Once the ink on my enlistment contract dried I called home to tell my parents of my decision. Neither of them were surprised by my Freshman G.P.A., 0.0, however mom took the news of my enlistment pretty hard. She couldn’t even finish speaking to me on the phone. When dad got on the line he matter of fact informed me he would pick me up from the campus at the end of the week, alone, once he was off work. The conversation with them ended with a very familiar feeling: I had disappointed them again.
My friends at college and back home all seemed surprised by my decision. I was never able to honestly analyze other peoples feelings. I knew the basics about how folks felt about me: angry at me, lustful for me, disappointed in me or scared of me. The diverse rainbow of colorful emotions outside of those feelings is like speaking a foreign language to me. Today, I know this to be caused by “self centeredness”. I was an extremely self centered young person. I was running the show. Any intrusion into the way I managed of my life was unwelcomed. I did understand the majority of my friends verbal analysis of my life thus far, however. Mostly, my friends told me I was a “dumb ass”. I accepted that judgment. I knew that I had no argument against it that would hold up in a court of law.
The ride to Western Illinois University from the southwest suburbs of Chicago, Illinois is approximately four hours. The entire ride home from the campus was filled by my dad telling me, for the first time, about his life and the decisions he had made regarding his military service. I knew general things about him, thus far, but now I was going to listen to his ‘extended’ version.
I would learn in the months ahead, when a platoon sized group of soldiers had to travel to a place “off post” we would travel by “cattle car”. Cattle cars are designed to move, believe it or not, actual cattle, across acreage best suited for highways. Soldiers, just like cattle, would be locked in the steel cage like transport, shoulder to shoulder with little to no air flow. This proved to be an extremely torturous way to travel in the south central United States during the summer months. This ride with my father would prove to be training for what was about to occur in my life.
Dad liked to talk. He liked long wordy explanations of things. As an extremely self centered kid, listening to him speak was comparable to listening to elevator music. To add gasoline to the fire, I saw this man as someone who felt the need to compete with me. If I shared a story about my life with him, he would share a comparable story about his life. However his story was always a more difficult situation. I can honestly say his stories, invariably, were painfully devoid of any point or moral.
I grew up watching cartoons. Saturday morning cartoons were the Super Bowl of television programing, in my opinion, followed closely by after school cartoons. As a young teenager, the “good life”, in my eyes, consisted of coming home to an empty house, smoking weed and eating chocolate chip cookies uninterrupted. There was some Academy Award worthy cartoon fables being put over the airwaves. To me, any good story had a point to it. The “meat and potatoes” of any quality cartoon franchise was its ability to express its moral into the story. Dads long stories, more times than not, ended with him being frustrated because I would have a question. My questions were always an attempt to show him that I found the moral of his story. Dad did not like to be interrupted.
The ride home from college, I knew before it started, would have to be spent with me listening and him speaking. There would be no room for interpretation.
Dad had joined the Air Force in an attempt to avoid being drafted into the Marine Corp or Army. He had an option, since he enlisted, to serve on active duty or serve his contract in the Reserves. Dad chose the reserves. He never really specified why he chose his job as Operating Room Technician, however, he scored high enough on military testing to have some options. He described his exposure to military life, the entire 6 years of his Reserve contract, as easily forgettable. The fondest memories he had during this time was drinking at O’Hare International Airport every time he reported to duty. He said he “sat in” on some surgeries, was exposed to some career oriented Airmen that he referred to as “wackos” and that Basic Training would have to be treated as “in one ear out the other”. His entire story lasted less than an hour. We had three hours to go on our trip.
Next, he spent some time brushing up on how to treat my mother with “kid gloves”. Mom grew up during the Vietnam War. Mom, according to my dad, was a World War II veterans daughter, devout John Wayne fan and scared to death her only son was going to be killed in the line of duty. He held me responsible for her being upset with my decision. In spite of any flaws my father had, whether they were fancied by me or real, he never purposely made me feel completely worthless. In reflection, I understand today my father, who had no father, was doing the best he could with the information that he had. Today I see this conversation as a man who was trying to tell his son he didn’t know how to help him. He was warning me to be cautious of the dangers he believed to be true. He was also telling me that in spite of not liking military life it could still be endured.
He asked me if I had questions. I did. I had thousands upon thousands of questions. I didn’t know how to ask most of them. I was ill prepared to be “handed the mic” for Q & A’s and I was uneasy about how he explained military life to me. I knew, instinctively, that he and I would end up having two fundamentally and spiritually different military experiences. I decided to let the “mic” drop and told him, “No. I have no questions.”
I spent the next 3 weeks drunk and stoned before reporting for duty in the United States Army.