’t seem to crave them in the hotter weather; I don’t like the chocolate melting on
my hands. They’re so gooey and gummy in your mouth when they’re melty like that; yuck! The doughnuts will
slip away from my conscious awareness, but I know they are lurking back there somewhere, waiting and plotting.
A price will have to be paid for this as it is with all things that feel, or taste good, but until then, I’m loving them. I
look at my watch; oh no, I’ve still have thirty minutes to go! Maybe I’ll break early today.
This is my fourth spring in Alabama and I marvel at the odors of May and June. The heavy musk of the May Trees
growing along our drainage, the sweetness of Magnolia and Honey Suckle outside our window mingles with the
seductive allure of Jasmine blooming on the fences to draw memories from as many directions as there are
fragrances. Old dreams and desires come alive in my mind’s attic. I dust them off and remember. The smells are
as much a part of me as is my face. I share my face, but the smells and the memories are mine alone. I sit on the
swing beneath the Jasmine covered arbor as I write this enjoying the heady bouquet as a breeze stirs the many
odors and I am fulfilled...almost. I wait for June and the Gardenia.
The species is not native to Alabama, but is to Africa and Asia, which both start with an “A”, and that’s close
enough for me. I did not know what the small, evergreen, ornamental shrubs were growing around my patio and
pond when we first moved to this house, but I smiled, offered a prayer of thanksgiving, and shed a tiny tear when
I discovered the heady, white blossoms prolifically covering the greenery were Gardenias.
Roses are wonderful, as are Pansies, Violets, Morning Glory, Carnations, and Camellia but there isn’t a fragrance
on earth that stirs deep seated passions in me as does the Gardenia. With every whiff, memories are freshened of
places I remember and some I do not.
“Ah ha,” you’re thinking, “he’s remembering a long ago love who wore a perfume like the Gardenia,” and you are
right. I remember her well, and others since, but that’s not it; at least not all of it. “Maybe the smell reminds you of
a place?” You wonder, and again, you would be correct. As I wandered and hunted in the jungles of Vietnam and
the Philippines, the fragrance of the little white flowers calmed me and made me smile in the most horrible of
circumstances, but that is not all of it. No, there is something else.
Whenever I close my eyes and deeply draw the aroma of the Gardenia into me, I am transported to places I do not
know, see things I cannot have seen, and feel the association of people long passed from this life. It is like a time
machine taking me back, back, and still further back. I struggle to continue to inhale more of the intoxicating
bouquet, but never am able to hang onto the elusive vision long enough…but I know it is as real as the pain in my
lungs as I struggle to hold the moment.
Some will say, “A repressed memory,” some, “A former life,” others, “Memories inherited from ancestors,” and I
think all would be correct, but it does not matter. The smell connects me to time, place, and peace, past, present,
and future. It gives me a sense of belonging and I marvel at the gift of a little flower.
Trains have played a big part in my life; a magical part. My grandfather worked on the Missouri-Pacific line most
of his adult life. I remember going to the rail station every evening while visiting with my grandparents to see the
Silver Eagle roll in. The train was awesome, huge, blowing steam and smoke with a big Silver Eagle on the front.
Walking with my Grandpa holding my hand was a bigger part. I was safe from all that noise and confusion. I rode
trains with my Grandma, and once with my family all the way across Texas, overnight when we moved
somewhere. Riding trains is about people…family; at least for me.
The Princesses to the Admiral are singing with the Mobile Singing Children at Carnegie Hall on Memorial Day.
Since I no longer enjoy flying, we thought about driving, but when we learned that the hotel in NYC charged
$45.00 per day to park, plus all the tolls you have to pay to get into the city, we abandoned that idea. That left a
bus, or the train. Train? Wow, train! I haven’t ridden a train in years; not since I was a little boy, at least fifty
years ago; a half century. Today I am once again on a train. We are rolling north from Birmingham to New York
City. I wonder how much it has changed.
I’m happy to say, not much. Sure, things are newer, the air conditioning is better, and I have 120V electricity at my
seat. I’m almost certain that such did not exist when I was riding last, but then, who cared. Hot was a way of life
and no one had anything to plug in anyway.
THAT has changed. As I walk the aisles of the train, I don’t pass many seats without someone using some
computer or cell phone device. Fifty years ago, such things were seen only in Dick Tracy comics. There is even Wi-
Fi at some of the stations, and one of the trains is so equipped.
“Hey, Mom, you got any bars over there?” In my day, when I asked that question, I wanted candy. My daughter
wants to know if we have cellular service. Yeah, it’s different, but what hasn’t changed is what’s
important…family and people.
When I rode last, I was the child. Now, I watch my budding young women across the aisle enjoying each other
and a friend they’ve made while I sit next to the Admiral who is taking pictures of everything and no one is
warning, “Don’t use up all your film before you get there.” My last ride was with my grandmother, this one is
with my wife
We’ve gone from steam to diesel, from reading a book to watching a movie on DVD players, or computers, or even
on a smart phone; from upright, hard seats, to luxurious recliners even in coach class, and I could go on and on.
The real question is, and this is a little scary for me, what will change in the next fifty years. I won’t be around to
see, but for once more in my life, I’m rolling on a train, and I’m little again. I wish I could snuggle next to
Grandma and go to sleep.