"Perhaps passing through the gates of death is like
passing quietly through the gate in a pasture fence.
On the other side, you keep walking, without the need
to look back. No shock, no drama, just the lifting of a
plank or two in a simple wooden gate in a clearing.
Neither pain, nor floods of light, nor great voices,
but just the silent crossing of a meadow."
Mark Helprin, "A Soldier in the Great War"
Jill Kiehl walked out of the house with a baby in her arms. The door slapped shut behind her. In the Texas sunlight, the child's hair had a reddish cast. She sat in a chair next to an old picnic table in the front yard, and held her infant son closely. A live oak reached over with speckled shade. Around the tree's trunk, a large yellow ribbon had been tied into a bow. Summer in the Texas Hill Country had already faded the color. The cicadas rattled the still air with their distracting chirps. The sounds of July were louder than the soft-spoken young mother.
She was not yet comfortable talking about her husband in the past tense.
"He is 6' 8" and I'm 5' 2"," Jill Kiehl said. "So, I am about at his stomach almost. He has to bend down, and I get on my tippy toes when we kiss. But if we want to kiss on the same level, I have to get up on our couch and we are face to face, which is kinda funny."
The baby grew uncomfortable in the heat, and began to squirm, slightly. Nathaniel Ethan Kiehl came into the world only weeks after his father had left it. James Kiehl had died in the Iraqi ambush of the 507th Mechanized Company in Al Nasiryah on the first day of combat. Father and son were to never meet. Kiehl's son showed stout health and brimming eyes. Before their child was born, Jill and James had not thought about meanings behind names. They just chose one that sounded right.
"It's kinda ironic the name we chose," Jill explained. "I looked up Nathaniel and it means 'gift from God.' And you can see, right here, he's got a little birthmark above his eye they call an angel kiss. And I'm wondering who gave him that, huh?"
Jill looked distracted, and the man who was asking her questions stopped for a moment. Her father-in-law, Randy Kiehl, had been standing on the other side of the table listening to the conversation. No one talked. The thrum of the cicadas in the heat was the only sound. When she spoke again, Jill Kiehl was looking down at her son, and her voice was textured with equal parts of sadness and anger.
"The hardest part is just every day the fact that he's not here," she said. "I'm seeing everybody else having a normal life. I know it's kinda petty or mean, but it's like, I don't have my husband, and why are you happy? It's not fair, and you have a normal life and I can't."
She was crying, a steady, pulsating kind of sadness. Jill wiped at her cheeks with the back of her hand. No one knew what to say to her. There really was nothing to say. She had hoped for a little house in El Paso where she and James might raise their children while he began his career in technology, and left the military. Instead, she was using his death benefit check to make a down payment on a home in Des Moines, Iowa to be near her parents.
Comfort High School's basketball coach, Colin Toot, pulled into the Kiehl driveway. He had been asked to stop by and share memories of his former player.
"We retired James' number," Coach Toot said. "We were gonna hang it permanently in the hallway over there at the school, but you know, time goes on and so many new kids pass through a school. There just aren't that many now that remember him, and after all of this news about the war fades away, I expect everyone over there will just look at that jersey behind the glass and wonder who James was. So, we're gonna give the jersey to Randy and Janie [James' stepmother] so they can have it here in the house. There ain't much point in leaving it up there at the school, after a while."
Randy Kiehl, who had disappeared for much of the conversation, was back standing beside the picnic table. In his arms was a sort of iron and limestone cross with the insignia of the United States Army, a gift from the legendary Texas Rangers, lawmen famed in the state for their role in forging a civilization on the frontier. James Kiehl had been laid to rest in the Centerpoint Cemetery next to Comfort, which is the burial site of more Texas Rangers than any other plot of ground in the state.
"Because I wanted to pay James as much honor as I could," Randy Kiehl explained, "I couldn't think of a more honorable place to have my son laying at rest than with the Texas Rangers. And you know what they answered back to me? They said, 'No sir, it's an honor for your son to join us.'"
Randy Kiehl had received national attention when he criticized Pvt. Jessica Lynch's financial windfall from her book. There was something too dramatic about her story that did not have the texture of truth. Kiehl thought it absurd that she might gain wealth while the rest of the victims of the 507th ambush had died in relative obscurity in the opening days of the Iraqi war, leaving their families with meager military benefits.
Full military honors were accorded to James Kiehl, though, when he was returned to his hometown of Comfort, one of the invasion's first casualties. Echo taps, blown by two buglers, rose through the craggy mesquite and live oak trees, and carried out along the limestone ledges of the Hill Country. His friends drove the 350 miles down from Ft. Bliss, and agonized over how to reconcile the big guy they remembered coming into their house to eat cold pizza with the vision of a box that was being lowered into rocky ground. This casket was not the 22 year old who allowed his wife to have two ferrets, dogs, and a fish in their apartment; the boy-man who loved video games and created elaborate plans for his characters in weekend games of Dungeons and Dragons; this was not the ravenous friend they hid all their food from whenever he ducked into their apartments, even though they knew he would always find the stash of Grandma's cookies and eat them all; this was just a box, not James.
Kiehl's best friend, Darrell Cortez, in his dress uniform, snapped a smart salute during the Comfort funeral as his buddy's casket passed.
"The hardest day of my life that I can remember is going to James' funeral," Cortez said, "and trying to mourn his death and be a soldier, and it is so incredibly difficult to hear two bugles in the background play taps, and the person that you are saluting is just as close as your brother, and someone who you considered your brother.
His family and friends, of course, want there to be great meaning to the death of James Kiehl. But their uncertainty about the political purposes of the war had already increased in the first weeks after James' death. Randy Kiehl, who believes his son has "gone to be with the angels," was unwavering in his belief that James' baptism, just days before dying in Iraq, has had a measurable impact on Christianity, and was part of God's plan for his boy.
"I'm not the only one who thinks this," he said. "I have a lot of pastors who call me and tell me that James' baptism being aired on all of the satellite channels and the newscasts has done more for Christianity than all the ministers and their congregational flocks can do. James was baptized on March the 12th. And, of course, he went to meet God on the 23rd."
When the heat became too much for his daughter-in-law and grandson, Kiehl invited his visitor to join them in the house. He has two videotapes he has played over and over to set events into context for himself. One of them is a copy of the Al Jazeera broadcast showing the bodies of American soldiers after the ambush of the 507th. His son is on that tape, his long frame distinguishing him from the other casualties laid out on the ground. Mostly, though, Randy Kiehl likes to share the tape of his son's baptism, which was recorded by a television crew from Dallas.
In her arms, Jill Kiehl's son pulled softly on his bottle as visions of his father appeared on the screen. James was smiling, always smiling, as he listened to the pastor, and especially when he stepped into the plastic lined hole that served as a baptismal pool. These images of his baptism, the Arab broadcast tape of Kiehl's body, photos on the wall, and his basketball trophies, are how Nathan Kiehl will come to know his father. Jill watched the tape silently, having already seen it so many times that the pain had gone away. Against her will, Jill's husband had already become abstract, hurrying away into memory, making the transition from flesh to image.
And she cannot accept the reason he died. Jill Kiehl often has to admit that her husband was also killed by the bad planning of American military and political leaders.
"They wanted to get there fast, and get it done, but they didn't take into account the safety of anybody. What good is it gonna do if you are moving fast and you're losing all of your people. It was the race to Baghdad, and that's all they were concerned with, and what are you gonna say, 'Oh yay, we got there in twenty days?' Oooo, big deal. It's a war, you know. He's [Saddam] still gonna be there if you'd taken an extra day or so to get there."
When the tape ended, Jill Kiehl rose from the couch and rocked her son gently in her arms. She stared intently at his face, and the room around her seemed to disappear. The three other people she had been watching the television with were gone from her awareness. All she saw was Nathanial Ethan Kiehl, his wide eyes and smooth, perfect skin. Jill Kiehl clung to her baby. This boy was all that remained of her husband.
And she hoped for a future for him that did not include war.
Follow James Moore on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moorethink