I realized last week that 40 years ago, I started Air Force basic training in San Antonio, Texas.
Forty years. Wow.
Now, many things that happened 40 years ago I can’t remember at all. I can’t even tell you what I had for dinner last Thursday. But I can still close my eyes and see the young faces of a group of guys I was only around for a couple of months when I was a teenager.
There was Bushy, a dude from Idaho. He hated the Texas heat. I thought Idaho must be in New England. Yes, I was that dumb.
There was Anderson, who at 27 was the oldest guy there by about six years. He was from California, and just seemed impossibly old to me. I had been 18 for a few months by that time – basically a baby.
There was Duncan, a hilarious guy from San Francisco. We had a lot of great times cracking each other up and helping each other through the tough times.
And Joey, a kid from North Carolina who had the face of a 10-year-old and a heart of gold. One of the nicest guys I have ever met. I wonder how his life turned out?
We are all men in our late 50s now – well, except for Anderson. He would be 67. And our drill sergeant, Sgt. Lloyd would be 65. Yes, he was younger than Anderson but looked pretty much ageless. He could have been 25 or 55, I couldn’t tell. I spent almost no time looking him in the face. That was something to be avoided.
A lot of years have gone by since that late summer in Texas. Marriages, kids, college, career, a lot of music played and a lot of tears and smiles. But there are those formative things in your life that are never far from your memory.
Basic training was one of those for me. I had been away from home before, but never for that long. I had a wonderful life in Yuma, Ariz., as a kid. Great parents, wonderful friends, a job delivering pizzas at the best place for a teenager to work in town. I had a great girlfriend too.
But instead of college I opted to join the military (I went to college later). Honestly, I am still not sure why I walked into that recruiters office in April 1981 and talked to him about signing up. But I am glad I did.
Being in the military does not define who I am as a person. I know a lot of people who hold onto their years in the service as the greatest time in their lives. That might have been 40 years ago, but they still walk around talking about it.
That is not who I am. I honestly get a little embarrassed when people thank me for my service. I am proud that I did serve, but I am certainly no hero. A hero does something heroic like saving lives. I worked nearly 40 12-hour shifts in a row when I was stationed on Guam, but that is hardly heroic. It was just tiring.
But my military service clearly had an effect on my life. I am always on time for things because of it. Being there when you are supposed to be there means a lot to me. I am also always weary of people who hug the flag but never seemed to serve anything but themselves. That seems to be most politicians these days.
I am not saying I am better than anyone else because I served. That is certainly not true. But I am a better version of myself because I did. I was a kid with no real direction and no real plan. Four years later I was more certain of who I was as a person, was more confident and knew there was something out there for me – I just had to go and get it.
Forty years ago, I was a scared kid a long way from home surrounded by strangers who became my best friends for a very short period of my life. I am thankful for them and for that experience. It still resonates in my life.