What is time?
“The indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in apparently irreversible succession.”
It’s a perspective, a measurement. It comes and goes, gives and takes, it passes. It is an experience. Sometimes invisible but sometimes, utterly distinct.
May 25th 1968 James Hunter Shotwell was killed in action by enemy fire near Da Nang, Vietnam. Just like that, his time was up. Twenty seven years young and his time was up.
I’m on my way back to Vietnam for my second tour. I know they all wish I wasn’t, they say ‘the nation shouldn’t have asked you to go back again’ but even though I know I am going to leave the military, I went to West Point. I will leave but first I must shoulder the responsibility of leadership. I believe in the nation and I believe that this is my duty.
His time ended too early. His moments, his impacts, his potential were extinguished like a fire; a roaring flame that should have burned on. But didn’t.
A young captain in the United States army, he had the exquisite fullness of his life ahead of him. Neither the immensity of his potential nor the passion of his life could be doubted.
When I get back my beautiful boy, Jay, will be 4 years old, I think about him everyday, I have a perfect image in my mind of holding him (Photo) I remember the moment at Jean’s brother’s wedding, being with him, we have a photo of us that Jean loves because she says it’s not so formal or “military”. He was 10 months old the first time I saw him. I missed those first 10 months of his life while on my first tour in Vietnam. All that time I didn’t get to be with him. The baby is due in September, I hope I can get leave on time to be there for it. I miss them everyday. But I’m going back, just once more.
He had changes, experiences, highs and lows, triumphs and failures and all of the intense vibrancy of life ahead of him. But he went back to Vietnam. He went back and in an instant, this lifetime of moments was taken away.
I plan to study law. Once I get out of the military I’ll enroll at Harvard, I am building a life, a family with the person I love unconditionally, undoubtedly. When I get to Vietnam, I’ll await Jean’s letters. She tells me about all the little things that seem a world away from here. She tells me about the dresses she bought and how they’ll fit her for a while longer until the baby gets too big. She tells me about Jay and how when she turns her back, he’s gone and she has to run around looking for him – he’s growing so fast, time seems to have sped up, but simultaneously, it seems to slow to a stop while I’m here waiting get back to them. It’s hard to believe how much I’ll be missing until I’m back there.
But he didn’t get to go back. I never got to know him, I didn’t get time with him, not even his own son- my father- did. But who he was is reflected through the impact he left on the people around him. The people who knew him as a friend, a soldier, a son, brother or husband. Because they saw in him passion and life. The knowledge that I have through them is how I can know him. He was the best of himself that he could be. He lived undoubtedly fully. Until he was 27.
A soldier wrote about Hunter – as he was known by those who knew him. He wrote of the immense impact he had left upon him. The man saw Hunter and the colossal potential he had. He wrote “He had a beautiful wife and a little child, it was beautiful… ….He represented everything that was good about the country, the future of the country – it was bright, he was bright… …His death to me was the most significant, the most moving… …I thought of his little child and his wife, what it did to them.” This man saw in Hunter’s death, an immense loss of time. His words formulate the sense of loss felt after he died and I feel that loss.
Despite the fact that he was in the middle of a brutal war, fighting- in theory- for his country but literally for his life, that he looked death in the eyes every day he fought, no one could ever have been prepared for his death. It is impossible to prepare for. Nothing can brace you for the shock of such a great loss. Even now, I can feel it in the words of my grandmother, of the many soldiers that wrote about him, I can feel who he was and I can feel his absence. It seems impossible to miss someone you have never met, but it isn’t.
Soldiers who fought along side him, childhood ad school friends wrote about him too; “He was the finest man I have ever known.” They say that he was “smart, handsome, witty and generous to a fault.” That his unique charm and happy-go-lucky personality were infectious. They say he will be remembered for his “warmth, humor and compassion”, “He was deserving of a full life with his beautiful wife and two young sons.”
To me, his life and death represent the significance of time. Our inability to change or affect it only intensifies the necessity to use it in all it’s fullness.
Time is not a tangible thing. It isn’t something we can grasp, or often understand, let alone have any control over. It is a measurement of our lives, our moments and memories, our existence. It happens with or without our recognition.
When it is taken away, it becomes so present, so apparent. The time you have had, that you could’ve had, that you wish you had. Ordinarily it’s taken for granted, it goes without recognition. It’s so hard to understand it or what it really is but what needs to be remembered is to appreciate it.
Twenty seven years is not a long life. It’s not the long life he deserved.
We spend our childhoods waiting, wishing time would go faster. That it would be after school already, the weekend already, the holidays already. We can’t wait to be old enough to drive a car, drink alcohol, to leave home. Always waiting for the next thing. We forget to appreciate what we have, the time that we have had and the time we have right now. Each and every day happens once and once only. There will only ever be one July 17th 1970, one August 19th 2004, never again will we get back the time that has already happened but all of a sudden, it can become so apparent. We realize it, we feel it so acutely; as my grandmother, just 22 years old did when she lost Hunter, as I do when I listen to her talk about him. It is so important to have an awareness, a simple awareness of the time you have and how you chose to live it. Live it as fully and vibrantly as you possibly can. Make the most of it, it doesn’t last forever but every day we get can be worth it, is worth it. Be aware of it and all it measures, everything it holds because whether it is long or short, no matter the unique ways in which we all us it, it is beautiful and it is fleeting.