Jul 3, 2009

On The Road

I spent today traveling back to Houston from Norfolk, Virginia. I used my time en route to finish Jack Kerouac's On the Road. On my last flight, I read Chuck Palahniuk's Survivor (by coincidence a man sitting next to me on the flight to Norfolk was reading the same book), and I enjoyed the irony of reading a book that starts out with a plane crash. This time, it was a book about the manic travels of Sal Paradise (a.k.a. Jack Kerouac) as he criss-crossed the US in search of life, happiness and "kicks."

The book was written in 1950, but is still relevant, and I will have to read more of his work after reading On the Road. Kerouac talked frankly in the book about sex, drugs, and the underbelly of America that he saw as he hopped trains and hitch-hiked across the country. I really enjoyed this book and I can understand why it is an American classic. I remember hearing the word "beat" from my childhood on and always thought I understood it, but reading On the Road has given me a fresh perspective on that term. What I once thought referred to a cool jazz oriented counter culture, I now understand as something deeper. The term "beat" seems more a reference to being lost or vanquished by circumstances. The characters are intellectuals who all seem to have a fondness for jazz music and thirst to find meaning in their lives. They are all on the outside looking in, but somehow they found each other and formed what in many cases turned out to be lifelong friendships. They also seemed to feed on each others creativity and success.

While traveling to and from Norfolk, I found myself feeling a little melancholy. I couldn't help but notice the high number of military personnel traveling on each leg of my journey. I was surprised to find that I felt sad as I watched these young people not only being deployed, but also returning from deployment. It took me a while to realize why their safe return was making me feel sad, but it came to me. They are all happy to be back in the States and headed home, but there was no way to look at them and determine which ones would end up needed the services I provide. I couldn't look at them and tell who had PTSD, who was going to end up being a raging alcoholic, who would end up committing suicide, or who would transition back to civilian life with relative ease. I couldn't tell who, but I knew that a number of them would have severe problems. Some of them will be dealing with the aftermath their time in the military for the rest of their lives, and most of them will reject the help being offered by the VA, at least initially. That is what they are trained to do. They also by and large do not have the patience for the bureaucracy they will face in discharging from the military or in getting the help they need. Most of them will view me and my counterparts as useless and unable to help them. They are going to be a lot like Kerouac was after he discharged from the Navy - beat.

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