A Few Casually Spoken Words Can Change A Life, Part Ii

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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.

Last week I told you about the first time it happened. I was in a main recruiting station, re-enlisting after two years as a civilian, and I was offered a commission instead of the single stripe that was all I would get back after staying out of the Air Force for two years. And so, naturally enough, I ...

Turned down the commission.

That’s right, Johnny. Good old Tom turned down a commission. Why? It’s impossible for me to be sure, but as far as I can tell it’s because I like to work, and sitting behind a desk telling other people what to do isn’t exactly my idea of work.

Lame excuse? Maybe. But it’s the best one I’ve got.

Anyway, you may be thinking that turning down a commission was the abrupt change in life’s path I mentioned a minute ago, but it wasn’t. The abrupt change occurred because the captain who offered me that commission was a mite irritated that I preferred to stay an enlisted man. So instead of sending me to Andrews Air Force Base, where I had been promised I would go by the recruiter back in New London, my buddy the admin officer shanghaied me to Sampson Air Force Base, New York. A basic training base!

And what did I do when I got there?

First I did two weeks in purgatory — re-enlistee basic. Blah!

And after that there came a day when, for reasons I won’t go into here because I’ve mentioned them before, I had an urgent need to get off the base.

That day!

“Any school which will get me out of here today,” I told the personnel clerk sitting across the desk.

“No such animal. It’ll take a week to get your orders cut.”

I tell you, Johnny, I thought I was a dead man.

But then came a few casual words which saved the day.

“Of course,” the clerk said offhandedly, “there is a school right here on the base.”

“I’ll take it!”

He looked on a list. “Oh, too bad. You should have been here yesterday. They started a class today. Next one’s in six weeks.”

“Couldn’t I start a day late?”

Please notice that I had not yet asked what the school was.

“I don’t think so. You’d have to convince Warrant Officer von Klip to let you in and he’s not easy to convince.”

“Trust me! I’ll do it! Just give me the paperwork I need.”

So he typed up a little pink colored form putting me in the school and off I went. On the way there I thought over the name of the school: GIS, General Instructor School. Nice name, but I hadn’t a clue what a general instructor did.

Teach generals?

Impossible! Can’t be done. They already know everything.

Anyway, I walked up the hill to GIS, talked a blue streak, and the next morning I was sitting in class with everyone else, learning to ...

Be a drill instructor.

You heard me. Me! Drill the troops. Teach people how to shoot. Run PE. Take them on field training. All that other stuff.

Are you kidding?

But about 12 weeks later there I was, putting 60 men through basic training.

And loving it.

I had discovered something I had never imagined.

I was a natural teacher. I — for crying out loud! — graduated first in my class at GIS with the highest scores they’d ever had in the place. And Warrant Officer von Klip himself told me that teaching came naturally to me.

Who would have imagined?

Little Tommie Garrett. The quietest kid on the block. Wearing starched fatigues and making a noise like a ruptured steamboat!

All because of a few casually spoken words.

Not my stupid mouthful. The ones that came out of that clerk.

“Of course, there is a school right here on the base.”

Can a few words like that change your life?

Changed mine.

To begin with, 20 years later, almost to the day, I walked into my first civilian classroom and began to teach. And I make no bones about it, what I am is a teacher. There is no time when I am more comfortable, more happy, or more certain I am doing something worth doing than I am when I’m teaching.

And yet, if you had known me as a young man you would have said there wasn’t the slightest chance I would ever set foot in a classroom except as a student. As I’ve mentioned before, I thought the same thing. When a high school counselor suggested I become an English teacher I nearly fell out of my chair.

Me? Teach?

Yes. Of course I will. Right after the canary eats the cat.

You never know, though. I worked as a drill instructor for a while — until they changed the whole basic training program. Then I went into another career field, one that suited me about as well as a straitjacket suits a scuba diver.

While I was suffering in that field someone noticed my background in training. One thing led to another and I soon found myself teaching others how to teach. That sparked an interest in teaching in general, and a decision to go into teaching after I left the Air Force. Put that together with a lifetime interest in science, and you have ...

One very happy science teacher.

So next time life yanks the steering wheel out of your hands and sends you into a lake, think happy thoughts as you pound on a window. “I’m not drowning. I’m just starting down a new path.”

But no matter what you do, do not disappoint an admin officer who has his heart set on cloning himself!

Br-r-r-r-r! That’s scary!

Me as an admin officer? Can boredom kill?

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