December 2012

EVERYTHING I NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT LIFE I LEARNED IN THE ARMY

My best friend’s 18-year-old son just graduated from Navy boot camp and is now officially a sailor. It’s so hard to believe, really, but P.J. is now is the club. He’s one of us from this time forward. What do I mean by that? Simple. He volunteered to serve his country in the armed forces, same as his dad, and the same as me. He’s joined the ranks of many great men and woman and passed through that little initiation process called Basic Training. Not everyone makes it, but when you do, you’re one of us.It got me thinking about how my five years on active duty in the U.S. Army influenced me, changed me, and informed my view of the world, of myself, and life itself.

First, I learned never to quit. I’ve recalled that moment when I could have been discharged and failed Basic Training in an earlier blog. It was a guy named McKinney, who never spoke to me before in all the two months we had been in the same platoon, stepped forward one night and told me to trust him; that he would make sure I passed my final PT test in two days’ time. I trusted, and he got me through the pushups. Later that same day others in my platoon slowed down during the two-mile run in order to pace me for a bit before sprinting off so that I would finish in time. They let me know that I was not alone and I learned the power of teamwork, trust and the respect that goes with it.

Second, I learned that first impressions are no true indicator of who you will detest and who will turn out to be your lifelong best friend, best man at your wedding (you at his, of course) and brother in the truest sense of the word. For instance, when I first met Phil (the above-mentioned P.J.’s father) it was water and oil. I didn’t care for him and he was no fan of me. But… things change if you let them. If you can let go of preconceptions and allow for the off chance that you may, in fact, be wrong about someone. I have made friendships that have lasted from the age of nineteen to this day, thirty years later. I’m talking about people who have known you for so long that they remember when you weren’t even closeto having your shit together! And they liked you anyway. That’s the kind of friendship I mean.

Third, I learned about other cultures and the choice to respect them or not, I learned about in-your-face prejudice and homophobia and I learned that rank was no true indication of a person’s intelligence or worthiness. In fact, sometimes the boss (i.e., the platoon sergeant) was a flat out moron who wore the stripes simply because he’d been around so long and hadn’t been thrown out. He was known in the vernacular as a LIFER (Lazy Ignorant Fucker Expecting Retirement). It’s a bit funny until you realize to your horror that this is the man who will likely decide your fate in combat when things go wrong. I’ve never looked at any boss the same way since…

Fourth, I learned that if you carry a clipboard and walk around with a sense of purpose, it is unlikely that anyone will question what you are doing. I tried this experiment in the motor pool of Fort Hood one summer. I got away with it for nearly two whole days until a lieutenant finally called me over and asked to see the clipboard only to discover that it was a blank vehicle inspection form. I got extra duty for that, but it was well worth testing my hypothesis, which holds true to this day, by the way.

Fifth, I learned that I was capable of some pretty lousy things. I learned that I was a lousy person to be in a relationship with. I was a fun guy with a decidedly dark, angry side. It was a perilous combination once liquor was added. I truly cared for each of my girlfriends but had a difficult time balancing their needs with mine. Trust me, mine came first and usually involved booze. What were their needs? I don’t think I ever thought to ask. So I learned I could be a shit.

Sixth, I learned that writing, directing and acting were at my core. My involvement in Community Theater was essential to my mental well-being. And this is key: never deny who you really are! If there are dreams you have and personal needs you must fulfill, then damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. It was doing acting in and directing plays like The Odd Couplethat saved me from a bottomless pit of anger and despair. On stage, I was happy and fulfilled. In the theater I was whole. So I learned that I needed to be this creative person. To deny this would be futile … and ugly.

Seventh, I learned the power of kindness. You see, I got drunk and angry one day and decided to destroy an “Exit” sign hanging from the ceiling in the barracks. Trust me, it was a big show. So naturally the Command Sergeant Major wanted my ass for willful destruction of government property. He wanted me busted back to private. Well, enter a brand new Commanding Officer: Captain Sherry Miller. She was a young black woman in her first command. The Sergeant Major put a lot of pressure on her. It did not look good for me. I expected the worse. My platoon sergeant went to bat for me since I was a good solider up until this incident, plus my grandmother had recently passed away. But it was SFC Isaac Allen, the company First Sergeant, who really saved me. He finally persuaded the captain to fine me the cost of replacing the exit sign and give me seven days extra duty. I kept my stripes. And I never forgot the kindness they showed me when they didn’t have to. Many months later at an Army Ball event I was asked to write and perform in a comedy skit about our outfit. It was well received (except for the stoic Sergeant Major). Afterward, I approached Captain Miller and thanked her for the kindness she had shown to me. I told her that she was the best C.O. I ever had. In fact, thanks to the backing of friends, SFC Allen, and Captain Miller, I was awarded an Army Commendation Medal (ARCOM) for my efforts in morale and community involvement stemming almost entirely from my work at the post community theater. I am proud of it to this day.

Finally, I learned that peopleare the real lasting things of value. Each person I have met and interacted with, formed any semblance of a relationship with, has affected me in some way. And I likely have done the same to them in return. I could fill page after page with names of people who meant something to me, if only a funny memory that left me shaking my head—like J.J. Runnels, who before he was discharged, boldly painted his initials into the camouflage pattern on the jeep trailer he was ordered to paint as punishment. (Naturally, I was the one who suggested it to him.)

I remember so many: Face, Killer, Howie, Falkner, Dwarf, Zoom, Mark O., Moses, Waterhead, Baby Huey, Jim-Bob, Kat, Fudd, Crash, Laz, Finnegan, Harding, Cody, McKinney, Butler, Sartin, Moe, Denise, Lois and Tiffany. One name begets another and another, faces and memories tumble forth, including a sad one: Baron Huddleston, who died at age 24 in a scuba diving accident. It left his wife Vicky numb and lost as she said goodbye to us at the NCO Club before retuning stateside with Baron’s body and to meet his family for the first time. By the way, they were an interracial couple. There were more than a few who scorned their love; but I saw that her grief was so deep. I’ve never questioned why someone falls in love ever since. Love is a good thing when you find it, end of story.

And then there was Staff Sergeant Collins, who stared glassy-eyed at me one night at that same NCO Club. He was telling me how much he admired my acting talents and that I should never waste them. “Don’t be like me,” he said in a resolute voice. “I’m an alcoholic. Promise me you won’t be like me.” I promised him. I never forgot. In fact, his words haunted me for many years to come. Thank you, SSG Collins. Thank you all.

I’m just saying…

REMEMBER THE MAINE

Facebook is a great way to stay connected with friends and acquaintances alike. But there’s gold in them thar hills when you get reminiscing with someone who knew you “way back when.”
For instance, the other night I was chatting

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with a friend that I’ve know since third grade. Third grade! That’s like eight or nine years old! Anyway, John and I started talking about the baseball games we used to play “up the Maine” in my hometown of Shamokin, PA. What a fun time it was! The Maine, I should explain, was a large flat field just a short hike through the brush situated above the Maine Fire Company. Every day during the summer months a core group of six of us (some days more, some days less) would trudge up that lop-sided mining road to our own field of dreams.

There was an ancient rusting backstop and a large cement block along the first base line that served as a bench, but that’s where the amenities stopped. Like our fathers before us, we used large, mostly flat, rocks as “bases.” The foul line was a matter of opinion and protective gear, such as a batting helmet, was unheard of. When you only have six players, you play three-on-three: a pitcher, and infielder and an outfielder on each side. The batter had to call his field. Being a right-handed batter, I called “left field” so that any ball I hit between an imaginary line running through second base and the left field foul line was in play. If, however, I hit the ball to the right side of second base it was an automatic out. Also, since the batting team only had three players in total it was conceivable that you might have to use a phantom runner on third base, since one of the team had to bat. (Two-on-two, if we only had four players, used the same rules minus an infielder and the addition of more phantom runners . . .)
We had some quirky ground rules, most of which were passed on from our father’s time; after all, the field hadn’t changed much since their playing days in the 1950s. We bickered over our own fabled records for longest home run and most consecutive strikeouts, etc. Most often a half inning would take so long that, especially in the sun baked summer months, we’d forget how many outs there were. Heated arguments over the third out being only the secondout were way too common! Calls of “safe” and “out” could also present problems in our über-competitive youth. Known for my honesty, my verdict (even on myself) was usually taken as the final word. And, yes, I would call myself “out” if I knew that was the case.
We’d usually start our days at 11 a.m. and keep playing until Rich’s mother would be heard calling in the distance for him to come home for supper. Her voice could carry quite some distance! Oh, we’d rib Rich, but in truth that was our call to go home, too.
We’d share bats and gloves and lots of laughs. Sometimes kids from another neighborhood would join in and we’d have very competitive sandlot games, but mostly it was just small core group.
Sure, I played Little League on nicer fields with uniforms bought and sponsored by local insurance companies, with umpires and coaches and batting helmets and signs to steal bases and real bases and foul lines, but it paled in comparison to fun I had up the Maine with my pals arguing over how many outs there were or whether a ball was fair, foul, or hit to the wrong side of second base.
A couple of years ago I was back in my hometown and hiked up to that field. I found trees growing in right field and the rusty backstop now slumped hard to one side like a prizefighter on the ropes. Unruly pockets of grass shot up all around my field of dreams. Kids no longer played baseball here in the summer. ATV tracks crisscrossed the infield now.
It’s okay, really. I didn’t expect it to look like I remembered it, but even so, I stood there a long time lost in reverie for those youthful days and its simple camaraderie, wishing—just once more—that I could hear Rich’s mother’s calling up, with that sustained echo, announcing suppertime. Waiting for the call to go home.
I’m just saying…