Ballad of the Crossroad

“Country music has never been as open to experimenting as it is now. But Nashville songwriters still operate on a series of codes and traditions not found in other genres.”

—- Unknown author, Rolling Stone Magazine, June 2014

My crossroad is an armchair. I always pictured my juncture would be like a scene from the Twilight Zone. Two lonely gravel roads intersecting in a wasteland, and Rod Serling narrating from the shadowy tip of reality. Turns out, Camp Southern Ground is my turning point. A gentle rain falls through the Georgia pines outside. Singer/song writer James House scoots his seat into reality’s shadowy frontier.

James sweeps the neck of his guitar across four veterans, a 9/11 survivor, and me. Curiosity draws his brow together. “Tell me how you got here…” James casually asks an Iraq vet a couple seats from me. Story by story, James drops notes into his narrative rhythm. I still feel like I need to keep my distance from his question.

Music is a powerful way to express our feelings. The maestro tunes his six strings to pick our scars into song. We are halfway through Warrior PATHH (Progressive, Alternative Training for Helping Heroes) — A special program that helps us deal with the effects of our service in war and on the streets. We meditate our PTSD, depression, anxiety, and combat stress into remission twice a day.

Ballad of the Crossroad 1
Country Music star Zac Brown surveys his creation – Camp Southern Ground

Veterans and cops don’t corner the market on traumatic events. I hope my visit gives me words to help someone struggling at their crossroad. I wonder, How did you get here, Mark? I struggle to formulate an answer. Rod Serling walks into my imagination as if it were his sound stage. He fought in the Philippines during World War II. His experience influenced his writing, and he had nightmares for the rest of his life. Private Serling heralds Balikatan from the shadowy bastion of reality. Balikatan is Tagalog for “shoulder-to-shoulder.” I picked it up in 1991 when I was a young Marine stationed in the Philippines during the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Balikatan is about carrying sacrifice together, no matter how heavy, or impossible the obstacles. Surviving Pinatubo blessed me with a second chance at living. I write novels and short stories about those days. On the music side of art, James has the clarity to weave Balikatan into song.

Mount Pinatubo Eruption Aftermath
Mount Pinatubo volcanic eruption aftermath

James is our six-string savior strumming our tombs into a tune. I have no idea if Rod Serling is going to fly out of my mouth when I’m staring down James’s riff- scarred guitar. PATHH is giving me a new lens to view the world. After the Marines I was a cop for over a quarter century. The average person experiences two critical incidents in a lifetime. A police officer experiences 800 perils in a twenty-year career. I’d lived a lifetime in a shift. I needed to unpack at Camp Southern Ground. I traveled from San Francisco to transmigrate a mere nine-inches to the crossroads between my head and my heart. My wife jokingly said, “You’re bringing the devil down to Georgia,” —along with enough clothes to last a week of turning traumas into positive change. She would know. She’s been my rock since 1989. I was bitter about things. I turned to writing to get stuff off my chest.

James plays up and down the strings transmigrating the story of a paramedic helplessly watching the Twin Towers falling around him: Stuck on that pile of steel how did I survive. Who heals the healer when he’s lost. Who pays the price. Who bears the cost.

Balikatan is my mise en abyme—story with in a story. It tells a love story of exotic jeepneys, bonca boats, plates of lumpia, and bottles of San Miguel beer tragically buried beneath a killer volcanic eruption. There is not a day where I don’t feel as if I’m still covered in Pinatubo’s gritty gray ash.

That guitar is hot on my heels. I can’t think of a lyric to rhyme with Balikatan. However, I’d read in Rolling Stone magazine that country music has never been as open to experimenting as it is now. But James and his fellow Nashville songwriters still operate on a series of codes and traditions not found in other genres.
Songwriting scares the ghosts from the all-conquering asphalt and flora jungles in my head, taking with them my distant glare and clenched jaw my wife knows well. My mouth is dry. I rehearse Balikatan in the hidden auditorium of my skull so it doesn’t come out trembling.

James’s guitar slowly swings closer to my story. This morning we learned the “Legend of Two Wolves” in which an old Cherokee teaches his grandson about a terrible fight between two wolves raging inside of man. One is anger, sorrow, and regret. The other is joy, peace, and hope. James composes “wolf” into a rhythmic chorus: Feed the good wolf everyday, How I live what I think and say, Whatever it takes to win the fight, Still got the fire inside.

Ballad of the Crossroad 2
Warriors helping Warriors

We lean in, tap our toes, and transform violent vignettes into verse—We have 330 years of living between us. We spent half of the years burdened by the yolk of human suffering on American streets and far-off places. I pray that one of my fellow travelers inspires my answer. James magically spins a soldier’s story into: That bad wolf wouldn’t leave me alone, I came in here stumbling, now I think I can go back home, Feeling comfortable in my own skin, Feel the sun shining on my face again.

A song climbs from our rubble. There is mettle in Balikatan that stokes my fire inside. James picks through another jarhead’s wreckage to salvage: Bourbon and bad choices. I lay down to die. Each story re-imagines exploding IED’s, the Twin Towers crumbling, or sirens rolling to catch evildoers. James hears of our good days to fight, and our good days to die. When we were brave hearts and warriors at the front. And when our hearts were lost and lonesome.

I know Country Music. I am an old Faith Hill fan. She’s sold 40 million albums worldwide. Faith says, “Country music is the people’s music. It just speaks about real life and about truth and it tells things how they really are.” Struggle is a story of every hero. Our birthright is to return from our crucible without resentment or hostility. This song is our Phoenix rising from life’s ashes with a sense of honor. Faith is as right as Georgia rain.

Private Rod Serling steps back into the shadows. Six sets of eyes fix upon me. It’s my turn to confess to James’s silver frets. “So what’s your story, Mark,” his fingers twist around the neck. Sorry, Rod…America will meet our Tagalog gem another time. My truth leads to the opening verse of “Still Got the Fire.”
A balmy breeze rushes through my crossroads. The rain has passed. We cut a tune. The promise of PATHH is believing in those you meet at your juncture. Journey shoulder-to-shoulder.
Balikatan!

STILL GOT THE FIRE

James House
James House performs “Still got the Fire” Live @ Camp Southern Ground 2022

Feeling reborn, light of mind,
Feeling tired, but that’s all right,
From a broken beat down angry soul,
Now the dark have clouds moved out, let me go.


Chorus
Feed the good wolf everyday,
How I live what I think and say,
Whatever it takes to win the fight,
Still got the fire inside
.

Bourbon and bad choices. I laid down to die,
Stuck on that pile of steel how did I survive,
Who heals the healer when he’s lost,
Who pays the price? Who bears the cost
?

Chorus
Feed the good wolf everyday,
How I live what I think and say,
Whatever it takes to win the fight,
Still got the fire inside
.

That bad wolf wouldn’t leave me alone,
I came in here stumbling, now I think I can go back home,
Feeling comfortable in my own skin,
Feel the sun shining on my face again
.

Chorus
Feed the good wolf everyday,
How I live what I think and say,
Whatever it takes to win the fight,
Still got the fire inside,
Still got the fire inside
.

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