The glaring disparity between today’s all-volunteer American military versus my reasons for serving in uniform is painstakingly obvious to me – thirty years later. My motive for enlisting in the United States Army had nothing, at all, to do with patriotism. I wasn’t looking for something greater than myself to serve, back then. I was simply looking for a way out of the predicament that I had found myself in, at that moment; a predicament that I, unassisted, created by myself.
As a teenager, my life was guided, mostly, by reactionary, self made, knee jerk decisions that always appeared to be made last minute. I was comparable to a dried up, late autumn leaf blowing aimlessly in the cool breeze. I was the sole arbitrator in a young life run amok; a rookie fireman dousing the flames of a smoldering life set ablaze by poor choices.
I had spent my four years of high school as a student-athlete… minus the student and (true) athlete part. I showed up for wrestling practice, religiously, for the four years that I attended school there. However, because of my poor grades and horrible attendance record I was not allowed to compete. The Illinois High School Association had strict rules concerning grade point averages and athletic competition. So, as a result, I was not “officially” on our high school wrestling team. I simply went to the practices, grappled, ran laps and worked out.
I was also a small time crook, womanizer, lover of violence and low level marijuana dealer.
By the ripe old age of seventeen, I had been arrested a half dozen times, already, for petty little crimes which included smuggling wine into a high school football game, fighting on and off of school property as well as various motor vehicle operation “mishaps”. Within my first year of obtaining a legal drivers license, I was issued six traffic violations forcing me to repeat driver’s education class via orders of a circuit court judge. I had also crashed Papa’s car, twice – once into a single mother’s automobile (with her four year old child on board) while she was stopped at a traffic light and once into a stationary speed limit sign. Both times, my younger sister was in the car with me. Both times, I was stoned on reefer.
It came as no surprise, to Papa, when it looked like I wouldn't graduate from public high school, on time, with my senior class. I was failing Accounting and, unless I could pull a D out of a low F, that would mean I'd have to move out of the house at the end of the school year. I would be forced to stand on my own. I had sensed Papa's bittersweet pleasure at the mere thought of me on my own, for some time. He had been warning me of such a future since I had turned thirteen. "You take nothing in this life seriously, son. One day, the weight of your choices will come crashing down on you like a ton of bricks. It will be painful to watch. Your mother doesn't deserve it. It is unavoidable unless you pull it together. I hope you can, pull it together, but I'm not betting on it."
We had an odd relationship, Papa and I. The fact that he had no father left him with limited parenting experiences, or resources, to pull from. And, I hadn’t the foggiest idea of how to ask for help from him. Self propulsion – as doomed as it obviously was – was all that I had.
A last minute favor, asked by my friend “Lucy” – an all-area defensive lineman on our varsity football team – was what changed my Accounting I “F” into a “D”. My Accounting teacher, Mr. O’Neil, was also the head varsity football coach. The changed grade, coupled with an unusually high score on my A.C.T. college placement exam, is what awarded me an acceptance letter into Western Illinois University. It was, I admit, an odd turn of events that appeared to change the direction of my life. Especially concerning that, all in all, these events took place over the last few weeks of high school. One minute, a potential high-school drop out – the next – a Freshman at an institution for higher learning. I viewed it as a “miracle”.
Mama never suspected that I cheated on the exam. Papa, on the other hand, saw right through it’s charade. “I have no idea how you pulled that off, son. I suspect, without doubt, there was foul play involved. Regardless, it is what it is and I will pay for you to go to school for a year. If you do well, I will find a way to pay for year two.”
His congratulatory speech of love, praise and acceptance was short lived, however.
“But, and I can not stress this enough: if you f*ck this up, son, you are on your own. There will be no more hand outs from me.”
Mama rode passenger as Papa drove us to Macomb, Illinois, home of Western Illinois University. He brought up my clothes, kissed me good-bye and came to visit a few times during my stay as a student there. True to his word, he paid for my classes, my dormitory rent, my food and even gave me some spending money. He paid for me to pledge a fraternity, there, and he paid for my initiation fee, as well. When I came home for Christmas break, he proudly showed me off to some men that he worked with. “This is my son: the first one in our family to attend college. We’re hoping good things of him.”
At the end of two semesters, I had a 0.0 grade point average – having failed every single course on the curriculum that I had registered to study. Subsequently, I was forbidden from registering for a second year as a student at the University.
Three days before the end of the second semester, and without consulting anyone, I walked to the Army recruiter’s office, right off campus, and enlisted for five years of active duty/three years inactive reserve duty – eight years total.
A month later, Papa drove me to the airport where I would fly to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, for basic training. Mama was too upset to drive with us.
I was eighteen years old.