Happy Memorial Day (a bit belated)

30 May 2006
"Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Ooh, they're red, white, and blue." ~Creedence Clearwater Revival

Ahh Memorial Day, a rare three-day weekend in my chosen profession. You know, back in college, I don't recall a *single * person (no sage advisor schooled in the arcana of corporate slackery) ever taking me aside and saying, "Here, young Patrick, is a chart of all possible professions, ranked by the number of paid holidays per year." Had someone done that, I think I'd have seriously reconsidered taking up the "Education" track within the English department. For all of the hype about public school teachers being shittily paid people, you have to admit that having three months off would be nice. The only employed people I can think of who get more time off would be professional athletes.

Or hey, how about banking?! During all those years of commuting, I used to continually take note of the empty seats on the bus and subway during the minor observances -- Columbus Day, Inauguration Day, Veterans' Day, Martin Luther King's birthday, etc. Maybe I should have gone into banking ...

I've always maintained that you need at *least * three days off to really clear your head. A simple weekend is inherently flawed because both days are connected to a work day. But, when you get a three-day break, there's that glorious day in the middle when you can sit back and say, "I didn't work yesterday, and I don't work tomorrow." (I said that to myself Sunday afternoon at some point.) The next best level is a five-day break, where you can say to yourself on day three, "Yesterday wasn't even * connected * to a workday, and neither is tomorrow." And then there's the extremely rare seven-day break. On day four, you can say to yourself, "Yesterday isn't even connected to a day that's *connected* to a workday, and neither is tomorrow."

As for me, I chose the worst possible profession. Six miserable company paid holidays per year. The cheap-skate owners don't even give you the day after Thanksgiving, which every other white collar person inAmericaseems to have off. Fortunately, I'm somewhat of a diabolical bastard when it comes to negotiating with HR people. So, I snagged an extra week of vacation coming in -- something that almost no one else at my place of employment gets. You've got to play hard ball every now and then.

Anyway, enough about me. People have actually died serving their country, and that's what we're supposed to think about on Memorial Day (yesterday). Fortunately for me, I don't know anyone who died in a war. In fact, I don't even know many military folk. I think I've summed up Uncle Charlton's views on the military. (Seethis chapter -- my favorite, incidentally, from the Tales of the Midwest posts.) Uncle Charlton represents one of just a handful of reasons I've come to believe are responsible for why most people enter the military. His reason, of course, was that he was *forced * to -- drafted during theVietnamera.

Here are a few other reasons:

1. The "Gung-Ho from the Get-Go" Type.

There's no denying it: Some people are hard-wired for the military from day one. Usually, it's men, but I'm sure there are a few women out there like this as well. Going back to my childhood again, you may recall my mentioning a guy I've called Alec Baldwin. Alec's neighbor was a kid I'll call Green Beret -- or, GB for short. It was GB's family that had the algae-covered lake that I mentioned wading in while my best friend put the moves on a girl.

GB was a few years older than me and my friends, so we didn't hang out with him except for on those rare occasions when we would have all-ages mock battles in the woods. In our version of "war," you split into two teams, ran off into the woods in different directions, and then stalked each other until only one person remained. The rules were that you had to say, "Bang, [person's name] you're dead." After being "killed," the dead guy had to go back to some pre-designated "dead pile" and wait until the game ended. For those games, you wanted to be on GB's team because that team would almost always win.

He couldn't wait to graduate and join the army, as his life's ambition was to be a green beret. One day, as he was sitting around in his room casually cleaning his M-1 rifle, it went off and shot his best friend in the leg. The other kid was just as bad as GB -- he actually thought it was pretty neat that he got shot. Must have been a hell of a scene, though. Shooting someone at nearly point blank range with a deer rifle must have splattered blood all over GB's John Wayne poster collection. (Just kidding ... I never saw GB's room.)

GB graduated and was in the army in record time. According to the family, he was extremely sad when basic training concluded. That had been the best time in his entire life. I'm sure he went on to great things, possibly even shooting scores of others at point blank range.

I'm not judging the kid, of course. Just trying to describe his character type (even if I did always consider him a bit mental). He was the kind of kid who was fascinated by everything military. You could say that he spent most of his youth training for the day he'd sign up. That fucker probably went into the army in better shape than most guys who've been conditioned by it already.

2. The Desperate and the Undecided

For others, I think the military represented sort of a last-resort employment opportunity that could be found through either desperation or a complete lack of ambition. Very ironically, GB's neighbor was a guy I'll call Tom.

Tom was our resident AC/DC fanatic who knew more about horror movies than anyone else in town. His bible was Fangoria magazine, and he even shot many of his own amateur horror movies with a Super-8 video camera. No sound, of course, but they were entertaining nonetheless.

Tom was a real "drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring" kind of guy. He had only a few hobbies, but he always went overboard with them. Horror movies. AC/DC. Dungeons & Dragons. Once he discovered booze, he went a little nuts with that, too. (I'll spare you the story involving his vomiting crA¨me de menthe. Although, I can't pass up an opportunity to mention how underage kids will drink absolutely anything they can swipe from their parents' liquor cabinets. I could have been spared many a queasy night had simple beer been available.)

My point, though, was that Tom had no direction in life. He did love those few things dearly. But, he didn't see a way to pursue his interests post high school. So, literally on a whim one day, he got up from his chair after watching a TV commercial for the Air Force, drove to a recruiting office, and enlisted.

We were all sitting around somewhere catching up and someone asked him what he did all day. "Oh, nothing much ... Oh yeah, I almost forgot, I signed up for the Air Force." He said it just like that -- not joking at all. He'd thought so little of it that he actually almost forgot he'd done it.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I'm a little impressionable myself. Hell, just last week, I did something similar ... After watching a Taco Bell commercial for a new burrito, I actually got up and drove to Taco Bell. But, we're talking about the guy's whole life here! If his military career went down anywhere as poorly as that tex-mex burrito settled in my gut, I don't think he had a very good time of it. But, I'll never know. No one ever saw him again after that.

3. Other

I'm sure there are other reasons for enlisting. I could imagine people doing it because they come from a military family (and it is expected of them, or they want to live up to the tradition), because they want to earn money for college, because they see it as an opportunity, or (these days) even because they want to go kill Arabs to avenge their own personal losses.

Or, hey, what about aggressive recruiting techniques? I'll never forget being told that we could have a free day off of school for taking the "Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery" (or ASVAB) exam. Not surprisingly, it was pretty damned easy. After all, the main point of military service seems to be one's ability to do what he or she is told (a quality that is not measured by that test, by the way).

Drill Sergeant: Gump! What's your sole purpose in this army?
Forrest Gump: To do whatever you tell me, drill sergeant!
Drill Sergeant: God damn it, Gump! You're a god damn genius! This is the most outstanding answer I have ever heard. You must have a goddamn I.Q. of 160. You are goddamn gifted, Private Gump.

I think I aced that test, come to think of it. When the recruiters called (and, they did *all the time* after that), they said I could do anything I wanted in the army. Unfortunately, "anything I wanted" didn't include: (1) not having to kill people, (2) not having to scrub out latrines, (3) not having to do everything others tell me to do, and of course (4) not having the opportunity to take daily showers without 40 others in the room. (Although, I must say, the prospect of "blowing shit up" all day did sound kind of intriguing, for obvious reasons.)

Well, this post is going nowhere fast, isn't it? I suppose I've already summed upmy own views on this matter before, so I won't rehash them now.

On a side note, one of the challenges of writing up my Tales from the Midwest posts has been the existence of people like GB and Tom. They each seem to merit no more than two paragraphs or so. Neither made much of an impression or ever did anything worthy of an entire "tale." So, they become these parenthetical characters, largely undocumented. While it's marginally interesting to me to show two guys so diametrically opposed in terms of their personal ideologies who ironically wind up basically within the same profession, it's just not enough to work with in my judgment.I'd even entertained the thought of putting together an entire chapter made up of quirky little "one-paragraph rubrics." But, I decided against it in the end. Filler is boring. (This post is filler.) See you soon. -PH

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