Three days from today, my life changes dramatically.
I’m leaving on a crazy 90-day journey to every corner of the greatest country in the world, the United States of America.
I’ll do it all: ballparks, bars, concerts, sightseeing and, perhaps most importantly to me, running three half-marathons.
As the song says, we live in the land of the free, home of the brave, and as word spreads about my journey, people keep asking how I have the gumption to go.
I like using this blog to thank those who have inspired me. Being Memorial Day, today’s musings might be the most important yet.
Because today, I’m going to tell you about James Byler.
Pardon me. Lieutenant James Byler.
James and I climbed through the Huntington school system together, walking at graduation in 2003.
We spent a ton of time together in the parking lot at Huntington High School for marching band practice: James as the section leader of his beloved tenor saxophones (including the late Nic Jefferes: RIP); me leading the bass clarinet section.
James wasn’t the most technically sound saxophonist, but you better believe he was the most enthusiastic. Trying to wipe the smile off of James Byler’s face was tougher than mastering the opening stanzas of Rhapsody in Blue.
The most vivid memory I have of James Byler was at a mid-season show somewhere on Long Island -- Mineola, perhaps? Near the end of the second song (of three), the bass clarinets and tenor saxophones were tasked with dramatically retreating into a straight line. Being the section leader, at the end of the line, James drew the toughest task, covering an exceptional amount of ground in a brief number of backwards strides.
The music accelerated, the volume increased and James burst into stride, stretching his hamstrings just a bit too far, pace by pace. Just several feet behind him, I had the best view in the house, as I settled perfectly into my assigned position.
And then it happened.
James’ foot slipped and down he went, saxophone-first, into the grass.
Now, anyone with a lick of experience in marching band knows that mistakes will happen, but much more important than the error itself is your ability to recover.
And when James plummeted, noggin first, exposing all of his immaculate Devil-blue-and-perfectly-white marching band regalia into the grass -- what did he do?
Swear to god, this will always be my most vivid memory of four years of marching band: like an accordion, James bounced off the turf unscathed, almost in rhythm, as if our marching czar, Mr. Bennett (“Hullooo!”) had sketched it out that way.
If ANYONE else in the band -- myself included -- had plummeted the way James did that day, we might *still* be crying about it in the shower every morning, 11 years later.
But James? Pfffft. In stride. No problem at all.
On the bus afterwards, in typical Byler fashion, all he could do was smile and laugh it off, and I’m sure all he could think about was how to best avoid that mistake in the future.
The season finished up, graduation came and went, and the lives of the bass clarinet section leader and the tenor sax section leader took totally different paths.
Me? I settled. I settled into a job at the local newspaper, spending half of my 20’s building agate pages and drawing boxes on a computer screen.
After graduating from Purdue University, James entered the United States Marine Corps, and, in October 2010 -- while I was box-drawing -- was proudly serving in the Helmland Province of Afghanistan, one of the country’s deadliest areas.
The following text is from NYSenate.gov, where James is listed in the New York State Senate Veterans’ Hall of Fame:
While leading his platoon on a dismounted patrol of a narrow alley, James stepped backward onto an IED that was buried in the dirt. James sustained serious injuries, losing both legs and fingers on each hand. He was brought to safety by members of his platoon with the use of a wheelbarrow. The superior training his men received enabled them to stabilize him and save his life. After being cared for in U.S. military hospitals in Afghanistan and Europe, James was transferred to the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Maryland.
The following May, James Byler returned to Huntington. Thunderous applause, overwhelming cheers and majestic, humongous American flags welcomed him home, and I felt obligated to be there. In a beautiful black limo, James and his prosthetic legs were righteously paraded through the streets of our home town.
Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to see James that day; in fact, I haven’t encountered him personally in years.
Through social media, though, I’ve kept up with that smile ... (here is another wonderful story out of Purdue), that same unbreakable smile that James showed on the bus after that marching band “disaster” that, when you put this whole story in perspective, really didn’t mean a damn thing.
And so every Memorial Day, I take a moment to think about James Byler. I take a moment to think about the kid -- we marched together, for four years! -- who lost his LEGS -- LOST HIS LEGS!! -- so that incredibly lucky people like me can have the freedom to do whatever the hell we want with our lives … like quit our job and embark on a ridiculous journey.
God Bless America. God Bless the Purple Heart-winning James Byler, God Bless my late maternal Grandfather, who also served, and God Bless every single man and woman serving our country here and abroad.
This summer, I’m heading out to see this great country. During my trio of half marathons, I’m going to run like hell -- and I’m going to do it for my high school friend, who gave his LEGS to give a guy like ME the FREEDOM to use mine.
Take a moment to thank a veteran today. If you feel inspired, feel free to share this story as I’ve shared it with you.
And the next time you’re bitching about your day job, remember that my friend James Byler GAVE HIS LEGS to give you the freedom to do whatever you want to do with your life -- and your legs.