On fighting from the benches

Nov. 4, 2020, 7:01 p.m.

I’ve always liked the idea of being on the front lines. Part of it was wanting to have the most direct impact on people, sure. But another part was selfish: I wanted to be important, to know that everything I did mattered. I wanted to be the one buddy-carrying my wounded teammates, returning fire in gunfights, yelling “get to the chopper” as we run away from alien hunters. So I joined the Navy. 

Now, anyone who’s served will tell you that the military has a lot more standing around than an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie would have you believe. But that doesn’t help me miss the action, the camaraderie and the feelings of belonging any less, even after I’ve been out for over two years. So before this quarter, instead of signing away my freedoms to an Orwellian campus compact, I considered taking time off to do something more “meaningful.” 

I tried volunteering to fight the fires. I imagined myself soot-faced, shoulder to shoulder with brave men and women, yelling into firestorms, swinging axes and picks, hauling chainsaws, hoses, medical gear. It wouldn’t be too far from being a combat medic, I thought. I’d come back with new stories, new insights, new understanding; a thousand-yard stare. The ferocious calm of “I’ve faced death and now I’m ready to appreciate life.” But of course, they won’t let me near a campfire without proper training.

Then I tried to volunteer as a healthcare worker in New York City. Right in the action, I thought, and how many people would I no-shit be able to help there? But you need a state license to do that. I started working through that, had all the papers printed out, had to renew a couple classes, do my fingerprints, etc., until I caught myself. Dude, I said, you were a medic more than five years ago. You’ve had two surgeries within less than a year and can’t even lift a loaded gurney. You’d be more of a pain in the ass than an asset.

So I planned out my next three months. Take Differential Geometry, Group Theory, Japanese, maybe Poetry and Poetics. Cook. Try a plant-based diet. Get closer with friends, more socially distant dinners, meet new ones. Maybe start dating that girl I’d hooked up with however-many quarters ago. Care for myself, appreciate myself, put Greek beach pebbles in my bathtub and so on.

But I knew it wasn’t true. I knew I would hunch over my desk, cave to academic pressure, go back to eating hamburgers and chicken tenders from Arillaga dining. My one tangible societal contribution is to help train service dogs once a week, and that almost helps me more than it helps them. And every time I get stuck on a p-set I look up from my eraser-shaving-smattered desk and wish I could be hauling chainsaws or hoses, or rushing patient carts through emergency rooms instead, wishing I could do something that mattered.

Then I watched “The Darkest Hour,” a movie about England’s World War II Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. In one scene, Churchill is on his way to Parliament where he’s supposed to announce a major decision: should England declare war on the advancing Germans, or negotiate a surrender on their terms? He ditches his chauffeur and takes the subway (or do Brits call it the underground?), and, while there, he asks around. He talks to common people: workers, maids and housewives; he gets their names and then asks them about the advancing Nazi front: Do you think we should surrender?

“Bollocks, no,” a withered old woman says, “we’ll fight them with sticks and bricks if we have to.”

“In the streets of our cities,” says a chimney sweep, “for England.” They get all riled and fired up, and Churchill gets all fired and riled up, and next thing you know, he delivers his famous speech to the House of Commons:  

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering.

What is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might …  You ask, what is our aim? … Victory. Victory at all costs — Victory in spite of all terror — Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival … 

And so on.

Next in the movie, you see soldiers’ which is where I’m always stuck imagining myself forts get bombed. And then there’s more arguments in the Parliament, and Operation Dynamo, where sailboats civilian sailboats crossed the English channel to rescue other soldiers who’d escaped the advancing German tanks soldiers who were crucial to Britain’s initial resistance. All this is going on, but you only see the ones on the front lines.

You don’t see the children who practiced bombing drills and kept going to school, the grocer who kept his shop open until he ran out of stock, the factory worker who chugged away, day after day, pumping materials into the front, and maybe went home to feed her aging parents. You don’t see them but they’re there, influencing and inspiring, or training to one day influence, or maybe just making a place to come home to. They’re keeping the potatoes growing, the assembly lines running, the babies fed.

And I realized that that’s me now. I have to accept that I can’t be on the front lines not today, not the way I romanticize being. Not pumping with adrenaline, soot-blackened face and mud in the lines of my knuckles. I don’t get to trade skittles for peanut butter packets, smoke cigarettes with the rush of bullets flying overhead, smack high-fives after narrow misses. 

So there’s this disconnect between the hard work I used to do and the hard work that I do now. It’s magnified by the effects of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean I’m out of the fight. I’ll come back to my desk, click my mechanical pencil, brush away the eraser shavings. I’ll draw pictures of donut manifolds unfolding into flat surfaces, flip flashcards between elementary English and hiraganas, draft and redraft my writing. 

Because the people on the underground weren’t just background scenery for Churchill’s inspiration; they are the scene. They are the shaft behind the spear tip, and without them, there might be no need for a spear at all. And maybe it’s not my turn to be on the front, but I’ll be ready when it comes. Until then, if all I can do is keep doing what I was supposed to do, then I will do it with the same resolve that those in the underground had. I will fight on in the Zoom lectures, at the dog training and writing for The Daily. I’ll fight on deriving my gradients and isomorphisms, studying short stories and poems, and I will fight on with this pen and paper at my eraser-shaving-smattered desk. And I will never surrender … And so on.

Contact Nestor Walters at waltersx ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Nestor was born in Bangladesh, raised in Greece, and served 10 years in the U.S. Navy. He studied math as an undergraduate, and now studies applied mathematics and oceans as a master's student at Stanford.

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