This week’s installment of the IndieInk Writing Challenge was submitted by Jen, who asks me to think about a missed opportunity (professional or personal) and talk about how my life might be different if I hadn’t missed it. An excellent challenge, the answer to which is a bit tardy, but also slightly long-winded, so there you go.
Phrases involving the words, ‘what’, and, ‘if’, in close proximity are prone to sending people to early graves. It does no one a lick of good to dwell on what might’ve been. It’s an unfair fight due to the person having gained both experience and insight since the incident/non-event, automatically tainting the entire process (bonus for using ‘taint’ as a gerund). Hindsight, therefore, tells us that life would have been either a horrible slog through one of Dante’s circles of hell or, alternatively, puppies and unicorns skipping through fields full of pillows and the laughter of children. Both are works of fiction unless you have a deep understanding of quantum mechanics.
I’ve regurgitated onto the interwebs much regarding personal ‘what if’s, but rarely anything concerning ‘professional’ ones. The trajectory of my previous career frequently seemed written in the stars because so much of it combined good fortune and unexpected success in the military. Immediately after high school, I enlisted and quickly found myself itching for something more challenging than the routine into which I eventually fell. This was long before I’d learned how to appreciate wherever I was whenever I was there.
I dove into night school nearly every weekday evening for a solid year in an effort to nail a scholarship application process seemingly designed to weed out the emotionally feeble. Following that year, I was presented the opportunity of a lifetime and one that very few enlisted folks are afforded. At the time, I was living a life of relative luxury with a couple other guys in a house on a nice plot of land west of Oklahoma City. We had a deck and a pool, frequent parties, a lot of homemade beer, dogs, season tickets to minor league hockey, etc., in every way a pretty OK situation for a 21-year old dude. The nutshell version of the decision with which I’d been presented was to either continue with this life or accept the scholarship and move on to purportedly bigger and better things.
A sane person would agree that having run the previous year’s gauntlet, such a decision would have been easy. However, many things seem like a great idea in theory. Dogs chasing cars probably don’t think about what they’ll do if they catch one. The 21-year old version of me was very much like the dog that caught the car. I thought hard about what I would miss and whether giving it all up would prove to be ultimately worth it. Being enlisted had provided me a security blanket that I’d lacked growing up and I was now on the verge of forfeiting it all for an opportunity to prove something to myself and others. Whatever confidence I projected at the time was purely superficial. I was petrified of failure and possibly even more so by the prospect of future regret. It dawned on me that I’d just provided myself an incredible opportunity to build me own circle of hell.
In the end, of course, I accepted the scholarship, survived the school, got commissioned, went off and did great things blah blah blah. It’s hard to imagine the ramifications that would have come from having not done so. There were people, including myself, that would have never forgiven me had I walked away from that opportunity. About a year later, the unit to which I’d been attached was transferred to a place in Alabama where hope goes to die (I visited there once; trust me). Had I stayed enlisted, I’d like to believe that I would’ve endured it all. This is because the military was the surrogate family for which I’d been waiting for my entire life. There was nothing else worth doing in my limited view. I’d have found ways to excel, get promoted, move on, lead, manage, mentor.
I don’t, however, know who I’d have become. I likely would have hit a wall eventually as I did as an officer. I think that was inevitable given my personality. I’m not sure I’d have survived it, though, lacking the depth of experience obtained at the school the scholarship allowed me to attend. It’s hard to say. Oddly enough, had I forfeited that scholarship, survived myself, and remained enlisted lo these many years, I’d now be eligible for retirement this coming September. But in light of all that I’d have missed, both then and now, I can’t help but feel that it would be an empty victory.
Sir @ May 5, 2011