“Life”, they say, “is full of choices”. So I made them—some good, some bad, some really bad. In looking back though, I realize something. These choices are the only things I truly own. Lock, stock, and barrel they are mine, and mine alone.
That is not to say that everything in my life is a result of my choices. Obviously that isn't true. If it were, I would have done a much better job of choosing my parents. As it is, I am the result of a choice they made. I had no say in it. And I had no say in the physical handicap their moment of passion gave me. Or maybe it wasn't their moment of passion. Maybe it was my Mother’s alcohol and tobacco use while she was pregnant. It doesn't matter. Those were her choices. My role was limited to choosing how I’d deal with it. Like I said, “Life is full of choices”. People who know me tell me I say that a lot.
I’d like to be taller sure, but due to the scoliosis, that sharp curve in the thoracic vertebrae of my upper back, I’m not. My rib cage is off center so my heart and lungs don’t fit quite right into my chest cavity. I think sometimes what it might be like to have a straight back, where the bones would hold me up instead of having to rely on my muscles to do the job. Muscles tire quicker than bones. That’s the down side. But on the up side, who’s to say I wouldn't have found life too easy that way? Maybe the drive wouldn't be as strong. Almost certainly I would have made different choices.
My first choice was to focus on what I could do, not what I couldn't do. Football, wrestling, basketball were not options. Reading, writing, drama were. I gravitated towards living life in my mind. My father, now remarried, bought me a ten volume set of the Bible written for children. I read every volume, then read them again. I could be as brave as David when he slew Goliath. I could be a smart as Joseph when he helped the Pharaoh rule over Egypt. I wouldn't lose my patience like Moses did, but would cross over into the Promised Land with Joshua.
From there I moved on to history. I sailed with the Pilgrims and landed at Plymouth Rock. I rode with Paul Revere to warn the patriots that the British were coming. I grew up in the hills of middle Virginia with Thomas Jefferson, and went on a vision quest with Crazy Horse in the Black Hills. In books, I discovered, there was nothing I couldn't do.
By high school I clearly identified with “the writers”. We took Mrs. Wittmer's “Creative Writing” class, wrote for the school newspaper, and the Yearbook, and read what we wrote to each other at meetings of the creative writing club. My poetry was published in the school anthology. I played the lead in the Junior play. By the time I left for college, the only subject that called to me as a major was English.
On the physical side, my body was going through its own seemingly unrelated life. Although it would be some years before I made the connection, the “forced labor” my Father demanded on the farm was actually saving my body. Oh it hurt. Hauling hay is still one of my most painful memories. Hay is cut in the middle of summer when temperatures are hot. We would take turns either lifting 60 lb bales and handing them to a fellow worker on the truck, or grabbing the bales from the lifter and stacking them in an orderly fashion so they would not fall off. In my weaker moments, I thought that being in Hell would be preferable to this. It might be hot, but at least, as I imagined, I would just have to stand there. As I was to learn later, the building up of my muscles during that time would make for a much better physical life than I was imagining just then.
During this time, while mind and body were doing their different things, there was a war going on in the background. I don’t mean an internal war between mind and body. I mean a real war. It was in a place called Viet Nam. I didn't like it. I didn't want anything to do with it, and I didn't want anybody else to have anything to do with it either. So I did what thousands of young people like me did—I protested. Yes, I got kicked out of school once. I went to jail because of it. I grew my hair long and talked to anyone who would listen about the evils of “the war”. These were all choices with which I was comfortable. Then I made another choice. I used my scoliosis to convince the local draft board to classify me as “4F”. Suddenly I was “not acceptable for military service”. That was fine by me.
Have I mentioned that “Life is full of choices”? When you choose a path, you own it. I accepted that idea even then. But what I had yet to learn was that once you start down a path, you don’t have to stay with it. So often once we are on “A Path”, we think it is "The Path”, and no matter how bad it gets we just push harder. We don’t realize that we can choose again, and go in another direction, hopefully a better one. We own that choice too. For me this knowledge would come as an epiphany, and not a pleasant one.
April 1975 will always be the month that changed my life forever. I sat in my dorm room at college and watched the films from Viet Nam. I saw the North Vietnamese army roll south into Da Nang, Kontum, Pleiku, Ban Me Thuot, and finally, Saigon itself. I watched people clinging to helicopters trying to get out. I watched them fall to their deaths. I watched boat after boat crammed with far too many people floundering in the waves. I saw desperation and fear in hundreds of eyes. I saw women give their babies to others in the hope that their child might be saved even if they themselves perished. I kept thinking that it wasn't supposed to be like this.
I found myself feeling responsible. Choices that I had freely made had resulted in pressure on our government to abandon these people. I had thought that what I was doing was right, but now I could see with my own eyes just how wrong I was. I couldn't turn away from the images. I watched. And I cried.
I knew then that I had choices to make. Those choices took me out of my comfort zone and into a whole new world. I cut my hair. I joined ROTC. I met a young female cadet who would become the love of my life, and the Mother of my children. I became a soldier, and not just any soldier. I became an Infantry Officer. I humped a rucksack with my men. I jumped out of airplanes with them too. I wrote operations orders instead of poems. And I ran, and ran, and ran. For the first time in my life my mind and my body were working together as a team.
Many years have passed since those days. But the truth has not changed. Life is still about the choices you make. Good ones, bad ones, lucky ones, totally serendipitous ones. If you’re lucky you’ll understand that these are the only things you ever really own. And when you own them—when you accept responsibility for them—you’ll discover what it means to be free. That's all I'm asking these days. Leave me alone to experience the consequences of my choices. That's what freedom is about.