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.
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…