Saturday, November 13, 2010

Decision Points

You're probably thinking that this has something to do with Dubya's recently released book by the same title, and you could not be further from the truth. In fact this has nothing to do with George W. Bush, his book, or his presidency - although I do have some thoughts on all of the above, they will have to wait for another post.

No, this essay has to do with the decisions that we all make that wind up affecting the rest of our lives in ways that we would never have predicted. Even decisions regarding seemingly small things can have a disproportionate influence - who hasn't heard stories about someone who changed their regular plans only to avert some disaster that would otherwise have befallen them? But things like that may get chalked up as blind luck, or kismet, or whatever, and that's not really what I have in mind.

I'm talking about conscious decisions that we make that we know will alter the rest of our lives but the scenario plays out in a way that is totally different than we had anticipated. Let me illustrate with an example of a deliberate decision I made that went in a whole different direction than I had intended (but it worked out anyway, as you'll see.)

I was a senior in college in 1967 and like many college seniors then and now I didn't have a clue what I was going to do after graduation. I had kind of lost my enthusiasm for continuing on to law school, and my degree in Political Science didn't really prepare me for a lucrative job in the "real world" so I was sort of in a quandry. There was only one thing of which I could be certain: that soon after I graduated I would receive "Greetings" from my local draft board. This was not something that a young man looked forward to in 1967. So I undertook a plan to avoid the dreaded letter from SSS and to take fate into my own hands. Anyone who thinks they can take fate into their own hands, I soon learned, is seriously deluded. But hey, I was 21 and one semester away from graduation so it was time to take charge of my own destiny, right? Wrong, as it turns out.

So I considered the one thing which I considered to be a sure bet , i.e. I was going to be drafted into the Army to fight in Viet Nam if I didn't do something, and I began to look for alternatives to that fate. To be clear, I was not opposed to serving in the armed services - I had even been appointed to attend the U.S. Naval Academy a few years earlier but fate (in the guise of poor eyesight) foreclosed that option. What I was opposed to was being drafted into the Army and getting my ass shot in some far-away land. If I was going to go into military service I thought I should at least do it on my own terms and in a way that would optimize my chances of actually surviving the experience.

I considered several options - Naval Aviation was my preferred avenue, but again my eyes disqualified me from consideration. So I talked with recruiters, I read brochures, and I tried to learn all I could about "job opportunities" in the armed services so I could pick the one that was best for me. Because remember, the one thing of which I could be sure was that one way or another, I was going to land in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines. So after much research, hand-wringing, discussion, interviews, and possibly a few beers, I opted to become a Counter-Intelligence Special Agent in Military Intelligence (insert "oxymoron" joke here). So I signed the papers and my fate was sealed - this was just before the semester break and the Christmas season was upon us. This timing, as it turned out, was critical to the way events developed from there on.

The Army Induction Center in Bangor, where physical exams of prospective draftees and enlistees were administered, was a busy place in the late sixties - except, that is, between Christmas and New Year's, which is when MY pre-induction physical was scheduled. In a facility where on a normal day dozens of potential inductees would be processed, there were, I think, three of us to be evaluated on that particular day. One I remember to be a gung-ho volunteer who wanted to join the Marines, the other I don't remember at all (maybe there was no other); and then there was me, just trying to get a step ahead of the Draft Board. The only other ones I remember to be there that day were a Medical Officer and an Orderly who made notes on the medical "jacket" that he had for each of us.

And so we, the three (or maybe two) of us were subjected to all of the usual physical examination procedures, with the Orderly dutifully making notes of the results. At the end of the process the Medical Officer told me that the tests had revealed a heart murmer, and upon hearing that pronouncement the Orderly wrote on the face of my medical jacket, I swear this is true, 4F which is military jargon for "unfit to serve". This, my friends, was considered by my contemporaries, to be the equivalent of winning the Lottery. On a normal day at the Induction Center I would have been sent out the back door before I could get my shirt buttoned up. But, and here's where fate comes in, it was a very slow day and the Medical Officer had time on his hands, so he sent me off to a heart specialist for further evaluation. And of course the specialist concluded, after doing further testing, that my heart murmer was "innocent" and so posed no obstacle to military service - I distinctly remember that he delivered this conclusion to me as "good news" as he apparently was operating under the misconception that I actually wanted to join up! And so I went back to the induction center with the report in hand, and the Medical Officer after reviewing test results announced that I was qualifed to serve after all, and the Orderly crossed thru my coveted 4F (with a pencil, for God sake!) and wrote next to it "1A" - and you know what that means. Oh, to add to the irony, the gung-ho Marine volunteer didn't make the grade and was sent home - the fates have a strange sense of humor.

So the irony here is, had I done nothing and just waited for my Draft Notice, I would have been processed on a regular day, found to be 4F and sent home. In fact, I might not have even had to go for my physical - my cousin who has the same congenital heart murmer that I have got a letter from his doctor to that effect and he was disqualified from the draft without further processing. But I, who only wanted to get my life in order and maybe live to tell about it, wound up on active duty in Military Intelligence. And you know what? Every time I saw my medical jacket, there on the front, in big letters with a little line through iit, was my winning lottery number: 4F.

Of course it all worked out for the best - things usually do. But I sometimes wonder what my life would have been like if I had just waited for my "Greetings" from the Selective Service Board. That's a "decision point" that definitely changed my life in unexpected (not necessarily bad) ways. My cousin, the one who avoided the draft with a letter from his doctor, came to a very tragic end a few years ago so I guess we can never know how things will turn out in the long run. As for me, well it's been a long strange trip, as the Grateful Dead so famously sang, but I'm glad that I made that decision back in 1967 - I take pride in my military service and it put me on a career path that ultimately turned out pretty well for me.

So that's my story about decision points. I'm not sure what the moral is, or even if there is one. Maybe we have some degree of control over our destinies or maybe "que sera, sera". I don't have the answer to that. So I guess I'll just keep on doing the best I can and accept whatever comes along, because although I don't know if I can control fate, I'm dead-certain that I can't change where it has landed me. Like the bumper sticker says. "Everybody needs something to believe in - I believe I'll have another beer!"

Friday, November 12, 2010

"When I'm Sixty-Four"

You know the song - it's by the Beatles. It begins, "When I get older losing my hair, many years from now..." It was released in 1967 which was the year I turned 21. So yes, "many years from now" semed entirely accurate. Being 64 seemed to be a lo-o-o-ong time away; in fact I don't think I could even imagine being 64 - that's REALLY OLD, right?

Well, somebody must have hit the "fast forward" button on the cosmic clock because now 1967 doesn't seem that long ago and all of a sudden I'll turn 64 on my next birthday - not that far away, as a matter of fact. The good news is, I still have all my hair (it has been rumored that there is a bald spot on the back of my head, but I can't see it so I deny its existence.) The bad news is, I'M GOING TO BE SIXTY-FREAKIN'-FOUR! Well, maybe that's not really bad news considering the alternative, but you know what I mean.

When I was 21 I graduated from college (UMO) and, it being 1968 by then and with the "police action" in Viet Nam escalating on a daily basis it was a pretty sure bet that I would be drafted into the Army (there was no mandy-pandy lottery system in 1968 - when you lost your student exemption your ass was going to be drafted into the Army!) So I did something that seemed like a good idea at the time: I signed up for a job in Military Intelligence, because that was as far away from the Infantry as I thought I could get (no offense to Infantrymen - it's an important, difficult and extremely dangerous job, especially in 1968.) And I have to say that as life-decisions go, that one worked out pretty well since I wound up with a pretty interesting job, in an area where nobody was shooting at me every day, and it actually was the start of a career path that served me pretty well for the next 35 years.

I was only 25 when I got off active duty, my whole adult life was still ahead of me, and 64 still seemed to be an eternity away. Well guess what, dear reader - 39 years is NOT an eternity! The job market in 1971 pretty much sucked (why does that sound so familiar?) so I spent a year job hunting and doing the kind of things that 25 year-olds did in the early seventies. I was married by then (for the first-, but definitely not the last-time) and we moved to Freeport so she could work in Portland.

In 1972 I got a job with the IRS - and that turned into a career that lasted for more than 30 years (32, to be exact.) And throughout that whole time I lived in Freeport, and I had what I guess was a pretty successful career considering that I only accepted jobs within commuting distance. I have to say that as I look back on my career it's all pretty much a blur. I'm sure there were some memorable moments but for the most part it's all just a fuzzy recollection, and that's probably a good thing. When I retired in the Spring of 2004 I was 57, and the prospect of being 64 still seemed pretty remote - 7 years is still a long time, right? By then I was married to wife number 4, and the prospects for a long and happy retirement (say what you will about government service - the retirement plan is sweet!) were looking good.

Then in 2006 (I think - I told you it's all a little fuzzy) I found myself suddenly single again, still living in Freeport with three dogs (the subject of an earlier post), a couple of cats and my younger son Alex. And that's the status quo in November, 2010 - except Alex has gone off to college (UMO, bless his little heart) and my 64th birthday is 10 days away - THAT does not seem like a long time!

So I guess I have to ask, before it's too late, the question that ends the song: "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?"

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day

If you've ever visitied my website Dirigonzo Speaks you know I "support our troops" which of course includes veterans. So I guess you won't be too surprised when I say that I am disappointed that Veterans Day has become what I term "half a holiday". It's an official federal holiday so most government offices are closed and of course there's no mail delivery, but other than that it's pretty much "business as usual" for the American public. Public schools are closed, I think, but frankly I'd rather they stayed open and held an assembly to mark the occasion - somehow I think that would be more meaningful for kids than having the day off without understanding why. Maybe some banks are closed, too, but with ATMs and on-line banking, who cares? For most businesses Veterans Day is a good reason to have a sale; celebrate by shopping - what could be more patriotic?!

I checked the local papers this morning and there are a few observances scheduled in the area, mostly sponsored by veterans' groups like the American Legion and VFW and I guess that's fitting, but wouldn't it be nice if there were more widely observed activities promoted by non-veterans? I was surprised to see that the Freeport Flag Ladies haven't scheduled anything to mark the day - I just checked their website to make sure and nope, nothing going on today. I don't mean to be critical of the FFL - they do way more than most to support troops and veterans - but if even they don't do something to say "thank you for your service" who will? Maybe you?

Memorial Day is a time to commemorate those who gave their lives in defense of our nation and our way of life. Veterans Day is an opportunity to say "Thank you - we appreciate your service and sacrifice on our behalf" to ALL vets and future vets. Everybody who served or is still serving gave some part of their life to secure freedom for all of us. Their families sacrificed too, by having a loved one away or by supporting them in countless ways, and we should appreciate their contributions also.

I'm not asking for individual recognition here - certainly not for myself and not for any other particular veteran. But I do think that *veterans* as a group deserve more appreciation than is afforded by today's "half a holiday". And I'm not asking for parades and ceremonies with military bands and public speeches by local dignitaries, although those are always fun; I'm asking YOU to take a minute to remember why we have Veterans Day and maybe ask yourself, "how can I, in some small way, show my appreciation to the men and women who have served in the armed forces?" And then do it. Maybe you'll put your flag out (it's not too late as I write), or maybe you'll write a letter to your elected representatives to ask them to support veterans' benefits when they come up for a vote. Or maybe you'll just thank a veteran for his or her service - time is growing short to do this for WW II vets and I know they would love to hear it from you.

If you are just completely stuck for a way to "support our troops" go to my website and you'll find links to dozens of organizations that would love to hear from you and have your support. Tell them Dirigonzo sent you.

And now I think I'll go to Applebee's and get my free dinner.

Saturday, November 6, 2010


There is a saying among sailors, "If there are two sailboats within sight of one another and headed in the same general direction, at least one of them is racing." I'm a pretty leisurely sailor but even I have trimmed sail to gain a little speed when it seemed possible to outdistance a nearby vessel - it's a sailor's nature, I guess. But more often than not I would be the one not racing. To me just being on the water with the sun on my face and the wind in my hair is reason enough to sail; I don't need to be going faster than the other boat (usually).

Sailing is like any other activity - everyone participates for their own reasons and with varying degrees of passion and enthusiasm. I have lots of friends and acquaintances who are sailors and I've observed over the years that they can generally be divided into a few categories based solely on their approach to sailing, and that their sailing category pretty much translates into how they approach life in general.

First, there are the voyagers. To them, sailing is a way of life, their raison d'etre. They sail the oceans from port to port, country to country, just for the adventure. Their life is sailing and sailing is their life. If they were not sailors they would be explorers venturing into the unknown or mountain climbers seeking new heights. Voyagers, on the seas or on the shore, need to extend their horizons, seek new experiences and ,you know, "boldly go where no man has gone before." True voyagers are a rare breed but occasionally you will encounter one in a local anchorage. The late Dodge Morgan was a voyager who spent his later years living and cruising on the Maine coast and many local sailors were privileged to meet him.

The next category I call "cruisers". Cruisers get on the water as often as they can, and they usually have a destination and a deadline to get there and back. They have jobs and responsibilities that demand most of their time and attention and sailing is their "escape" from the pressures of every day life. Cruisers may spend as much, or more, time in the planning and preparations for their journey as on the actual trip. The trip may encompass a weekend or a month, it may be a short sail to a nearby anchorage or a cruise downeast, but invariably there is a set departure date and a set return date and if the weather sucks the whole time, well that's too bad. Cruisers, like most of the rest of us, are subject to the whims of nature. And then they go back to their "real" lives.

Racers need almost no explanation. They want to go faster then everybody else - on the water, anyway. Everything they do is intended to gain a competitive edge. Equipment, tuning, tactics - these all factor into the racer's approach to sailing. They want to get the most speed out of themselves, the boat and the crew. For the racer every outing is a competition - against a fleet of boats in a regatta, against the unsuspecting cruiser off the port bow, or against his own fastest time on the same course. Racers love to sail and they love to compete. And maybe, from time to time, every sailor is a racer, because, "I'll bet if I trim the sails a little, I can beat that boat to the next buoy..."

There's another category that I almost hesitate to mention because it seems, well , unkind - but they are part of the sailing community so I guess I have to include them. Let's call them, for lack of a better term, "Dockers". Dockers tend to have large, expensive boats that never seem to leave the dock. The owners (I hesitate to call them sailors) if they are on the boat at all are usually seated in the cockpit, relaxing with a beverage; they are often not apparent on the vessel at all, and I suspect they spend most of their "sailing" time at the yacht club bar, relaxing with a beverage. Sometimes I wonder why "dockers" have boats at all, but I'm sure they have their reasons; I'm also sure that it's none of my business.

And finally, there are the "day sailors". I'm a day sailor. We get out on the water at every opportunity in any kind of vessel that floats. Being on the water, sailing - that's our objective. Where we go or how long it takes to get there is not important. We may set out with a destination in mind, but if time and tide keep us from getting there, no problem - we'll make it another day. You may say day sailors have no goals - I say we're flexible. If I am on the water, I am happy; if I can get to a new destination it may add to my enjoyment but if I don't make it, it won't ruin my day. Some days, most days, when I drop my mooring I don't even know in what direction I'll head - it depends on the wind, and my mood, and maybe who I have for a crew. Some of my fondest memories are of sailing to places that had not even occurred to me when I set out, or sailing to no particular place at all - just going where the prevailing winds dictated on that particular day. It's being on the water - sailing - that is our passion; not adventure, not destinations, not speed, and certainly not staying dockside! It doesn't matter if the outing lasts an hour, a day, or a month, day sailors are happy for the ride, wherever it takes them - even it that's nowhere at all!

Is sailing just a metaphor for life? I don't know, maybe. But I do know that how a person approaches sailing tells you a lot about how she or he approaches life. So if someone invites you to go for a sail (metaphorically speaking), ask yourself, "What kind of sailor is this?"