"Past is prologue" here in our Featured Flashback section, and every week we feature a new selection from our archives that belongs in this very moment. This week, we feature Gerardo Mena's essay, "I Was a Heisman Trophy," which was given a "New Voices" distinction in Issue 9: War and Peace, published in 2012.
Gerardo “Tony” Mena is a decorated Iraqi Freedom veteran who spent six years in the Special Operations community with the Reconnaissance Marines as a Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman (SARC). During his tour in Iraq, he was awarded a Navy Achievement Medal with a V for Valor for multiple acts of bravery. After the completion of his military service, he began attending the University of Missouri and surrounded himself with music and poetry as a means of dealing with the events he experienced in the war. His poetry has been honored with awards, including being named winner of the 2010 War Poetry Contest sponsored by Winningwriters. Chautauqua is especially happy to introduce readers to Mena’s non-fiction writing. His essay, “I Was a Heisman Trophy,” recounts one experience after he returned home from Iraq. While the dangers of the war zone are more obvious, “normal” life is fraught with danger as well. He shares, “She actually gave me a gift. She opened the flood valves on my views and let my body wash anew with adrenaline.” Gerardo Mena’s voice is strong and clear. Chautauqua is pleased to share it with you.
I Was a Heisman Trophy
Twenty-five pounds of bronze and a football in my left arm were the only things that prevented me from looking like an exact replica of the Heisman trophy yesterday morning. Six strides into a crosswalk and I suddenly had to stiff-arm the hood of a car that decided to run the stop sign and mow down a civilian—me.
The irony here is that after a seven-month deployment to Iraq in Spec Ops with the Reconnaissance Marines, where I watched seven of my friends die or become seriously injured, I had come home to readjust and try this whole normalcy thing out. And now my life had yet again been put in danger. This time, by a female college student behind the wheel of a beat-up off-white Toyota Tercel as she talked on her cell phone.
Had I not pulled off some graceful ballet-esque moves (think chaînés turn plié with attitude leap) with my ninja reflexes, I would have been crushed by a Japanese import. Never in my life did I think I would die like that. Where’s the glory? The honor? I’d be more than happy to kick the bucket as an unlucky pedestrian in a high-speed chase, or be riddled with leaky holes from the stray bullets of a bank robbery shoot-out. But to get run over by a teenager driving to the Gap? After being decorated for multiple acts of bravery during a war on terrorism, it would seem the ultimate cosmic joke.
But, in actuality, had the young driver gotten out of her car to see if I was okay, instead of speeding off towards the thick swirl of exhaust and colored stoplights of the downtown traffic maze, I don’t think I would have been angry with her. I imagine I would have said, “Thanks for the rush,” or something equally cool and James Dean-like, with a cigarette hanging between my lips and my collar popped high to the heavens. Because, although she was lacking in the common-sense department, she actually gave me a gift. She opened the flood valves on my veins and let my body wash anew with adrenaline.
My fight-or-flight hadn’t been activated in four long years, and it was a refreshing jolt to my system. I relished the struggle to once again regain control of my breathing, while I fought the urge to lift the nearby parked cars over my head. For a brief instant, I felt my youth return. I wanted to wrap my hands around the frail neck of this moment and squeeze. I wanted to shackle and chain down this feeling so that it would last forever. But as quickly as my renewed vitality overtook me, it ebbed back to its dark recesses. There was nothing for me to do now but shove my hands back into my jacket pockets and trudge on to my original and mundane destination.
I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed my near-death incident, when I spotted a plump middle-aged man with a graying mop and a deep widow’s peak, walking hurriedly towards the university campus
with both arms cradling an obscene amount of books. I tipped my hat that read Iraqi Freedom Veteran
in his direction, but he walked past without even an acknowledging glance.
I guess that in all the excitement, I almost forgot the lesson I learned in Iraq, as our existence was reduced to a tiny scrolling death toll residing in the bottom right corner of a TV screen: America has a short attention span. America is at the mall.