Part I – “Ready or Not”
The military is in my proverbial blood. I grew up in an air force family; my father making the career leap from non-commissioned to officer, having enlisted right out of high school (minus some needed English credits), ultimately acquiring his master’s degree in engineering and retiring after 22 years at the ripe old age of 39. I think my favorite story is his challenge of meeting the minimum weight requirements, with only 145 very lean pounds on his 6 foot 3 inch frame. In those post-Korean years (he enlisted in 1955), rules must have been a little more flexible – his recruiter suggested he re-weigh wearing a heavy parka lined with tools. It did the trick.
I am the oldest, joined within eight years by three brothers. Moving was a way of life – we lived in such places as Mississippi, Arkansas, Hawaii…and Thailand (a story unto itself). One of my Dad’s last assignments in the post Vietnam years was as an ROTC instructor at what was to be my alma mater, the University of New Hampshire. Somewhat of a loner, I grew up with an interest in such things as music and reading. When my now retired Dad suggested ROTC as a route for me, I was adamant – the military was the very last thing I was interested in. I went on to earn my degree in English and worked in the area, including a stint in my parent’s real estate firm.
I don’t remember the day, but there came the moment when the wanderlust so ingrained in my spirit was a call I could no longer ignore. Having spent over twelve years in southeast New Hampshire, it was time to go, and soon. I thought of the French Foreign Legion, but that wasn’t a feasible option. On a pure whim, I walked into my local Air Force recruiting office. After my application, qualifying test, and interview, they asked me what I wanted to do. I liked working with people. “Personnel,” I thoughtfully replied, with no earthly idea of what a personnel officer did.
I was accepted. There was one small catch. I would have to wait for my slot for some months. For me, waiting pretty much equated to move on. I didn’t formally accept (or turn down) the Air Force’s kind offer. Instead, I moved to the big city of Boston, moved into a lovely second floor apartment in Brighton with some friends of mine and worked as a temporary, ultimately finding a job in the subscription department of the Atlantic Monthly. As time passed, I came up with all sorts of reasons why joining the military was really a bad idea. I mean, it was a four-year commitment, practically a lifetime, not to mention that they would force me to do things like run and actually tell me where to live and what to do.
One day, seemingly out of the blue, I ran into my recruiter (to this day I wonder if it was a coincidence).
“So, what are you doing about that slot? You know, March is just a couple of months away.”
“Well, I don’t think I’m interested after all. No, I’ve got a job here, and I think I’m good.”
“So, with this job, where are you going to be in a couple of years? Anyway, you’re probably right; you couldn’t cut it. Good decision,” he said as he left me standing there.
Not cut it? Who was he kidding? When I thought about it, though, I had to admit, I was a little (o.k., very) intimidated by the process of actually committing to four years of military service (I mean I would be 30, which was ancient), not to mention going through officer training school where some nameless uniformed taskmaster would expect me to pass a fitness test, and do unnatural things like march in formation. As for my future career path, well, I really didn’t have one to look forward to. I was in an office staffed by three people earning the princely sum of about $18,000 a year. When I thought about it, most of my reasons not to go had more to do with fear than anything else. I’d show him; I was going. After all, it would be good for me. (I’d hate to admit how many of my major life decisions have been made on impulse, and in response to a perceived dare.)
My roommates were more than a little surprised when I announced my intention to go through with enlisting in the Air Force and going through Officer Training School (OTS) in San Antonio, Texas. I helpfully explained that the twelve week program would be a piece of cake. All I would need to do is get up every morning at five, keep my room in pristine condition, and run a mile and a half in under 14 minutes. “See you in about a month,” said Dina helpfully, evidently thinking about the clothes piled in my room, my penchant for sleeping in, and the fact I didn’t even own a pair of athletic shoes.
I was determined. One of my prescribed preparation steps was to start a running program well in advance of reporting to OTS. A few weeks before leaving, I went out and bought a pair of running shoes. One cold February day, the previous week’s pristine snow reduced to sooty mounds, I donned some sweats (also recently purchased) and my shoes and confidently announced to my roommates that I would be back in about an hour. I made it to the corner just a couple of minutes away. It was cold and I already had a stitch in my side. I turned around. Panting, I climbed the stairs to the apartment. By the clock, it had been six long minutes. No one said a word. The shoes went back in my closet. They would make me do it when I got there.
The day finally arrived. I rose at 3 am, put my packed bags into the back of my ’78 VW Rabbit (the luxurious Champagne Edition), and headed off to the Military Entrance Processing Center in Portland, ME.