In Search of Greater Things
Thomas Calabrese –Amazing, inspiring, spectacular, astounding, stupendous, wondrous, fabulous, marvelous, miraculous or phenomenal. These are all adjectives that would be appropriate to use when describing Awe. For the human mind to truly comprehend the unique experience of awe, two things must occur. Vastness happens when we see something that exceeds the normal boundaries of our current worldview. Transcendence follows as we endeavor to comprehend the magnificent idea or image. Awe creates a feeling of euphoria as our ego diminishes and we integrate into the experience. It also creates good health by reducing stress. There is conclusive medical evidence that awe has a positive influence on those with PTSD, especially combat veterans. Its effects are both short and long term.
As an individual’s personality and values have been proven to be relatively stable in orientation, the potential of harnessing awe-inducing moments to swiftly and powerfully instigate personal growth and re-orientate values is considerable. Experiences that arouse awe can help us to re-conceptualize our sense of self, our role in society and from a more cosmic perspective, our place in the universe. Opportunities to experience awe are ever-present in our world, but we must be open to and mindful of these more subtle moments that can easily evade us.
His mother was an eighteen-year old runaway from an abusive home in Hayward, California. After giving birth in a local motel while traveling to Las Vegas to live with her aunt, she placed her newborn son at the door of Fire Station 5, on North River Road in Oceanside, California, when he was only three days old. With no name, the firefighters named the child, Rex Chase. Rex for the station dog and Chase for Captain Brad Chase, who was on duty at the time.
It was far from an idyllic childhood for the young boy as he spent most of his childhood in the foster care system. By the time he was fourteen-years old, he was doing odds jobs around the neighborhood to earn spending money so he wouldn’t have to ask any more of his foster parents than they were already giving him.
Wayne and Josie Kruger were killed in an automobile accident, while driving west on Gopher Canyon Road near Margale Lane when he was 16 years of age. Rather than go back into the foster system, John Reese, Rex’s high school friend, talked to his parents and they agreed to have the homeless youth stay with them. It was a kind and benevolent act that deeply touched the young boy. The Reese family treated Rex like he was part of the family and he did his best not to disappoint them, by studying hard at school and helping around the house.
After graduating from high school, Rex sat down with Mark Reese to discuss his future plans, “I’m really grateful for everything that you’ve done for me.”
Mark Reese smiled, “It has been our pleasure. You have been a welcome addition to the family. Not once have we ever regretted our decision…and that is the honest truth.”
Rex was visibly moved, “That means a lot to me, but I believe that the time has come for me to be on my own.”
“Nobody is asking you to leave,” Mark replied, “You are welcome to stay as long as you want.”
“I know that…and I’ll always be grateful.”
Mark extended his hand, “This will always be your home and you’ll always be part of this family.”
Rex shook the hand of the man that he respected and deeply cared for, “I’ll never forget that.”
Two days after his 18th birthday, Rex joined the Marine Corps and after finishing training, he was given the MOS (military occupational specialty) of 0621, Radio Field Operator. When he heard that there was an opening in 1st Anglico (Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company), he applied for the position. After being accepted, Rex underwent a broad spectrum of training to become a combat-ready ANGLICO. He learned how to coordinate fire support, conduct field radio operations, direct air support and received training in airborne operations, insertion methods and other skills. ANGLICO has the distinction of being the only Department of Defense unit capable of bringing in fire support from air, sea and land. They regularly support Special Operations Forces. ANGLICO personnel typically deploy to the battlefield in small teams in various sizes, depending on mission requirements.
Corporal Rex Chase was assigned to Supporting Arms Liaison Team C of 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, I Expeditionary Force. His unit went through extensive training at Fort Irwin, California with other branches of the U.S. military and foreign allies before being the last group from 1st ANGLICO to be deployed to Afghanistan.
Rex found a home in 1st ANGLICO. It was an elite unit where much was expected of him and he enjoyed the challenge and the hard work that came with it. He had the mindset where he was willing to accept the responsibility and accountability that went with any assignment that his superiors sought to give him. He was never intimidated, no matter how daunting the task. Rex had natural leadership skills, was also humble, unassuming and led by example. He was quick to divert praise to those around him and his standard reply was, “It was a team effort.”
Recently promoted Sergeant Chase and his team were on patrol with 30 Marines from 1st Force Reconnaissance Battalion and they were tasked with clearing an area of entrenched Taliban fighters. The enemy outnumbered the Marines seven to one and were dug in along a treeline. Under the searing heat of the Afghan summer, the Marines faced stubborn resistance from the enemy as they advanced on foot, into a barrage of enemy rockets and small arms fire. Sergeant Chase moved to an exposed position on top of a berm where he had a better view of the enemy. While returning fire, he called in air support to protect his fellow Marines from being overrun by the Taliban. Even after being wounded in the upper left arm, he refused to retreat.
The air support had its desired effect and kept the Taliban from advancing on the Marines. There was one problem though, the bombing pattern kept Sergeant Chase from returning to his men. Rex had to make the choice of continuing the bombardment and protecting the patrol or stopping it long enough for him to run back to their position. That soon became a moot point when Rex was wounded in the right thigh and he couldn’t run.
Realizing that this was probably his last stand, Rex stayed focused on the task. When a significant amount of Taliban fighters had been killed or wounded, the trapped Marines were able to advance toward Sergeant Chase’s position. When they reached the berm, he was gone!
The Marines found blood on the ground and reluctantly came to the conclusion that Sergeant Chase had been taken prisoner. A quick search of the area turned up nothing. The situation was relayed to Command, who ordered the Marines to hold their position. A company size unit of 165 Marines arrived within two hours and began an exhaustive search of the area as helicopters flew overhead. The only thing they found was an escape tunnel beneath the floor of an abandoned building in the village.
The Taliban would have killed the Marine if they didn’t think they could trade him for some of their imprisoned comrades. Of course that didn’t mean they could make things as difficult for Sergeant Chase as possible. They treated his wounds to make sure that he didn’t bleed to death or get an infection. After that he was placed in a pit with a metal grate over the top of it. The heat was stifling and Rex was given just enough water and food to survive.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into months. To maintain his sanity, Rex had to find anything that could occupy his mind. During the days, he would watch the yellow ray of sunlight move down the west wall in fractions of inches until it reached the ground. At night, Rex would repeat the same process with moonlight. Other times his focus would be on a spider building his web, a row of ants crawling along the ground or even a bead of sweat on the back of his hand. Not just a casual glance, but an intense scrutiny of these seemingly insignificant occurrences. In any other circumstance, they would not have merited a second glance.
Five months had elapsed and while the Marines never gave up searching for Sergeant Chase, they couldn’t neglect their other duties in the process either. The Taliban stronghold was targeted by Delta Force operatives, not knowing that the Marine was being held a prisoner inside the compound. Once the American special operatives began their assault, the Taliban sought to escape and take Sergeant Chase with them.
Once he heard the small arms fire and subsequent explosions, Rex realized what was happening, he knew that he could not let the Taliban take him away. He pretended to be docile and compliant when he was pulled from the pit. Explosions shook the building and Rex seized the opportunity to grab an enemy fighter and snap his neck. He then grabbed the man’s AK-47 and shot three enemy fighters before an explosion brought the roof down on top of him.
The Delta Force operatives found Rex under a pile of debris and he was medically evacuated. The injured Marine spent four weeks in Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego, recovering from his wounds, malnutrition and various other ailments. He was medically discharged from the Marine Corps and returned to the Reese home. Rex had some difficulty adjusting to civilian life and had a persistent feeling of restlessness that would not leave him.
He approached the Reese family, “I appreciate that you let me come back, but something doesn’t feel right. I don’t know exactly what it is or how to deal with it, but something tells me that the answer is out there somewhere.”
Mark Reese suggested, “I’ve heard that they have programs at the Veterans Administration to help returning servicemen. You’ve gone through a lot… it may take some time to adjust.”
“I’ve talked to the counselors and they’ve given me some things to work on.”
Rex planned his itinerary, loaded his Toyota pick-up truck with his meager possessions and got on the road. He had read a book about National Parks when he was in the hospital and it touched something inside him. His journey to find peace started at Katmai National Park in Alaska and took him to Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone and Arches National Park. Rex saw Cadillac Mountain Summit, Mesa Arch Sunrise, and the Olympic National Park then toured the Everglades. There was something about the natural beauty of these places that soothed his restless soul. While driving back across the country from Florida, Rex never missed an opportunity to stop along the way to enjoy any special moment that presented itself. Whether it was vast like the Grand Canyon or simple like a flock of birds flying overhead, Rex had become a man who had learned to appreciate awe in various forms.
He now felt that he was ready to begin the next chapter of his life. His final stop before returning home would be Yosemite National Park. While sitting on a bluff overlooking Horsetail Falls and watching the sunrise, Rex noticed a young woman walking toward him. What he found amazing was she was using a red tipped cane to navigate the winding and rocky trail.
She called out, “Good morning!”
Rex was amazed that she noticed him from that distance,” Are you talking to me?”
“You’re the only one here,” The young woman responded.
“I guess I am.”
“My name is Diane Haven…what’s yours?” The young woman asked.
Diane offered, “Would you care to walk with me?”
“Yeah, I would…thank you for the offer,” Rex made his way down from his perch and began following the woman.
They didn’t speak for several minutes until Rex asked, “It’s a little dangerous out here for a woman alone…isn’t it?”
Diane responded, “I’m glad you didn’t say for a blind woman.”
“I didn’t notice.”
“My other senses are extremely acute so I’m not as helpless as I might appear. I’ve also got a good back-up plan.”
After visiting more than a half dozen national parks and seeing some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world, Rex didn’t think he could be surprised anymore, impressed yes, surprised no. That was happening as he walked behind the raven-haired beauty because his senses were magnified ten-fold. Rex was savoring each moment while eagerly anticipating the next one.
Diane suddenly stopped, turned around and asked, “Are you in pain?”
“I’ve got a few aches, here and there,” Rex answered, “Why do you ask?”
“I can hear the discomfort in your breathing and you’re not lifting your right foot as high as your left,” Diane rubbed her hand together to create heat, then touched Rex’s thigh. He immediately felt a sense of relief and the gifted woman repeated the process for his left arm and that dull ache vanished as well.
Rex was dumbfounded, “Where did you learn to do that?”
“Just something that I picked up on one of my nature hikes.”
As the couple made their way through Horsetail Meadow, colors were bursting all around them and a combination of aromatic scents that included shooting stars, showy milkweed, cow parsnip, western azalea, pine violets, evening primrose, baby-blue eyes, larkspur and dogwood drifted on the gentle breeze. The trail ended at the base of a granite rock cliff.
Rex commented, “I guess it’s time for us to turn around.”
“We don’t have to,” Diane looped her cane over her shoulder, felt for a handhold and began climbing up the sheer rock face. When she sensed that Rex wasn’t following, she commented, “You coming or not?”
“I guess I am,” Rex shrugged and followed.
Despite being blind, Diane navigated the wall like an expert rock climber. When she reached the top, she bent down and extended her hand. After helping Rex up the last few feet, they were standing ninety feet above the valley floor. Diane took Rex by the hand and led him to the other end of the bluff. She placed her hand on a unique rock formation, “They call this guy, The Wizard of Awe.”
Rex turned to the rock, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Wizard. Have you seen the munchkins?”
“Are you ready?” Diane said and she walked to the very edge.
Rex looked down and saw a small lake far below them, “You’re kidding, right?”
Diane smiled knowingly, “You came looking for awe, didn’t you?”
“How do you know what I came looking for?” Rex asked.
“Because I came looking for the same thing. You can go back down the rock face or you can follow me, “Diane took one step forward without waiting for answer and disappeared over the edge.
There was no way that Rex was going back the same way he came. He stepped forward and didn’t even feel the impact when he hit the water. As he was sinking, Rex felt a sense of calmness and security as the water engulfed him. He felt like he could stay beneath the surface forever. Reluctantly, he came up and saw Diane swimming to shore, so he followed. A man was standing there with two towels.
Diane turned to Rex, “I told you I had a good back-up plan. This is my father.”
Suddenly Rex recognized the man’s face and he put the name to it, “Colonel Curtis’ Skip’ Haven. This is a hell of a surprise meeting you here, sir.”
“If you knew my daughter like I do, nothing would surprise you. I wanted to see you before they medevac’d you. Then when the unit got back, I went over to your home of record, but the Reese family told me that you were already gone. I wanted to thank you in person for your service and sacrifice.”
Rex humbly said, “I appreciate that, sir. It was my honor and privilege to serve under your command, but I didn’t do anything that any other Marine wouldn’t have done in the same situation,”
“One more thing… I’ve recommended you for the Medal of Honor.”
Over the next six months, Rex and Diane saw each other frequently. They made it back to Yosemite three more times and repeated the hike through Horsetail Meadows, ending with the leap into the lake.
On their fourth visit, Diane landed awkwardly in the water and it momentarily stunned her. When she came up for air, she blinked her eyes repeatedly. As the couple walked back to their vehicle, Diane smiled, “You don’t mind if I drive back?”
Rex made eye contact with Diane and raised two fingers, “How many do you see?”
Diane whispered, “Two,” and Rex joyfully embraced her.
The Wizard of Awe could be seen in the distance and the sun was hitting the rock formation in such a unique way that it seemed like it was actually moving.
On the drive back to Oceanside, Diane explained her injury, “Five years ago, I was returning from San Clemente after having dinner with some friends. I had just passed the Las Pulgas exit on Interstate Five when a tanker truck blew a front tire and swerved into me. My car rolled over six times or so the witnesses say. Luckily, I had my seatbelt on so I didn’t break any bones. Unfortunately, I ended up with a traumatic brain injury and a badly swollen optic nerve. The ophthalmologist said that the inflammation could go down by itself and I’d get my sight back, or it would remain that way forever. One explanation is that when I hit the water a certain way it relieved the pressure on the nerve. Or…I prefer this possibility, the Wizard of Awe thought I needed all my senses to truly appreciate what I had been given and now was the right time to get my sight back.”
Rex responded, “I’ll accept any explanation that makes your life better,” then continued, “When I got back from overseas, I had a troubled mind and a restless soul, so I went In Search Of Greater Things, thinking that they would make my problems feel insignificant.”
Diane inquired, “Has it worked?”
“Like you, I also have an alternate theory…once my heart found the greatest gift…everything else has fallen into place.”