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!"

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