And that’s all there is.
The last time I hung out with Joe, like really hung out, not just at a wedding or in Vegas or on a quick phone call, was when he came and visited me while I was living in Lake Tahoe.
It was nine, maybe ten years ago now. Fuck. It’s been a decade. Pretty soon it’ll be twenty years, then thirty. Then I’ll not be around to tell the story.
In truth, not a whole lot happened that weekend. Nothing happened. He called, because nobody texted back then. He called my office. I was a news editor at the paper on the lake’s North Shore and I wasn’t answering my cell phone, mostly because it was never charged and sat in my car next to a pack of gum. I figured if someone really needed to find me, they would figure out how.
He proved me right, sorta.
I picked up the news desk phone and announced who I was.
I knew who it was, sorta.
He laughed. I laughed back, but it was the laugh you let out when you are caught unaware. I thought he was still in Iraq. Was he calling me from Iraq?
“You don’t answer your phone.”
I didn’t answer my phone.
I coughed, he continued to laugh. “I’m in Sac now, visiting my cousins. It’s fun. But there’s only so much cousin I can visit.”
Joe talked like that. Like, he really did talk like that.
So, I thought.
“So,” he paused. “When am I coming up?”
I told him I was on deadline for our weekend issue but maybe the next day would be fine, and…
“Your deadlines don’t mean shit,” he said. “It’s like…two o’clock right now. 2:17, actually. I’m going to rent a car and come up. It’s not snowing there right now, is it?”
“No, it’s April. It’s hit or miss in April.”
“OK, I’ll get a four-wheel-drive because I don’t trust you. See you toni–.”
He hung up. He didn’t ask me where I lived or how to get there or whether I had room or whatever. He was just going to be there. And when Joe told you he was going to be there. Joe was going to be there.
I got another call, this time on my cell phone, recently charged, about three hours later. It was Joe’s voice: “I’m at the beach. I’m assuming it’s the one by your house.”
I had told people from work all afternoon that a buddy of mine was coming to visit. He’s from Iraq. …He’s coming from a tour in Iraq. He’s actually from Sac. We went to college together. He went off our senior year and studied abroad in the UK. He came back and said the dance clubs were basically the same as they were in Trainspotting and he’d already heard of the Spice Girls. Who were the Spice Girls? You’ll see. After graduation, he went and worked for the governor of California (Gray Davis) in the press office, then the Clinton administration. Then he burned out on politics and went to work on a kibbutz. Then 9/11 happened and he moved home and worked out for a couple years to try to get in the army while the rest of us were doing stupid jobs and dating stupid people.
And now he was coming to visit.
I remember seeing the silhouette on the beach. It was the only person there. He was sitting atop a picnic table, feet on resting on the bench. A storm was coming in and it extinguished the sunset. The Tahoe waves started to form whitecaps. I had walked the same beach many times, alone, prior to similar storms and found that life seems significant, perhaps perilous in those moments. For some reason it felt like I was interrupting something, so I stayed about twenty feet away from him. To announce my arrival, I pulled on a chain barely submerged in the sand. Tethered to it about 100 yards away was a buoy which kept being enveloped by the waves like a tiny drowning man. My hands froze instantly.
I was greeted with a laugh as I started to suck on my pink fingers.
“Why is nobody out there during this?” he said. “This is the most beautiful I’ve ever seen it. Look at the colors there, how the wave changes color right before it crashes. It’s fucking unreal.”
It was Joe.
He got up and gave me a great big hug and we walked along the beach, I’m sure it was not in a very manly way at all, not on my side anyway. He was in a black sweater and blue jeans. I left my coat in the car, not expecting to have to walk, so I wrapped my arms around me like a straight jacket. It started to get dark above and the snow came down in chunky flakes that melted soon as they hit my shirt. I had to drag him back to the car.
We went back up to my place. I changed. We had a beer. We went and walked around and got more beers. More walking. More beers. Yep.
This went on for three days. Joe met some of my Tahoe friends. We didn’t talk about anything important. I think on the third day I finally asked about Iraq, how it was and what his plans were and would he have to go back? He had this DVD in his backpack, one of the blank ones you get in a giant pack at Office Depot. It had something written on it with a Sharpie. We put it on my TV and it was shaky footage of a bunch of his guys shooting at a hill. “Most of the time,” he said. “We did exercises. Fucking around. Knocking over port-a-potties. But then there was other stuff. Other stuff happened.”
I’m pretty sure he didn’t want to get into it all because I wouldn’t understand. And I know this because he told me he “didn’t want to get into this because I wouldn’t understand.”
Later, he would do another tour and come home again. After that time we met in Vegas. Then he did some additional training, including special forces. Joe became a green beret. And finally, a few years later, I would get a call from a mutual friend when I was driving home from work. This time I picked up. Joe was killed in action in Afghanistan.
I pulled over to the side of the road and flashed back to a moment during his Tahoe trip when we were at the grocery store. It was a little mom-and-pop shop and their selection was limited. We made our way to the alcohol aisle and he kind of looked it all up and down walking back and forth as if he was in a giant warehouse store. He took a bottle of whiskey and a bottle of rum. We got some supplies from the butcher counter and went over to visit a friend and made dinner at her grandmother’s condo that overlooked the lake. We finished our alcohol and broke into the liquor cabinet. Joe helped out in the kitchen. I made Manhattans. The local NPR station’s jazz hour was playing in the background. We lingered and eventually ended up on the deck telling stories till well past late.
His laughs from that night still echo off the lake for me.
So that is the story of Joe. Joe in his death has become something of a hero. In truth, it didn’t take the act of him dying for him to be mine. But he was also just a normal guy who liked watching the waves roll into Tahoe and he liked drinking beer and he liked a good story and gave the long ones time to settle in.
I loved him not because he felt a call, and answered it, not because he was braver than me—or even smarter or funnier—which he was; I loved him because he took all the gifts he had and bundled them all together with his insecurities and shortcomings, and turned it into a complete man. An honorable man.
The type of man I’d like to be.
After his death, Joe’s mother refurbished her bed and breakfast in Port Angeles, Washington as a respite for Gold Star families. She raised Joe, her only child, as a single mother. He was her everything and she was his. He had an uncommon respect and admiration for all women and that was specifically because of the respect and admiration his mother showed for him. All boys are close to their mothers, but his care and concern for Betsy outdid the best.
Joe’s death should not be politicized even though Joe, in his heart, was a political animal. I cannot speak for him and how he might vote tomorrow, but I can comment on what he would have wanted, and that is for his mother to find peace.
This election, I am voting for the candidate who gave his mother—his best friend, his confidant, his mentor and the most loyal, most fierce, most strident, most forgiving and, most importantly, most loving, person in his life—the time to be heard.
For Joe and Betsy and the Captain Joseph House Foundation, on Tuesday, Nov. 8 I am most decidedly with her.
Here then, is Hillary with Joe’s mom:
Gold Star families have made sacrifices most of us can't even fathom. They deserve our respect and our thanks. pic.twitter.com/c9gDHudBjt
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) September 25, 2016
On May 29, 2011 in the Wardak province of Afghanistan, CPT Joseph W. Schultz’s humvee led a convoy in the central eastern part of the country. A roadside bomb detonated when his vehicle was in range and Joe, along with Staff Sergeant Martin Apolinar and Sergeant Aaron Blasjo, died instantly.
Here is a list of Joe’s military awards and achievements: Bronze Star Medal; Purple Heart; Army Commendation Medal; Army Achievement Medal; National Defense Service Medal; Afghanistan Campaign Medal; Iraq Campaign Medal with one campaign star; Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal; Overseas Service Medal; Army Service Ribbon; Combat Infantryman Badge and Parachutists Badge. He also wore the Special Forces Tab and the Ranger Tab.
The Captain Joseph House Foundation is a nonprofit corporation created to lend support to the Gold Star Families of our military’s Fallen heroes. The Foundation has been forging new horizons in extended care for these Families. The House offers them a place to start rebuilding while reflecting on things past and future, and also sharing their experiences with other Gold Star Veterans families.
Image: Ken Cedeno Photography