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about me

Once a Marine

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My dad had no choice about enlisting in the Marines. When he responded to his draft notice and presented himself at the induction center at Fort Hayes in Columbus, he found out that everyone who showed up that day would be going to the Marines. He and my mom were both young. They had been married about four years when he was drafted. My dad worked at a factory that made plastic tableware. The Korean War had started recently, and the country, as it too often does, needed young men to go to the other side of the world and fight. Dad traveled by train to Camp Pendleton near San Diego, California. He arrived on New Years Day 1952. My mom followed after he finished boot camp.

My mom, still very young at the time, told her kids about waiting for my dad in a parked car outside one of the barracks one day. It was early morning, and she could see through the windows into the barracks. One young man, plainly just arisen, stood up and stretched and yawned in front of the window, stark naked.

My dad’s first deployment was to Japan. After he got orders but before he left, my mom discovered she was pregnant with their first child, my sister, Marsha. My mom returned to her family in Ohio for the birth. My dad headed to Japan. While he was on the way aboard a troop transport, an armistice was signed, and the conflict was over. No one was sure it would last, so the US kept troops at ready in Japan in case the war started up again. My dad joined a church in Japan and watched at least one atomic bomb test on some remote island in the South Pacific. He brought back a children’s hymn in Japanese which we all learned growing up. Whether any actual Japanese speakers would recognize the words, I do not know.

Dad was also stationed in Hawaii for three years shortly after I was born. His original tour was shorter, but on arrival he learned that his posting had been made permanent, and his tour was automatically extended to two years. He urged my mom to use any means necessary to join him, and she did, making the trip when I was just a few weeks old. My next two sisters, Lani and Kathy, were born in Hawaii. Lani has a Hawaiian name, and Kathy was born a minute after midnight on January first, so she got mentioned in the local paper as the first baby of the new year. Just weeks after Kathy came along, we all moved back to California. My brother Mark was born in Ohio one year and one day after Kathy, and Robin was born in California. She was an infant when my dad left the Marines and returned with my mom and his six kids to Ohio. Two more children, Michelle and Lane, both born in Ohio, completed our family.

I was proud of my dad’s Marine duty. He had awards for sharpshooting and lots of ribbons and medals whose meaning I never knew or have long since forgotten. He had slides of the atomic bomb test he supported. I remember visiting him on post one time in California and being allowed to clamber up on a tank. He worked on heavy road machinery. Maybe he worked on tanks, too.

As I grew older, however, I found that the public image of the Marines did not jibe well with what I knew of my dad. He was certainly tough enough, and he had a never-say-die stubbornness which I believe is a heritable hillbilly trait. But he avoided conflict whenever possible, and he never exhibited that gung-ho ooh-rah commitment to honor and righteousness so characteristic of the popular image of the Marines. He did not have the starched, ramrod-straight bearing. He was stoic enough, but it was a laid-back stoicism that accepted misery with patient endurance rather confronting and overcoming it. He was not a fighter except in the most metaphorical senses. I have never in my life heard him use any of the seven vulgar words George Carlin made famous. I also have never heard him say anything disrespectful of women, which is amazing considering his history and generation.

I do not mean to imply that the Marines are made up of profane misogynists. Rather, there is a certain type of hypermasculine man, given to profanity and misogyny, who fits easily into Marine culture, despite official claims to the contrary. My dad was and is the antithesis of that kind of man. He spent nine years in the Marines, but the Marines were not for him. He realized that he could be deployed anywhere in the world at any time leaving behind a wife and six kids who would not know when or even if he was coming back. He did not want to raise a family that way. So he got out. Had he stayed in, he would have almost certainly gone to Vietnam. Despite wanting to stay in California, he did not see any job prospects there. Ohio did not look especially promising either, but he and my mom both had family there, so they moved back to Ohio.

They moved into a tiny house in Five Points, Ohio, with no hot water, a hand pump in the kitchen, and an outhouse. It was little more than a shack. My dad, despite his military experience (or perhaps because of it), had a hard time finding work. His first job was door-to-door salesman for Filter Queen, a position for which he was in almost every way unsuited. I still remember him demonstrating the vacuum for us. He put a few drops of some essential oil on the exhaust filter and filled our tiny living space with a pleasant scent while the vacuum ran. He also connected the hose to the exhaust side of the vacuum, turning it into a blower, and suspended a ping-pong ball in the flow of air from the crevice attachment. I was too young to know about the Bernoulli principle. The higher air pressure surrounding the air stream kept the ping-pong ball from leaving the stream. The floating ball looked like magic. It still does.

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You’re Still Not Special

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If you remember middle school and even high school at all, you remember wanting to fit in. Being different from about 6th grade to 10th is a terrible curse fraught with repeated attempts to be yourself—whoever that is—while being like everyone else. Most kids don’t want to be special. Yet our culture constantly tells them that they are. The media we aim at our youth (What a loaded metaphor that is!) continually reinforces the message that mere uniqueness is good. But there is no virtue in being different, nor is there anything wrong with being ordinary.

When you first begin, you are the center of the world. Even in impoverished countries, children begin life being cared for and protected from most of life’s vicissitudes. Some, pampered too long or by nature resistant to learning about themselves, never outgrow that infantile sense of entitlement. I find evidence of it still in myself.

Alain de Botton notes that anger comes from frustrated expectations. His solution? Lower your expectations. This is harder than it may appear. I find myself getting angry about the paltriest events. I drop a tool while I’m working. “Damn it!” I exclaim, usually under my breath. Why? I find that I expect perfection of myself. Other people may fail but not me. Others might fumble; their tools might succumb to gravity, but I am better than that. If I drop a tool, it is supposed to remain suspended in air until I grasp it again. Why isn’t the cosmos organized to suit me? What the hell1Hell may well be thought of as a place for people to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” kind of world is this where things obey impersonal rules instead of obeying me?

One would think that my experience of life in this world would have cured me of such foolishness long ago. Yet here I am still cursing when things don’t go my way, still frustrated by a cosmos that refuses to yield to my whims.

Having grown up as a Pentecostal Christian and a hillbilly, I inherited the moral superiority of the one and the recalcitrant independence of the other. Not only am I better than you, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let you tell me what to think or do. Like the Jews of Jesus day, I had an absolute certainty about my own righteousness and contempt for those who didn’t measure up. I was insufferable. My journey toward freedom and perhaps a little humility has been long and arduous. It took me a long time to realize that God’s acceptance is not based on my goodness but on his mercy. That is why he is able to accept anyone who comes to him without showing favoritism. Yes, he expects us to give up our sin, but the most common sin we all commit is in grading ourselves on a curve while flunking everyone around us. We want special treatment. Our situation deserves special consideration. Yes, we’ve done some bad things, but there were extenuating circumstances. Our parents! Our race! Our class! Our culture! Pity us, O God! It is you who made us as we are! Amazingly, he forgives even such transparent attempts to manipulate his mercy.

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Losing Myself

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Youths spend a lot of time finding themselves, but as I have aged I feel that I spend a good deal of time losing myself. I come to a realization about myself or the world I live in, and it causes me to re-evaluate my past. The trouble is, I don’t remember all my past. Moreover, whatever new truth I’ve discovered influences the events I call to mind, so that my re-interpretation of myself is never complete. Yet this incomplete understanding subtly shifts my identity. This process happens again and again until inevitably my understanding of who I am and what my core values are have drifted a long way from where they began.

Part of growing up is to become more fully who you are. (Some would say, “who you are meant to be,” but that implies an intention on someone’s part, someone who is not you, but is somehow responsible, at least in part, for the kind of person you become. While I believe in that someone, not everyone does, so to keep this as open as possible to every reader’s understanding, I will not insist on any sense of direction or destiny.) You grow into yourself like when you were a kid, and your parents bought you shoes that were a size or half a size too big, knowing that your feet would grow into them before another year had passed. And your feet did grow, and eventually the shoes even became too small if they were well-made enough to last that long. So too as you grow, you discover yourself and begin to flesh out the sketches of yourself that you’ve made: what things never fail to please you, what things you greatly fear, what things present a challenge your heart leaps at, and what things overwhelm you with their impossibility.

Then just as you become comfortable being who you are, you begin to learn more about the world.

I sometimes feel that I’ve outgrown myself, but I think it is more accurate to say that I’ve re-imagined my own memories so often that they are no longer true memories. They have become stories that I use to reconstruct my sense of self, and I’m not sure any more how true they are. Sometimes, when I check my memories against those of brothers or sisters who shared in the same events, I discover stories so different from my own that I doubt mine, and that doubt also becomes incorporated into my own sense of self.

Our common understanding of aging is that the old are set in their ways, so firmly themselves that they can no longer change. But I am beginning to believe that what really happens is much more complicated. Frightened at losing our identity, we cling steadfastly to the few scraps of self we are certain of while the rest becomes increasingly diaphanous and diffuse. Family members think they know us, but they do not see the vast balloon of self that floats overhead. They only see the thin tether that anchors it to the ground.

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