Originally published on Facebook on Oct. 15, 2014, on the 30th anniversary of my departure. dc
Exactly 30 years ago this morning, I kissed my beautiful 21-year-old wife and sent her off to class, tucked a change of clothes and a paperback copy of the Nick Adams stories into a day pack, and set off walking from one end of Boone, N.C.
At the other end of town was a bus, which was about to take me off to the Army. It was a beautiful fall morning.
I don’t bring this up because I want anybody to thank me for my service.Y’all already thanked me by paying my way through college. But yesterday when I realized it had been 30 years, I remembered just how powerfully romantic, frightful and adventurous that walk felt. And I wanted to talk about it.
I was 21, a college dropout, a newlywed, a wannabe writer, and flat broke. I’d spent my teenage years on a commune and had grown up in that slice of the American culture that organized in support of the Civil Rights movement, protested the Vietnam War and profoundly mistrusted the military industrial complex. To the dismay of my recruiter, I’d wasted my perfect score on the ASVAB for a combat arms MOS — and the only reason I’d signed up for armor that summer was because infantry was already full for the year.
It was a weird moment in my life, too. I’d been married for three months, and between joining the Army and the way I’d ended my relationship with my previous girlfriend, I’d lost some important friendships. Most of them came back eventually, but at the time there were several people I sincerely cared about who simply refused to speak to me. I had professors at Appalachian State who weren’t that upset when I’d dropped out the previous December, but who seemed troubled by my decisions since then. I was kinda on my own in those days.
I’d moved back to Boone in the spring to live with my new soon-to-be wife and spent the summer working for minimum wage as a greenskeeper. The job ended in September, so I’d spent the first two weeks of October enjoying that perfect Blue Ridge weather, bumming rides around the highlands, re-hiking favorite trails, getting in a bunch of aesthetically pleasing but mostly unsuccessful trout fishing. Tried to get in shape for basic training, too: I could run all day at 21, but couldn’t do pushups to save my life — an embarrassing fact I never spoke about, but that worried me quite a bit that morning.
In the years that followed I came to realize that depending on who was asking the question, my answer to why I’d joined the Army could vary wildly. But none of the answers were incorrect. The truth is I joined the Army for a lot of reasons, some good, some foolish.
Looking back from the perspective of 30 years, I suspect that the 20-year-old me had hit a wall — I couldn’t afford college, didn’t have any real skills or concrete goals. But more importantly, I sensed that the tide of my life was ebbing toward mediocrity. I believe all my erratic wildness in 1984 had a great deal to do with that fear. Whatever my other reasons, there was no doubt that getting married and joining the Army at 21 stood my entire life boldly on its head.
I’m not saying those were good choices or bad choices. Like Kundera says, that’s the unbearable lightness of being. But they were MY choices, and that was the point.
I can’t begin to tell you how frightened I was on that walk to the bus. How much I worried that I’d make terrible mistakes. But I was also so filled with the incandescent, excruciatingly beautiful significance of the moment that even today, if I pause to remember it, the romanticism of it all burns away the years and I’m right there. Boarding that bus was crossing my personal Rubicon.
And this is what I wish for every young person I meet: Not that you make all the right decisions. Just that you give yourself a day like my Oct. 15, 1984.