Drowning in Syrup

I am many things. I wear many hats and I love many things. Nothing gives me more pleasure than sharing my words worth others. I may not be ever be famous, but if my words help me connect with others ... [+]

Image of Set Stories Free - 2018
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Lying in the dark, he whispered their names. The same names he whispered every morning.

“Spencer, Mack, Jones, and Cox.”

Luke Murphy woke up before the alarm, not because he was excited about his first day, but because he was trained to do so. It was the way of a soldier to not need an alarm clock. His racing heart and alert muscle fibers did that for him.

In one swift motion he was out of bed and 10 minutes later he was well into his daily five mile run. Around mile two, the path opened up into a wide field and it was then Luke began to process what today meant. He was no longer a soldier. He had left that life on the side of an ambushed road in a country he hoped never to see again. Yet, he missed it, he missed them. He missed who he had become.

Luke knew today was long overdue. He was supposed to start college five years ago. Before the war started and before Spencer’s war ended. Before the day he came home from track practice to find both of his parents at the dining table crying.

“ We have some bad news son.”


Luke crossed the bridge at mile four and headed back to his apartment. Even that sounded strange to him. No more barracks or quarters. No more living in a tent city surrounded by dust and weapons. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

He was supposed to be finishing college by now. He was supposed to be reminiscing about the late nights, college girls, and all the plans he and Spencer had for their custom home construction company. Instead he was here, five years later, a 23 year old college freshman and very much alone.

He and Spencer had a plan and they should have been finished by now.
Spencer made the plan and then Spencer changed the plan.


“Son”, Mr. Murphy struggled for the words. “Spencer died. He died by...”

Mr. Murphy’s words trailed off and he couldn’t finish his sentence, but he didn’t need to finish. Luke knew.

Luke had always known about Spencer. Deep down when they would be making plans for their future. Luke knew. When Spencer stopped playing sports in the 9th grade. Luke knew. When Spencer would disappear into the woods for days at a time. Luke knew. In spite of the good grades and the college acceptances, and the big plans. Luke knew.

He also knew the plans they had together maybe gave Spencer a few extra years, and he knew that couldn’t go through with those plans alone. So, Luke found a way to make his Mom cry twice in one week.

He joined the Army.

Spencer’s name was always first. Luke said it every morning by itself, before there were others to follow. Far too soon he added LT Mack, SPC Jones, and finally Sgt Cox.

Luke finished his breakfast, poured bitter, black coffee into a silver thermos and headed out the door to school. It still sounded weird thinking about it. School. No longer a soldier, but a student. As the road carried him toward his future, his mind took a turn to the past.


“Let’s go Murphy,” Sgt Cox bellowed into the tent. “ You got two more haircuts to finish before curfew and one of them is me.”

Every remote Army post has one guy who cuts hair for everyone and Luke was that guy. It was a skill he never knew he had until SGT Cox tossed him the clippers and said,

“ Murphy, you are now the platoon’s new barber.”

So, during free time, Luke found himself experimenting with “High and Tights” and all different styles of “Fades”. Not quite what he thought Army life would be like, but a war zone was the great equalizer. After a while, Luke became quite good as a barber and he learned some of the more difficult styles very quickly, but SGT Cox was the most demanding of all the soldiers in 1st platoon.

“ Murphy, my hair is my thing, don’t screw it up,” Cox warned him repeatedly.

Luke practiced on other soldiers to get the high, tight line SGT Cox liked. It went straight across the back of his head. He was the only one who wore it like that.

When it was time for the last haircut for that evening, SGT Cox landed hard on the small stool in front of Luke.

Luke had just cut his hair a few days ago and it still looked pretty good, but Luke knew he was here for more than a haircut. SGT Cox had an uncanny way of knowing which of his soldiers needed a little extra counseling on a night before a big patrol and most of his platoon was little anxious.

“You feeling a little worried about tomorrow Murph?,” SGT Cox asked quietly. Luke knew he was, but he didn’t say anything and instead doubled down on his concentration.

“Hell Murph, If I was you, I would be more worried about screwing up my perfect hair.”
The last thing Luke could remember when he woke up in the ditch 20 feet from the burning vehicle was that their vehicle had hit a roadside bomb. The haze from smoke and burning flesh stung his eyes and he tried to see what was around him. His ears were not working as voices and noises seemed muffled and jumbled. He staggered to his feet and tried to step down into the ditch and fell a few feet. He landed on top of another body, he waited for movement beneath him, but felt none. Luke called out for his team, but no sound came out of his mouth. He rolled over and found himself inches away from the back a head. His eyes came into focus and all he could see was a straight line. It was the haircut he given SGT Cox the night before. He remembered before passing out how proud Cox would have been. The cut line was perfect.
Luke reached out to the dog tags hanging from his rearview mirror and touched the beat up, silver tag with the name “Nathan Cox” on it. He wondered what SGT Cox might say to him now as he sat here in this truck, avoiding his mission. As Luke held the dog tag between his fingers, he reflected on the last words SGT Cox had said to him after his haircut.

“Don’t you worry about feeling a bit scared,” he told Luke quietly as to not draw attention.

“Courage is like pouring syrup on a waffle Murphy,” SGT Cox said with a side smile.

Luke knew that like most Texas stories, you had to get past the often ridiculous opening line to get to the wisdom, but once you did it usually made sense and SGT Cox did not disappoint with his wisdom.

“ Some people think they have to approach courage like pouring syrup over the entire waffle all at once. Smother it so no fear or doubt rises up. But a good soldier knows that courage needs to be filled one crevice at a time,” Cox paused to make sure Luke was paying attention.

“ If you fill one waffle crevice to the brim, it will flow into the next and then to the next until you are filled with reserves of courage , not drowning in it. We take one mission at a time Murph and we spend all that time in basic training filling you up, so you are covered on courage by the time we get over here.”
At the time, Luke wrote this off as another folksy lecture, but now he understood. Each crevice of his life needed to be filled with courage; his role as a student, his ability to let go of the past, and his desire to change.

It was time to move on. Luke knew that he would always wake up early, run 5 miles, and say the names of those who gave him the courage to fight another day, but he was not a soldier anymore.

As he stepped out of the truck and slung his backpack over his shoulder, it felt too light. A soldier’s backpack is filled with gear and supplies, but a student’s life was much different.

Hesitating for a moment, he turned and walked back to his truck. To the other students streaming in from the commuter parking lot, he looked like a guy who suddenly forgot something, and they would be right. He opened the door and reached over to the rearview mirror. He carefully untangled the dog tags and looked down at them as they lay waiting in his hand. He got back out of the truck and placed them gently in his front pocket.

He may be taking his next step, but he wasn’t going to take it alone.