A Few Casually Spoken Words Can Change A Life

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Four times in my life a few words have lifted me off the path I was on, turned me, and plunked me down on a new path.

The first time that ever happened was at the main recruiting station in New Haven, Connecticut. I was there to re-enlist in the Air Force after spending two years trying out civilian life and deciding I preferred the military.

Waiting two years to make that decision instead of making it when I was being discharged two years earlier had cost me. All I was going to have to look forward to after I raised my hand and swore to a whole lot of stuff was a uniform with one lousy stripe on its sleeve.

I had tried to cut a deal with personnel back in Iceland two years earlier.

Their idea of a good thing to do was to send me stateside to be discharged after having served my three-year stint of active duty with my Air National Guard outfit. My idea of a good thing to do was to see something of Europe, and in particular of France, now that I was so close.

“Sure you can,” the personnel clerk told me. “All you have to do is sign up for another two years and off to France you go.”

“Two years? Can’t I just re-up for one year?” I asked.

“Uh-uh. Two years.”

“But the tour of duty in France is only 18 months.”

“Doesn’t matter. Gotta re-up for two years no matter what.”

So I added a small piece of wisdom to the military lore I had accumulated in two years, 10 months, and 18 days of active duty. You do not bargain with Air Force regulations, Johnny.

And now here I was standing in a recruiting office two years later as living proof of it. I had taken some kind of test and was waiting around while they graded it. After that, the plan was for me to be sent to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland as promised faithfully by the recruiter back in New London.

Each main recruiting station is run by one of the three main branches of service — Army, Navy, or Air Force. This one was run by the Army, so an Army master sergeant came walking up to me and asked me, “You Garrett?”

“Yeah, Sarge.”

“Captain would like to see you.”

I wondered what some captain wanted, but I followed the big burly master sergeant and saw that I was headed for the office of the post commandant. In I went. I was still in civvies, so there was no question of saluting and reporting, but I did my best to look more or less military in jeans and T-shirt.

“Yes, sir? You wanted to see me?”

“Garrett, you did very well on that test we gave you.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I see you’re re-enlisting in the Air Force.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Going to have just one lonely stripe on your shoulder. Ever thought about that?”

So I had, but thinking about it hadn’t done much good. “I should have re-enlisted back when I was being discharged,” I told the captain ruefully, wondering where all this was headed.

“Suppose I told you it was a good thing you didn’t?”

Now I was really wondering where the conversation was headed. I couldn’t think of a sensible reply. “Well ... uh, I don’t ...”

Fortunately, the captain came to my rescue. “How would you like to go to OCS, Garrett? Graduate with an ounce of gold on your shoulder instead of one lonely stripe on your sleeve?”

OCS was, of course, Officer’s Candidate School, where an ordinary peasant — like me — could be transmuted into an officer and gentleman. If the captain was making an offer it was a good one. It would mean an entirely different kind of life for me. Better pay, more respect, maybe even a career where I became someone.

“Is that possible?” I asked.

“With your scores I can fix it up for you in five minutes.”

I will admit I was very tempted. The difference in pay alone should have been enough for me to grin and say, “Sign me up, sir!”

But you know what I did?

I looked that captain in the eye and said one of the most amazing things I have ever said in my life.

“Sir, I thank you very much for your offer, but ... well, I think I’m going to take the one stripe.”

Yep! That’s what I did. Turned down a commission. Twenty-three years old and I voluntarily sentenced myself to at least another 17 years of being one of the enlisted swine.

Why would anyone do something so stupid?

Because it felt right.

Yeah, I know. A lot of stupid things feel right.

In later years, with more than 10 seconds to think about it, I have given that decision a lot of thought. In time I have come to understand it.

Doesn’t make it any less stupid, just makes it easier for me to understand who I am.

I did it because I had a sudden insight into my true nature.

I’m a worker. I like doing things. True, I have flown a desk at times during my Air Force career, which wasn’t much work, but even then the job I had was one where I did the work, not someone else. Never in all my 21 years in the service was I a figurehead. I always occupied the spot where the orders ended and the work began. And consequently I was one happy camper.

I’ve explained that jokingly a few times by saying that my ancestors back in Germany where grape stompers in Baden-Baden, and so being a peasant comes naturally. But is it the truth? Beats me.

There was one more thing that struck me that day though. I can remember looking at that admin officer sitting behind his desk and realizing that he was looking so happy because he thought he was about to clone himself. And I remember thinking, “No thanks!”

So, staying an enlisted man instead of becoming an officer was an important change to a new path for me, right?

Wrong.

It was where I got sent because I irritated that captain by turning down his offer.

Tell you all about it next week.

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